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.
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.
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.”
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.