Fifteen Years after LJKS

Fifteen years ago today LJK Setright departed this life at the age of 74. Bereft of his guide, one DTW writer looks at the years which followed, and considers how this extraordinary man might have viewed them.

Image: The author’s collection

Firstly, I will assume that the reader has some level of familiarity with Setright’s work. He was best known as a writer on automotive and engineering matters, but that scarcely defines him; polymath, autodidact, wordsmith, bebop clarinettist, classicist, libertarian, controversialist, modern-day Jehu, dandy, Ba’al teshuvah. I could go on…

His description of Frederick Lanchester: “The most accomplished gentleman ever wasted on the motor industry” could equally apply to Setright himself.

Even for those of us well into middle-age, the day in September 2005 when this other-worldly man proved to be as mortal as the rest of us seems long in the past, more so since Setright’s last column in CAR* appeared in February 1999**, and afterwards his output was sporadic and thinly spread. Throughout his time as a writer, Setright viewed the world with scant regard for the preoccupations and fashions of the day, and was never afraid to express strong and well-reasoned opinions.

Much of what has happened in the years since he left us would not have pleased him.

Social media would have been of little interest to a man who famously did not engage in correspondence. Likewise the all-pervading phenomenon of infotainment; he appreciated a good car radio, and was a hi-fi enthusiast in his later years, but eschewed newspapers and television. The constant stream of worthless news and low grade entertainment would have been given the same treatment.

He would have deplored the prevalence of pointlessly immense box-vehicles, with their high centres of gravity and large frontal areas.

(c) Honda Canada

Similarly, he would not have welcomed the ever increasing size of ordinary cars, mainly in the cause of occupant protection – passive safety was not one of his favoured subjects – too close to defying the will of G-d. Setright applied the same principle to environmental concerns, considering mankind to be hubristic in believing it alone could do so much to damage the Creator’s work.

Setright may however have shown interest in the fast-paced development of the internal combustion engine to comply with statutory CO2 reduction and fuel consumption legislation. That ingenuity and complexity also brought enormous power outputs within the reach of the moderately moneyed masses, but a consistent Setright theme is the satisfaction which can be achieved with minimal power in a well-designed vehicle.

I can’t imagine the current 316bhp Civic Type R taking the place of his favoured Preludes, were he still among us. Along with its similarly constituted rivals, that car has too much of an aura of loutishness, and “glad animal behaviour”.

The emergence of autonomous vehicles would have offended his every fibre. A constant theme in his writing was the honing of driving skill and the sensual pleasure of the human machine-interface. Add to this that over-arching libertarianism, his delight in maps, and love of long, fast journeys made alone.

Electric vehicles are a different matter, and it’s not hard, had Setright been blessed with the longevity of Barker or Boddy, to imagine a Leaf, Ioniq or Honda e being a surprising favourite, following in the company of his Suzuki 100GX, the Uno 55S he drove around the USA, or the Peugeot 305SR long-term test car of which he said “I fear I shall never feel so much affection for a car ever again”.

Perhaps he would have delivered one of his creative exercises – in the Pomeroy manner – showing how an electric car should be designed, overcoming weaknesses and exploiting opportunity.

LJKS would have been aggrieved at the loss, or at best loss of direction of his favourite carmakers. Bristol is gone, Honda and Fiat have lost their souls. In his final CAR column, in February 1999, he said of Mitsubishi “After this year’s so successfully completed rally season we need never doubt their engineering abilities – we never should anyway, for the company is one of the cleverest in the world and probably second only to Honda”.

Twenty years ago Setright’s summation could scarcely be challenged. Now Mitsubishi is a shamed business in retrenchment, a zombie carmaker bereft of independence or relevance. Twenty years is a long time in the automotive world.

Judaism is curiously ambivalent about an afterlife. Moses ben Maimon (1138-1204), the Sephardic philosopher who set out the 13 Principles of Jewish Faith, stated in the thirteenth Principle that “I believe by complete faith that there will be a resurrection of the dead at the time that will be pleasing before the Creator.

Image: Car Magazine

If so, it’s possible that Leonard Setright will reflect upon his infinitesimally short worldly span and consider that he was indeed blessed in the Creator’s particular allocation of start and end dates. As for the fifteen years which have followed since what he described – in anticipation – as his ‘promotion’***, he would probably conclude that a lot changed, but he didn’t miss out on much.


