The Motorcar Era

by Evangeline Holland

At the beginning of the nine year reign of Edward VII, the motorcar was a status symbol that only the very rich could afford to purchase and maintain, as the horse, generally cheaper and familiar to the population, continued its domination of everyday travel and transport. By 1910, the use of the horse was almost obsolete.

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The manufacture of motorcars originated in France and Germany on the 1880s, when Continental inventors began to experiment with an internal combustion engine. One was patented by Daimler in 1885, the other being Edmund Benz's self-propelled carriage and motor bicycle. From France came the first motorcar--a Panhard, with its engine in the front under a bonnet (hood) and its chassis (body) much like the chassis of today, a sliding gear transmission, clutch and pedal breaks and a foot accelerator. The Red Flag Act of 1865 paralyzed any development hoped for in Britain. Its crippling clause - "Any vehicle on the public highway, other than a horse-drawn vehicle, must be preceded by a man carrying a red flag in day and a red lantern at night, to warn oncoming traffic of the vehicle behind him." - was placed into affect by the railroads, who wished to put a stop to the rising popularity of the steam-cars that puttered about England in the 1850s, a mode of transportation seen as a threat to the train.

Because of the presence of the flag-carrying man, the speed limit was restricted to four to five miles per hour; a crawling pace that was bound to discourage any sporting gentleman. The act was repealed in 1896 and the speed limit increased to fourteen miles per hour; a year before that, the Honorable Evelyn Ellis brought the first petrol-driven motor from France, a 4 hp Panhard & Lavassor machine, and new motor enthusiasts commemorated the repeal of the hated Red Flag Act with a London to Brighton run on November 14th.

While the wealthy sportsman was the original English motorist, it was not until Edward VII took up the new sport (with relish) that the motorcar began to gain precedence over the horse and carriage with the Marlborough House Set. The King owned several motors, all which were painted in his own royal claret color, a color soon to be seen puttering up and down country roads, for Edward was a speed fiend. An impatient and excited driver, Edward encouraged his chauffeur to pass everything and everyone on the road, regardless of their speed, size and status. It was quite frequent for a waggon lumbering down a road to Sandringham to be upset due to the careless speed of the King of England. However, he always politely proclaimed oncoming traffic of his imminent arrival by the honk of his four-key hornet horn, which the superintendent of the royal cars, who sat in front, had to play as the king’s car zoomed along.

Surprisingly, he refused to allow his wife, Queen Alexandra, to own a motor of her own. It was only after Alexandra borrowed motors from friends, much to the anxiety of the Court, that Edward was eventually persuaded to allow her a car of her own. The original backseat driver, Alexandra was notorious for prodding her driver violently in the back with her parasol, shouting directions and “helpful” orders to the poor, clothing swaddled chauffeur whenever a dog, or child, or anything else crossed their way.

Due to the absence of hoods or windscreens, motoring called for special clothing. Fabrics such as tweed and cloth were out, for the wind whipped them out into balloons. Loose topcoats in leather, or special motoring coats from Burberry or Aquascutum acted as protection from weather and cold, with the stipulation that the coats should button closely around the wrist. For women, long fur-lined leather or cloth coats for winter and long linen or alpaca dust coats for summer were preferred. Oil smuts could be a problem so women wore flat hats tied on with large, thick veils. For men, double-breasted reefer jackets, buttoned high with small turn down collars, wind cuffs with straps, trousers bound tightly around the ankles, and yachting cap and gloves. For the winter, leather coats, helmets and fur-lined coats and twill holland or silk dust coats were recommended. During a bout of rain, experts advised the adoption of a garment shaped like a bell tent, from which the rain would run. Goggles were a must.

Socially, the motorcar increased the amount of time spent on leisure activities. No longer were weekend parties hasty, hectic affairs, the motorcar allowing parties to speed from London to the countryside for what hostesses fondly called “Saturday-to-Mondays”. Affairs were carried about more easily, a wife or husband able to drive to a quick rendezvous with a lover in an inn or tavern and back before their unsuspecting spouse could comment upon their absence. General travel was made easier not only by the motorcar, but also by the increased network of tramways that made the countryside more available to Londoners, while railroads, ever vigilant, ran seaside excursions.

