Car Magazine

The Elephant in the Room

I’ve been reading some Road & Track magazines from the early seventies, and I’ve been enjoying them enormously.  I finally realized that was strange.

After all, I HATE any discussion of politics… so why am I enjoying what, in at least part of every issue, seems to be a running battle between the entire automotive industry, (including magazines) and the US government because of the overzealous, rushed and clueless application of safety and pollution legislation.  There was a war on the automobile in the early 1970s–a war that the automobile ultimately won, but at a huge cost to the consumer, the US auto industry and even, ironically, the environment (lowering smog in the 1970s meant that a LOT more CO2 was released).

Road & Track November 1972

So why in the world am I enjoying these?

To answer that, we need to fast forward to 2020.  Over the past month, I got emails about Black Lives Matter from several newsletters I subscribe to and saw related content on a bunch of websites.  I didn’t open any of those newsletters and I didn’t read any of those articles.

Why?  Am I a racist?

Not at all.  The problem was that the sites (and newsletters) were sports sites, automotive sites, and the SFWA newsletter.  None of these are sources I look to for political news and opinion.  When I’m reading the news, I definitely click on those articles.  But when I’m on your literature site, I will click away if you’re doing politics.  And if you’re a professional organization dedicated to working for writers, I’m not looking for affirmative action from you unless there is a specific case of discrimination, in which case, I’d expect the organization to protect its minority members with the utmost ferocity.  But I’m a member for purely professional and not political reasons. So I didn’t open their Black Lives Matter announcement.  SFWA’s opinion is irrelevant in these matters.

Road & Track April 1973

The thing Road & Track did extremely well in the 1970s is focus on the places where their opinion WAS relevant.  Regulation that affected the auto industry in such a negative way was definitely something I look to R&T for.  Other politics aren’t.

You know which word hasn’t appeared once in any of the magazines from the period I’ve read so far (including the two pictured in this post, which are the most recent I’ve read)?

I’ll let you think about it.

Got it?  No?

OK.  The word is ‘Vietnam’.

Think about that for a second.  Journalists focusing on the stuff they actually know about and giving readers what they want instead of talking about politics.

Our modern everyone-has-to-give-their-opinion-or-suffer-the-consequences society could learn so much about professional journalism and giving people what they want from these guys.

Someday, hopefully, unrelated media will stick to what they’re good at and not publish content no one visits their site to see.  Wouldn’t that be a radical departure?

I, for one, will welcome the day.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer who doesn’t take his own advice.  Probably best known as a science fiction writer, he also writes literary fiction.  His book Love and Death is an excellent example.  You can check it out here.

Weird Imports, Technical Savvy and Bumbling Regulators

As we continue reading through our 1970s Road & Tracks, absorbing the culture of the times and trying to note the differences with today, there’s one thing which truly stands out: foreign cars in the US were often spectacularly unsuited for the market.

I’m not talking here about Ferrari, Mercedes or BMW.  Like today, those factories knew what they were doing, offering a superior product at a premium price.  Likewise, Japanese imports, taking advantage of the weak Yen and effective quality procedures, had a chokehold on the lower end of the market which they only relinquished to Korea in the 2000s, mainly because Japan had more profitable fish to fry (or to fillet and eat as sushi, I guess).

But in 1972, a road test of a Renault 15 was included on the cover.  I assume it was supposed to be a selling point, but it might simply have been for the comic relief.  I can hardly think of a worse car to try to sell in the US, unless it’s a Peugeot 304 or a Saab Sonett (see the other cover).  Simply stated, peopel were much quirkier and individual back then, apparently enough to buy a Saab Sonett of all things.  That’s probably why there were fewer tattoos and personalized iPhone protectors in evidence: people actually had real, as opposed to manufactured, individuality.

Still, though we respect individuals, some of these were really crappy cars.

Road & Track July 1972

Another point of interest is just how much technical knowledge the editors assumed on the part of its readers.  These are mass-market magazines, remember.  Today, while adolescent readers might know exactly how many valves a Lamborghini has, most of them would never know how to gap a sparkplug or how to build one’s own head gasket… but 1972’s readers apparently did.  So the technical analysis of components (tires, for example) and race cars is wonderful.

