Not very many books on cars demand as much as LJK Setright’s social history of the motor car. It offers a lot in return though.
To be very honest, there are very few motoring writers who can write well. And there seems only to have been one who could write 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.
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 acceleration (and braking) and 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.”