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Wheels of change

With the production of the first pound;100 saloon, the Thirties saw the start of mass motoring. Has it been downhill ever since or the road to personal freedom? Gerald Haigh reports. Illustrations: Nancy Tolford

The 1930s was a decade when we turned round and took notice of the motor car. Up to then it had, as a social and technological phenomenon, been creeping up on us almost unnoticed. For one thing, right from the start of motoring (Benz's first petrol-driven car took to the road in Germany in 1885) it had been an activity for the well-heeled. Through the Twenties, when pound;4 a week was a good skilled worker's wage, you could easily spend more than 100 times that on a good four-seat touring car. And if you really had serious money you might go to two grand for a Bentley - the kind of money that would buy you not one house but a whole street in some areas.

For a long time, then, motoring literally passed most people by - it was a case of holding your hat on as the well-off kicked up the dust in your face. If they were keen, they were driving. If they were brought up with horses, they were likely to be driven by a uniformed person with the new job of chauffeur or chauffeuse.

By 1939, though, things had significantly changed. As the Thirties began (and, incidentally, taxation and recession began to hit the rich) manufacturers knew that cars had to reach a mass market. So, in 1930 the battle was on for the first pound;100 car. Morris was first with the Minor - it just scraped in by dint of having no bumpers, no bright metal, no roof, no back seats and just three lamps. The buying public had to wait for the first pound;100 four-seater saloon until Ford of Dagenham cut the price of its smallest car to that figure in 1935. By the end of the decade, though, relatively well paid - but by no means rich - people were driving off in small four-seater saloons costing between pound;100-pound;150.

The shape of towns reflected this change. Dagenham, for example, grew up round the factory that Ford built there in 1932. And out in the suburbs, semi-detached houses with garage or parking space started to spread along the roads into town - so quickly that by 1935 the government was already legislating against unlimited "ribbon development" of this kind.

The legislative machine also, inevitably, started to catch up with the motor car itself during the Thirties. It had to do this, not least because a frightening number of people were being killed on the roads.

The speed at which both traffic and its casualties progressed in the early years of motoring is breathtaking. In 1900 there were 700 cars on British roads. By 1930 the figure was a million. The casualty figures that went along with this quickly became overwhelming. In 1930 there were 7,300 fatalities (this compares with a current figure of about 3,500, with 20 times as many cars on the road).

You don't have too look far for the reasons. By the end of the Twenties there was anarchy on the roads - no driving test, no coherent system of road signs, no highway code, no legislation covering the condition, use and safety of vehicles.

In other words, even if you'd never been in a motor car before, you could go out and buy one, load up your family and drive them off into the countryside, doing your best to remember what the salesman told you about those three pedals.

So in 1930 the government passed a Road Traffic Act that was the first serious attempt to get some control over what was becoming an ever more lethal activity. It set the minimum age for drivers at 17, recommended what was to become the Highway Code, made third party insurance compulsory and defined careless and dangerous driving as criminal offences. As yet, though, there was still no compulsory driving test - that came five years later.

That first Highway Code, which came out in 1931, makes interesting reading. Pedestrians were advised not to stand about in groups on street corners, blocking the view of drivers.

And drivers, for their part, were told not to stop next to policemen directing traffic in order to ask them the time.

There was growing recognition, too, of the need to help children cope with traffic. In Salford, for example, the Chief Constable started what was the first concentrated effort to keep children safe on the roads through a programme of education and the introduction of traffic-free "play streets".

In 1934 came the 30mph limit in built up areas, driving tests (which actually began the following year when enough testers had been trained), pedestrian crossings marked by orange globes (Belisha beacons, named after transport minister Hore Belisha) and compulsory reflectors or rear lights for bicycles. This last ruling, incidentally, sparked off a terrific protest from cyclists They said that if motorists would only drive sensibly, cyclists wouldn't need to defend themselves in this way.

In 1936 the worry about road casualties focused more tightly on children, and the government, in time honoured fashion, set up a committee to look at the problem. They discovered, and helped disseminate, a lot of existing good practice - talks to children on the radio, a road safety film in cinemas, classroom materials from the National Safety First Association, an early version of what in 1942 became "Kerb Drill" (a procedure for children to use for crossing the road) and the arrival of protective measures such as pavement barriers and, in some areas, escorts for children across busy roads.

