May 22, 2023

In the beginning

Some 120 years ago the first few cars began to be seen on roads here in the UK. Noisy metal boxes on wheels, they were deemed strange and dangerous contraptions so much so that at first, they had to be preceded by somebody walking in front of them waving a red flag. As most people still relied on horses for transport, the words and terminology of carriages were transferred to the new machines – horsepower, landau, brougham, phaeton undercarriage and so on.

Lord Carnarvon was one of the first to own a motor car having been intrigued by them from the start. Given their unreliability, he always drove with Trotman his chauffeur who was also a mechanic. His father-in-law, Alfred de Rothschild, went one step further. He was driven in one car which was followed by a spare car plus a third vehicle containing his mechanics and spare parts for most eventualities. These precautions were vital for a smooth journey as there were no garages, no AA or rescue services and places to purchase petrol were few and far between. The tyres were a particular problem and often got punctures not least from the horse-shoe nails which were everywhere.

At the time, it was not a given that cars would be powered by the internal combustion engine. The Wankel engine had practical credentials and steam engines were better understood. In fact, Lord Carnarvon had previously invested in a local enterprise to build cars with steam engines here at Highclere. Steam cars were faster and, as with the electric cars which were also being developed, needed no gearbox due to their torque delivery. The downside was that they had to stop for water every 30 miles.

Early motor vehicles relied on gravity to persuade the fuel to flow to the carburettor. As a result, and depending on the position of the fuel tank, if it was only half full, ascending a steep hill with a tank less than half full might mean reverse was the only option. Driving was always an adventure.

As there were only a few such machines, each car was closely observed by a fascinated and often disapproving audience. However, they were here to stay.  In a remarkably short time, the square boxes changed shape, acquiring longer and sleeker silhouettes, varied colours, windscreens and leather and burnished wood interiors. Gradually more economic models were developed which returned to simpler shapes designed to convey families on picnics or commuters to work.

Roads and tyres naturally developed just as quickly and within a few decades a way of life and ability to travel which had been part of human life for millennia fundamentally changed.

Some things don’t alter however and the state of the roads and permitted speeds on them remain a point of contention. Given the overwhelming number and congestion of cars, speed limits which initially increased have these days often been reduced. The speeding fines and points on his license that the 5th Earl accrued for travelling at 25mph through Newbury in a 20mph zone are  instantly recognisable to the modern driver.

When I was writing my latest book about the 5th Earl, one method I used to trace his movements was through the records of his speeding tickets. He began to acquire them almost as soon as he bought his first car and, although he was always apologetic to the courts, he also always engaged a barrister to try to keep himself on the road. He certainly didn’t want to lose his license.

Many of the stories are quite funny. There were no speed guns so careful policeman had to try to gauge a potential miscreant’s speed by timing the vehicle through two measuring “posts”, often trees on the side of the road. (Speed equals distance divided by time). At one court case, the policeman commented disapprovingly that Lord Carnarvon and the lady he was driving (his wife Almina) “disappeared in a cloud of dust”.

Despite her husband’s enthusiasm Almina tended to travel by train on longer excursions as there was more room for her luggage – the cars were always full of spare parts and she was not a lady who believed in travelling light. For my own part, I am more likely to have a boot full of Labradors as I dash round the estate looking at various crises and problems or, if I am particularly lucky, a new walk to explore.