TRAVEL: ROAD TESTING LONDON
by Bob Hagin
October 18, 1996
For a true Car Guy (and that's now considered a unisex term) on an overseas vacation, one of the most interesting facets of the trip is that country's everyday automotive world. What vehicles are spotted on the road, how traffic works and the skills of everyday drivers are the subjects of close scrutiny by visiting Car Guys.
And so it was with me during a week I recently spent in London. It wasn't meant to be an automotive excursion and I made a valiant attempt to avoid things automotive but what can I say? In the long run, I'm a Car Guy. What follows are the impressions made on me by this very foreign yet familiar corner of the world:
STREETS - The first thing an American notices during his or her first trip to London is that the streets are very, very narrow and that there doesn't seem to be much logic to the way they are laid out. I guess that this hodgepodge is to be expected of a metropolitan area whose roads were already old when the Romans took over in the 1st Century A.D. Many of the streets go in straight lines for a while, curve a bit and then continue on under another name. There doesn't seem to be many rules about parking, either, but what's a couple of wheels on the sidewalk between friends?
TRAFFIC - Even the illogical layout of the streets of London could be mastered in short order if it weren't for the fact that everybody in England drives on the wrong side of the road. Well, maybe I should restate that since my British friends say that we're the ones that drive on the "wrong" side. Without going into the historical significance of mounted knights passing each other with their sword-swinging right arms on the same side, it is suffice to say that the Brits still prefer their steering wheels on the right side of the car, keep to the left side of the road while driving and pass on the right. This makes it difficult for an American or Continental driver to enjoy the sights while cruising around in a rented car.
CARS - Americans will find an old friend in London by the name of Ford. It seems to outnumber other makes on the road by a wide margin, although this may be because I'm familiar with its Blue Oval. General Motors of England was represented by various Vauxhalls, large and small, and there were large contingents of Volkswagens, Toyotas, Nissans and Mitsubishis. But mixing it up in traffic with these German and Japanese makes were the Citroens and Renaults from France, the Skoda of Czechoslovakia, lots of small, front-drive Volvos and an assortment of brands whose nationality I could only guess at. Most astonishing to me was the great number of primitive front-wheel-drive Austin/Morris Minis that were squirting though the thick of it. The Mini is still in production at Longbridge, relatively unchanged in design and motive power since its introduction in '59.
PICKUPS - The ubiquitous "personal" pickup truck is the best selling vehicle type in America but in my week in London, I saw a total of two of them in operation and they were all pretty battered. There were plenty of sports/utility Land Rovers, Vauxhalls (which looks a lot like our Chevy Blazer) and Mercedes but trucks of any size in England are relegated to the ranks of the vehicular working class.
TAXIS - All movies that were set in London in the '50s and '60s featured the archetypical Austin taxi. Tall and angular, somber and understated, they immediately set the scene. They are still there in great profusion but with a difference. They now carry the label "Fairway" on their trunks and are powered by Nissan diesel engines coupled to automatic transmissions. They also come in a variety of colors now (I even spotted one resplendent in zebra strips) and display advertising on their sides. One of the drivers told me that a different style had been experimented with but Londoners and tourists preferred the "classic" upright design.
TRAFFIC - Like all world-class cities, London traffic is hectic, to say the least. Stop signs and traffic lights are rare and the accepted speed limit seems to be around 50 MPH regardless of the width of the street or the size of the vehicle. Double-decker busses weave their way through traffic jams like limber Leviathans at breakneck speed and the tour busses do the same while the tour guide on the upper-level provides an endless and unconcerned line of historical chatter. Other Americans on board were soon searching for nonexistent seat belts.
PEDESTRIANS - I'll touch briefly on walking in London since that was my primary means of locomotion while I was making my automotive observations. At each street corner, the legend "LOOK TO YOU RIGHT" was painted on the tarmac. I'm sure it's put there mainly for overseas tourists and those who don't believe in reading signs and taking heed run the risk of being catapulted into the Thames River many miles away.. Pedestrians don't have the right-of-way and while points are not awarded to London drivers for hitting walkers, I'm pretty sure that they count coup when they can get one to jump for his or her life.
I saw lots of other interesting things in London: The Tower of London, Buckingham Palace, Westminster Abbey, etc, but their descriptions are best left to the Travel Section on this paper.
We Car Guys have our own priorities.