LJK Setright’s last book is 400 pages of dense, hyper-erudite British prose about cars and humans and the ways we’ve come entangled. It’s the life’s work of the smartest motoring journalist who ever lived and if you care about cars, you should read it. Bonus: Tons of Hitler jokes!
Leonard John Kensell Setright died on September 7, 2005, the day after I got my first job writing about cars. It would be another few months before I’d learn his name and another few years before I’d pick up my copy of Drive On!: A Social History of the Motor Car, the last book he completed before his Sobranie Black Russian cigarettes killed him at the age of 74. The 20th century ended in various ways. On random calendar days, on the crash of the first foolish wave of internet exuberance, on 9/11, and it also ended with Drive On! and Setright’s death.
The book is exactly what the subtitle says: a social history of the motor car. There are more dramatic and violent inventions the 20th century will be remembered for. Skyscrapers. Airplanes. Hydrogen bombs. Moon rockets. Industrial-scale mass murder. The internet. But was there another which touched so many people on such a personal level and set them free? Setright’s book is about the automobile and the automobile is us, it is intertwined with us like no other machine. Except maybe the personal computer.
Drive On! is a deeply personal book but in an intellectual rather than emotional way. Setright was a strange character, a character we’ll never know in any intimate detail. He was always very secretive and he’s now dead. He looked like a gaunt Old Testament prophet in Savile Row clothes, drove Hondas and Bristols fast but not like a maniac, and smoked a lot of cigarettes. He was also smarter than you and me.
Drive On! is a highly intellectual book. One can sense behind its every sentence an intellect of unimaginable capacity, as if Setright knew and remembered everything about the history of the automobile and he probably did. I’ve read hundreds of books in my life and this is the only one which has ever made me seriously, devastatingly humbled and wishing for decades upon decades of wisdom and worldliness to allow me to scratch beyond its surface. Make that centuries.
Setright was intelligent and educated in a way we’ll never be. His brain didn’t rely on outboard databases for trivia. You can sense that he knew in a deep, connected way every fact and name and date mentioned in his book. And, of course, he quotes Virgil and Cicero in the original Latin, but you already knew that. What you may not know is his hilarious tendency to demonstrate the ignorance of Nazis at every opportunity. Granted, this is will not set him apart from other British motoring journalists, but his lithe touch will.
Drive On! is an epiphany. It’s the great promise of modernity, of progress, of Vorsprung, if you will, it’s a great belief in the shared and mutually beneficial fate of humans and machines. It makes you realize how wonderful our inventions can be and how technology really does make the world a better place. If only the world—us—could keep pace, that is.
It also happens to contain between its covers of Pop art Corvettes some of the most beautiful English ever written. Consider these two sentences on 1.5-liter Formula One cars:
So was there a beautiful intensity in the tiny cigar-bodied single-seaters of the early 1960s, their waxing tyres strangely remote on fragile suspensions summoning an image of water boatmen, those slender insects which go skimming the surface with oars that seem barely to touch the water’s meniscus. Their tiny jewelled engines sang a pure high strain, a clear clarion with six scales and a tiny polished wood-tipped gearswitch to pluck each in turn from the coils of exhaust pipes ecstatic in their mating.
Reading Drive On! is not a weekend exercise. It demands one’s unwavering attention and it’s hard to consume more than a dozen pages at a time. I first read it in the months around the twenty-four hours I spent in an Audi R8 crossing most of Central Europe, twenty-four hours which made me realize how Setright’s dream of the automobile has become irrevocably corrupted.
It’s not the automobile’s fault. We have the cars we deserve. Setright’s book is sad on multiple levels, but it’s also hopeful. We are, after all, still the same species which devised the Lamborghini Miura.