*This was around the time when ‘Performance Car” reversed into the once-iconoclastic monthly. At the time it looked as if a bit of jig work and panel beating would sort everything out, but it might have been better to declare it a write-off.

**His chosen subject was the Mitsubishi 3000GT, a car largely neglected in Europe, wrongly in Setright’s estimation. Neither Horace nor Virgil received a name-check, although the rival Nissan Skyline GT-R was described as “rompworthy”. Setright’s reputation for pseudishness and strutting intellectualism is overstated. In most of his writing he is an adept explainer, clear, concise and readable.

***A curious choice of word. I’m only familiar with the Salvationists’ use of it, usually in the form “promoted to glory”, to announce the death of one of their number.

34 thoughts on “Fifteen Years after LJKS”

  1. thank you Robertas for your perceptive and generous portrait
    of LJKS, it’s worthy of him. he could be exasperating and affected,
    but gave us so much to chew on and wrestle with, and enjoy.
    I first encountered him in 1970, in an anthology of writings about
    motorbikes, his a story about someone going for a thrash on a BSA Gold Star.
    this was a few years before I bought my first bike, but his detailed description
    of bump starting a big single remained in my little brain so vividly that
    about seven years later, needing to bump start my Ducati 450 Desmo,
    I could recall every step of the procedure, and rode happily off into the sunset.

    1. Agreed, Lorender; a fine tribute – thank you Robertas.
      ‘Small Car’ introduced me to a select group of ‘Muttering Rotters’* who appealed to my late teenage anti-establishment tendencies and by the time that ‘Small’ had been dropped from the title it was clear that LJKS was in a league of his own. But though he and certain of his contemporaries are sadly missed, thank goodness we have DTW to continue carrying the torch.

      *’Small Car’ editor George Bishop’s term for the Guild of Motoring Writers

  2. A very thoughtful and and insightful retrospective on Leonard Setright and his writing, thank you Robertas.

    I first encountered LJKS as a young teenager in the early 1970’s when I began reading Car Magazine. I did struggle with the density of his writing, my adolescent self lacking the patience and reflectiveness to absorb his ideas properly. Returning to his writing in later life, I was better able to appreciate his thoughtfulness and the logic of his arguments and reasoning.

    Setright would indeed be distressed by many recent developments in the automotive industry. He would also be shocked by what Car Magazine has become, a glossy and superficial tome for all that is brash and vulgar.

  3. I should have added that the comparative photo of the two Honda Civics is shocking and almost unbelievable.

  4. He’d also be as upset as I am that you can no longer buy Sobranie cigarettes in the UK.

  5. By the late 1990s, CAR was almost only worth buying for the wisdom of LJKS. His love of language and a well-structured sentence, the clarity of his technical explanations, his clinical analysis of each vehicle he drove/rode, his encyclopaedic knowledge of the industry and the sheer joy of motion that he imparted all combined to make every article a piece of art. Thank you for these memories, both your own and those that they have stirred within me.

  6. Setright wrote articles from which you could learn: about driving and about engineering. He also wrote clearly and beautifully. I have to disagree with some of his opinions but unlike many loudmouths he at least made a good stab at arguing their merit. I like to think that DTW is an expression of respect and admiration for Setright´s work.
    If you can find his article about the first Audi A8 you will be impress and ditto his views on the first Lexus LS400.

  7. I also started reading LJKS as a younger teenager, and found his writing obtuse, difficult and often annoying. Becoming able to appreciate it was a clear sign of maturity.

    The question is, if still alive and in good health, what would LJKS drive today? The car must be relatively low, fast, have an automatic gearbox and conform to his idiosyncratic ideals about what constitutes ‘proper’ engineering. He also loved to fit larger wheels to his cars, so he would be happy that such wheels are now very much in favour.

    I think the Lexus LC500 (with optional Mark Levinson stereo) might float his boat.

    1. Not sure about the wheels. I would always choose a car and fit larger wheels, but these days most cars have overly large wheels when they leave the dealer.

    2. Jacomo: I’m not sure I’d agree. From memory (and do correct me if I’m wrong), LJKS tended to favour wider wheels and tyres (particularly lower profile rubber, which he declared gave far better handling and ride qualities than lesser types), rather than larger diameter wheels and tyres, which are all the rage nowadays.

