Monday, 27 February 2012

History of Motoring (1900 -2001)

As the century developed motorcar ownership rapidly extended, and learning to drive became a solitary, occasional and extremely unofficial affair. Car dealers sold cars; and quite often their salesmen (there were very few saleswomen in those days) would take new purchasers out for an hour or two to explain the basic principles of handling their new toy. Most of the training as such was concerned with the complexities of starting the vehicle, and then learning how to steer followed by many miles of trial and error experimentation with gear lever and clutch. No wonder chauffeurs were called ‘warmer uppers’; someone had to do the dirty work.
Learning how to stop was quite easy, if any driver failed to do any of the above things properly the vehicle usually stopped of its own accord. However, on occasions, new owners just relied on the presence of other vehicles or road users, or solid pieces of street furniture, to help them to stop.
On the other hand, learning road procedure was a totally different affair. If boats had a rule that steam must give way to sail; no such rule obtained on the roads. Steam – or its successor – the infernal combustion engine, (please allow this deliberate if Freudian slip)… gave way to nothing unless that something was bigger or more substantial than itself. Once under way nothing would convince a driver to pull up unless it was to his advantage. White lines, Give Way signs, YIELD and “Halt at Major Road Ahead” traffic signs were still only glimmers in the eyes of our parliamentary and civil service masters.
Road procedure was simply summed up as:
“Keep the wheels on the ground and look where you are going”.
Changing gear was more difficult; these new automobile were without the luxuries of synchromesh gears. Automatic gear-changing mechanisms had been introduced in the United States as early as 1904, but had not caught on with British manufacturers. Subsequently new drivers never considered themselves skilled until they had learned how to match their engine speed to that of the vehicle’s rear wheel speed by means of the sheer physical effort of coordinating separate foot operating skills whilst manipulating the gear lever and without losing too much control of the steering wheel. People were usually grateful to acquire a car, and then to play with it until they became sufficiently proficient; during which time they frightened horses, pedestrians and passengers alike. It was on 12th February 1898 that Henry Lindfield of Brighton, gained the distinction of being the first driver to be killed as a consequence of a road crash. Although he only sustained injuries to his leg, the shock sustained by the subsequent amputation of the limb was enough to kill him.
My father often told me the story of when he was a young boy, being taken by his father, to the village of Broadway in Worcestershire; Broadway was so called I assume because of the massive width of its single main street. Granddad knew there was a car owned by one of the local landowners and, surely enough, dad and granddad were lucky to see it huffing and puffing towards them. Heading for it, but coming from the other direction, was a sedate pony and trap with another member of the local gentry at the reins. The street was at least one hundred feet wide and probably two hundred and fifty yards long. Both road users inexorably moved towards each other at a closing speed of about twenty five miles an hour; on the obvious collision course that was apparent even to a four-year old boy. Closer and closer they came, each driver convinced of their own inviolable right of way, and that the other road hog would move out of the way.
Of course neither of them would, each convinced of his own ‘right’ to continue. Not only did my father witness a typical road traffic accident of the early 1900s, he was able to describe so graphically for many years afterwards; and, of course, he was also privy to the “real cause” of most road traffic crashes.
Even a four-year old boy could recognise the cause of most road traffic incidents as stubbornness combined with reluctance to do anything about it. My father called it learning by blundering instead of learning through wondering. I am sure this tempered my father’s attitude towards his fellow road travellers for all of his working driving life, and I know that my own approach has always borne this particular driving lesson in mind too.
Learning was never required to be accompanied by training. Trial and error ruled the day. And, although the number of vehicles, in comparison with today’s massive gridlocks, was very sparse, constant crashes still managed to kill and maim drivers, passengers and any innocent passers-by who were usually too amazed to get out of their way. Mr Toad, of Wind in the Willows fame and driver extra-ordinaire, was certainly based on genuine examples of new car owners and was in no way a figment of Kenneth Grahame’s imagination.
It never occurred to new drivers that there was any skill involved in road procedure. Their cars were big and noisy. Surely cyclists, pedestrians and others could easily hear them coming and should keep out of their way.
With less than a million vehicles on the road in 1927 road deaths peaked at 5,329; more than 4,000 road users were killed on the roads in Britain each and every year between 1930 -1934. A Highway Code, priced one penny, was published in 1930 to help combat the escalating number of road traffic accidents. Most other European countries had introduced driving tests, but the United Kingdom, Eire and Belgium alone in Europe still lagged behind. This disastrous situation was partly remedied in 1934 with the introduction of the Road Traffic Act of 1935, which culminated in the introduction of 30 mph speed limits, pedestrian crossings and car driving tests. The driving force at the Ministry for Transport was Oliver Stanley MP. However, by the time the new Act received royal assent, his replacement as Transport Minister, was Leslie (later Lord) Hore-Belisha, whose eponymous pedestrian crossing beacons looked after the interests of pedestrians for the first time.
Early in 1934, following an open Civil Service competition, Captain R S D Stuart was appointed as the first Chief Driving Examiner. He and his merry band of eleven supervising examiners and 250 putative driving examiners offered free driving tests from 13th March 1935 until 1st June 1935. Provisional driving licences, costing five shillings (25 pence) and lasting for three months, were issued from the 1st April to enable would-be candidates to gain practice whilst accompanied by a full licence holder. In many cases the full licence holder would have bought their licence the week before when no test was required. I knew one of these people very well. Whilst I was waiting to take my own driving test, some fourteen years later, my mother quite often cheerfully accompanied me, although I know that she had never touched a pedal or steering wheel in her life.
Although there is no genuine record of the first person to pass the real test in June 1935; the BSM has always proudly exhibited in their boardroom a certificate number one, number N 0001 (actually one of many, but this was the first from batch N) issued three days after these trial tests had begun on the 16th March 1935, by Mr R J U Brougham driving examiner number 23 of Captain Stuart’s 250 examiners, possibly to a BSM student, a certain Mr Beene, of Kensington.
This is a second extract from a History of Motoring in the UK 1900 – 2000.

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