Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose!


A modest saloon car of today often has more power than a Grand Prix car of the 1950’s.

Author: Philip Strickland
Reading time: 4 minutes

This article is 4 years old.

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What goes around comes around!

Historians do not necessarily agree on the exact date the first Motor driven car ran in the world, but by consensus, this honour has been bestowed on Daimler Benz of Germany. It was Carl Benz who in 1885 produced his three-quarter horsepower three-wheel cart, on which his wife, Bertha and their two sons, undertook the first recorded long-distance run on a self-propelled motor car. In 1886, he developed a four-wheel version and a bigger engine. Both were rudimentary and steered by tiller, with wood blocks acting on the rims of the wheels as the only brake.

However, a self-propelled vehicle was running in France almost 100 years earlier, when a French army Captain, Nicholas Cugnot, invented a steam driven articulated gun carriage of gargantuan proportions. With a top speed of just 3mph, it was both unwieldy and unstable, with the boiler full of hundreds of gallons of water mounted on the single front steering wheel. It clearly was not intended for leisurely touring.

In those far off days, the motor car was serviced by either the makers, who might dispatch mechanics to the owner’s home, or by local blacksmiths, who were adept at keeping farm machinery and bicycles in good repair. They also sometimes kept tins of petrol, as otherwise a motorist planning a journey might need to order tins to be available at chemists along the route.

At this time, cars shared the highway with the horse and bullock, while in towns, electric trams offered a cleaner and more reliable mode of transport. On the Continent, the use and thus the improvement of the self-propelled motor vehicle, was positively encouraged, while in the UK almost every device was employed to prevent their use and proliferation. Development in the UK was seriously hampered by a succession of edicts commencing with the Locomotives Act of 1861, followed by an amending Act of 1865. These two Acts (and a further change in 1878) were christened “The Red Flag Acts” as they required, among other absurd restrictions, that a motor vehicle be proceeded at a distance by a man waving a red flag and blowing a whistle. There are no records of the number of men squashed flat in the course of their flag waving duty, but it is likely the last thing heard of them was a whistle!

Progressively, speed limits were increased from 2mph to 14mph then 20mph. By 1930 all speed limits were abolished, but just four years later the first 30mph zones were created and in 1965, the first national maximum limit of 70mph was introduced. It is still with us!

Early cars needed regular maintenance, in some cases after every journey. The wealthy provided for this by hiring their own chauffer/mechanic, but those in more humble steeds visited the local dealer or blacksmith. As cars became more efficient and affordable, dealerships with workshops attached became the most efficient way of servicing the growing number of cars in use, while oil and fuel technology, as well as fine machining and far better materials, made cars more reliable and longer lasting.

Today, servicing intervals are now commonly 20,000 miles, with a life expectancy (for a reasonably priced car) is in excess of ten years. A modest saloon car of today often has more power than a Grand Prix car of the 1950’s, while many have a top speed close to 130mph or more.

The consequence of all these developments has been the gradual reduction in the number of workshops needed to service cars, while their performance has led to a re-introduction of speed limits not seen since the 1920’s

As is so often said, the more things change, the more they stay the same!

Philip Strickland

Legal Advisor

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