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Full and fearless life

Full and fearless life

22 October 2005

12:00 AM

22 October 2005

12:00 AM

There died last month the doyen of British motoring writers, an idiosyncratic, eloquent, deeply informed, erudite enthusiast: L.J.K. Setright. A bearded patrician, elegant and opinionated, intolerant of fools, mysterious and forbidding, his detestation of speed limits was as passionate as his fondness for strong Sobranie cigarettes (he died at 74).

His style varied from the high-flown to the acerbic and was peppered with quotations from rabbinical and classical texts. He was proud to be told that he once held the record for appearances in Private Eye’s Pseuds Corner. When asked by a motoring editor to tone down his style, he submitted his next column in Latin (a translation followed). He found it impossible to be boring:

Britain’s large population of Luddites expressed some satisfaction when a non-motorist known as Mrs Barbara Castle but recognised in some quarters as Minister for Transport told us that we were to suffer a 70 mph limit even on our newly beloved motorways. An equally large section of the population, the Gullibles, believed her when she said it was an experimental measure and would only be temporary.

Setright was a Londoner born to Australian immigrants. His father founded the family engineering business that produced the ticket machine used by bus conductors in happier days. Had the young Setright become an engineer, he would probably have engineered more and written less. As it was, he became a learned layman with a gift for conveying abstruse engineering principles in everyday language. He wrote for many magazines, notably Car for 33 years and later for Autocar. Those articles were the basis of a career that brought him, in Stephen Bayley’s words, ‘closer on the scale of human potential to Isaiah Berlin than to Jeremy Clarkson’.

That’s perhaps a little hard on the ubiquitous Clarkson, who writes well (but very differently) about cars and who is, as we all know, a natural performer. He shows off, which is what TV demands, but so did Setright in his own, original way. Like Clarkson, Setright relished the opportunity of mass communication, but unlike Clarkson he eschewed personal contact. ‘It cannot be too widely known,’ he said, ‘that Setright does not indulge in correspondence.’ He enjoyed referring to himself in the third person.


I never met him but saw him once at a Mercedes SLK launch, a stooping, solitary, incongruously scholarly figure among the usual motoring hacks. He set off before me on the drive-route and sped out of sight. I determined to introduce myself when we both returned; by the time I got back he’d changed and gone home.

He wrote over two dozen books, of which I’ve read but two. The first is the rare and expensive two-volume 1997 Palawan Press history of the Bristol, a beautifully produced limited edition that must surely be the definitive account. Bristols were one of Setright’s obsessions and he wrote of them with passion, clarity and engrossing detail, beginning with a quote from one of his own earlier works:

Tradition is a responsibility, not a privilege…the longer a tradition can be kept up, the more justifiable is its continuance…

If you yearn for a Bristol but can’t afford one, this book is the only possible substitute.

The second is Drive On! A Social History of the Motor Car, also published by Palawan in 2002, republished by Granta in 2003. This is a wonderful piece of narrative history, selective, persuasive, inspired and eccentric, the fruit of a mind full and fearless. You remember it as much for its asides and irrelevancies — the speed of a raindrop, unaided by wind, is 18 mph — as for its major themes. One of these, as always with Setright, is tyres. He had strong views on tyres, which I’ve heard contradicted by practising design engineers, but that didn’t stop him. And the book is full of surprises, such as his arguing the case for the 1969 Fiat 128 as the most influential of popular post-1945 cars.

For himself, he favoured Honda, valuing its engineering integrity. He had a six-cylinder Honda motorbike and drove an ageing Prelude Coupe until he died. His copy, his editors say, was always word perfect, in quality and number.

What makes a good motoring journalist? A dangerous question, perhaps, but an inevitable consequence of any consideration of Setright. Is it mechanical knowledge, the ability to read between the lines of manufacturers’ PR and spot the engineering compromises, or to demonstrate a proper understanding of steering geometry? Is it driving ability, the confidence to test a car to or beyond its limits? Is it knowledge of the industry, financial, historical, cultural?

All these are desirable, none essential; up to a point, they can all be acquired. Yet you can have them all and still be no good. What is essential is the ability to write interestingly about your subject, and a necessary condition for that — though by no means sufficient — is that you are, yourself, interested. A writer’s enthusiasm infects his readers and, like his temperament, it seeps through from behind, between and beyond his words. Setright had all these qualities, the last two in spades. Though he would never have put it like that.


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