Simanaitis Says

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LEONARD JOHN Kensell Setright, L.J.K. to those who read his works, was an English motoring journalist with technical savvy, style and occasional outspokenness.


L.J.K. Setright, 1931 – 2005, English motoring journalist, author, Judaic scholar.

Who else but Setright would compose a road test in Elizabethan iambic pentameter? (Think Was this the face that launched a thousand cars?) Only L.J.K could write The Grand Prix Car, 1954-1966, following up on Laurence Pomeroy’s classic two-volume work. And who else could write Some Unusual Engines with such technical grace?


Drive On!: A Social History of the Motor Car, by L.J.K. Setright, Granta Books, 2003.

L.J.K.’s penultimate book (Long Lane With Turnings was his last one), Drive On! is true to its subtitle, A Social History of the Motor Car, though it’s also a collection of personal observations. The first third of the book is arranged roughly by decades, from a pre-motoring 1895 to a post-1986 summary. The rest are personal observations that focus on the tradeoffs of mobility, The Yoke and the Spur; its technical revolutions, The Turn of the Wheel; and purely idiosyncratic views, Personal Effects.

Not that any of Setright’s writing was anything other than idiosyncratic and personal.

There is also a most entertaining Timescale, 1800 – 2000, with three parallel categories: Politics and Economics, Life and Art, and Motoring.

My copy of Drive On! is festooned with underlinings, stars and exclamation points noting favorite passages. A few follow here.


Typical pages of my Drive On!

On shortcomings of the horse: “No creature that is fool enough to allow me to sit on its back is sensible enough to be trusted with carrying me.”

On the originator of the motor car, it was “… Karl Benz, whose petrol-engined three-wheeler was running well enough in 1889 for it to be driven into a wall.”

Of those who seek other originators: They “could find grounds in patriotic fervour, coreligionist pride, anti-capitalist zeal, steam-age sympathies, or mere cussedness….”

On personal mobility versus mass transportation: “Whereas the political and economic effect of the railways was to offer society a certain consolidation, the motor car offered particularity…. Steam may have brought us into the Machine Age, but it was the motor car which brought us out of the Dark Ages.”

Of early automotive entrepreneurs, there were those “displaying another great British freedom, the liberty to separate a fool from his money.”

On Swiss motoring laws, “… where one of the more Calvinistic cantons maintained a ban on Sunday driving until 1927.”


At the turn of the century, a Benz dealer, Emil Jellinek, honored his daughter named Mércèdes. Later….

On the origins of the name Mercedes-Benz: “How would Hitler have reacted as he paraded in the world’s most German car, forty years later, had he been told that it was named after a rabbi’s grandchild?”

In fact, L.J.K. was a scholar of Judaism, having spent time in a Hasidic Lubavitch community.

On the transition of the auto industry: “Before the giant corporations grew beneath the bean-counting surveillance of accountants and business-school graduates, most car firms were run by jumped–up mechanics who had somehow promoted themselves off the factory floor.”

On Archduke Ferdinand’s 1913 assassination: “It was not the reason for the Great War; it was the occasion for it.”

On Field Marshal Allenby’s possession of Jerusalem in 1917: “…it was a Vauxhall that carried him to the city wall—and might have carried him through the gate, had not an aide tactfully pointed out that a previous savior had entered riding a humble donkey. Allenby took the hint, dismounted from his car, and walked through the gateway.”

All of these are from the first portion of Drive On! My underlinings and exclamation points continue to the book’s conclusion.

Thanks, L.J.K. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2014

5 comments on “DRIVE ON!—URGES L.J.K. SETRIGHT

  1. patrick
    October 7, 2014

    I always enjoyed Setright’s writings although many of them were over my head. I need to add his books to my library.

    • simanaitissays
      October 7, 2014

      Agreed, Patrick. We all strove to understand his stuff, and striving is good.

  2. David Dewhurst
    October 7, 2014

    As the technical editor at Cycle Guide magazine in the early eighties it was my job to check Mr. Setright’s monthly column for technical errors. Yes, they paid me to do nothing. A brilliant writer and a brilliant British eccentric. We are lucky to have his amazing writing to remember him by.

  3. Bob Connell
    October 25, 2014

    His book “Bahnstormer” on BMW motorcycles is the best of writing on motorized objects in my library.

  4. Victor A. Ceicys
    October 26, 2014

    I always enjoyed his column in CAR . LKJ and Henry N. Manney 111 were, I believe, the most iconic auto writers of the 20th century.

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