I had an interesting comment on my Facebook page in response to my blog about two Porsche 911s for sale in Hong Kong: an American said that the cars weren’t very desirable because they are right-hand drive. Not if you live in the USA or another country where cars drive on the right, perhaps, but in other parts of the world, having the steering wheel on the right is, of course, the best place for it, as the cars drive not the left side of the road. According to Wikipedia, 66% of the world’s population drive on the right, and the remainder on the left.
The fact that some parts of the world have traffic flowing on one side of the road, and other parts the other side, is a subject that’s long fascinated me and, it seems, that there remains some mystic as to why this should be.
The usual reason given for Britain driving on the left is that back in the days when people travelled by foot or on horse, it was customary to kept to the left when passing people coming the other way, as this allowed you to defend yourself using your sword-wielding right hand. It seems that the same protocol was observed in ancient Rome and Greece, for the same reason. In 1835, it became law in the UK to drive on the left.
So with that being such a logical reason, why does a large proportion of the world drive on the right? It’s often claimed that Napoleon forced French troops to keep to the right when passing so that they would be different to the enemy (the British) and the French leader was himself left-handed. That seems unlikely to me but the fact remains that much of mainland Europe travelled on the right of the road, and I’ve yet to hear a good explanation for it.
It was another diminutive leader that ensured that all of mainland Europe became a right-hand driving continent. Before Hitler came along, some continental countries drove on the left, and some on the right. Indeed, I remember seeing an AA guide book from the 1930s that warned that you had to be careful driving through Austria, as different regions of the country had different rules as to which side of the road you had to be. If Hitler did one good thing, it was to establish a standard right-hand rule throughout mainland Europe. When the Nazis occupied the Channel Islands they insisted that the locals there drove on the right but they reverted back to the left side after the war ended.
North America is another area where vehicles drive on the right and, here, there is a sound explanation. When the British ruled much of the area, traffic travelled on the left, for the reasons stated above, but by the late 18th century, much of the country had switched sides. This, apparently, is because of the use of large wagons driven by teams of horses. The driver of these contrivances sat on the rear left-hand horse so he could control the other horses with a whip held in his dominant right hand. He would prefer to pass other vehicles by keeping right so that he had ensure he was keeping clear of their wheels. In effect, then, these were the first ‘left-hand drive’ vehicles.
Many countries that were part of the British Empire, such as Australia, New Zealand and India, adopted the home rule and drive on the left, although Canada switched over to be in sync with the USA.
Famously, Sweden changed from driving on the left to the right in 1967 and it has been suggested that the UK should to be in line with the rest of Europe. The logistics of doing this, though, would be near impossible.
With regard to Porsches, a few years ago buying a left-hand drive example was a cheap way for British people to enjoy Porsche ownership. Indeed, I brought a lovely left-hooker 964 over from Germany (that’s a picture of it at the top of the page). Since then, though, exchange rates have changed and many of the left-hand drive Porsches that came to the UK have been snapped up by Germans, often profiting their English owners. Annoyingly, I sold my left-hand drive 964 too early for this!