automobiles

The Aerovette… Again

Hindsight, of course, is proverbially infallible. But I had to smile when, in February 1977 Road & Track put the mid engined Aerovette on the cover, stating unequivocally both there and in the copy of the relevant article, that the mid-engine Corvette, so long a design study would absolutely be coming out this time.

We now know, of course, that the mid-engine corvette was not the 1980 fourth generation car but the 2019 C8 (eighth generation for those who are keeping track at home), so R&T was right to predict it… and they only missed by 39 years.

As a science fiction writer, I really feel for anyone who tries to predict the future, but at least I’m doing fiction, and I invent or extrapolate my scenarios. These guys are supposed to be journalists who transmit information from auto industry sources to an avid, enthusiastic public.

And with the mid-engine Corvette, an excess of enthusiasm might actually have been a significant part of the issue. Not so much on the part of the readers but of the journalists themselves. The men who wrote for Road & Track in 1977 were car guys who really, really wanted the mid-engine Corvette to happen. Many of them died of old age before it did.

The rest of the magazine was also interesting seen through modern eyes for an unusual reason: it linked to a couple of recent-ish movies. Rush was represented by the fact that the final GP of James Hunt’s championship season is reported here. And then we have a Ford v. Ferrari link in the fact that Ken Miles’ R1 MG Special is the Salon feature (in Road & Track parlance, a Salon is an article about a significant historical automobile). Nostalgia for auto racing in its romantic age (already close to dying in 1977) means that these old magazines are fun because you can compare the reality with the Hollywood versions (in this sense, Rush is much more realistic than Ford v. Ferrari).

A good, if perhaps not great issue.

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose attempts at predicting the future are on display in many places, most notably in his novel Outside, which showcases not one but two very different futures for the human race. You can check it out here.

Scale Auto Again

A year ago, I looked at the scale model hobby in general, via (as usual) a look at a publication in the field. Seeing how many car magazines I read, you should probably not be surprised that the main magazine for my own modeling is Scale Auto Modeler (even though I do sometimes build planes, just because I like planes).

The June 2019 issue of the magazine is a special one because it’s an anniversary edition in which the editors look at models with a 1979 (year of the first issue) theme. This, of course, is fun, and it’s something one can do with the basic kits (as seen on the jeep on the cover) that depict cars that existed in that year, or go a little more advanced and modify a kit of a different car year to make it appear like a car from 1979 (as the Corvette conversion in there).

My favorite part of scale modeler is actually a column that appears every month entitled “bench Racer” in which a specific race car is built from components meant to either build a different version of a similar car, or a slot car body or something completely different. In this particular issue, we get part 1 of a conversion of a ford into an SS1100 jaguar racer… which is interesting indeed.

The other part I love is the contest section where photos of kits presented at different contests are showcased. Again, this is specific to me, as I don’t necessarily build kits to obsess over details and expand my knowledge of swear words in every language (although building them allows one to do both) but to look at them once done. The contest page allows me to look at pretty kits that other people have gone nuts over.

So reading one of these is a lovely break from more weighty literature… even if it does cause one to suddenly need to find one’s kit in progress and try to advance, thereby learning new Anglo Saxon words when balked…

Still enjoyed it, though.

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose collection Pale Reflection might be the ideal introduction to his writing. It’s both idea- and character-driven and explores the similarities between people that can only be seen when they get into weird situations. You can check it out here.

This is where I came in

December 1975. A good month, if only because I was born in it (well, a good month for me, anyhow). Of course, the December 1975 issue of R&T was probably not published in December, landing on newsstands sometime in November, and it certainly didn’t report stuff happening in December. But it’s still, to a certain degree, “my” issue.

Starts off with a good cover for me. No econoboxes on my month, but no overly ostentatious exotica, either. Just a weird, one-of-a-kind concept car that was too strange to build more of. Sounds about right to represent me, so I’ll leave off the analysis and dive into the mag.

As an old-car enthusiast, I found the article on the 25th Anniversary of the Pebble Beach Concours D’Elegance to be a wonderful piece, especially since it speaks to the origins of the concours which is still going on 45 years later. Delightful.