    3. Eoin,

      You may be right, but to get wider wheels and lower profile rubber, you normally need to go large. He extolled the virtues of fitting 18″ wheels to his Prelude.

      Nowadays, when using any online configurator, I always try to go for the smallest possible wheels that don’t look totally rubbish. Jaguar and Mercedes in particular have deliberately made their smaller options so awful that the customer is almost obliged to pick a larger size.

    4. Hi Jacomo. Add Mini to that list: here’s the standard 15″ alloy wheel fitted to the Hatch:

      Note the superfluous rim around the perimeter, reminiscent of a steel wheel!

    5. I don’t personally find the 15″ stock Mini Cooper wheel too offensive, but I understand why people do (and I recall you complaining about them before). It is certainly very plain.

      The worst for me are the Jaguar multi-spoke 18″ wheel fitted to the base I-PACE (really, truly awful) and the Mercedes multi-spoke as fitted to standard spec C Class, which is even uglier.

      Manufacturers must think they are being very smart in encouraging customers to spend more money in this way, but even in status-obsessed UK, many do not. The result is that these designs are often seen on the road fitted with hideous wheels. It hardly helps the brand image, does it?

  8. Was it LJKS who applied a theory of fluid dynamics to roadworks? It was argued that people should speed up in contra-flows, where the constriction was. It sounds like one of his theories – try telling that to the judge.

    I read his last book, ‘Drive On!’, which I enjoyed – I must have a look at some of his others.

    Here’s a small collection of his articles, from Car magazine. I think it’s a taster to encourage readers to subscribe to their archive – something which actually might be worth doing.

    1. Drive On wasn’t quite his last book. Long Lane with Turnings is a short, unfinished memoir which was published posthumously; like all his writing it is interesting and educational. Congratulations Robert on an affectionate reminder of one of the very great motoring writers and thank you to the other contributors for the reminder of other excellent columnists from the halcyon days of Car magazine. I was an avid reader of Car and Driver and Road and Track as well as Car so I would put forward David E Davis, Brock Yates, Henry Manney and Peter Egan as being worthy of mention.

    2. Hello Barry,

      Yes – you’re quite right re LJKS’s last book. Robertas’s article prompted me to read a few of the obituaries which were written about Setright and he really did have an extraordinary life, and talents.

  9. Ah, the late and regretted LJKS. He was the only motoring journalist I can think of whose obituary was printed in the non-motoring press.
    He was noted for this foibles, hatred of some things and love of others, sometimes seemingly beyond reason. He loved Hondas and regarded the company as one who could do no wrong. He hated diesels with a passion and would have considered himself vindicated by the recent unpleasantness. It’s a pity that he didn’t, to my knowledge, live to experience the one fitted to the other. I sometimes imagine that he would have been faced with some kind of existential crisis had he found himself in this position and my guess is that he would have resolved it by giving Honda a bye as it were and forgiving them for this unavoidable transgression.

    1. The Honda N engine arrived around September 2003 so would have overlapped with Setright’s last years. There were diesel-engined Hondas before this using the Rover L series and Isuzu Circle L units, and even a Peugeot XUD powered Concerto which was actually a rebadged R8 Rover 218.

      Perhaps someone with better access to LJKS’s post-CAR oeuvre can find some comment on the diesel matter. Setright must have been well aware long before of Honda’s headlong descent into ordinariness as soon as its guiding light went out. Soichiro died in 1991, the CR-V debuted in 1995, the last Prelude was made in 2001, and the first Pilot suv arrived a year later.

      The N engine wasn’t a particularly proud achievement for Honda. It impressed against its 2003 competitors but was soon known to have reliability and durability problems. Development slipped behind its European rivals and Honda seem to have given it up for a bad job, apart from the Indian market N15 which is the same engine as the 2.2, but reduced to 1.5 litres with smaller bore liners and a shorter throw crankshaft.

  10. Thank you very much for this piece Robertas. For a non-native English speaker as me, LJK’s writings were both a challenge as well as enormous motivation.

  11. Ah, Car Magazine, how we miss you.

    LJKS, Phil Llewellin, Ronald ‘Steady’ Barker, Russell Bulgin et al.

    Rest in Peace, and thank you, all.

  12. A couple of gems from the merry mind of LJKS:

    From Long Lane with Turnings:

    “As to the Mini, I have to admit that I admired it much more than I liked it, which makes an interesting counterpoint to the fact that I liked its designer. the late Sir Alec Issigonis, much more than I admired him.”

