March 2017

I am the Archive Trainee, Mollie Horne, and one of my favourite parts of the BMIHT Archive is our collection of motoring ephemera. We have an array of weird and wonderful items which until recently were rather difficult to find. Charlotte, the Deputy Archivist, and I decided we would reorganise the objects to make them more accessible. In the process we found a selection of personal driving paperwork such as driving licences, maintenance logs and RAC membership cards. What particularly caught my eye was a handwritten receipt in the name of Mr D Harborow for a one hour driving lesson with Mr Cooper of the Birmingham & Midland School of Motoring dating from 1938.

The receipt immediately reminded me of my younger brother, Ethan. Since turning seventeen in February, he has started to learn how to drive. He’s about to go on his fourth official lesson (minus the few times my dad has given up his evenings to drive around Leeds with him) and is by all accounts very proficient.  As my brother is learning I thought it would be interesting to see how driving lessons and tests have changed since Mr Harborow was learning.

Mr Harborow’s receipt tells us that his one hour driving lesson, on June 19th 1938, cost him 8 shillings, the equivalent of 40p. A price of which I’m sure my brother would be very jealous as the average lesson today costs around £24. However, when you adjust this for inflation it is about £25 anyway! Formal driving lessons have been in place since the early 1900s when people began to own cars. However, the popularisation of driving lessons becomes apparent in 1935 when the driving test became compulsory. The only exception was the years between 1939-1946 when the test was suspended due to the war and petrol rationing. As Mr Harborow was learning in 1938, we can only hope he passed before the restrictions came into place.

The first recorded test was completed on March 16 1935 by Mr Beene of Kensington. As our Mr Harborow was learning to drive in 1938, this was the same test as he would have faced. The pass rate in 1935 was 63% compared with around 50% in 1950 and 46% in 2009. There could be a number of reasons for this, such as the greater number of cars on the road or the increasing difficulty of the test itself. In 1975 hand signals during driving tests were dropped, in 1996 the theory test was introduced, and since 2010 students have had to complete an independent driving exercise.

Although many things have changed throughout the years, the driving test taken by Mr Harborow still has some similarities to the one which my brother will undertake in a few months’ time. They will both have had to present their driving license to the examiner; they will both have learnt in cars with ‘L’ plates as they were made compulsory the same time as the test; and they will both have had to complete manoeuvres such as a turn in the road and an emergency stop.

Hopefully Ethan will pass with flying colours and join Mr Harborow as a certified driver!

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