The rest of the issue also worked for me, as Road & Track went the interesting cars route for this issue, eschewing the more mundane stuff your neighbor was driving in ’75. So Alfas and Maseratis and Porsches (lots of Porsches) instead of Fords and Cadillacs.

A side note when talking about the competition pieces is that this is the issue where R&T reported the death of Mark Donohue. If this hadn’t been the December issue, this post would have dealt entirely with Donohue, who was truly a one-of-a-kind driver. He raced, retired and was miserable out of the cockpit, so he returned and was killed in an F1 practice. Knowing just how bad his life was without racing, maybe it was for the best… but the sport lost a beloved ambassador and a man equally at home developing race cars as driving them. The hole he left is still felt today.

Other than that, the racing coverage was amazing, which ended up making me think that the good folks at R&T built it especially for me.

They didn’t, of course, but who’s going to take away a newborn baby’s fantasy?

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose latest book is a fast-paced action adventure romp with genetically modified monsters. Fun from page one. You can check it out here.

The Perfect Snapshot of the Automotive Seventies?

Science says that people who apply stereotypes are right most of the time, but modern culture has assigned a stigma to using it for analysis purposes, so I feel a little bit guilty at stereotyping the seventies in a certain way. And yet, it’s nearly impossible to feel that the October 1975 edition of Road & Track magazine doesn’t represent the decade perfectly.

It’s possible the date has a lot to do with it; it’s hard to get more centrally located, temporally speaking, in the decade than late 1975.

But there are other things. For example, the Panther De Ville has to be the most 1970’s vehicle ever created. It cost Rolls-Royce money when new… and people bought them.

But there’s more to the seventies than random pimp-mobiles. There was also racing and, as anyone who knows anything about Hollywood is aware, the seventies were about Nikki Lauda and James Hunt. So it’s fitting to see that the two winners of Rob Walker’s race reports were… Lauda and Hunt.

Also, an art car created by Calder to run (weakly) at Le Mans? That should qualify as well (and it links to our more usual interests around here). As should the cover: the Chevette was considered a great car and there was a Formula 5000 inset. That could only be the seventies. And there was talk of regulation and safety and emissions.

So if you only pick up one 1970s Road & Track to try to understand the automotive decade, you could do much worse than to choose this one.

Gustavo Bondoni’s latest book is a monster book that could serve to define the monster genre in the early 2020s. After all, Test Site Horror contains genetically modified beasts, rogue scientists working semi-officially, Russian special forces troops and investigative journalists under fire. What more could a monster book need? You can check it out here.

The Glory of Lella Lombardi

The July and August 1975 Road & Tracks continue the line we’ve been seeing in the 1970s, although I will admit that the writing is a bit more inspiring than in the earlier 1970s issues. How much of this is due to the fact that the regulatory excess had stabilized and how much was due to the simple fact that the writers were happier as automotive engineers began to get a handle on the stumbling blocks the legislators had put in there is not something I can elucidate on.

But one person simply took over the two magazines… even though it was probably unintentional.

The July edition contained a long article about Lella Lombardi, a female racer who had just gotten a Formula One drive for the 1975 World Championship season in a March. No one was expecting too much in the first year, both due to her inexperience and the fact that she wasn’t in a top-line car, but her simple presence, the first woman in nearly two decades to drive at the top level of motorsport, made her a significant character and someone worthy of a profile.

Not only that, but her presence inspired another article in the July issue: a review of the greatest female drivers until 1975. And yes, there were many and some were great, even in the early days of motorsport when driving was for seriously strong people , regardless of gender.

And then, in the August issue, serendipity struck. In the chaotic, tragic Spanish GP of 1975, a race marked by attrition and very few finishers (halted before the halfway mark and therefore only awarding half points), Lella Lombardi finished sixth, gaining half a world championship point.

To this day, these are the only points ever won by a woman in the Formula One World Championship.

And in 1975, that made put Lombardi among the greatest female drivers ever even though she probably wasn’t objectively as good as some of the giants that blazed the trail for her.

