Across The Pond – Part One. Motoring and The Motorist

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.

Author: Andrew Miles

Beyond hope there lie dreams; after those, custard creams?

20 thoughts on “Across The Pond – Part One. Motoring and The Motorist”

  1. Another excellent read to start my Sunday so thank you Andrew. Love the snippet about Supergrass too!

  2. Good morning Andrew and thank you for a reminder of Auntie Beeb at her Reithian best, fulfilling her mission to ‘inform, educate and entertain’ her audience.

    Does anyone have a toffee hammer in their kitchen drawer anymore? If not, a meat tenderiser will suffice. Wear goggles!

    1. A little verrry OT, but let me ask you a question from the cheap seats – as you know I am a descendant of the uneducated Alemanni – therefore: What is a toffee hammer needed for?

    2. Hi Fred, if you make toffee at home, it sets as a large single slab in the shape of the pan. As it name suggests, you use a toffee hammer to break it into manageable pieces! Here’s a video:

    3. But not necessary if you used to eat Palm Toffee bars as I did in my younger days. They were all ready to break into small pieces by hand. Lovely !

    4. I see. I would have just broken it into little pieces with my hands. I’m beginning to understand why we are usually called barbarians in the British Isles.

    5. Tut tut, Fred, next you will be telling us that you don’t possess a pair of grape scissors, which is indeed barbaric:

    6. Good God, no!

      A formal table setting needs a minimum of three.

    7. Please tell me the photo is a fake and you are just joking me.

    8. Oh, dear. Richard, I’m afraid Fred is a lost cause. 😁

    9. Next item on the list is the essential marrow spoon. Incidentally, has anyone noticed the disappearance of fish knives? My parents had them and they cluttered the cutlery drawer needlessly. The fish knive is an oddity in that the thing it replaces does precisely the same thing so why not use that? Someone thought the serrated edge and profile of the ordinary knife too much though. Another fine distinction is the soup bowl versus the cereal bowl. You can eat soup and cereal out of both. And the soup spoon – we had those too and they were much less pleasant than desert spoons. The current household makes do with a single type of knife, fork and two sizes of spoon.

  3. Another interesting article Andrew. Although some of the shows were broadcast whilst I was growing up, I didn’t listen to the “wireless “ much then, apart from the charts on a Sunday night. I bet his book is really interesting.

  4. A very interesting article, Andrew. How easily one forgets a time when news came solely from the radio, newspapers, magazines and the TV; or one could always write to the AA or RAC if one wanted motoring advice, or to a manufacturer if one was interested in a new car.

    I’ve tried to find one of Bill Hartley’s broadcasts online, but have had no success, so far.

    Speaking of news, and without wishing to go too far off topic, tomorrow, at 9am, Citroën will be unveiling the first pictures and technical details of its next large car. I do hope it’s at least half-decent.

    1. Indeed – there were libraries for standard, slow moving knowledge and newspapers for the current information. Anything in between was “lost”. Two things stand out for me as mysteries of the pre-internet age. My brother had a poster of modern technology. It had a photo of a Rolls-Royce Camargue shot from a wierd angle. For a long time that´s all I knew about it. I could have looked in a book in a library but we didn´t have one near us and I did not remember this “puzzle” to check when I did go to the library. What was this alien car? For years I knew American cars only from the World Car Guide: postage stamp sized b&w images. It made things most fascinating. The Irish poet Patrick Kavanagh (who lived in the same area as I did, in Dublin, though before my time) wrote in “Advent” that “through a chink too wide comes in no wonder”. He was writing about the magic state of being between ignorance and knowledge (he wasn´t talking about cars) but still, it applied then to the things lost between news and books. The Camargue was a mystery which I could not resolve. Seeing a proper photo made it somehow less interesting. The second fascination from before the net could be found in album liner notes. You bought a record and tried to understand it from listening really hard and then scrutinising the often scant liner notes (often they had no lyric sheeets). “Mastered by Bob Ludwig – Produced by Jamie Lane, Revolver Studios, London” and other such things along with the images on the front cover: that was all. Without Google the album stood alone in the world and you had to figure it out yourself. The chances of reading a review were nil if you only got the Irish Times and not, say, Hot Press (whose reviews were crap anyway).

    2. And even if you read the liner notes. In the pre-internet days you read “Enofication” and didn’t have the faintest idea what it meant. And even what was in the music press was no help in understanding it. It usually took years to grasp the connections.

      Things were no better when it came to cars.
      In my youth here in the dark and backward German province, there was a magazine called “Hobby” (only sometimes for little Fredy), which dealt with technical, and therefore also automotive, background topics.
      I can’t remember any radio programmes on the subject of “cars” in my youth. That would have been too much “consumption”, the German radio producers in the 60s and 70s were still too refined for that.

    3. Indeed – old copies of Car were my first dives into the near-past. I worked for an engineer on Saturdays and he had a massive stack of Car and Autocar going back to the neolithic. It was a treasure chamber of astounding material I had not a chance to see otherwise. I presume the stack is now landfill somewhere.

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