Motoring Through The Ages (6 September 1974)
What struck you most about the plans for the central area of Milton Keynes new city? For my part it was the two-decker transport system, whereby the private cars of shoppers would be segregated from service vans and lorries.
This is in line with the development corporation’s first-announced intention of creating a motor car city. I note that the Milton Keynes Transport Users’ Group are asking for a re-appraisal of that policy, and I must confess that I myself have doubts about it.
It may indeed be true that the plans are wrongly based on the expectancy of a high home-to-work use of the private car. To which the corporation reply that the design of the city allows for all transport options to be exploited. Time will tell, but my feeling is that despite North Sea oil there will soon be an energy-shortage that will necessitate a dependence on public transport for the mass of the people. The present individual burning-up of energy just cannot go on indefinitely.
I fear that, barring some revolutionary technological improvement, many people of my age, who were born not very many years after the birth of the private car, will still be around near its death.
How near we were to its birth was shown by Mr. E.H. Littledale, an old member in a bright-and-breezy speech at the annual dinner of the North Bucks Motor Club in 1950. The club had just had their first post-war season and that dinner was a revival of pre-war occasions.
Mr. Littledale said it was very nice “after all these years of no petrol and of many trials except the right sort” to see the club gathered together again. It reminded him of pleasant pre-war functions and took him back to the first days of motoring in this country.
The first motor cars were all produced in France, he said, and he could just remember how, when the first one arrived in this country and was completely destroyed, people said: “Well, I don’t know what else they could expect!”
This reminded him of the day his father first had pneumatic tyres on his bicycle. “I had my nose down, looking at the pump, when a bystander exclaimed: ‘Put the cap on quick, in case the wind gets out’!”
Shortly afterwards, Parliament obviated the necessity for a man with a red flag to walk in front of any vehicle that was not horse-drawn.
He himself had a push-bike on which he toured this country. “Cars were beginning to appear. In the course of a day’s cycling one would see maybe half-a-dozen. At first, when we cyclists saw a car ahead, we caught up with it. The next year we found it was as much as we could do to keep level. Later, we had to keep our heads down and go like the devil to keep out of the dust they left behind.”
This brought him to about 1903, when motor-bike trials began with runs from Marble Arch to St. Albans. “There was a general speed limit of 20 miles an hour and when a Newport Pagnell man created a record by travelling with a sidecar at an average of 38 miles an hour, the ACU (the old Auto-Cycle Union) said this sort of thing must stop.
“Coming back to cars, in that same year the Rolls Royce firm produced the Silver Ghost. After 14,000 miles it was dismantled and any part that showed the slightest wear was replaced. The total cost of the replacements was 42s 6d. (£2,125). Yet shortly before the last war it was not uncommon for cars to need re-boring after 15,000 miles.”
At the same dinner, Mr. W.S. Fortescue, of Bletchley, also recalled the club’s early motor-biking days.
“For one run to Clacton we started at 7a.m. We were on all kinds of machines, but we got there more or less complete after mid-day. Coming back, however, some took a wrong turning.
“I met one of them next morning and asked how he had got on. ‘I’ve only just got back,’ he said. ‘I slept last night under a haystack.’”
Old and bold days indeed. Too many of which I myself, a mere chicken of 66 years, can remember. In 1920 the speed limit was still 20 m.p.h. except where stated otherwise on the road signs. And 20 meant 20, not 25. Compare that with today’s mad rushing about – and mostly for no other reason than that drivers have not set off early enough. No wonder heart failure is now three times the threat of cancer.
But what interests me about Mr. Littledale’s remarks – and one which I am sure will not have escaped the notice of modern readers – is the reference to some pre-war cars needing a re-bore after only 13,000 miles. At the time he was speaking those cars would have been modern.
Does past-distance always lend enchantment to present view? If so, today’s eggshell torpedoes may well become objects of admiration to the new city motorists of 1990. That is, if there are then any private cars still left.