03/05/2014

Drive On

A Social History Of The Motor Car
L.J.K. Setright
2002

Loose ragbag of prejudices and post hoc reasoning masquerades as academic rigor.

Everyone must have at least one friend like L.J.K. Setright. Possessed of a disconcerting number of outré opinions, steadfast in their rejection of alternatives (or indeed logic), they are resolutely convinced of their own correctness. I was talking with one recently, and he was insisting that recent studies show that if you stop training for a mere two weeks, then all your fitness is lost. So presumably if Mo Farrah misses a fortnight, I'll be able to run 5K faster than him. Of course.

As frustrating as these people are in person, it turns out they are more so in book form, where you are deprived of the option of attempting to argue with them. I suppose you can put the book down but it's not the same. Setright (he always refers to himself, pompously, in the third person, using just his surname) had a number of signature opinions which in his head were, I'm sure, entirely rational, and this book provides him with another opportunity to air them again, like a greatest hits album.

What are they? The Honda Prelude, or possibly the NSX, is the greatest car ever made. Front wheel drive is an abomination forced on us by sheep-like manufacturers copying VW. Rolls Royces are wildly overrated and have been since about 1920.  Most car manufacturers apart from Bristol and Honda are ruining cars. Diesels are evil. And so on.

Setright clearly knows his stuff and is passionate about the subject, which ensures the book is often interesting. For some reason, however, he seems to harbour a deep sense of injustice and resentment on behalf of the motor car itself, directed at, variously, the avaricious manufacturers intent on making money (how dare they), the vulgar and stupid public who asked for and paid money for all the wrong things, and the weak designers who resorted to giving the public what they asked for and should have known better.

If only all of them had asked Setright who, you could be forgiven for thinking, had been there all of the time advising of the correct route, instead of ranting from the sidelines of a magazine column with the full benefit of hindsight. After a while this becomes wearing, when reading for the fifth time how, say, Ford shunned the right thing ("right" according to Setright, judging them thirty years after the fact) in favour of the popular, money-making thing.

Setright has his fans still (he died a while ago now) but it's an acquired taste. I probably won't bother again.

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