LJKS was never a friend of mine, although I met him a good number of times. Indeed, I found myself in the unexpected position of being his editor – now there was one of life’s unexpected pleasures! Like many CAR magazine readers of the nineteen seventies and eighties, I was a huge fan.
My first encounter with him came back in 2003, via his (then) new book Drive On!: A Social History of the Motor Car, which I’d hoped to review for the Sunday Times. Although I never actually got round to writing the piece – probably just as well as it would have been toadying in the extreme – I got his contact details from the publisher. At the time, I was editing a magazine and in search of great writers to bolster the editorial team. I decided to chance my arm and see if I could lure him into penning some stuff on matters life, the universe and music…
Some sweet talking over the phone got me a luncheon meeting. Leonard (for that is what he charitably allowed me to call him) arrived in his fifth generation Honda Prelude VTEC – full Setright spec of course, with his trademark Pioneer cassette player (the CD player had been removed from the dash, for he would only listen to analogue records taped direct from his Linn LP12 turntable!), 17″ wheels and of course 4-wheel steering.
He was dapper in a grey three-piece suit, hat, pocket handerkerchief and the obligatory cigarette holder complete with Sobranie cig. A set of leather driving gloves completed the picture, which he peeled off with an ease that surely came from having worn such things for half a century or more. I’d thought Setright quite an austere figure; certainly his pictures in CAR magazine made him appear this way, but he proved genteel, polite and subtly humorous – the man had a charm and a rapier intellect, unsullied by his seventy or so years.
What followed over lunch was the interview – he interviewed me. He took a pizza and a beer as I remember, and dispatched several cigarettes during the meal – those were the days when you could indulge in such licentious behaviour! Although I asked him all the questions – about his life, his cars, his music – it was my responses to his answers that he used to gauge me. Amazingly, I passed the test. I think it was our shared love of Suzuki Whizzkids (I’d recently been to view one with the intention of buying) that sealed the deal. He had one in Texas, he told me – to replace his Bristol Beaufighter. Quite some upgrade, I quipped! He smiled.
At the end of the meeting, Leonard announced he was prepared to write for my magazine in a rather grand way. He would supply copy on a floppy disc, I was to give him an exact word length, and was not allowed to change it in any way. That was the deal, take it or leave it. As a hyperactive sub editor who’d not used floppies for years, this didn’t quite fit into my modus operandi, but who was I to quibble? “Yes, of course”, I gushed.
He regaled me with tales of his time spent in the United States, his doomed attempt to get a teaching job at the University of Texas, his love of guns and hatred of big government and regulation, not least on modern roads – which he regarded as tantamount to the enslavement of mankind, no less! Then he offered me a lift back to my office, just under a mile away. The journey barely took as much time as he needed to slip on those driving gloves.
We had a number of other lunches. I never once claimed them on expenses, regarding it as a pleasure and a privilege to buy them for him – although I never told him. He entertained me with tales of his motorcycling derring-do, his love of all things Honda, his low regard for modern German cars and his deep distaste for large swathes of the British car industry. He seemed underwhelmed by cars you’d expect would enthuse fast drivers, or ones possessed of whimsy or idiosyncrasy. His interest was always with engineering innovation and/or elegant simplicity of design. With customary matter-of-factness, I remember him uttering something that stuck with me for many years after – “it is not for the car to have character, that is for the driver”…
In a way I wish I hadn’t met LJK Setright – or even ever read him – because he exposed so many of today’s car journalists for the one-dimensional pretenders that they are. Not all of course, but few are worthy of being mentioned in the same breath. His understanding of the physical forces at play as a car moves down a road, and why it behaves as it does in engineering terms, was second-to-none. His erudition – written and spoken – was superlative. Oh, and he was also a charming man.