Theme: Books – Drive On!

Not very many books on cars demand as much as Setright´s social history of the motor car. It offers a lot in return though.

2004: Drive On! by LJK Setright.
2004: Drive On! by LJK Setright.

To be very honest there are very few motoring writers who can write well. And there seems only to have been one who could writing outstandingly well. LJK Setright was that one. This fine book is quite probably unique because it’s a towering monument to a rich understanding of motor vehicles showing most clearly why an intelligent, cultured person might find them a worthy object of contemplation.

“Drive On!” rises above the mass of crass prose offered in the name of motoring journalism. Setright combines in a nearly unearthly fashion a monumental general erudition with a highly scholarly understanding of cars and the cultural forces that drove their development. It’s an odd-shaped lens through which to view history, the car, but it makes for a perfectly valid one. And since the car has shaped us as much as we have shaped it, then understanding the car can help us understand the journey society has taken since the car became commonplace.

Possibly you won’t agree with some of Setright’s more libertarian views but he explains them well. Setright liked his guns and his Balkan Sobranie cigarettes, seeing both as rational choices of free individuals. So, you can see why the car fascinated him so much. There is naturally then a satisfactory concordance with his views on whom we elect and on the expression of our political will in how we elect to travel.

2014 LJK Setright

Setright explains with rare lucidity not just the engineering developments but the meaning of them. For example, speed interests Setright less than the quality of that speed and its linear control. His acute perceptions of how controls are to be understood contrasts with contemporary motoring writers who show little sensitivity to this. His comments on the rise of mass manufacturing offer a genuinely fascinating angle on the social history of the late industrial revolution. His pages on the role of General Motors and Ford Motor Company during WW2 ought to be read by anyone interested in the strange alliances made in times of conflict. This episode is a footnote in history I doubt these companies are interested in broadcasting further. Setright wrote the book for anyone with a curious mind and whether your interest is, technology, history or even sociology you’ll find this book deserves a prominent position on your bookshelf.

As Setright writes in his introduction, “See how it strikes you.”

Author: richard herriott

I like anchovies. I dislike post-war town planning.

5 thoughts on “Theme: Books – Drive On!”

  1. I agree with Laurent and there is not much I can add to what Richard has to say about Drive On, and it’s made me want to look it out again too!

    Since quitting the pages of TWBCM, I haven’t been part of a ‘where is LJKS when we need him’ frenzy for a while, but I feel one coming on. In my youth, he made an interest in things automotive (which I already had, but was slightly ashamed of) intellectually credible. Wanting to be ‘intellectually credible’ makes me (or at least the young me) sound pretentious but, despite appearing in Private Eye’s Pseud’s Corner on various occasions, Setright always rose above pretension in my eyes, since he backed it up with principle and informed argument.

    I’d also recommend, with qualifications, ‘Long Lane With Turnings’, his autobiography, frustratingly incomplete since he died before finishing it. I can’t pretend that it gives one an intimate portrait of a man who was, by various accounts, quite shy, but it gives some insight and has a moving forward by James May who, before he fell in with the wrong crowd, could possibly have been a decent successor to LJKS.

    1. I think you meant ‘foreword’; but I can’t think of an antonym other than ‘postscript’ or ‘conclusion’.

      For the rest I agree, ‘Long Lane With Turnings’ is a very good read too. There’s a description of a drive in a Morgan 3-wheeler with his brother which I transcribed almost in its entirety in a thread on TWBCM online. I’ll have to see if I can dig it out.

    2. Quite right about Foreword. Likewise Afterword. Except of course you didn’t mention that, because it’s not a real word. Except, like the more horrid ‘prequel’ it seems to have become one.

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