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!
This story originally ran on Jan 20, 2012 and is being featured again for the Jalopnik Christmas Evergreen Bonanza.
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 o fDrive 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.