I started writing this post after hearing the sad news back in September 2005 but couldn’t finish it then. I wanted to write about one of my favourite authors and now I’ve finished reading his last book the time is right. It was going to be a review of the book but in the introduction, LJK Setright outlines his motivation for writing Drive On! : A Social History of the Motor Car:
Extract from “A Preamble”, Drive On! LJK. Setright
"We need a book to show us - especially those of us too young to remember - what good and evil things have been done to, with, for, and by, the motor car. I would like this to be a book that the enthusiast for motoring can read with pleasure, the critic with growing understanding, the historian with some surprise, and the scholar with satisfaction."
Having read that, my review requires just one sentence:
He succeeded in achieving his aims, totally. If you have any interest in motor cars, history, culture, technology and fine writing buy it.
I encountered LJK Setright when I first purchased CAR Magazine back in 1979. I was 13 and the magazine, imported from the UK, was expensive compared to the NZ/Australian competition. The initial attraction was the cover feature – Fiat 131 Sport vs Ford Escort RS2000 – but the LJK Setrights column, about the Citroen GS, and articles on the Fiat X1/9 1500 and new tyre technology, the legendary Pirelli P6, were memorable. Since that issue, which I still have, I’ve been a regular reader of both CAR and LJK Setrights other work.
His knowledge of motoring history and technology was vast, his opinions clearly expressed! He could be arrogant, even pompous, but I liked the way he often challenged conventional thinking and incorporated historical, technological & cultural references in his writing. Often he would discuss the virtue of a new technology then demolish the reasoning behind it in a sentence. I remember one column where he explained advances GM had made in paint finish/application technology in an Opel plant. Then he pointed out that to require paint as a protective coating was to admit you’ve selected the wrong material in the first place!
Perhaps the fact that he had a high opinion of some Fiat models, including the 127, 128 and Uno I’ve owned, was part of the attraction. This extract is from a tribute to the Fiat 128, the work of Fiat Chief Engineer Dante Giacosa & his team:
LJK Setright: Happy birthday to a remarkable, but long-forgotten Fiat - www.independent.co.uk
Published: 16 March 2004
“Giacosa saw a need to replace Fiat's classic 1100, and decided that it should have front-wheel drive. Under him were three brilliant engineers: Montabone was good at everything, Cordiano likewise, but particularly good at suspension, while Lampredi was the greatest engine-designer of his times. The result promised to be extraordinary.
It was. Fiat launched the 128 on 29 March 1969, and it scooped Car of the Year awards in seven countries. The remarkable thing was that the little car did not look remarkable: its virtues were matters of engineering not mere styling.”
“In the numerous new standards it set, the Fiat 128 was quite exceptional. Like so many noteworthy Fiats, it was also utterly commonplace. That is part of the paradox which has made Fiat from time to time one of the greatest names in the industry. When next you climb into your Vauxhall or VW, your Renault or Rover, remember where the principles originated, just half-a-lifetime ago”
By all accounts LJK Setright was a gifted and extremely fast driver, he loathed speed limits. I remember an article where he piloted a 127 Sport along country lanes at average speeds far beyond what a 1300cc car should achieved. Another where he convinced Fiat to leave a Fiat Uno 55s in Florida, after the international launch held at Daytona, and set off on an 8400 mile journey around the USA. It was brave of Fiat to let him loose in a pre-release car, literally the only Uno in the USA (they were never sold there), with no support. His account of Americans bemused at the exploits of this unique character in his unique car were wonderful to read;
Extract from “8400 Miles around America in a Fiat Uno – Long Term Test”
Published: CAR August 1983
“My Uno has of course done plenty of long runs. It has been up the Roachy Mountains, across the Gastronomic Desert, out to the islands (or at least the Florida Keys), through Dixie and the Breadbasket, Mexamerica and the Empty Territory. It has been from sea level to somewhere over 6,000ft up, run in temperatures from -2 to 93ºC, in humidities ranging from the parched aridity of Mexico to solid vertical thunder-rain of Louisiana, in winds ranging from dead calm to the fringes of a tornado but usually brisk & gusty.
It has run on concrete, tarmac, sand, gravel, dirt, cobblestones and salt flats. It has, one way or another, seen much of what poor rich America – a land of abundant food and inadequate tableware, of beautiful scenery and untidy building, of excellent petroleum but rotten gasoline, of every contrast imaginable or inferable from the fact that all potable fluids are served scalding hot or iced – has to entice or intimidate.”
“Overall it has averaged 42.3 miles per imperial gallon. In the circumstances (no servicing, foul fuel, extreme conditions and Setright at the wheel) I consider that an admirable figure.”
“What is more, it has been fun. All manner of good cars have failed to be enjoyable, however respectable their virtues. It is rare for a Fiat not to be fun – I can only think of the 1959 1800 and 1982 Argenta as failing in this sense – and in this the Uno is twice as much fun as usual because everyone is intrigued by it. There is much to be said when motoring in a foreign country, for using a doubly foreign car.”
An appearance in Honda New Zealand advertisements in the 80’s meant many Kiwi’s were familiar with Setrights distinctive appearance, if not his status as a writer. Apparently this caused some controversy in the auto publishing industry, questioning his impartiality, but anyone who read his work would know he admired Honda engineering long before doing this. I remember Allan Dick, NZ Radio Journalist/Publisher of Driver New Zealand Magazine, mentioning that he was difficult to interview. I gather this was due to shyness rather than a desire to be obstructive.
Unfortunately he will write no more but the legacy he leaves will live on forever. Leonard John Kensell Setright, thanks for the memories - Drive On!
The Guardian | Obituaries | LJK Setright
Leonard John Kensell Setright, writer and musician, born August 10 1931; died September 7 2005.
LJK Setright, as he bylined himself, was a writer whose intellectual rigour was underpinned by an exhaustive knowledge of both engineering and classical culture.
Another Blog Tribute: LJK Passes Away - Conor’s Bandon Blog
You can sample some of his work on-line at the www.independent.co.uk;