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The Ghost Car: ... and why it's haunting our congested cities

The Ghost Car: ... and why it's haunting our congested cities

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The Ghost Car: ... and why it's haunting our congested cities

232 pages
4 hours
Oct 10, 2020


Gridlocked, asphyxiating cities. Looming climate disaster. A main cause of this nightmare is the conventional car and its basic design which is unchanged since its origin in the nineteenth century._x000D_
‘The Ghost Car’ is the fascinating story of a radically different type of urban car which could sweep away the traffic jams and the air pollution and energy wastage that go with them._x000D_
The inventor, and author of this book, Edmund Jephcott, gave up an academic career in a determined bid to turn his idea into reality. He built a successful prototype which was presented to major car producers worldwide. The vehicle was well received by the public and press._x000D_
Yet… the traffic jams are still there, along with the ever-_worsening weather events and fears of some ultimate catastrophe._x000D_
Why? This book gives the answer, and readers of it might never look at existing cars in the same way again.
Oct 10, 2020

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The Ghost Car - Edmund Jephcott

The Ghost Car

... and why it’s haunting our congested cities

Edmund Jephcott

The Ghost Car

Published by The Conrad Press in the United Kingdom 2020

Tel: +44(0)1227 472 874

ISBN 978-1-839781-11-7

Copyright © Edmund Jephcott, 2020

The moral right of Edmund Jephcott to be identified as author of this work has been asserted in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.

All rights reserved.

Typesetting and Cover Design by: Charlotte Mouncey, www.bookstyle.co.uk

The Conrad Press logo was designed by Maria Priestley.


In car-racing video games, apart from the more obvious thrills, you can have a slightly sinister experience. You can drive, let’s say, a rally car round a course, and when you’ve completed your laps you can replay your effort, looking at your possibly erratic progress from the outside. But that’s not all. You can then race against this past performance of yours, which appears as a ghostly translucent presence on the start line beside you, then lurking behind you or even moving ahead - that ghost which is yourself, in another world, another time, another life.

Now imagine you are in your own car, driving to work or home in the rush-hour traffic, creeping along in the stagnant flow, windows closed against the exhaust, heater fan set to recycle the air inside the car. Some way ahead you see the massive rectangle of a lorry’s superstructure. By its fitful starts and stops you can judge how likely it is that the cars around you will begin to inch forward again, only for this brief hope to expire and the brake lights to come on in an uncoordinated sequence, expressing the reluctant unanimity of the becalmed, the stranded, the people who are falling further and further behind their lives, the people who are not where they want to be.

Then, first from a distance, then closer and closer in your mirror, you see - one of those ghost cars. It’s not like the other cars. First of all, while all the others are still, it’s moving. It’s weaving between the stranded lanes, pausing now and then but always on the move again. How is it managing to cheat in this way? What rule is it breaking? What unfair advantage is it stealing? You thought, at least, that there was a kind of justice in congestion - that the Rolls Royce and the Mini were equally imprisoned. Now this cheat is defying that rule. Now it’s almost caught up with you - soon it will be ahead.

And then you see. No - it’s not like other cars. It’s - no, this cannot be. Your eyes must have deceived you. As it moved out to pass, you could have sworn the car had actually...

You must have been dreaming. What happened in that moment when reality blurred and something ghostly appeared from the world of dream?

Read on. You will find, perhaps, that the car you are sitting in is not as solid and real as you thought, that the ghost car was a glimpse of reality as it might be. And that the traffic jam, far from being an unavoidable fact, is an emanation from a nightmare world which has taken over the real.

Chapter 1 Traffic jams and the art of cornering

Have you ever wondered whether all this - the world around us - could be different: radically different? And as we have just been talking about traffic jams, have you ever asked yourself, sitting in your immobilised car in such a jam: is this necessary ?

Could it be that somewhere a wrong turning has been taken? That all this congestion, pollution, this wasting of time, fraying of nerves, frustration, anger, sometimes even despair - that all this is happening by mistake?

