'Speed Lies in the Lap of the English': Motor Records, Masculinity, and the Nation, 1907-14

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Boutle, I.

This article is the first scholarly examination of motor speed record-setting in the years before the Great War. In this period, Selwyn Edge and Percy Lambert achieved notable triumphs at Surrey's Brooklands circuit, opened in 1907. Edge completed a 24-hour drive in June 1907, while Lambert became the first man to travel 100 miles in 1 hour in February 1913. Stressing the autonomy of man from motor with reference to physical strength, gentlemanly virtue, and mental supremacy, the public discourses that surrounded these speed records complicate continental modernist interpretations of motor racing as a fundamentally violent technological spectacle. Both feats were cited by the press and advertisers to proclaim not only that English cars were the best in the world, but also as evidence for enduring national virtues. Edge and Lambert were also characterized as amateurs, highlighting the flexibility of a term that appealed to established readings of sporting character. However, to accord especial significance to the endurance of traditional heroic frameworks risks obscuring how record-breakers possessed the ability to generate self-exposure, manipulate developments in popular media, and actively appeal to mass sentiment. This article thus contributes to recent debates within the history of fame, rejecting any strict twentieth-century progression from an age of ‘heroes’ to an age of ‘celebrities’, and revealing how depictions of speed icons frequently combined the dual themes of egalitarianism and elitism. While speed records were to remain a niche area of public interest prior to the late 1920s, the divergent responses to these two men highlights how narratives of Englishness, tradition, and modernity were able to combine without contradiction in Edwardian popular culture.