Wednesday, April 22, 2015

LAST week, I was on my way to Dublin airport on the happy errand of collecting our youngest and her husband, who were visiting for an extended weekend. With the most recent changes to the traffic system at Newlands Cross, the journey time to Dublin airport has been considerably reduced – in reasonable traffic, it now takes less than an hour.

On this particular journey, I had left myself enough time to look in on my mum in Kildare, but when I was crossing the railway bridge at Kildare station around dusk, I noticed that one of my dip-lights was blown.

Not being organised enough to carry a spare bulb, and it being after garage business hours, I pulled in to the nearest  petrol station shop to see if they had bulbs. Not only did they have them, but they had such a variety of generic bulbs that I decided to take out the blown bulb for comparison purposes.

And that is where it all came unstuck. For love nor money, there was no shift on the offending bulb. In fact, I could barely get a finger in to the back of the bulb, not to talk about getting enough grip to remove it.

It required a visit to the garage the following morning and the employment of specialised spanners to remove one of the components in the engine compartment to get at the bulb. So it appears, even if I had been clever enough to carry a spare bulb, I would also have needed specialised tools and the skill to effect a not-so-simple bulb change.

It got me thinking about how much we have progressed in matters motoring, and I recalled reading an old motor manual from 1920, some years ago, that fascinated me at the time.

Now this wasn’t one of my many Haynes manuals, which broadly mirror our various car changes over the years. This title, The Motor Manual, was produced by the staff of The Motor magazine, published by Temple Press in London. And if you are wondering if any of this is relevant to Ireland, remember that it would be another two years before we gained our independence, and even then, much of the day-to day legislation was ingested, little changed, into the workings of our fledgling state.

Over the weekend, I got my hands on a copy of this old volume, and the chapter titled The motorist and the law was particularly relevant to my recent airport journey. Had I been making my journey 95 years earlier, lighting regulations would only have been at the recommendation stage. The proposed regulations provided for not more than two headlights on any motor vehicle and the diameter of the clear glass should not exceed seven inches. Electric bulbs were also not to exceed 24cp (candle power) each (these days, the candle power of headlight bulbs is measured in the thousands).

It is interesting to note that it was also proposed to restrict the capacity of acetylene head lamps, which would have been a larger version of the acetylene bicycle lamp, and in common usage.

Coincidentally, on the way down from the airport, my daughter was telling me that in Scotland, where she is resident, the tax disc on cars is being done away with. With the advances in computer databases, it will now be possible to determine if a car is taxed simply by scanning the registration plate. Gone forever will be the pleasure of being allowed to detach the newly arrived tax disc from its perforated sheet, a much sought-after perk, usually enjoyed by the lads in our house long ago.

The Motor Manual of 1920 devotes a paragraph to taxation and tells us that the current system was due to be superseded by new regulations to come into force on 31 December 1920. This new scheme set car tax at £1 per rated horse power, or part thereof, and gave the example of a car rated at 23.8hp being liable for £24 per annum. We are also told that motorists would be issued with a book containing full particulars with regard to the vehicle, and they would also be issued with a licence card of distinctive colour, giving details of the car, which must be carried on the vehicle and displayed in a prominent place. And now, almost 100 years later, the tax disc, which came into being under this legislation, is on the way out.

Finally, if the motorist of 1920 had the comfort of the modern roads, it seems he still wouldn’t have gotten to Dublin any quicker, because he was still operating under the Motorcar Act of 1903. That legislation lay down the maximum speed limit, which required the motorist to stay below 20mph on a public highway. Additionally, the local government board could impose reduced limits within its own area, which were also binding on the motorists. The fines, at £10 for a first offence, £20 for a second and a staggering £50 for a third offence, would certainly make you or I think twice about breaking the speed limit, though it is less likely to have impacted much on the wealthier motoring enthusiast.

Perhaps we might dip into this fascinating motor manual in the future so that we can shed some more light on motoring in times past. In the meantime, I hear there’s a vacancy at Top Gear. I might apply. After all, I can almost change a bulb.

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By Tom Cox
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