In 1975, no one knew that the greatest female driver in history was already contesting a few European rallies and entering the 24 Hours of Le Mans in a minor all-female entry. Michelle Mouton would come within a hair’s breadth of winning the World Rally Championship by taming a fire-breathing Audi. She won four rallies against the men, cementing her position as the greatest woman ever to sit behind the wheel.

And since then, no woman has managed to come close to her achievements. Danica Patrick came closest but, despite having top-line equipment, she only one a single race in her entire career and never on the world level, always in the US.

So our hats are off to Lella, a pure racer who is still unique in history.

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose book Timeless is about another strong woman, a journalist who follows her story to the very last consequences–even at the risk of her life. You can check it out here.

Econoboxes on the Cover

When you think of cars in the 1970s, it’s likely that you think of the kind of Detroit iron that cops would drive in the movies. Squarish Fords of some kind, and not small ones, either.

But the truth is that the mid-seventies, post fuel crisis is when the American love affair with the automobile ended with a regulatory and socially-responsible thud. Much like today, this was an era that frowned upon the fun and the frivolous.

The era’s most lasting contribution to humanity? The econobox, that wonderful combination of low-performance, small size and low-driving-pleasure mitigated only by low cost and better fuel mileage. The social engineer’s dream car.

Of course, automotive engineers being what they are (wonderful enthusiasts at heart), the econobox soon grew offshoots into the world of pleasure, but the only clue to that brighter future was the green VW Golf on the cover. Though this wasn’t a sporting Golf, it was nimble and fun… and great things were to come with something called a GTI in short order.

As if to balance out the econoboxes (Consumer Reports couldn’t have done a better job of getting boring cars together), there is a boatload of motorsports content in this issue, everything from going to the Daytona 24 with the BMW IMSA team to the start of the 1975 F1 season…

Overall, a frightening cover, but a good read.

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer whose latest book, Test Site Horror, continues his success in the monster genre (and he hopes it is as critically well-received as his previous efforts in the category). This one is about a herd of prehistoric killers released into a valley in the Ural Mountains and the men who try to avoid getting killed by them. You can check it out here.

Starting off 1975 nice and varied

As it’s the year of my birth, I entered my reading of the 1975 R&Ts interested to see what was happening in the automotive world, and the first two magazines in my pile of 75s, March and April, did a good job of that.

The first piece of welcome news was that the Energy Crisis was over, and some of the more outlandish legislation was being revisited–at least in Europe. Speed limits were being returned to slightly higher levels and Germany went back to unlimited highway speed, which is logical considering that it was proven that most of the reduction in road deaths during the crisis months had little to do with reduced highway speed limits. In fact, an interesting article in one of these magazines highlights the fact that, even with the unlimited speed limit reinstated, Germany had the one of the highest reductions in road deaths.

Unfortunately, the US ignored the data, bowed to those who went with their feelings and retained the imbecilic 55 for another two decades in one of the dumbest examples of the tyranny of the majority ever seen. But the editors of the magazine didn’t know that at the time, and the text was rife with hope that sanity, as opposed to parsimonious big-brotherism, would prevail.

Another interesting thing discussed in these issues was the Bricklin, a now-forgotten safety sports car that attracted plenty of attention in its day and then sank without a trace. The first drive here gives a few good reasons for the debacle… and the nice thing about 1970’s automotive journalism is that there’s little need to read between the lines: the build quality and some of the design decisions were utterly awful.

In other news, this was the era of the launch of cars that would become juggernauts (the VW Golf) and cars that were heralded as the next great thing and sold really well, but are now reviled (the Triumph TR7).

And they’re the years of Porsche coming to maturity. After being the enfant terrible of the racing and production car circles for years, the company now had to navigate a fuel crisis while selling only expensive sports cars and also wait for the top class of GT racing to evolve to the point where they could truly compete against others.

We now know that the 935 was coming, but Porsche didn’t, and they were understandably nervous. And yet… the tiny company always took up an amount of space in the pages of this magazine that is truly disproportionate to its size.

These two make a good ’75 sampler.

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose latest book is an entertaining romp through the Ural mountains… which have become infesed with genetically-modified monsters. Test Site Horror has everything for both the horror lovers and the thriller enthusiasts among you, and you can check it out here.

