History

Hitting its Stride – R&T’s Vintage Year

Let’s go back in time to 1988.  Why?  Just because I happened to read a couple of car magazines from that year (I promise to get back to the normal, more literate style of this blog in the next post, but today, we’re doing car mags again – here, here and here are the earlier installments of this series) and I wanted to keep my thoughts about them more or less all together before I forget what I was going to say.

It’s one of the prices of getting older, but aging also has its advantages.  I get to look at thirty-year-old magazines and judge them with a future perspective.

So, 1988.  I read The final pair of mags in my pile: Road & Track Exotic Cars: 7 and the regular monthly magazine from September 1988.

Road & Track Magazine September 1988

The first thing one notices is that the two mags appear to have been designed by two different graphics departments.  The monthly magazine feels very much a product of the eighties, while Exotic Cars looks forward to the nineties, a departure from the earlier installments in the series, which looked much more similar to the magazines.

The Exotic Cars series was one of Road & Track Specials, which explains the discrepancy, a series that was run by Thos L. Bryant, the man who later–as from January of 1989–became the editor of the regular magazine.

This one was, nostalgia aside, much better than the early installments of Exotic Cars.  The selection of cars was mature, the design was excellent, and the writing engaging.  It was a solid effort which was easier to read than its predecessors.

Road & Track Exotic Cars 7

The regular magazine looked a little dowdier, but that impression only lasts until you flip open the front cover.

Once you do that, you are transported to different world.  Not the world of 1988, though.  Road & Track in the late eighties bore little relationship to the universe of Gordon Gecko and the Coca-Cola Wardrobe (remember that piece of eighties awfulness?).  Instead, you’re almost transported to the Scottish moorlands somewhere around 1975.

This might not have been seen as a good thing in 1988, but it’s certainly wonderful reading these old pages today.  The words flow comfortably, and the reading never becomes a chore.  It’s a warm pleasure from cover to cover, like conversation with an old friend.  It was literally one of the most pleasurable reading experiences I’ve had in a long, long time.

Of course, in the eighties, warm and fuzzy was on its way out and, as I’ve mentioned, December 1988 was the last month under John Dinkel, the man who edited this issue.  The January 1989 issue had adopted the design of the specials and looked bang up to date.

The writing, however, was still essentially the same.  It would take a few years to iron out the quirkiness that made 1988 a vintage year.  Bryant was an excellent editor who brought the magazine upscale while keeping its personality alive.

So, for some time, we lived in the best of both worlds.  And I was luck enough to be thirteen in January of 1989…

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose most recent book is entitled Ice Station: Death.  You can check it out here.

Exotica Continued

Last week, we looked at the beginning of Road & Track‘s Exotic Car Specials.  As you’ve probably surmised from our long-running project to watch the 1001 films you must see before you die, in order, we don’t do things halfway here at Classically Educated.  So today, we continue the Exotic Cars series with numbers 3 and 4.

Road & Track Exotic Cars 3

Our main criticism of 1 and 2, read so close together was that the editors seemed to be severely limited in the menu of cars they could choose from, which caused some repetition.

This is also true, to a much lesser extent in volume 3, although it’s clear that the editors made a conscious effort to minimize the effect.  They began to add German tuner cars, which I suppose is reasonable, but also included a couple of sedans that, even though they were a Mercedes and a BMW, I’m not entirely convinced qualify as exotic.

A lot of what is good about this issue has more to do with the fact that they had two new Ferraris to discuss, which is always a boon to people putting together a magazine dealing with exotica, than to the efforts of the staff…

Nevertheless, a hat must be doffed to whoever decided to include the Morgan (probably Simanaitis) and especially to the lunatic who decided to road test a Lola race car modified for street use.

The result, though still not quite mature, showed signs of steering the series in the direction that I remembered from my youth.

 

Road & Track Exotic Cars 4

In volume 4, the process extends even further.  Despite the inexplicable fact that the Maserati Biturbo, a car that was later reviled by almost everyone (I like it, but I think I’m the only one) was included again, making it a perfect four-for-four in these magazines and the head-scratching decision to include a Ford Scorpio, this one is the best yet.

