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The sage at the wheel

28 September 2006

10:24 AM

28 September 2006

10:24 AM

Long Lane with Turnings: Last Words of a Motoring Legend L. J. K. Setright

Granta, pp.151, 12.99

The late Leonard Setright was a rightly admired, genuinely idio- syncratic, provocatively pedantic and engagingly discursive motoring writer who loved any excuse to show off his Latin or to get Milton, Mozart or Ecclesiastes into a car column. He relished his reputation for having been quoted more often than anyone else in Private Eye’s Pseuds’ Corner, was obsessive about tyres, drove very fast, wrote the best book there will ever be on the Bristol (Palawan Press) and one of the best books there will ever be on the social history of motoring (Drive on!, Granta). This, his last, is an unfinished memoir, ranging from his first bicycle, through the legal profession, National Service and test-driving heavy lorries to the launch of the Citroën CX Turbo.

He has been called the Wittgenstein of the motoring press, but he was not quite that; for one thing, Wittgenstein was a trained engineer, whereas Setright was not. He was, however, the son of an engineer (the family firm produced the Setright Register, the ingenious and once ubiquitous ticket machine used by bus conductors) and he had a lifelong, deeply informed passion for engineering. As Michael Bywater points out in his perceptive introduction, Setright was really more an engineering than a car enthusiast, and it was partly this that gave to his motoring writing such a valuable critical edge.

I regret never having spoken to him but I remember observing him at a Mercedes launch (he loved Mercedes sports cars), a tall, rabbinical figure, withdrawn, dauntingly courteous and ostentatiously eccentric with his fedora and his chain-smoked Sobranies. ‘A gentlemanly instance of the Prophet Elijah,’ says Bywater, aptly. He was perhaps fortunate to die before our contemporary puritan ascendancy banished smoking.


Like all his works, his memoir bubbles with unexpected incidentals. Who but Setright would tell you there were more deaths on British roads in the first two years of the second world war than in the armed forces? (The blackout was largely responsible.) Who but Setright would measure the maximum speed at which an umbrella would protect you in an open-topped 1926 Citroën Cloverleaf (18mph)? And who but Setright would dare pen this:

Steering response was enhanced by the fact (seldom appreciated) that suspension of this kind provokes an anti-Ackermann toe-in when the vehicle rolls, so altogether (further enhanced by the correct distribution of masses in the horizontal plane) the nature of the vehicle was to be at once stable and responsive.

He was, of course, describing his 1926 Morgan Aero three-wheeler.

Vivid and cheerful writing such as Setright’s is partly a question of temperament. Whether it’s cars, motorbikes, National Service, cultural curiosities, music or tobacco, his enthusiasm is infectious; and his contemptuous dismissal of alternatives and follies is always entertaining, sometimes self-parodying, often right. He had a sharp eye for cant and I suspect his playfulness, like his reverence for things done well, was based on a secure religious faith. In an affectionate afterword, James May recalls being admonished by the sage: ‘“Do not take notes,” he once almost thundered at me. “Take responsibility!”’ He did, for everything he wrote, and our appreciation of many of the things of this world is livelier and sharper for it.


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