    From Drive On!

    “How do you get 71 people in a Mini? Two in front and soixante-neuf in the back!”

    1. Quote The most people crammed into an old style Volkswagen Beetle is 20 … A 1964 Beetle was used for the attempt, which was organised to draw attention to human trafficking.- Guiness World Records, not that I dont get Mr LJKS joke

  13. Another good LJKS observation is that you learn a lot more about a car by driving it badly than driving it well.
    He observed the Ford Cougar had a lower COG than the Jaguar XJ-S of the time; that was to do with a point about axle widths mattering more than shaving a little off the height of the car.
    He didn´t understand people that well: he hated “child on board” stickers reckoning they were a demand for special treatment when in fact they are warning the driver might be distracted.
    Setright didn´t like athletics at all; he found it absurd people had special clothes for the activity whereas the ancients Greeks did their sports naked. Well, times have changed a bit since 240 BC.

    1. Setright and athletics! James May’s ‘Afterword’ to LLWT comments that in his latter years LJKS’s “idea of exercise was to stand up while smoking.”

      Another media figure told me that for most of the Seventies, Setright customary dressed in the garb of a 1920s tennis player for no apparent reason. I suspect this is an urban myth.

      The dressing-up business is perplexing. He would appear as a cowboy, jockey, city gent from a bygone era, or one of Robin Hood’s Merry Men. He certainly wanted to be “known” and the outfits could be an over-compensation for being introverted to the point of painful shyness.

      In his 1980-on baal teshuva life he had a rich and complexly-nuanced wardrobe to choose from. In this extraordinary and mesmeric Honda New Zealand TV advertisement he cuts a fine figure in the gaberdine and shtreimel:

  14. Don’t think LJKS would have been too impressed with the direction Car magazine has gone either. The road tests seem to consist of either top of the range SUVs or way out of reach super cars, with very little content devoted to ordinary everyday cars. There seems to be an over emphasis on Porsche vehicles of all types. A shadow of its former self in my opinion; back in the day it was the default mag to go to for unbiased commentary of cars and the industry in general. DTW for that now.

    1. My last Car magazine remained more or less unread; first I stopped reading most of it then I stopped buying it. About three times a year I look at a newsstand copy and find nothing at all of interest. I never look at the website – even Autocropley is more interesting (it is not bad, really, if dull). Lots of times have I said this: the journalists have no hinterland. Curbside Classics is where I direct my attention if I want car reading. Occasionally I might buy a Classic Car magazine of some form. And that´s it. Car´s been (to be polite) intended for another audience than me for at least 15 years. I didn´t leave Car, Car left me (to paraphrase Ronald Reagan).

  15. I seem to remember first coming across LJKS in Car magazine around 1999, in a piece about the Renault Avantime concept. I think he was being driven around Paris in it, together with someone from Renault – Patrick Le Quement quite likely. Or maybe I just dreamt it all? I couldn’t say for sure, as I haven’t managed to locate that issue yet.
    Maybe I should go through those I have from the 70s and 80s and look for his work exclusively, and maybe that of other names mentioned here.

    1. Nice to see you StE; could the article you are thinking of be from Autocar? He wrote a little for them after slipping out of Car´s orbit. Curiously, he still was listed as a contributing writer in 2001.
      Pretty much any Car issue from the 70s onwards has an LJKS article in it. I ordered loads of them from eBay to research various cars and one of the side pleasures was chancing upon whatever Setright was writing about that month. There´s a lovely item about a petrol consumption challenge using a VW Polo (he was up against a guy from VW, I think) and of couse Setright won. Gosh, I miss that kind of material.

  16. Bit late to the party… Thank you for keeping his memory alive. He was a part of my growing up, and then later in life it was an absolute highlight of my career to meet and be interviewed by him. If you haven’t ,you must read his Grand Prix 1954-1966. Sorely missed.

    1. Our pleasure Tim. LJKS remains a touchstone for anyone who is serious about writing – about anything, but about automobiles in particular. He had a huge and lasting impact on so many of us here amid the DTW universe. Unlike you, I never met him, but I did see him once in London’s Primrose Hill. I didn’t dare approach him. How fortunate to have had the experience of speaking with him. Thanks for stopping by.

    1. Hard not to feel his response to the current motoring scene would be along the lines of, “O tempora, O mores”…

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