Could it be, also, that the evidence of the mistake is not hidden away in some obscure file in an administrator’s office, or has passed with him to the grave, but is actually there before your eyes - if only you could see it?

Well, I’m about to tell you a story which, perhaps, contains the answer to all this. But it will take time for the answer to emerge. In the meantime - imagine you are in that traffic jam and this is one of those ‘audio books’ you have switched on to while away the time - have a look at all those cars around you and see if you can see the answer. It may be that all of us can see it, once we have the idea that it is there.

For example: looking at those cars, is there not something peculiar about them? Not just the fact that they are actually there, day after day, blocking each other’s way, with no-one seeming to be able to do anything about it. But something else: something about the cars themselves - something about their size?

I’ll say no more. My story will take us first in a quite different direction - into the world of childhood and dream. For that is where I believe the roots, and the cure, for the traffic jam are to be found. But before setting off, I’ll leave you with that question: Why are those cars there day after day, blocking each other’s way? Is it necessary - or is it some gigantic mistake?


This story (which is my own story) is about the streets and vehicles of the second half of the last century. I grew up in north London, in a suburb close to the ‘Green Belt’ - the suburb of Enfield which, in my mother’s girlhood, had still been surrounded by green fields but was now that no less beautiful thing: a place of brick and asphalt, roads, streets and gardens. And on those roads, even parked in those gardens, were the new creatures which had replaced the animals that used to roam our environment: cars, motorcycles, buses. Even lorries, although, for some reason, it’s harder to see beauty and interest in a lorry than in a bus.

Unless you go back to those fabulous days before the Second World War, when lorries, too, had a kind of personality - bonnets sticking out in front; inscriptions on the sides or the cab door, in the old-fashioned signwriting reminiscent of fairgrounds. Lorries which had petrol engines and which, like the old pre-war petrol buses, seemed almost to chortle with the effort of keeping up with the post-war diesels, with their functional flat growl.

All this was around me as I grew up in the streets of Enfield, and could not fail to become part of my daily observations and thoughts, a part of me. For children growing up today it will probably not be the same. Their interest has switched to other images, related more to the computer games with which I began this story. But for me, then, each of these vehicles had a personality of its own. Especially the buses. Once or twice I saw a rather rare type of bus which had an unusual curve in the panelling surrounding its upper back window - and as the bus, coming from far off and heading down Southbury Road (where I lived) for some far-off unknown destination - perhaps as far as Barnet - for a reason I still hardly understand that curve of the panels around the back window would take my breath away.

What sadness, hope, what emotion, finally, seemed to be expressed in the mere curve where the roof of a bus came down to join the back. Something, almost, of a kind of nobility. The things around us have such deep signs, and the eyes of a child are able to see them.

Now, as an adult, much, much later in my life, and having known much sadness, I still have no idea why the white roof pillar of a bus could tell so much about the hopes and troubles of the human heart. But it did - it did. I know. I feel those troubles still. And I still see the bus making its way away from me towards Enfield town, on its journey which, for me at least, has never ended.

I tell you all this merely to explain how, for some people, the vehicles populating our roads could become a kind of unconscious obsession. Although they are really just useful objects, serving some utilitarian purpose, they take on a kind of personality. The sounds they make communicate in some strange way with our heart. I can still hear the breathless gulps of the ‘ST’ buses as they made their rather waspish way past my house. Or the gentler, slightly asthmatic sound of the LTs with their fat ‘walloping’ tyres, as a writer has put it. And so many more sounds, from later - a concert, a cacophony of buzzes and whines; sometimes, in the night, coming from far off, the sound of a motor-assisted bicycle, drawing closer, and then passing with that sudden, almost heartbreaking drop in the pitch of the engine as they pass, due to the physics of the ‘Doppler’ effect, I understand, but no less eloquent for that.

I said just now that they are mere utilitarian objects. But - to return to my starting point in the interminable traffic jam - if they are really such useful objects, how do they contrive to fulfil their function so badly? If they are supposed to be going somewhere, why do they spend so much time standing still? Another question - or, perhaps, already another answer.

