‘Toad sat straight down in the middle of the dusty road, his legs stretched out before him, and stared fixedly in the direction of the disappearing motor car. He breathed short, his face wore a placid, satisfied expression, and at intervals he faintly murmured “Poop-poop!”
Kenneth Graham’s Toad of Toad Hall in the fascinating book Wind in the Willows was written in 1905. His description of life when gentlemen said ‘Pip, Pip’ and addressed one another as ‘Old Chap’ through a host of animal characters living on the banks of a river, was masterful. One character especially who exemplified the idle rich of that age was Toad. He was a playboy but mixed happily with his down to earth neighbours Ratty, Mole and Mr. Badger.
That is until he discovered the motor car. Then he became an uncontrollable demon, driving wildly and carelessly behind the wheel of a brand-new auto until his contempt for the law landed him in gaol.
So that much hasn’t changed then in 115 years. But what has altered is the number of motor cars on the road. In 1905, they were the plaything of the rich. The roads still had more horse and carts on them than automobiles and a trip out on a Sunday afternoon a matter of considerable excitement.
Although the motor car dominates our lives today, even in the early fifties, it was till possible to drive relatively unhindered on Britain’s highways.
My grandfather gave me my first car. It was a black Austin 10, creaking at the seams and rattling over the potholes, but it worked. Like Toad, I roared along the lanes and byways, carefree and unhindered. The speedometer didn’t work properly and vacillated wildly. I never knew how fast I was going, and most policemen just waved cheerily as my chums and I pumped at the brakes to force the vehicle to stop. Again, it was a matter of judgement. We guessed at the amount of road required to pull up before the white line and the word Halt, painted on the surface of the road.
Yet that little vehicle took a good part of the cricket team, heads poked through the open sunroof, pads, gloves and bats stuffed between bodies to Saturday’s match. Prayers issued skyward that we wouldn’t run out of petrol before we reached the cricket green, or that between us we could stump up sixpences to buy a gallon of fuel at half a crown.
That car also taught me the art of management. I didn’t know much about the workings of cars. I just drove. My friend John, on the other hand was a genius. So it was that when the little black Austin sputtered and drifted to a halt, he was the master mechanic who fixed it. The problem was always the same. Grit in the fuel pipe. John would unscrew the copper nut, suck loudly, red in the face until the petrol started to flow again. I stood by with a bag of sweets, offering him one to take the taste of the liquid away.
Those were days when motoring was easy and the roads accommodating to free and irresponsible characters like Toad and me.
Toad’s experience wasn’t too long after the first cars hit the road in Britain.
Perversely it was Tom Paine who had a finger in the development of the internal combustion engine. Known more for his revolutionary ideas, Paine was a prolific inventor and among his ideas was a form of steam engine that used gunpowder to power it. Sadly, that was for boats and even our Tom was not known to have dreamed of a horseless carriage.
But it was in his lifetime, that the first experiments with a car were made. The first steam powered auto was realised in 1769. Tom might have well been part of that, but he was obviously too busy helping foment the American Revolution.
It was not until 1885 that the first real car as we know it powered down the road. It was created by Karl Benz and is considered the first production model after he built several of his masterpieces and put them on the road.
Even so, it was only 20 years before Toad saw fit to venture out, clad in goggles, cap and large leather gloves.
So what was the first car to venture into Lewes like? Probably scary. Early vehicles frequently broke down, the roads were not designed for these new contraptions and spotting a petrol station was like a game of Eye Spy as roadsters rolled merrily along, often at less that 20 miles per hour.
Even that was racing. Until 1896 when the Locomotives on Highways Act was introduced, the law demanded that a man on foot carried a red flag in front of the vehicle to warn pedestrians that a car was coming.
But Lewes was geographically very close to the acceptance of this new-fangled contraption, because down the road in Brighton on November 14th, 1896, the Motor Car Club organised the London to Brighton run. The same event that takes place to this very day.
Until then, cars had been limited variously to two miles per hour, four miles per hour and at the time of the Brighton run, 12 miles per hour.
Probably the intervention of the Prince of Wales, who like Toad, fell in love with the motor car, saw the limit jump to 20 mph in 1903.
Even then, development was slow. In 1938, less than two million cars were registered with the authorities, rising from 100000 in 1918.
There was some realisation that the car was here to stay. The County Council paid £1300 towards the elimination of three dangerous bends between Willingdon and Eastbourne, while it had issued 172 car licences, and 385 driving licences by 1904.
The Lewes police sounded out the new technology with a brand-new Wolsey, for which they paid £350 in 1904. The car wasn’t that operational, however. It was just a transportation car for the Chief Constable. Bicycles held sway until 1931, when a fleet of motorbikes was bought to be rapidly overtaken by MG cars.
There was an earlier motor bike patrol on the Eastbourne Road in 1921, but the two-man force used their own machines.
Lewes may have been a slow starter in the motor industry, but it made up for it with the speed of the cars themselves.
Speed trials were held in 1924 on what was described as a private road near Lewes. These trials took place three or four times a year on a slightly rising hill leading to the London Newhaven Road It was here in 1937 that a new car with independent suspension was unveiled, the Atalanta.
But most famous of them all is the Firle Hill Climb. Founded by the Bentley Drivers’ Club, it began in 1949. It runs up a sharp hill, around a bend called Bo Peep Corner and up a 600-yard course to the finishing point.
The event closed down in 1967, partly for economic reasons and partly due to a fatal accident involving a spectator.
But in September 2015, this colourful parade of older cars roared back to life through the efforts of the Bo Peep Drivers Club and has become a key event in the Lewes sporting calendar.
So the development of the automobile has touched Lewes almost from the very start.
But I still hanker after that day in 1905 that Toad took to the road, scattering all in his path.
Yes, he was caught and imprisoned.
But the gaolers’ daughter took pity on him and brought to him on Monday morning, cold beef and Bubble and Squeak. The real sort, with Sunday’s left-over cabbage, fried into mashed potatoes, and cooked in lard. Now you don’t get that dish much anymore, at least not cooked the proper way.
I wonder if they still make it that way though in the police holding cells in Lewes. Nah. They couldn’t, could they? Could they? Oh, I need to find out.
Where’s my car? •