LJK Passes Away

Posted by Conor O'Neill on Wednesday, December 7, 2005

I was gutted to read in CAR that LJK Setright passed away recently. I started reading CAR when I was 14 years old and continue to do so despite his absence for the past few years.

As a kid, I checked out most of the motoring magazines and CAR was the only one I read where I felt I was learning something, rather than just reading pseudo-ads. For a short while in the late 80’s I tried Performance Car but to be honest that was only because of Clarkson. I can happily claim to have spotted his future greatness whilst still in my teens. The letters page every month were filled with missives from indignant middle-Englanders who were scandalised by his digs at everything they held dear.

But Clarkson was just naughty and after a while I returned to the more thoughtful bosom of CAR, and more importantly, to LJK’s monthly column. Each month I worked my way through it and understood about half of it. His breadth and depth of knowledge was extraordinary, with many literary references and tons of Latin (all of which went straight over my head due to giving up Latin for Classical Studies in 2nd Year in Kierans!). I learned more about cars from his one page each month than from the rest of the magazine.

LJK was arrogant, pompous and usually right. This is a man who argued engine cylinder design with Honda’s Nobuhiko Kawamoto, who argued that there were distinct advantages to smoking, and who, most of all, argued that speed does not, in fact, kill. And for that, I loved every word the man wrote.

Last year I bought the last book he wrote: “Drive On! A Social History of the Motor Car”. As I am averaging two book completions a year right now, I have only read a few chapters. But this is a masterpiece of erudition, history, opinion, insight and humour. To many people, a car is simply an appliance whose main contribution to the world is pollution. This book shows how so much of who we are and how we live our lives comes from the motor car. And the critical thing is that most of its effect are to our benefit. It’s a heavy read (as were all his CAR articles) but you’ll feel that you understand the world just a little bit better as you go through it.

I felt that the obituary in CAR was a sad reflection of what has happened to that magazine. In the past, they would have articles running to twenty pages or more. Phil Llewellin (who sadly also died recently) specialised in articles like that. As a young-fella, I did find many of them overly wordy but now I see what the alternative is - every article stripped to 2 pages for the ADD-addled Max Power generation. No depth, no analysis, barely time for the specs. They gave two pages to Setright, one of which was a picture (and what a unique style the man had!). He deserved half the entire issue.

Here are a few links to obituaries:

The Telegraph. The Independent. Pacific Motorsport.

I’ll finish with two quotes from the great man:

On the Citro├źn GS in 1971:

“According to Voltaire, ‘the secret of art is to improve on nature’. It is a peculiarly French attitude, one that is manifested as much in their engineering as in their graphic, plastic or musical artefacts. In their automotive engineering it is especially apparent…”

And most famously, Setright on speed limits:

“Apart from tax evasion, there should logically be one and only one motoring offence: dangerous driving… If what one does (even if one does 150mph) is not actually dangerous, then it does not matter what it is, nor what other people think. It is then no business of other people - not if this is, as we used to think, a free country.”

I’m going to miss that man.

[tags] LJK, LJK Setright, CAR, CAR magazine, obituary[/tags]

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