Even though they didn’t have any major launches, the editors managed to juggle the usual suspects, mixed in with tuners and obscurities like Marcos and TVR to create a well balanced issue that is the best of the lot so far.  Another good decision was to drop the Road Test section.

But beyond the critical discussion of what is good and bad about these magazines, the fact that, just after the fuel crisis of the late seventies, and in the midst of regulatory upheaval that was making cars worse each year instead of better, Road & Track had the balls to launch a magazine celebrating cars whose only purpose was to go fast, look good and be enjoyed is laudable.

And among todays rash of humorless responsibility where any display of excess or wealth is frowned upon, these magazines are a joyful reminder that life exists to be enjoyed.  These cars are an expression of that fact, and should be celebrated, even if only by reading magazines devoted to them more than thirty years ago.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine writer best known for his far future science fiction novel Siege.  You can check it out here.

Exotica!

On Wednesday, we looked back at the very first Road & Track magazine.  It was an interesting start to a publication that later became an icon in its field, and if I can find the second volume, I’ll be having a look at that, too.

But in the meantime, I’m moving through a stack of Road & Track publications and came across the first two volumes in yet another innovation that they tried.  Namely, a Road & Track Special entitled Exotic Cars.

Now, most people wouldn’t have given these mags a second glance if they’d encountered them in a used bookstore, but I have a history with them.  Back when I was thirteen or so, and an avid R&T reader, I came across an edition of this special (I think it was number 8 in the series).  To my teenage eye, it was to the regular magazine what the Big Mac is to a regular McDonald’s cheeseburger (I was going to make an analogy involving the Moulin Rouge and today’s adult film industry but I stopped myself because I don’t want to give too much away about my teenage years…).

It was an object of pure desire, mainly because it held absolutely no news about economy cars or stuff your mother might drive.  It only held cars you lusted after, or utterly hated (continuing the Big Mac theme, those would be the pickles), gloriously photographed and described by people who, like yourself, couldn’t care less about the socially irresponsible message this kind of excess sent.  In your world, cars that went a bazillion miles an hour and cost a bazillion dollars were perfect, and why such a miserable vehicle as the Toyota Tercel existed was a mystery.

Long story short, I bought the magazines, and a bunch of others which I might discuss some other time.

Road & Track Exotic Cars 1

The first of these, released in 1983 was a very nice first effort and showed just how far R&T had come since its humble and unprofessional beginnings.  29 articles showcased 30 cars.  Sure, there were a few road tests culled from the pages of the magazine itself, but, for the most part, the articles were pure celebration of exotics with gorgeous color photography (most of the regular magazine was black and white in 1983).

I’d give this one near top marks for a first effort, and apparently the market responded well, because a second volume was soon to follow:

Road & Track Exotic Cars 2

This one landed on newsstands in 1984 and it was a mistake.  A beautifully produced and probably successful mistake, but a mistake.

The reason it’s an error was that, being released a year after the first, the editors had little time to dig for new veins of exotica.  Remember that, 35 years ago, you couldn’t go onto the internet to look up whether some little cottage industry in Denmark was building the vehicle you needed to beef up your magazine.  Also, coming out of the fuel crisis, there were fewer companies building amazing cars.

So there’s repetition… a lot of repetition. Of the 27 cars featured in articles or road tests from the main magazine, fully 14 were either tests of the same car as one that had been featured in Volume 1 or slight variations (perhaps a convertible version or a model-year upgrade) of the same.  Another couple were basically the same car with significant differences, so I didn’t count them.

To be fair, the editors seem to have realized this and created a segment about the carrozerias of the City of Turin, a nice little segment, but it wasn’t quite enough to mask the issue.  They also dug up a couple of new cars and some stuff they’d neglected the first time around… but the sense of “I’ve seen this before” was predominant.

Now, I read these in the space of three or fur days, which is not the way they’re meant to be read.  That year between editions should have been enough for people to forget what they’d read about where and make the content seem relatively fresh… but it didn’t hold up well over the years.

In spite of this, readers apparently enjoyed it and the series continued for several more years.  I’ll return to the subject soon.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose latest book is Ice Station: Death.  You can check it out here.

