In the early days of motoring drivers were obliged to hold a licence but this was purchased at the local post office for 5 shillings (25p) and no test was involved. Anyone wishing to drive could simply buy a licence and drive off. The only risk was incurring a £5 fine if you failed to sign your licence in the appropriate place. When the test became compulsory the lucky existing licence-holders were considered experienced enough and were not obliged to go through the stress and anxiety of the exam.
It was just a few years later, in 1939, that William Heath Robinson collaborated with K.R.G. Browne to publish a book entitled How to be a Motorist. No doubt inspired by the scenes of the motoring masses – there were over 2 million vehicles on the road by then – and their resultant antics and madness, Heath Robinson addresses all aspects of motoring, from selecting a car through to etiquette on the highway. He explains, aided by numerous amusing illustrations, how the car works, undertaking simple repairs and how to go about touring the continent in your car, perhaps with your caravan attached.
In true Heath Robinson style there are Expandacars for the growing family, portable petrol pumps, and safety streets designed to minimise damage by and to the learner driver. His imagination is extraordinary but the scenes are readily identifiable and familiar.
On the law he says: ‘It is impossible to be both law-abiding and a car-owner!’, and continues with
the many pitfalls that await the free-born Englishman who has the confounded impudence (from the point of view of the policeman, the pedestrian and the cyclist) to be a motorist.
And on other road-users he warns of the unpredictable:
An Indian mahout, abruptly emerging from a side road, should be viewed with grave suspicion, as where there is a mahout there is very apt to be an elephant, than which there is no more damaging animal to be run into.
Much has changed since 1935. The number of vehicles on Britain’s roads has increased ten-fold. Cars are faster, safer, more efficient and more reliable. The driving test is more comprehensive. There are motorways and congestion zones.
Yet many of Heath Robinson and Browne’s observations remain true today. The problems of parking, envious glances at the neighbour’s new car, breakdowns and all those inconsiderate other road users that provoke annoyance and sometimes rage. They certainly recognise the latter for in conclusion they say,
And if, as a result of our labours in the cause of bigger and better motoring, a nationwide improvement in road-manners generally is not very shortly apparent, we shall both be profoundly grieved, but not – let’s face it – intensely surprised.
Here are some links to marvellous Huntley and British Pathé films about the driving test, driving safety and car gadgets from the 1930s. They make it clear why the driving test was necessary and provide a fascinating glimpse into the world of motoring in the early twentieth century.
How to be a Motorist is one of four titles published in the 1930s by Heath Robinson and K.R.G. Browne. The other three books (also available from Words to the Wise – see our Products page) are How to Live in a Flat, How to be a Perfect Husband and How to Make your Garden Grow. In addition, for the driver who also golfs, we offer you Humours of Golf by Heath Robinson.