Road & Track October 1972

Finally, the cluelessness of legislators was once again gleefully put into evidence, as two safety cars with airbags (1972, remember) were put to the test… and failed miserably.  In part due to these tests and also because of the fact that the proposed safety car rules were utterly stupid, that particular initiative was eventually abandoned (sadly too late to save the MGB’s chrome bumpers).

But other legislation went forward.  The clean air act controlled Nitrous Oxides (NOx), Carbon Monoxide (CO) and unburnt hydrocarbons.  I think we all agree that it was a good thing for air quality.

Ironically, however, the same rules meant that cars were getting worse as manufacturers scrambled to meet these massively-quickly applied regulations.  By getting worse, I’m not just talking about things like losing power, becoming more complicated and more unreliable and gutting the Detroit car industry.  Those are actually minor things in the big picture–people just needed to suck up and take it.

The bad part is that fuel economy also suffered, so cars were burning more fuel to get less power and work worse (the reasons have to do with compression ratios and fuel octane, mainly).  When a car burns fuel, one of the INTENDED emissions is Carbon Dioxide.  By burning more fuel, you create more carbon dioxide… so it meant that, until the Fuel Crisis caused regulators to clamp down on economy, the application of the clean air act actually meant that countless more tons of carbon dioxide were released into the air.

Of course, thirty years later we all realized that carbon dioxide, as the main greenhouse gas, was not really a good thing.

The road to hell and all that…

But in 1972 no one knew about those things.  All they cared about was that the suits in Washington seemed determined to extract all the joy from the automobile, preferably to kill it altogether.

I, for one, am delighted that they failed.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer.  His novel Outside also deals with unintended consequences, of the kind that could shatter entire civilizations.  You can check it out here.

A touch of color

We’ve already mentioned that 1971 was an annus horribilis for the  automotive industry and, by extension for the automotive press.  But the automotive industry is mainly composed of hard-headed individuals.  Engineers and designers are not the kind of people to mope about the people who don’t understand an industry trying to regulate it (with, as time taught us, incredibly disastrous results for the industry and for the greenhouse effect).

And they weren’t going to let a bunch of sociologists and clueless regulators beat them.

Road & Track - May 1972

So by 1972, two things had taken root: a stoic determination to survive despite the stupid and the capacity to laugh at the scale of the folly.  When true believers go on a crusade, it is apparently the obligation of engineers to make fun of them (while at the same time showing them that, though their demands are both unrealistic and counter-productive, a good engineer can do anything).

This attitude is reflected in the magazine.  The May 1972 issue wasn’t quite the racing tour de force as the last one we reviewed (when Daytona gets cut to 6 hours, you know it isn’t a vintage year for that race), but it still seemed more optimistic.

One thing that helped was that there was more color inside.  From what I’ve seen, 1972 was a year in which magazines such as this one began to use much more color.  It is still predominantly black and white, but the color is used for more than just advertising space in this issue.

This is interesting.  Color is more expensive than b-w, and yet here is a magazine about an industry under siege using more color.  Why?

I don’t have access to sales figures but I assume that it has to do with the new cars being sold.  Suddenly, a product that was working really well in the 1960s was regulated into a cantankerous, crappy fleet of cars that lasted less, worked worse, broke down more often, and consumed more fuel.  Consumers were probably looking for some way to explain it all, and searching for advice anywhere they could.  So sales were probably way up in this era.

That’s reflected in the content, too.  Car magazines back then were much more technical than they are now.  A typical article from the era is in this may edition, called “No-Camber Suspension” and deals with a new geometry for race-car suspension, explaining how it works in detail.  Consumer-oriented magazines today never do this.  There’s an analysis of rotary racing engines and an in-depth look at the Tecno F1 car (they should have looked deeper: the car ended up being a disaster, but the article, written before we knew that, was optimistic about it).