At any rate, those fabulous creatures which passed my house on Southbury Road, Enfield, in the years after the end of the Second World War, seemed to know very little of utilitarian purposes. Their purpose, it seemed, was just to pass, making their sounds, sometimes competing, as when, in a strange ponderous outbreak of near-violence in the monotonous flow, a big unwieldy bus which did not have to stop at the bus-stop almost opposite my house would lurch out in a liberating surge and, with a deep drawing of breath and an engine note rising into the musical reaches of a kind of mechanical hysteria, would cross to the other side of the road and disappear triumphantly ahead of the stationary bus obediently allowing its passengers to board and ‘alight’ like a well-behaved horse.

Inevitably, surrounded by such strange wonders, a child will start wanting to be them, imitate them - make them. Or at least own them in some form. I can’t remember the very first such vehicle I owned in the form of a model. But the first that is memorable is the ‘Silver King’. It was soon after the war. Real toys were almost unheard of. I believe we (my brothers, my sister and I) owned some ‘Schuco’ cars somehow inherited from before the war. They were a testimony to German engineering (and a kind of legacy of the intimidating German war effort). They were small, shaped like blobs rather than cars, and extremely heavy. They seemed to be made of something much denser that the material of normal toys. Perhaps it was a very powerful clock-spring, coiled to fill up every cubic millimetre of space inside the steel casing. The spring was probably broken by the time they came to us, or the key was lost. At any rate, I never saw them run and never became attached to these probably valuable toys.

But the ‘Silver King’ was different. It came from the bottom of Percival Road, which led off at an angle from Southbury Road opposite our house. It was where some of the least favoured of my father’s patients lived, and we weren’t really supposed to go there much. But from a toyshop at the bottom of that road had come the Silver King. It had no engine. It was quite big. It was made of shiny aluminium. It was the first toy of any significance that had been produced in England after the austerity of the war. It was an emblem of pleasure. It was a kind of miracle. The shiny unpainted aluminium seemed like a material from a different world. I don’t know what happened to it. It did not remain among the clutter of our toy boxes. It was a message, an apparition, an angel which made its brief appearance and left us stunned. Nothing ever quite filled the space left by the Silver King.

Much later came something far more sophisticated. At Howards, the main toyshop in Enfield Town, I had spotted a big remote-controlled car. It had a long lead going into the back, made of a coil spring. A handle on the control box at the end of the spring caused the spring to twist, and that took a drive to the axle of the car. So, by turning the handle, you could make the car move - fast. But the drive went to only one wheel, so, by twisting the handle fast, you could make the wheel spin and the car slew. It was a big American open-topped car, and slewing like that was just what those cars were supposed to do.

You steered the car by pushing in a plunger coming out of the end of the control box, using the thumb of the hand which held the box - the other one turning the handle. The plunger was pushed out again by a spring. Pushing in steered one way, out the other. Because of the spring action, steering to the left was always weaker than to the right. Something you had to allow for.

Now all this was only found out later. All I found out at first was that the car cost twenty-one shillings: far more than I could command from my own resources. So I began to make noises to my mother. And by some process of deals, advances on birthday present and probably jobs done, such as sweeping out the garage so that you could have eaten off the floor (had you had the remotest idea of doing such a thing) - in the end what happened was what had to happen, for I had to have that car.

It had beige/grey - actually mud-coloured - paintwork and red seats. Possibly a driver with a pulled-down hat-brim like a crook. Even better. But almost as soon as I started turning the handle with the appropriate fury, the gears of the drive stripped. The car jerked and twitched. It didn’t move. True to its flashy American appearance, it was cheap trash. An expensive delusion in which I had been caught. For the first time, perhaps, but not the last. I took off the bodywork and tried to fix the drive. But there was nothing I could do with my non-existent engineering facilities. Was I supposed to solder new teeth on to the brass cog? I might well have tried that. But it was hopeless. The car remained in pieces, its flimsy body cluttering our toy boxes and its long drive cable entangling itself with everything.

