The ‘horseless carriage’ might sound unfamiliar, but 125 years ago this exciting new invention changed the world.
As with many novel creations, coming up with a name proved problematic and this was one of the most pressing debates in the first edition of the world’s oldest motoring magazine — Autocar — which first rolled off the press on November 2, 1895, and is now in its 126th year.
The horseless carriage is, of course, the motor car, and over the decades Autocar has charted the roller-coaster development of these machines, from pioneering Benz and Daimler models up to the advent of Tesla and the electric revolution.
Zooming into the future: The Electric VW Beetle. As car makers move to electric-only power and self-driving technology, Autocar is creating a unique archive of motoring history
Fitting, then, that as we now embark on arguably the biggest automotive changes ever — the advent of electric-only power and self-driving technology — the magazine is creating a unique archive of motoring history.
Over the past six months, more than a million pages spanning 125 years of automotive history have been ‘digitised’ for posterity.
Heavily bound tomes of past editions weighing more than four tons in total were transported from Autocar’s headquarters in Twickenham, South-West London, up to Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire, where archivist Pete Boswell and his team at Archive Digital has been re-creating each issue page by page.
The Autocar motor archive (themotoring archive.com) goes live next month with podcasts narrating the first 52 pioneering editions in their entirety and the most visually attractive front covers available as prints and posters.
First edition: Autocar No1 Vol 1 published in November 1895. The magazine is now in its 126th year
Making a start
Another question in that first edition was what would actually power the new vehicles in those latter days of Queen Victoria’s reign.
Surprisingly, electric power was an early strong contender, but would the batteries have enough storage capacity? Unlikely.
Steam ran out of puff. But petroleum spirit — despite its volatile nature — had the key advantage of being in plentiful supply at pharmacies and relatively easy to transport in cans.
Petrol was the way forward. As Autocar put it: ‘The last is the latest. The latest is the best.’
The magazine also lays claim to inventing the ‘road test’ — a consumer view of how a car performs — that is standard reading whether you are a family buying a car or a petrolhead wanting the real inside track on the latest supercar.
Tips: An article from December 1928 instructs new drivers in the ‘art of reversing’ with advice that remains valid to this day
Often, writers would actually be driven by a chauffeur. The magazine began in late 1895 when entrepreneur Harry Lawson drove into the centre of Coventry at the tiller of the strange machine we now know as a ‘motor car’. At the time, it was probably one of only six in the country.
Lawson, who had made a huge fortune manufacturing bicycles, called to see the editor of The Cyclist, a solemn-looking former schoolteacher named Henry Sturmey, who founded that magazine in 1879 at the age of 22.
Excited by the potential of the motor car, young publisher William Iliffe decided they should bring out a magazine to celebrate its arrival the next day and settled on the title: The Autocar.
The December 1948 edition features the new Morris Oxford
Good track record
Ironically, given some of the mutual antagonism between cyclists and motorists today, that first edition points out how cyclists on the highway had ‘accustomed the public mind to the sight of wheeled vehicles without horses’ on roads.
It added: ‘The cyclist and the cycle maker have paved the way for the autocar.’ The first edition carries only four photographs of pioneering cars — they include a De Dion-Bouton tricycle; an early Peugeot; a Panhard and Levassor; and an American contraption.
But historian David Burgess-Wise noted how The Autocar’s arrival was perfectly timed to capture the mood and added to the campaign to repeal the infamous ‘Red Flag’ Act which required a man with a crimson banner to walk in front of a vehicle to ensure it remained at walking speed — or roughly 3 mph.
He said: ‘For its first year, Autocar really was a magazine for a persecuted minority, for it was not until November 14, 1896, that the British Government changed the law and allowed motorists ‘the freedom of the road’.
‘Although there was still a nationwide speed limit of 12 mph, the red flag man was gone for ever.’
To celebrate this ‘Emancipation Day’, Harry Lawson’s Motor Car Club organised a tour from London to Brighton — still celebrated by the annual London to Brighton Run for pre-1905 veteran cars organised by the Royal Automobile Club.
From pioneers to bestsellers… the icons that changed our lives
Autocar has always been there to record the historical motoring milestones. These include the formation of the Automobile Association — the AA — in 1905 to combat police speed traps; the introduction of 70 mph speed limit on motorways; the then controversial introduction of the roadside breathalyser and tougher drink-drive laws in 1967 by Labour’s Transport Minister Barbara Castle (who received death threats); the first speed cameras; and congestion charging.
A classic Mini graces the cover of this edition from the early 1970s
And it continues right up to today’s experiments in autonomous driving and the Government’s decision to ban new petrol and diesel cars from 2030.
In 1992, the magazine even sacked motoring writer James May — who went on to host Top Gear alongside Jeremy Clarkson —for secreting a mischievously rude coded message among its hallowed pages.
It has only twice failed to reach the shelves — during the General Strike of May 1926 when three issues were lost, and in 1973 during a spate of fuel shortages and strikes by miners and print workers.
Autocar’s editorial director Jim Holder said: ‘It’s been an incredible journey so far.
‘And with so much change happening right now, we’re heading towards the biggest and most exciting time since the birth of an invention that has truly shaped the modern world. It has been an honour to chronicle it.’
So as the motor car enters a new electric, green, and potentially autonomous phase, here’s to the next 125 years of Autocar.
I wonder how the world of motoring will look then? If it exists at all.
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