Two contrasting views of motoring journalism from very different worlds.
The BBC has a long-standing history on matters motoring. Some will argue distinguished, others, more disjointed. Long before those hailing from the county of the red rose (Lancashire) took hold of Top Gear, before former Prince (now, Evil Lord) Clarkson and his entourage, before even William Woolard, Chris Goffey*, Noel Edmonds, Angela Rippon amongst others, the information supplied came over the airwaves on what folk knew then as the wireless.
Born in Wiltshire in 1911, Bill Hartley joined Daimler aged eighteen, working in their experimental and development department, later becoming London service manager until his resignation in 1950. Wishing to use that experience, Hartley sought to educate those less well informed regarding cars; an early concept of his taken up by the BBC’s keen and delightfully entitled Talks Department helping to keep that pre-war jalopy moving in 1946 with the show, How’s Your Car? A pertinent question today, back then it seemed almost reverential.
Having no broadcasting experience hampered Hartley not one jot. He took up writing duties for such luminaries as Practical Motorist, the AA’s Drive magazine, Illustrated London News and the perennial Readers Digest, offering advice, conducting test drives, taking to the airwaves fully by 1953.
For sixteen years, his weekly radio programme dealt with everyday problems the average motorist may encounter, tabling an audience of around a million by its 1960 heyday. His show attracted learned practitioners to speak on topics such as getting better tyre life, what to do with the newly introduced London £2 parking ticket, along with the delights that could be enjoyed by picking up hitchhikers.
No tyre shredding or lame-brain tomfoolery around here, thank you very much. Whilst the manner (and the typically BBC received pronunciation of the time) may have been considered austere, the content was suitably august.
Subjected to radio coverage now more than fifty years ago are worthy Driven To Write projects today; interviews with chief designers, trips to factories, information regarding those foreign jobs from such exotic places as Poland or Brazil, the attractions of motor shows and then the real belt and braces stuff: adjusting your suspension and brakes, chassis greasing, warding off corrosion, compiling the correct spares for your next touring holiday – why, have you considered going off the beaten track to say, Eastern Germany and the Bloc countries?
All this will no doubt seem moribund, archaic even to today’s social media frenzied obsessives, the longevity and popularity of the show (until 1977) proving the broadcast’s worth.
Diversity came in the form of advertising and books for Hartley, a copy of which has recently come into my possession. Published in 1965, costing the princely sum of five shillings (25 new pence, I’m informed) the book became the obvious extension to Bill’s (along with producer, Jim Pestridge) medium wave radio show.
Including illustrations by one Quentin Blake, mention is made of then Transport Minister, Ernest Marples and his encouraging launch of weekend radio traffic updates. A combination of national police forces and the meteorological services, with the guiding hands of Bill and his team offered Information hitherto unknown to the weekend traveller, such as planned roadworks, potential traffic jams along with intimations of snow in Glencoe. Embryonic in 1963, it sounds farcical to today’s information overloaded world.
Of course not all the book’s references sit well as time passes; some appear as cringeworthy as some of the Top Gear team’s antics over the years. When undertaking some essential maintenance on your car’s radiator, “use the wife’s kitchen and pans to test the thermometer and if necessary, hit it with her toffee hammer.” This being most certainly of its time for so many reasons.
On a more sanguine nature, “Ignore the fools who extol tyre brand XYZ – who wouldn’t use anything else – get a tyre dealer’s advice” whereas foreign touring may not be for those faint of heart, “don’t worry about the water or strange foods – ask your local pharmacist to provide purifying tablets or better still, drink their wine. And if you do succumb to a dicky stomach, your doctor can quickly prescribe some relief.” Thank goodness.
The author is far too young to remember Bill Hartley’s radio show, that today would be known as a podcast lodged deep in radio four (perhaps) for those with leanings into how the car and related industry works, as opposed to the frequently lunatic shenanigans found on a Sunday evening on the “square eyed gogglebox.”
Sadly, Bill Hartley died in 1970, still working on scripts for his forthcoming weekend show. His family received a glowing tribute to Bill’s contribution to road safety from the Ministry of Transport whilst the show continued on until 1977, just as a certain television programme began to air for the motorist.
We’ll close with some words of Bill’s own. “I’ve loved working in and for the industry all these years. Moving into broadcasting was a challenge similar to driving a new car and one which I’ll never forget. Intelligent anticipation I would bellow. That is until on air one episode when the audience heard me bellow Antiligent Inticipation. Well, it got me remembered!”
Part two deals with an altogether different style of car journalism, from Across The Pond.
*Father of Danny, the Supergrass drummer.