This was the era of speed. The first motorcar race was held in 1894, quickly followed by the establishment of Grand Prix from Le Mans, France to Daytona Beach, Florida, where, in 1904, W.K. Vanderbilt clocked up to 92 mph in his 90 hp Mercedes. The Peking-Paris race of 1907 was won by the journalist Barzini, the Prince Borghese and Ettore Guizzardi, the mechanic, who drove an Italian model called the Itala. Despite the success of British drivers in the early races, the sport was impossible on the British Isles due to racing on public roads being illegal. This caused British drivers to race on the Continent or in Ireland, as in the Gordon Bennett race of 1903. Hugh Locke-King, a wealthy landowner, was aided by a group of wealthy friends to propose the construction of a racing course. The result was Brooklands track, a huge oval circuit with banked corners. Work was completed in 1907 and the world had its first purpose built race-track. Other nations would soon follow suit.

The motorcar also introduced a new lexicon of terminology into the English language. One kept one’s car not in a garage, which was French and therefore rather naughty, but in a motor stable. A driver was not yet called a chauffeur, but a mechanic, for he often doubled as an actual mechanic for most motoring gentlemen found it beneath them to tinker beneath the bonnet. It also altered the patterns of servants and functions of the home, which had remained unchanged for centuries. Stablehands and coachmen were either turned off or taught to drive, while mews were either turned into motor stables or converted into small, attractive residences. Horses were sold and carriages dismantled.

As with everything, there was a dark side to the motorcar. A dark, expensive side. Early motoring demanded both time and money. Money was needed because motoring was an expensive occupation, while time was needed for running repairs, not only for a succession of tyre punctures, but for the continual mechanical faults of varying severity as well. A motorist who drove on a daily basis could spend at least an hour a day cleaning, oiling and adjusting. Tyres cost ₤25. 15s a pair and were always bursting. Because there were few instruments to maintain the car, the first sign of the engine overheating was the smell of burning paint. Pistons were easily ruined and some more powerful cars used as much oil as petrol. While the price of petrol varied enormously from a copper or two to 1s.3d a gallon (depending on the greed of the garage proprietor), filling stations were few and far between causing drivers to depend on a steady supply on hand, especially as there were few motorists on the road to assist one.

In 1903 came a sign that the motorcar in Britain was no passing craze of the idle rich. Authority took notice of it. Until then there had been no numbers or licenses. From henceforth every car was required to carry a registration number. By the end of 1903, 8,500 motors were licensed in Britain, the registration number A1 being allocated to Earl Russell. In the case of an accident, the motorist was always wrong. Yet another involvement of authority was the rise of police traps that stemmed from the resentment of the pro-horse, anti-motor benches of JPs in many districts.

At the beginning of Edward’s reign, London was exactly as Dickens knew it: the horse provided the locomotion as it had for centuries. Motorbuses were first licensed by the police authorities in 1904, and by 1910, they had displaced 22,000 horses and 2,200 horse omnibuses. A few displaced drivers continued their trade, becoming known as pirates because of their cut-rate prices, and continued to run as late as 1916. Motorcabs, informally known as “taxis” were introduced to London in 1907 after the General Motor-cab Company placed one hundred vehicles on the roads. By the end of 1907 there were 723 taxis in London, a figure that quadrupled the in the next year. By 1910, there were 4,941 taxis, though there remained on the streets, 1,200 hansom cabs (affectionately called “gondolas of the street” by Disraeli) and 2,500 horse-drawn four-wheelers.

The internal combustion engine led inevitably to the displacement of the balloon by the aeroplane. Ballooning was a popular diversion of the well-to-do in the early years of Edward’s reign, participants and spectators meeting at Ranelagh where the Aero Club generally operated. A leisurely, genteel sport, it was soon torn asunder by the startling success of the Wright Brothers over in America in 1901 when their aeroplane traveled a distance of 600 feet through the air. By 1905 their biplane, fitted with a very light motorcar engine, flew for thirty-eight minutes at a height of 850 feet and covered a distance of twenty-four miles. The new sport was taken up with enthusiasm across the Atlantic, traveling contests being set up in England and in France. In July 1909, Louis Blériot, a French aviator, flew across the Channel, from Calais to Dover in forty-three minutes, winning the ₤1000 prize given by the London Daily Mail. The following year Paulhan won the Daily Mail ₤10,000 prize for a flight from London to Manchester.

The motorcar revolution was seen as similar to the railway revolution. Nevertheless, there was one main difference: the railway had been an instrument of democracy, while the car represented the private ostentation at its most arrogant, the final triumph of the haves over the have-nots. The ultimate in Edwardian status symbol was the 1911 Rolls Royce “Silver Ghost”, which cost ₤1,154, more than what most people earned in ten years.

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