long flowing locks and beard, monocle, a wide-brimmed hat and with a
Black Russian always in his cigarette holder, Leonard Setright, who has
died of cancer aged 74, presented an image that set him apart from the
motoring journalists that emerged in the 1970s.
But it was not
only his visual persona that distinguished him. LJK Setright, as he
bylined himself, was a writer whose intellectual rigour was underpinned
by an exhaustive knowledge of both engineering and classical culture.
He deployed both to impress – if not bamboozle – his audiences in such magazines as Car and Bike.
youthful founding editor, Doug Blain, was somewhat bemused by the first
piece Setright submitted – on aeroflow dynamics – in 1970, but was
tickled by its arch prose and abundant self-confidence.
Setright joined a triumvirate of uniformly audacious columnists who
became, in his case for more than three decades, synonymous with the
Setright soon established himself as an idiosyncratic,
even mischievous writer – he peppered his copy with Latin quotations
and once referred to feet as “bicrural extremities” – but his opinions
betrayed an authority that few dared challenge and many envied. His
engineering interests led to many influential books, including Some
Unusual Engines (1975), two volumes on the expensive and, of course,
eccentric Bristol marque (1974 and 1998) and With Flying Colours (1987).
was born in London, the sonof Australian emigrÃ©s. His mother Lena was a
fashion buyer and his father Henry an engineer, who invented the
Setright rotary bus-ticket machine and the Tote betting system. His
passion for all things mechanical stemmed from that childhood “when
engineers were worshipped”.He was educated at Southgate County School
in Winchmore Hill, where he developed an penchant for music and
unconventional attire. An accomplished clarinet player, he joined Ray
Potter’s five-piece jazz band, and when Setright acquired his first
car, a yellow 1920s CitroÃ«n Cloverleaf, he and Potter regularly visited
the Goodwood racing circuit, igniting another enduring enthusiasm for
the deerstalker-capped teenager.
Setright studied law at London University, but hated it as a profession.
great satisfaction, but little income as a classical musician – he
cofounded the Philharmonia Chorus in 1957 – he decided instead to
pursue journalism, and in 1960 joined the leading contemporary
magazine, Machine Age, eventually becoming editor. Then, in 1965, he
took a job in public relations for the Firestone Tyre Company – in
later life he was to be quietly involved in the development of radial
tyres at Pirelli.
He won the Gwen Salmon Trophy for automotive
photography and became a fellow of the Institute of Mechanical
Engineers in 1969, and joined the Institute of Rubber Industries in
But it was at Car that he found a natural home for his
talents. Setright was soon testing cars and motorcycles, as well as
entertainingly dissecting the finer points of their design technology
and lambasting the horrors of public transport or the bogus economics
of speed limits.
As a driver, Setright was formidably fast to the
point where at press launches Former deputy editor of the Daily Express
Columnist at Sentinel Sunday he was usually given a vehicle of his own
rather than have anyone share with him.
As Bike’s callow founding
editor, I sought him as a columnist in 1973, and while superficially
aloof, he proved a kindly, assiduously polite, even shy man.
when fuelled with his favourite vintage champagnes, he was known to
pick up a clarinet and play dazzling solos with the hotel bands that
serenaded journalists on press junkets.
In 1980, tragedy struck.
His wife, Christine, a professional opera singer, drove one of his
beloved Bristols up to Scotland and committed suicide.
seeking an abrupt change of life, moved to America, where a visit to a
Lubavitch community in Texas reaffirmed his Judaism. Embracing a devout
orthodoxy with his usual studious zeal, he became something of an
expert on schechitah, or ritual slaughter.
But, inevitably, he returned to journalism.
last book, Drive On! (2003), is a fascinating account of the
relationship between cars and social development, and it is ironic that
in view of what killed him, one of his last essays eloquently railed
against manufacturers that now offer non-smoking cars. “It is
refreshing,” he concluded, “that there remain stalwarts for whom
driving and smoking – two of the greatest pleasures known to man – are
not to be separated.”
He is survived by his second wife, Helen, and daughters Hilary and Anthea.
©The Guardian By Mark Williams