Ladybird Book of Motor Cars

The Ladybird Book of Motorcars, infrequent reviews in full colour of what was latest in motoring around the world, were my literary introduction to cars. In the early nineteen seventies there was limited child orientated information available for kids with a thirst for automotive knowledge. Grown up magazines seemed grey and indigestible at 7 years old and all you could find in the library where worthy general works about ‘Transport’. These slim hard-backed Ladybird volumes acknowledged an innocent enthusiasm for the world of cars that probably wouldn’t be acceptable today not only because modern parents might perceive them as nasty, smelly things that are choking the planet (or that run you over) but also because many children no longer see our four wheeled friends as especially exotic, rating them slightly above the family fridge in the charisma stakes: not so surprising given the dreary fridge-like vehicles people drive these days. Cars were moving into the realms of the consumer durable in my early seventies childhood but thanks to my Ladybird books I felt I could name almost everything on the road and everything, from the latest Vauxhall Viva to a rarely glimpsed Silver Shadow, was intrinsically interesting.
I went from Ladybird books to reading CAR magazine, via The Daily Mail Motorshow Review, and managed to largely miss out on the dryness of the Observers series.
The format of the books, published in Ladybirds ‘recognition’, where comfortingly familiar: 72 of the worlds most interesting cars arranged in order of size and usually starting with a Reliant Regal. The first book of cars was 1960 (a rare edition) revised in 1961 and 1963 and thereafter refreshed every two or three years. The last one was published in 1972, six being published in total always priced at 2/6 or, in the case of the post decimalisation 1972 edition, 15p.
Curiously they would sometimes feature cars that were no longer in production – the Lancia Aurelia B20 featured in the 1960 edition but had not been sold new for two years ‘ and a handful of real oddballs; the chances of spotting, say, an Allard of a Frazer Nash Continental were pretty slim but they spiced up the cross section of family saloons, sports cars and exotica.
The charm of the books, which you can still find in second hand shops or the web (see ) was and remains the beautiful pictures; some taken from brochure shots but retouched to make them look as if they have been painted.
The descriptions of the cars were obviously written to appeal to kids but didn’t talk down. They pointed out the rarities, gave you some basic facts (top speed, length, number of seats) and a depiction of the cars badge. The cross section of models was broad with no bias towards British cars, taking a typically Ladybird even handed view of the world and all its wonders; they weren’t even rude about American cars which were always described in terms of their luxury and ‘effortless travel.’
In fact American cars feature quite heavily across the series showing how they were a much more prominent part of the British motoring landscape thirty or forty years ago, where there was a thirst for their glamour in an England that was still a bit austere and black-and-white when the first Ladybird Book of cars appeared.
I think I got my first bit of anorak information out of a Ladybird book of cars: the Volga diesel, I learned, had the engine out of a Land Rover. As well as these mini car catalogues there was the Ladybird The story of the Motorcar, a general automotive history taking readers through to the early sixties and a happy world of Mini Coopers, E-Types and Silver Clouds. Even though I no longer have the books (I liked ‘redesigning’ the cars in felt tip) the depictions are forever imprinted, the E-Type shown passing through the gates of a grand house with a Daimler Dart going the other way, the cheerful enthusiast drivers greeting each other.
Other car related Ladybird editions included the How it works Series and Tootles the Taxi which seemed dated even at the time, depicting fifties vehicles – Tony the tractor, Archie the Ambulance – Stumbles the steam-roller, Larry the lorry, Co-Co the caravan, Minnie the milk-float etc ‘ with slightly disturbing faces and accompanied by rhymes.
The Books ‘ there seemed to be hundreds of them – covered noble subjects like ‘The Public services’ (whatever happened to that idea?) and were designed to make kids think what a ‘lovely’ world they lived in.
Other subjects in the ‘recognition’ series included trains, planes and the Ladybird book of commercial vehicles.
I learned to read on Ladybirds Peter and Jane series, a brother and sister of the never-had-it-so-good years who’s dad drove a two tone Zephyr Six, a car you never saw on the road by the time I was reading the books. Perhaps mindful of such things the publishers gave the books a seventies makeover and made Peter look like Donny Osmond. As if to emphasise how cutting edge the new look 70s Peter and Jane were one high street scene featured an orange NSU Ro80.
Ladybird books after 1972 changed somehow in format and feel, a bit like when, around the same time, Dinky and Corgi models lost the rubber tyres and went on to those cheap looking (and no doubt cheaper to make) whizz wheels or new cars started appearing with ugly reflective yellow/white number plates. It was as if everybody had suddenly got lazy, didn’t care anymore about what things looked like.
Considering Loughborough’s greatest export got me thinking about David Carey. He illustrated and wrote the Book of Motorcars editions and others in the ‘recognition’ series.
His real name E.C.Borst-Smith – the Rover Car Company’s Assistant Publicity Manager during the 1960s and into the 1970s.
He was known as Carey (his second Christian name) and David is thought to have been his son’s name. He headed the small department and wrote copy for Rover brochures.
‘He was very private’ says Roger Brown who worked with the great man at Rover in the early seventies ‘ immaculately turned out in tweed suits, bespectacled, and smoked a pipe – one got the impression that he would have been far happier to still be in his Rover P4 days – when he could wear his hat when driving. We all knew he did the Ladybird books as a ‘foreigner’ ‘
Lady books in general terms were a sort of kids guide to the world, fairly serious but not too dry. They exuded optimism, decency and innocence but from my early 70s perspective seemed to come from an era that was passing. The depictions of adults all had wore baggy fifties clothes and had plastered down oily short-back-and-sides hair, the women sensibly bouffant and mumsy.
Covering austerity Britain through to strife ridden early seventies the classic Ladybird series was aimed at the middle classes and portrayed them in a favourable light. I liked their lashings-of ginger beer world but never felt quite part of it; I was more a dandelion and burdock man.

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