Most memorable article, however, was not a technical piece but the description of a cross-country trip in a Saab.  In it, Henry N. Manney III describes the sights and sounds of America in a way that truly puts the attitudes, prejudices and style of the era into sharp relief.  It immerses you in the early 1970s in a way that even talk about bumper heights and crappy emissions systems can’t.

People brought up in the last decade might be horrified by some of the things they read here, but this is actually another reason that these are valuable.  They should make young people read them to understand context, and to realize that perfectly blameless people sometimes held antiquated beliefs–even as recently as the 1970s.

Maybe that will help us to stop the kind of people who want to judge the art of the past by today’s very specific and transitory standards.

I doubt anyone will do this, though.  People don’t want context.

But I’ve been enjoying my 1970s immersion enormously.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer from Argentina.  His work spans all genres and time periods, and his most recent book is Jungle Lab Terror, which you can check out here.

…but don’t Forget the Racing

We’ve mentioned how automobiles in 1971 were the victim of a concerted attack by politicians, but in reading this huge pile of car magazines, there is more than just gloom and doom and things that make you want to go back to 1971 and slap Ralph Nader around.

There is also racing.

Road & Track September 1971

Yes, that is a Porsche 917 on the cover, on its way to winning the greatest race still around in 1971 (and, happily, still around today).  The regulators soon “realized” that the 917 and its contemporaries were too dangerous to compete (of course, that would assume that people were somehow forced to drive the things instad of the reality, which was that the real drivers were lining up for a chance) and legislated them out of existence, but it hadn’t happened yet.

So we had a glorious Le Mans, and we had the Denny Show in Can-Am with the glorious orange McLarens (Bruce himself had been killed testing one recently, so Denny Hulme was the soul of the team).  These, too, were magnificent automobiles, the likes of which (unlimited except for mandatory roll bars, essentially) we will never see again.  Ironically, the Porsche 917–in a turbocharged 1500 bhp form–and the McLaren would soon cross swords in Can-Am, in what was the greatest example of unlimited auto racing ever seen.

But that was in the future, and the present was glorious enough, something reflected in the coverage.  Apart from Le Mans and the analysis of the Can-Am car, this issue covered the SCCA Trans Am (also in its glory years as ponycars battled for supremacy in the hands of Donohue and Parnelli Jones and others).  Formula One was also traversing one of its golden ages (compare that to today’s boring Mercedes dominance) as Jacky Icxx attempted to wrest the title from Jackie Stewart.

Finally, this magazine contains an article that has become a classic, a piece entitled “The Empty Bleacher League” by Allan Girdler.  It describes a small Midwest Auto Club and its races, and makes you want to join right now…  the problem being, of course, that I forgot where I left my time machine.  Probably in 1812 or something.

Anyway, a good counterpoint to what was happening to road cars at the time.

Interestingly, this was the most butchered of all my 1971 R&Ts.  Not only were the classifieds missing, but also a couple of articles, the Isotta Fraschini Salon (which I do regret) and the road test of the De Tomaso Pantera (not so much).  The ’72s seem to be in better shape.

Interestingly, the mad clipper didn’t touch the race reporting, which is what makes these magazines worthwhile.  Perhaps he just didn’t know he was living in a racing renaissance.  His loss, my gain.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer who enjoys writing about people and places that most people have never heard of.  His collection Off the Beaten Path is a shining example of this.  You can check it out here.

Heaven, Hell and a Volkswagen Bus

I got a respite from reading the 1970s Road & Tracks in my pile, because I discovered that I had the January 1963 edition sitting there, so I grabbed that one for reference.

Road & Track January 1963

Wow, what a difference a mere 8 years makes.  In 1963, the regulatory madness of the 1970s, the conviction that automobiles were somehow responsible for all of society’s ills were not even in the radar.  Even the cover is gloriously devoid of emissions-controlled subcompacts and features a close up of the Great Pedro Rodriguez on a three-wide starting line (remember when everyone’s front row was three wide?  Me neither, the safety campaigners killed it before I was born, leaving only Indy to hold the torch).