Death and Rebirth – The 1950s at Le Mans

Le Mans is my favorite auto race. It competes for that position with the Indy 500, but it wins because it’s an entire day on a long, challenging, character-filled track. Yes, the chicanes on the line droit des hunaudieres are a travesty and those who approved them in the 90s should be retroactively shot… but even with that, it’s a beautiful thing. I’d love to see it in person someday.

So Quentin Spurring’s wonderful decade-by-decade look at the race, including the organization, each entrant and the events of the race itself, represent my absolute favorite piece of nonfiction reading. I like these even better than the Collector’s Press Horror/Science Fiction/Fantasy of the 20th Century series, and that’s saying a huge amount.

The 1950’s are not my favorite Le Mans Decades (those would be the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s), but Le Mans 1949-59 is a truly wonderful book anyway. The best thing about it is that it dedicates few pages to the 1955 accident.

For those of you who are new to this, that race is infamous because a Mercedes 300 SLR driven by Pierre Levegh crashed on the pit straight, got airborne and landed in the crowd, killing the driver and 84 spectators.

Cue the immediate overreaction in which several countries banned motorsport outright. Most countries saw how ridiculous that was almost immediately–only the dorky Swiss still insist on keeping the ban around.

Worse, however is the fact that so much ink has been spilled, all the way to the modern day, about that crash, as if it was a difficult phenomenon to explain. Essentially, it can be summed up in a few lines–in an era where speeds were increasing faster than most people expected, and crowd protection was laissez-faire, to put it mildly, something like this was in the cards. To a certain degree, considering that a lot of races were still run on open roads with people wandering in to see race cars capable of nearly 200 mph flashing past, it’s unfair that it happened to Le Mans.

Unfortunately, it did, and the French, to their credit, ignored the initial overreaction, corrected the public safety issues and went on with the race the next year.

What I love about this book is that the 1955 race report is not about the accident. It’s about the race and the drivers and the cars, which is how it should be. The accident is given its own section, much smaller than the race report proper. It was an important event (the deadliest motor racing accident in history, and a real tragedy), so ignoring it would have been just as bad as giving it too much space. Spurring got the balance exactly right.

Which is pretty much what I’d say about the rest of the book. It’s a hefty tome with a lot of minor teams and entrants profiled, yet it never bores the reader because there’s always something interesting about every last entrant… and I can’t even imagine what kind of research was involved in getting that data on obscure teams.

When you remember that this decade represents the rebirth after the destruction of WW2, one can only be thankful the race survived, and came back stronger than ever.

Anyhow, I can’t recommend this one to the general public because I fear a lynch mob as much as the next man. But if you’re a motorsport enthusiast, these are not only indispensable but fun.

Get them. Read them. You can thank me later.

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose latest book is a monster romp through the Darien Gap. It’s fun, too, and the title is Jungle Lab Terror. You can check it out here.

Closing Out 1974

We continue our run through 1970s Road & Tracks. Though I don’t have all of them (will fill gaps once I get through the current pile and have a good handle on which ones I’ve got), 1974 was a very full year (just scroll through the older posts to see the ones I’ve been reading).

But now, with the November and December issues, it’s a year we’re closing. To be honest, it’s a great way to end the year. The covers have a McLaren sports car (unlike the new ones, this one never went into production) and a Ferrari GT. Much better than econoboxes and downsized Detroit barges.

There’s actually a reason this happened towards the end of years for R&T back then, and that’s because road tests of cars for each model year were performed towards the beginning of that year so consumers could evaluate a car they might want to purchase before the new models started arriving. With the loss of the yearly model changes (think ’57 Chevy vs. ’58 Chevy to understand what I’m talking about), this has become less critical today.

In the mid seventies, next year’s cars were also a problem. Due to regulatory overzealousness, each successive year’s vehicles were heavier, slower, less fuel-efficient and uglier than the previous year’s crop. So getting late road tests was a real problem.

