The Wheels
of Change
Jerome K. Jerome

On a morning in 1896, a line of weird-shaped vehicles, the like of which London had never seen before, stood drawn up in Northumberland Avenue outside the Hotel Metropole.

They were the new horseless carriages, called automobiles, about which we had heard much talk. Lawson, a company promoter, who claimed to have invented the safety bicycle, had got them together.

The law, insisting that every mechanically propelled vehicle should be preceded by a man carrying a red flag, had expired the day before; and at nine o'clock we started for Brighton. I shared a high two-seater with the editor of a financial journal, a gentleman named Duguid.

We were fifth in the procession. Our driver, a large man, sat perched up on a dicky just in front of us, and our fear throughout the journey was, lest he should fall backwards, and bury us.

An immense crowd had gathered, and until we were the other side of Croydon it was necessary for mounted police to clear a way for us. At Purley the Brighton coach overtook us, and raced us into Reigate. By the time we reached Crawley, half our number had fallen out for repairs and alterations. We were to have been received at Brighton by the Mayor and Corporation and lunched at the Grand Hotel. The idea had been that somewhere between twelve and one, the whole twenty-five of us would come sweeping down the Preston road amid enthusiastic cheers.

It was half-past three before the first of us appeared. At lengthening intervals some half-a-dozen others straggled in (Duguid and myself were, I think, the last), to be received with sarcasm and jeers.

We washed ourselves --- a tedious operation --- and sat down to an early dinner. Little Lawson made a witty speech. All the Vested Interests of the period --- railway companies; livery stable keepers, and horse dealers; the Grand junction Canal; the Amalgamated Society of Bathchair Proprietors, and so forth, were, of course, all up in arms against him. (One petition, praying Parliament to put its foot down upon the threatened spoiling of the countryside, was signed Friends of the Horse. It turned out to be from the Worshipful Company of Whipmakers.)

Some credit is due to the motorists of those days. It was rarely that one reached one's destination. As a matter of fact, only the incurable optimist ever tried to. The common formula was: "Oh, let's start off, and see what happens." Generally, one returned in a hired fly.

Everywhere along the country roads, one came across disabled cars: some drawn up against the grass, others helplessly blocking the way. Beside them, dejected females sitting on a rug. Underneath, a grimy man, blaspheming: another running round and treading on him.

Experienced wives took their knitting and a camp stool. Very young men with a mechanical turn of mind get enjoyment out of them, apparently. At the slightest sign of trouble, they would take the whole thing to pieces, and spread it out upon the roadside. Some cheerful old lady, an aunt presumably, would be grovelling on her hands and knees, with her mouth full of screws, looking for more. Passing later in the evening, one would notice the remains piled up against the hedge with a lantern hung on them.

At first, we wore masks and coloured goggles. Horses were terrified when they met us. We had to stop the engine and wait. I remember one old farmer with a very restive filly. Of course we were all watching him. "If you ladies and gentlemen," he said, "wouldn't mind turning your faces the other way, maybe I'd get her past."

Motors were of strange and awful shapes, at the beginning. There was one design supposed to resemble a swan; but, owing to the neck being short, it looked more like a duck: that is, if it looked like anything. To fill the radiator, you unscrewed its head and poured the water down its neck; and as you drove the screw would work loose, and the thing would turn round and look at you out of one eye. Others were shaped like canoes and gondolas. One firm brought out a dragon. It had a red tongue, and you hung the spare wheel on its tail.

--- from They and I


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