The prevailing attitude in this era was sensible and had  a recent world war to put things in perspective: Storming the beaches of Normandy was dangerous, driving Ferrari sports cars wearing an open-faced helmet was fun.

The 1963 issue, edited by the immortal Dean Batchelor (the Hot Rodder, hero at Bonneville and El Mirage) was reflective of that joyful era (I hear the 1960s were famous for things other than cars, but let’s concentrate on the important stuff for now).  Racing coverage, auto show articles and even an analysis of the entire Formula 1 grid.  Only one article was about a small car, and that one, the Austin 1100 was about a car with a very novel suspension system, a technical first which, though not adopted by everyone, worked very well.

Of course, the world, sadly, moved on from the sixties and, as dictators say when facing the war crimes tribunal, mistakes were made.  In the US, those mistakes apparently included siring an entire generation of people whose sole concern was… concern.

Deeply concerned individuals wanted to make certain that everyone was safe enough to satisfy them, and that anything unregulated should be subject to government oversight forthwith.  Remember that this was the middle of the Cold War and that Americans had an excellent example of how to regulate the joy out of life in the Soviet Union.  People like Ralph Nader and many, many others, led the assault on Capitol Hill.

They were probably still angry that prohibition, the greatest experiment in adults imposing their opinions on other adults ever attempted, got repealed, so they were looking for new ways to tell everyone what to do.

We dealt with bumpers (the law passed), emissions (the law destroyed many livelihoods and American Motors, and caused the current global warming problem) and the second most hated law ever passed in the US, the 55 mph speed limit.

But the forces of darkness never rest and even more evil was being plotted.

Road & Track July 1971

The July 1971 issue of Road & Track opened with the appalling news that a group called Youth Organization Toward Highway Safety (probably a bunch of people who got beat up a lot at school and were out for revenge by destroying any fun on the planet) advised that the following laws should be put into effect.

  1.  Cars should, by law, be limited to 95 miles per hour.  No manufacturer could build a faster car than this for sale to the public.  At all.
  2. Cars should be made 100% crashworthy at speeds up to 30 mph, meaning that the occupants–even without seat belts–should be uninjured in all 30 mph accidents.
  3. each year, maximum speeds should be lowered and crash-worthiness increased until glorious success would be reached when automobiles could go exactly as fast as the speed that guaranteed absolute safety of the occupants.
  4. (this one is an assumption) Much obligatory rejoicing and thanking the party for keeping adults from themselves.  All hail!

Now, a single look out the nearest window confirms that this insanity failed.  How?  I don’t actually know, but I suspect that someone intelligent with a little power heard about this and had the leading members of the group quietly shot.

(Seriously, I know these avenues were pursued, but in the end, the cost of meeting them and the public outcry against yet another attack on their liberty was considered too high a political cost, so common sense, unusually for automotive regulation in the 70s won out).

Of course, it wasn’t all gloom and doom.  The racing scene in 1971 was wonderful, particularly because it was the day of the Porsche 917, one of the most glorious objects ever devised by man.  The January 1971 issue even had a profile on that car’s not-quite-as-successful rival, the Ferrari 512.  So not a total loss, but definitely not a golden age for road cars.

Best article in either of these two magazines, however, was a love poem in prose form dedicated, of all things, to the Volkswagen Bus.  Written by Dick O’Kane, entitled “O’Kane & the People’s Bus”, it is a wonderful, whimsical paean to that most versatile beatnik vehicle, and it really, really brings the “civilian” (as opposed to racing) side of the 1971 mag to life.  After all, not everything can be small, imported cars that struggle with future emissions laws.

And if anyone is keeping score at home, the mad clipper had removed the classifieds and an article about the newest Mercedes SL launch from the 1971 edition.  The ’63 is uncut.

I know you can sleep better knowing that.

 

Gustavo Bondoni’s latest novel is a monster book set in the most dangerous place in the Western Hemisphere, the Darien Gap.  It’s called Jungle Lab Terror, and if you want a thrilling ride, you can buy it here.