Not everyone thought all of this was a good idea. The government report records witnesses who thought that "safety lessons" would stifle children's adventurous spirit. "Is there not a possibility," these critics said, "of rearing a timid generation, and of deprecating manly courage and the thrill of danger so attractive to the healthy schoolboy?"

In 1937 attention shifted to the cars themselves. Legislation that year said that windscreens had to be made of safety glass, and brakes, steering and wipers had to be in good condition. Dipped headlights were introduced. (It was actually "dip and switch" on most cars - one headlight dipped, the other went off completely. "Double dipping" came later.) Some vehicle safety measures came surprisingly late, however - rear view mirrors weren't compulsory until 1941, and we didn't have vehicle testing - long advocated by safety groups - until the MOT arrived in 1960.

On the eve of war, and even more lethal preoccupations, an influential House of Lords Committee recommended a range of engineering measures that in some ways were ahead of their time: staggered junctions, anti-skid surfaces, dual carriageways, segregation of motor traffic from cyclists and pedestrians. (A large delegation had been to see Hitler's Autobahns, and members were suitably impressed.) What, though, was happening to the traffic and accident figures during all of this? The answer makes disappointing reading. The number of cars continued to rise towards two million, but road deaths stubbornly stayed around 7,000. Then in 1940, with the war under way, the figures took a horrifying turn for the worse. Despite petrol rationing, and consequently a much lower level of motoring - about half of private cars were off the road - 8,200 were killed in 1940 and more than 9,000 the following year. The culprit was the "Blackout" regulations, intended to protect against enemy bombers. For most of the war streets were unlit, and buildings showed no lights to the outside, and cars had masked headlights that cut illumination to almost nothing.

Even after the war, for a long time road deaths still ran at more than 5,000. In 1987, though, the government set challenging targets for reducing casualties - the aim, deaths down by a third by 2000, was in the end comfortably exceeded. New targets call for a further 40 per cent reduction (50 per cent for children) by 2010.

The fall to today's figures is due to a number of factors - education and general awareness undoubtedly play a part. Then there are fewer people walking around on foot ready to be knocked over (this applies especially to children) and there has been greatly increased attention to car safety (seat belts, crumple zones, safety cages, collapsing steering columns, soft materials facing the driver, air bags). The old advertising belief that "safety doesn't sell" changed during the Eighties.

Now, though, we've turned to look in other directions. Just as we woke up to road safety in the Thirties, so now we're taking notice of the fact that traffic kills in other ways. Arguably at least as many people die from the effects of traffic pollution as from accidents - and that's before you start on the economic and social effects of road congestion. There's also the internal combustion engine's contribution to global warming through its production of CO2.

It's this environmental issue that increasingly preoccupies lobby groups and the government. Major manufacturers, looking ahead, can see clearly that if they don't come up with vehicles that are "clean" in operation and can also be recycled when they're finished with, they will simply be pushed to those ends by taxation and legislation. The ultimate aim is to make - and sell competitively - a motor vehicle that produces no toxic emissions, using a fuel produced by renewable sources and which can be entirely recycled at the end of its life.

Are we there yet? We're certainly well on the way. Europe is committed to achieving a very high level of recycleability of vehicles within the next 15 years. And on fuels, the industry reckons that we're 10 years away from vehicles powered by methanol fuel cells. Methanol is a simple alcohol that can be made from plants and trees. The fuel cell converts its energy directly into electricity, emitting only water vapour, heat and CO2 into the atmosphere. (And if the natural materials used to make the methanol are renewed, the CO2 balance becomes neutral.) Meanwhile, the intermediate solutions are already here. Some "hybrid" cars (electric motor and petrol or diesel engine combined) are on the market, and BMW, for example, has been test running a hydrogen powered car. What's needed is considerable push from governments to overcome consumer resistance (hybrid cars are expensive) and keep up momentum among manufacturers. Maybe, in the end, we really can have our cake and eat it - we'll be able to keep our beloved cars, perhaps with certain restrictions, without continuing to poison the air.

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