I’d learned a few things, though (even if there were others I had not learned). Make things strong. Don’t use cheap materials. And, incidentally, don’t necessarily go in for one-wheel drive systems which (even in the short time the car was running) made it far from an inspiring vehicle through which to translate my dreams, my aspirations, my beliefs. For by that time I wanted to be a racing driver. This car was supposed to be the first means of proving my skill. So that I would be noticed. By whom? Probably only my mother and my brothers. But that would be enough, for the time. Now, none of that could happen. I had to look elsewhere if I was to prove my worth as what I always knew myself to be - a future world champion.

I’m still doing it. Last Saturday, in conjunction with some personal things which were going on for me at the time, I spent the whole afternoon at the motor racing circuit at Spa, Belgium – or maybe just its virtual cousin - acknowledged to be the greatest Formula 1 circuit there is. That’s because of its long fast corners. A small error means a very big accident. Sometimes the error itself can just be an accident - a random fluctuation in the always tenuous control of man over machine. I spent the whole afternoon, and the evening, and part of the night, trying to beat Michael Schumacher (who still lives just as vividly through his glorious exploits), Schumacher, the acknowledged rain master, in the wet at Spa.

Finally, I beat him, but only by metres. Early in the race, I got a chance to punt him off the track, and took it without hesitation. That is the language he understood, and probably the only way to beat him. That put me ahead of the field. I built up a ‘cushion’ of more than ten seconds. I heard from the commentator that Schumacher was only fifth. Poor Michael. I was home and dry. But then he was second. Schumacher was hunting me down. I began to make mistakes - or rather, the random errors started happening. By the last lap I had started hitting the wrong controls. Near the end of the lap is a long high-speed straight with slight bends. Even in the wet you can take them flat out if you get it right, and you need to get it right if you want to stay in front of Schumacher. I got it wrong. By the time I was back on the track I could hear his engine close behind me buzzing like an angry insect, poised to sting. I froze. I no longer knew where the brakes were, or the gears. Somehow I got through the last two corners with the red car flashing across the finishing line just behind me. I’d won, but at what price. I’d frozen under pressure. I who had always known that the key to being a world champion was to relax - relax at the wheel like my boyhood hero Stirling Moss, who sat in his car with his arms stretched straight in front of him holding the wheel - almost as if he were lying down and asleep. Asleep while driving ‘blindingly’ fast. I who had always believed I could do that...

Where did all this start? I know exactly. It started in the circular concourse of Southgate tube station, which I and my brother passed through each day on our way to school. One day, on the way home, at the WH Smith stall where the other boys of my age were already buying a magazine called ‘Health and Efficiency’ (H and E to the knowing), which seemed to be the only banner under which magazines could publish pictures of naked women in those days, or the part of naked women that anyone was supposed to see - at that stall, pointedly ignoring Health and Efficiency, mainly for each other’s benefit, we spotted a large, rather glossy and expensive, landscape-format publication called ‘This Thing Motor Racing’.

Why I should have been attracted to it I can’t really explain. It must have been the traffic incessantly circling on the road outside the tube station, and beyond that, all the traffic of North London, always on the move, engine notes rising and falling, tyres churning the tarmac, feet tentatively or forcefully stabbing the accelerator, the brake, distances opening and closing - that whole, involuntary, universal Grand Prix that was taking place every day, in which we were submerged, from the noise of which we never really escaped, which pursued us into our dreams - now all that was distilled in the cover picture and the few words: This Thing Motor Racing.

So, despite a generally rather frugal cast of mind encouraged by our mother, we bought it, and I, in particular, read it avidly. I can quote from it even now: ‘Stark, slim, and pared to essentials...’ - so it went on about that legendary creature, the Type 159 Alfa Romeo. Despite the fact that I didn’t really know what ‘stark’ or ‘pared’ meant, I could see from the top view of the car that it was an embodiment of total perfection.

Now some people might say that this long, slim, almost tubular machine capable of launching itself towards the horizon like a projectile, the beautiful long blunt shape, was not wholly unrelated in a deep part of the mind of an adolescent boy to the simply more explicit images in the magazine ‘H and E’.

I would not like to comment on that. It may indeed be

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