By the time November and December rolled around, there were no more consumer-relevant vehicles to feature, so one could go out and do track tests of road vs. race Ferraris for the cover, or feature the only road-going McLaren available to the public until the F1 debuted over twenty years later.

That hedonism is much more fun than dreary socially-conscious drudgery…

The one concession to the times was an article about electric motors which pretty much was summed up by the phrase: electric cars are fine for short distances, but destroy your capacity to move long distances in the way you’re accustomed to doing.

I’ve seen that California will mandate zero emissions vehicles in the next couple of decades which might mean (unless things change) that driving across the country will be a thing of the past for the citizens of that particular state. If that freedom is removed, then the US will need to remove “the land of the free” from any communication. Any country that includes a state that legislates away its citizens’ capacity to drive across the country cannot call itself “free”.

Anyway, next report will be from the wild confines of 1975, which is a special year for me… because I was born in ’75!

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose novel Incursion starts off with a suicide mission in deep space that gets even more complicated, and soon becomes a desperate battle against an unexpected enemy. You can check it out here.

A Great Man in the Old Tradition: Rob Walker

I was recently in the US and bought a couple of issues of Road & Track on the newsstand. They are slim things, quite glossy but devoid of the dense content that made magazines worthwhile in the past. I suppose they’re a victim of the mania for online stuff, but people in the future are going to have cause to regret this generation’s lack of taste in media, as they won’t be able to delve into the past in the same way that I have… and if you’ve ever tried to recover content you saw once on a long-gone website you’ll understand why this is important in more than an aesthetic sense.

Back in the 1970s, however, this things were different and magazines were not only the principal way for people to get information on their interests, but they were rich enough to be able to afford contributors who were not just great, but memorable.

We’ve already mentioned Henry N. Manney III here, but there’s another colossus of the motoring industry who was writing for Road & Track in the seventies (and was still doing so when I came in in 1989, and remained on the payroll for some years afterwards). That man is Rob Walker, and as I read the October 1974 issue above, I realized that I had to talk about him.

And now it’s time to admit something painful. As a thirteen-year-old reader of Road & Track who hadn’t intentionally missed a live Formula One race since I discovered the sport in 1983, I had no idea who Rob Walker was or why the fact that this man was writing the F1 race reports was a privilege which put other publications to shame.

But I found out.

Briefly, Walker was the heir to the Johnny Walker distillery fortune, and he used some of this money to become the most successful private entrant in the history of F1. Imagine winning the lottery and buying a car from one of the teams today… and using that car to win several races with drivers the likes of Stirling Moss or Jo Siffert at the wheel. Well, that is exactly what walker did. (it speaks to why F1 was also much better back then, but this isn’t a rant, it’s a celebration).

Better still, Walker was a apparently good guy, which meant that he got invited to the parties, which, in turn, meant that his prose is rich with anecdote and detail. As a teenager, I was hooked, and now that I’m reading his work in the 1970s, it gives me a look into how R&T became the top automotive publication in the world, to the point that a random teenager would pick it off a newsstand in Argentina in 1989. Walker is a huge part of that. I don’t think the magazine could ever have achieved its status as the class of the field without that man writing F1 reports. They are, reading them fifty years later, perfection… and again, I hope there are similar reports of today’s races being produced in hardcover somewhere, because if not, people in fifty years are going to hate us.

Best of all, though, is the fact that Walker was a gentleman in the traditional sense of the world. Rich enough to know that life exists to be enjoyed, but educated in the liberal old British way that informed him that the enjoyment is to be shared by all, without regards to class or economic level. He is the epitome of what a gentleman in the 20th century should be–and what so few managed.

The fact that he resembled Ken Tyrrell is, of course, unfortunate, but no one is perfect (both Rob and Ken were nearly so, so the fact that they had imperfections to deal with is only fair).

As a car nut, I would have loved to live his life… but he was more than just cars, and that comes through in his writing. A truly great man in all meanings of the word, and the kind that the world would be better of having more of today.

Gustavo Bondoni’s fiction has appeared in hundreds of publications. His debut novel, Outside, extrapolates the current trends in digital civilization to their logical conclusion–and is also a rousing tale of love and hope. You can check it out here.