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High Performance: When Britain Ruled the Roads

by Peter Grimsdale

2019 review by Anders Ditlev Clausager

When I was a young child, trying to learn how to ride a bicycle, I managed to break my leg, and with the state of art of medicine being what it was in the 1950s, my leg was encased in a full plaster cast and I was effectively confined to bed for six weeks. All was not wasted, as indulgent parents kept me supplied with a steady stream of new books, especially about cars, one of which was Ken Purdy’s Kings of the Road which I still cherish, since it was a great introduction to the history of some famous marques, told in inimitable style.

When I got into Peter Grimsdale’s High Performance I was immediately reminded of Purdy’s classic book, since Peter, like Ken Purdy, is an excellent story teller who has also written a number of novels – not exactly about cars, mind you. By contrast, High Performance is an overview of the history of Britain’s motor industry in its golden age, from say 1945 to 1970, when, as Peter argues, “Britain ruled the roads”.

As Peter explained to us when he gave a presentation at the SAHB spring seminar, the book is the story of his heroes, from entrepreneurs like William Lyons and Len Lord, engineers like Alec Issigonis, Spen King and Malcolm Sayer, sports and racing car constructors like Raymond Mays, Donald Healey, Colin Chapman and John Cooper, to drivers like Hawthorn, Collins, Moss, Clark – and perhaps less predictably, Jocelyn Hambro and Kjell Qvale who introduced the MG sports car to the American market. Even Lady Docker gets a look-in. This is accessible history writing at its best, and elegantly avoids getting bogged down in technicalities; it should appeal to the lay reader as well as to the motoring historian.

You may well argue that we have heard all of this before, and what is the point of yet another book following a well-trodden path? Well, Peter tells the story particularly well, with an eye for detail, often amusing. His book serves as a good introduction to the subject, and if the reader is then inspired to carry on with further studies, there is an extensive bibliography in High Performance. There is also an excellent index, and some end notes quoting source material (some of which are very intriguing and I will need to follow up).

Peter has done his homework and clearly knows his stuff. There are very few errors, mostly minor, and none which detract from the story. It is not, I should add, a complete story; there is for instance barely a mention of Vauxhall and Bedford, and I regret that Gerald Palmer is only mentioned as the designer of the “ditch finding” Riley Pathfinder. The chapter titles are apt but mostly do not immediately identify the subject of the chapter, and I would have liked to see the chapter title in the running header. The 32 black-and-white archive photos are in a single section in the middle of the book; they are rather small but the selection is more than adequate, and after all this is a book to enjoy reading, not just for looking at pictures.

Publisher: Simon & Schuster. www.simonandschuster.co.uk

Price: £20

Description: Hardback (240 x 160 mm), 326 pages, illustrations in black and white.

ISBN: 978-1-4711-6845-1

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