Established 1895: Autocar’s role in the transport revolution

Imagine, if you can, a world without cars, a world where road traffic moves at the speed of the pedestrian, the pedal cycle and the horse-drawn cart.

It’s not a silent world: the noises are just different – the shouting of street vendors, the clatter of hooves and iron-shod tyres on cobbled roadways, the jingling of bicycle bells and the whistle of steam engines. But it’s an alien world, where the streets literally run with pollution from the millions of horses on which the economy depends, where long-distance travel is governed by the tyranny of the train timetable, where a town only 10 miles from the nearest railway station can seem as remote as though it were in the middle of nowhere.

It’s a world that has changed only gradually over the past 100 years, with the coming of the railway the biggest transport revolution since the Middle Ages. There are, indeed, road-going steam traction engines, but they’re big, unwieldy brutes weighing several tons whose iron wheels break up the road surface. Consequently, they’re restricted to walking speed by a harsh law that compels every “self-propelled vehicle” on the roads to be preceded by a man on foot, usually carrying a red flag.

This is the United Kingdom in 1895, an island nation whose empire encircles the world, the hub of the Industrial Revolution. But it’s a decade behind its Continental rivals, France and Germany, in adopting the motor car, with not a single native manufacturer and maybe only six cars in the entire country. Every time they venture onto the streets, their drivers risk falling foul of the law, for parliament refuses to recognise the light and handy car as anything different from a five-ton traction engine. Therefore, says the law, every car must have a driver, an engineer and a man walking in front to warn of its approach.

Then, one afternoon late in the year, an unfamiliar noise is heard in the streets of Coventry, centre of the cycle industry and home of the successful printing company Iliffe, Sons and Sturmey, publishers of the country’s leading cycling magazine, The Cyclist. The staff all rush to the door to see what it is: “A motor car!”

At the tiller of the strange machine is Harry Lawson, a pompous little man with protuberant eyes. A famous – even notorious – figure in the Coventry cycle industry, he has made a huge fortune out of launching over-capitalised companies that, after paying spectacular dividends for a couple of years, usually collapse in financial chaos. He often collaborates with the most notorious company promoter of the day, Terah Hooley. When Hooley bought the Dunlop Pneumatic Tyre Company for £3 million and floated it as a new concern for £5 million, Lawson made a reputed £500,000 out of the deal.

Advertisement

Advertisement

As early as that historic ‘red-letter day’ issue in November 1896, Autocar published the first of literally thousands of scoop pictures – “the first British-built Daimler Autocar… from a rough hurried sketch made by our artist” – and this is another tradition that continues.

In 1927, the most eagerly awaited news in the world of motoring was what sort of car Ford was going to introduce as a replacement for his much-loved but obsolescent Model T, “the car that put the world on wheels”. Just what form its successor was going to take was a closely guarded secret. The official announcement was scheduled for 2 December, yet on 18 November Autocar was the first European periodical to publish details of the new Model A. At that time, not even Ford dealers had been told anything about the new car, despite having taken 125,000 orders from keen customers. No official photographs of the car were available until 1 December, yet the following day Autocar readers opened their magazines to see a picture of the new car, obviously a pre-production prototype. It was a massive scoop, but how had Autocar, 3000 miles away from Detroit, achieved it? Only the editorial staff knew, and they weren’t telling…

In 1958, few people in Europe had even heard of Japanese cars, let alone seen one. Yet Autocar’s Ronald Barker was far-sighted enough to fly to Tokyo to investigate the Japanese motor industry. He visited the factories and met the top executives of the major Japanese companies and produced a comprehensive review of the industry’s products.

The following year, Autocar again beat its rivals to a coming trend when, five days before the Austin Mini was announced, Barker and a colleague picked up a prototype and prepared it for a marathon drive around the Mediterranean.

A fine tribute to Autocar’s editorial skills was paid more than half a century ago, when the magazine was a mere youngster of 50, by Sir William Lyons, founder of the company that became Jaguar. He wrote: “For as long as I can remember, The Autocar has recorded motoring history for all who regard a car as something more than a means of transport. It has done so in a manner which inspires the enthusiast’s imagination and has contributed largely to the progress of motoring.”

And Lyons’ description of the magazine’s editorial policy – “sound in views and fearless in voicing them, accurate in technical articles and statements” – was as true then as it is now.

David Burgess-Wise