Rams, prangs and automobiles - early drivers' extraordinary encounters

Article date: 17 September 2012

  • A hundred years of Aviva claims reveal how the hazards of the road have changed

Rutting rams, startled horses, and drivers’ widespread inexperience are among the chief reasons for historic claims unearthed by the UK’s largest insurer.

Aviva’s archives shed light on a time when there were just 89,000 cars on the road – one car for every 400 people (1911).1 In the early days of car ownership, accidents were actually more common despite there being fewer cars on the road. There was one accident for every 14 vehicles in 1930, the first year statistics were available. Today the figure is one for every 222 vehicles2 with almost 30 million cars and motorbikes on the road.

Rutting rams, highly strung horses and the odd elephant
Claims dating back to 1911, when there were 3.2 million horses in the UK3, outnumbering cars by 36 to 1, show the convergence of animals and the new four-wheeled wonder causing some strife. Claims include:

  • A farmer who claimed after his horse died from shock at the sight of a passing motor car (1911)
  • A well-polished van that came under siege from an aggressive ram which mistook its own reflection to be a rival male and butted the side of the vehicle (1953)
  • A horse that ate a car’s rear lamp (1957)
  • A car whose softtop covering was destroyed by a horse found nearby ‘chewing with a very satisfied look on his face’ (1956)
  • An elephant from a passing circus reaching his trunk through a car window in search of food, eating the driver’s lunch, and smashing the windscreen in the process (1934)
  • A delivery van that crashed into a ditch due to the panic caused by a mouse running up the driver’s trouser leg (1954)
  • A car that crashed after a cat leapt onto the driver’s head. “This action and the cat’s claws digging into my head, made me lose control of the car and I collided with a lamppost” (1954). And overseas, a lion crawled into the back seat of a car for a sleep, then proceeded to rip apart the interior when the claimant drove off and woke the lion (1955).

Motoring marital strife
It also seems the freedom granted by the dawn of widespread car ownership led to some tricky situations between the sexes. Mothers-in-law in particular are mentioned on numerous claims including one claimant who, when asked about the purpose the car was being used for at the time of the accident, said: “collecting my mother-in-law to stay with us…which perhaps should not come under the heading of pleasure purposes” (1966), and another saying “For pleasure. Attending mother-in-law’s funeral.” (1956)

However beware a woman scorned, as one wife cancelled her husband’s claim, leaving him to foot the whole bill, when she realised that the two witnesses to his accident were women he had met that day in Eastbourne. “In so far as he had not satisfactorily explained to me how he happened to be entertaining two strange young ladies on the Sussex Downs at 10:30pm, I am not troubling to claim.” (1932)

Bygone days
As cars became more affordable and common, it was not just animals who struggled to cope with the novelty of widespread car ownership. One driver cancelled his insurance in 1955 after his first foray in to motoring ended in disaster saying poetically: “the tortured metal of the engine…has scattered itself broadside about the roads of Buxton. In view of this I am retiring disillusioned from the field of modern mechanics and returning to the faithful friend of man, the horse with four legs.”

In another claim, a car in Scotland was damaged by a tide of neeps (turnips) after a farmer loaded a trailer with the vegetables at the top of a sloping field. The trailer bounced down the field, jumped a low wall and crashed into the front of the car. Drawing a sketch on the claim form to illustrate the incident, the claimant went so far as to indicate which turnip in particular did the damage. (1965)

The lack of familiarity with the car also had a dangerous side, with one injury claim from a man who had “struck a match to endeavour to discover a petrol leak.” (1938)

Rob Townend, director of motor claims at Aviva, said “The motor industry has undergone a huge change in the past century, from a time when owning a car was the preserve of the very rich and seeing one would be a rarity, to the modern day where there is almost one car for every two people. While there were fewer cars on the road back then, fewer road laws and less experienced drivers meant the chances of being involved in an accident were much higher.  These historic claims really illustrate what a steep learning curve both drivers and pedestrians faced.

“Despite being less prevalent, accidents with other drivers are still the most common motor insurance claims,  so whether it’s for a ram butting your vehicle or a bump in a car park, it pays to make sure you have the right cover in place.”

Aviva’s archive also reveals that among those insured4 were King George V, US presidents Kennedy and Eisenhower and Hollywood actress Merle Oberon. It also insured the original Chitty Chitty Bang Bang car from the 1968 film.5


1 From Licensed Vehicles by tax class Great Britain from 1909 www.dft.gov.uk/statistics?orderby=title&post_type=table&series=vehicle-licensing-parent-series VEH0103

  • 1909 cars and motorcycles – 89,000 - 53,000 cars and 36,000 motorcycles
  • 1962 cars and motorcycles – 7,343,000 - 5,776,000 cars and 1,567,000 motorcycles
  • 2011 cars and motorcycles – 29,919,200 - 28,608,100 cars and 1,311,100 motorcycles

2 From DfT Reported Road Casualties Great Britain 2010 http://assets.dft.gov.uk/statistics/releases/road-accidents-and-safety-annual-report-2010/rrcgb2010-complete.pdf PDF (1,579KB) p 191

3 www.bhs.org.uk/About_Us/Equestrian_Statistics.aspx

4 Insured by General Accident, one of the insurance companies which now make up Aviva.

5 Insured by Norwich Union, which was rebranded Aviva in 2008.

If you are a journalist and would like further information, please contact:

Aviva Press Office: John Franklin  
Telephone: +44 (0)1603 680795
Mobile: +44 (0)7800 692110
Email: john.s.franklin@aviva.co.uk

The Wriglesworth Consultancy: Louise Weaver / Hugh Murphy    
Telephone: +44 (0)20 7427 1400
Email: l.weaver@wriglesworth.com

Notes to editors: 

Aviva provides insurance, savings and investment products to 43 million customers worldwide.

We are the UK’s largest insurer with over 14 million customers and one of Europe’s leading providers of life and general insurance. We combine strong life insurance, general insurance and asset management businesses under one powerful brand. We are committed to serving our customers well in order to build a stronger, sustainable business, which makes a positive contribution to society, and for which our people are proud to work.

We are ranked as one of the UK’s top 10 most valuable brands and Aviva plc is in the top 10% of socially responsible companies globally in the Dow Jones Sustainability World Index.  In 2011 we invested £5.3 million into our UK communities. One in three of our employees were involved in community investment activities which included giving nearly 33,000 hours. 

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