Librarian's Choice - "The Early History of Motoring" by Claude Johnson

Who knows what this next decade will bring in the way of automotive development? An important early book, written by the Royal Automobile Club’s first Secretary Claude Johnson, chronicles an extraordinary decade of motoring progress – touching on the 1880s briefly, but predominantly concerned with 1893-1902. A fine picture of him by Ambrose McEvoy sits proudly in the Pall Mall clubhouse library.

‘The Early History’ is a short monograph certainly at only 80 pages with a small section devoted to the history of Rolls-Royce. [Known as ‘C. J.’ in some quarters, he also attracted the famous epithet: the ‘hyphen in Rolls-Royce’.]

I’d like to draw attention first to Lord Montagu of Beaulieu’s preface to the book which is a masterclass in abstraction. [The contents of the book appeared originally in his publication The Car Magazine in 1904.]

In his introduction, Johnson bemoans the restrictive legislation adopted in this country – when compared to our Continental counterparts – which so stifled the development of the steam and electric vehicles in the later part of the nineteenth century. Hence this work devotes itself to the “coming of the carriages propelled by internal combustion engines … [which] were not freaks but were rapidly to become a serious and considerable factor in every-day life”.

To begin with due deference is given to Gottlieb Daimler’s pioneering role as the ‘Father of motors and the new locomotion’ (dies aged 65 in 1900). Benz’s and Butler’s early tricycle and bicycle of the 1880s are briefly alluded to before Johnson proceeds in much greater detail to the study of Daimler’s motor by Emile Levassor. From there were spawned the great French mid-decade races: Paris-Rouen (1894), Paris-Bordeaux (1895), Paris-Marseille (1896).

Considerable numbers of French automobiles were already being manufactured by marques including Panhard & Levassor, Dion, Peugeot, Delahaye. This forward attainment afforded the French motoring elite the relatively comfortable position of simply ‘exhibiting their wares’. Meanwhile, Johnson discusses the travails of the British motoring movement during that period, nowhere near so far advanced.

How various motoring organisations of this country in that early period, including our own of course as the Automobile Club of Great Britain & Ireland (1897), came into existence – and often quickly expired too – are described quite subjectively. In a similar vein, the various early exhibitions such as Tunbridge Wells (1895), Imperial Institute (1896) and Richmond (1899) are recorded.

The Emancipation Run (1896) and the 1000 Miles Trial (1900) are covered too of course, the amount of work going into the latter, which was directly organised by the ACGBI, highlighted in some detail.

Much further period appeal is accorded to this volume by having another 64 pages of contemporary advertising covering such topics as coachbuilding, guns, razors, and interior decoration contained within.

Just as early map-makers often omitted a publication date, it’s the same here; the date of the book’s publication is ascribed to a reference on its last page where the ‘secret of Rolls-Royce success’ is being discussed: “the ideals of the early days are still maintained in 1927”. Sadly, just a year earlier Claude Johnson had passed away from pneumonia.

This book represents and encompasses a personal milestone for the Royal Automobile Club in view of its penmanship being so ‘close to home’, and for early motoring generally across the Continent.


Johnson, Claude, (1927?). The Early History of Motoring London: ED. J. Burrow & Co.

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