The fore-runner of the modern motor car was developed for road use in the late 1700s. Over the next 100 years, innovations such as the hand brake, multi-speed gears and better steering lead to some commercially successful vehicles. But popular opinion was not won over by the large, steam-powered vehicles.
In the UK, The Locomotive Act (1865) required many self-propelled vehicles on public roads to be preceded by a man on foot waving a red flag and blowing a horn. Meanwhile the Ford Motor Company in the United States and Karl Benz in Germany started production of the first petrol or gasoline-powered motors. By the start of the 20th century, the automobile industry was beginning to take off in Western Europe.
Eventually in 1896 the Locomotive Act was repealed. The following year the Automobile Club was founded to promote automobilism and motor sport through public reliability trials. By 1900 the campaign to remove restrictive legislation, including increased speed limits and road racing, had succeeded. In May 1903 the reputation of the automobile took a tumble when news of numerous crashes, many injuries and eight deaths in the Paris-Madrid race were announced. This was the background for the Hertford motor car demonstration pictured here (HALS document ref. Acc. 4726).
Kenneth Murchison (1872-1952), mayor of Hertford and motor car owner, decided to take on the rising public concern by inviting members of the Automobile Club to visit the town. On 23rd May 1903, a bright late spring day a large crowd turned out to see the spectacle. The Hertfordshire Mercury was on hand to record the event (printed in the 28th May 1903 edition)
The Progress and Welfare of Automobilism
The visitors (full list attached) were entertained with lunch at the Town Hall (now the Shire Hall). Col. H. Smith Daniell (1839-1918), Hertfordshire’s Chief Constable gave the toast of “The progress and welfare of automobilism”. He identified the strongest objection to the motor car as being the reckless driving of some automobilists: “Why should we tolerate engines on the highway going at the railway speed?”
The Chief Constable discussed several means of controlling drivers: speed limits and number plates. He understood that the County Council was opposed to keeping the speed limit, preferring to rely on the common law as it applied to other road users. On the question of numbering all cars, “the justice should have the power to compel for a certain period [the driver] to display a number on any machine he drove.” He thought this “would be an indication that the driver was a suspected character, and would cause his driving to be more closely supervised”; the best possible check on reckless driving.
Excessive speeds and excessive horse-power in the machines were prejudicial to the cause automobilism.
Mr. J Scott Montagu (1866-1929) MP responded on behalf of the Club. He believed that every driver sincerely deplored the sad accidents which had happened in the Paris – Madrid race. They realized that “the effect of these accidents on the public mind had been serious, and that excessive speeds and excessive horse-power in the machines were prejudicial to the cause automobilism. “
The Club had already taken “very severe measures against gentleman whose conduct had been reported to them as being unworthy of members.” Mr. Montagu said that finding a means of identifying offenders was essential to tracking down the real culprits, “not only in the interests of public safety but to maintain the respect which the average automobile driver ought to get from his fellow human beings”. He hoped that eventually the tide of public favour would again turn towards the motor car.
After the lunch, action moved to Fore Street where comparative brake tests took place between motor cars and horse-drawn vehicles. Afterwards the cars proceeded along Fore Street, London Road, Mangrove Lane and Queens Road to Bengeo. On Port Hill there were stopping tests, the cars travelling at 30 mph having to pull up in 25 yards at a given signal.
On into Hartham for more exhibitions of controlled driving: a figure eight around two posts, steering over a winding course and passing between two posts with only 4 inches allowance on each side. These performances were loudly applauded by the large company assembled to watch them. The Mercury reporter finished his article by heartily congratulating the mayor on the success of the interesting demonstration.