The Beginning of a Classic Magazine

Road and Track June 1947

Those of us over about thirty years old will remember a time when a lot of our information about hobbies and interests came from reading magazines.  Today, magazines still often give us information that we can’t get online, so imagine how much more we relied on them in the early days of the net or even in pre-internet days.

Those of us that like cars will likely accept that, until fairly recently, Road & Track was the magazine of choice for the most discerning enthusiasts.  On one hand it was had a high-class, globalized outlook with one eye on Europe and Japan, while on the other it also commented on the American auto industry in depth.  In this sense, it achieved the best overview of the world scene… and it was the 500 pound gorilla in the room regardless of whether you were American, European or, as in my case, from  South America.

Yes, magazines like Car & Driver in the US or any number of local mags in Europe might have had more readers in their respective countries… but no one did it better globally.

So it’s interesting to pick up the first ever issue of the publication and see where it started from.

It’s surprising to say the least.

In 1947, many publications were less sophisticated than they are today, but Road and Track’s first issue is…

Well, it’s terrible.  You could tell they put the thing together on a shoestring and grabbed whatever articles and pictures they could find.  A nationalistic technical article by the great Laurence Pomeroy kicks it off–impeccable credentials, but the article itself was useless–and then a hodgepodge of other things, including a race report of a very minor hillclimb, the description of a foreign car dealership and a few photos.

These last are interesting, especially as they include pics of the Wilmille production car, but the overall effect gives the impression that they knew the starved postwar audience would pay for any kind of content, and grabbed what they could get, published it and called it an issue.

Interestingly, the mix of street and race cars continued into the 21st century… and probably contributed enormously to the publication’s success… interesting to see that it came about almost by mistake.

BTW, if you’re interested in seeing it for yourself, these mags are still pretty reasonably priced on Ebay and similar, and the first few issues were reprinted in facsimile editions (keeping everything, including the original advertisements, which are wonderful windows into the time), which makes it even cheaper to study a piece of history.

I’ll be looking at a few more of these over the next couple of weeks, as I find it interesting.  Hope some of you will come along for the ride.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer.  His novel Outside deals with the possible ultimate consequences of the current transition from physical media to digital…  You can have a look here.

A Tale of Two Lions

A couple of years ago, I read one of the most delightful nonfiction books I can remember: A Gentle Madness by Nicholas Basbanes.  So it was with enormous pleasure that I began his second major volume.

Patience and Fortitude by Nicholas Basbanes

Patience and Fortitude, as most people are aware, are the names of the two marble lions that guard the entrance to the New York Public Library, which makes the title of this book particularly apt for what turned out to be (I intentionally avoided reading any synopsis) a history of the evolution of the library in the Western world, told in Basbanes chatty, anecdote-sprinkled style.

As with the first Basbanes book, I found this one engrossing.  It has the advantage that it deals with a subject that has a much wider appeal than insane book collectors but, at the same time, loses a little bit of the charm that the quirkier topic brought with it.

Nevertheless, it’s a wonderful volume which, in a mere 550 pages, gives you an overview of how ancient knowledge was stored and replicated and reached us, as well as telling us what a modern library looks like, and the issues facing it in the future (as seen in 2001, when the book was published).

It’s a good one, and it’s portable size allows one to read it anywhere but, for my money, the best book about libraries I’ve ever read is still this one.  Kinda hard to lug around on the subway, though.

I’d say the Basbanes is the right volume for those who’s like to read character-driven history of libraries.  The Campbell – Price for those who are a bit more visually oriented.  Both are wonderful, so don’t chose one or the other, buy them both and enjoy them.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer.  The plot of his thriller Timeless centers around a book and an ancient monastery, but it still manages to avoid resembling The Name of the Rose in any way.  You can check it out here.

A Key Link to Modern Art

Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes

In 2012, a major traveling exhibition of Caravaggio’s work was shown at Buenos Aires’ Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes.  It was entitled Caravaggio y Sus Seguidores (Caravaggio and His Followers).

I didn’t go.

But a few years later, my wife was given the catalogue of that exhibition, a beautiful heavyweight, glossy volume, as a gift and I tossed it onto my to-be-read pile, thinking it would probably be interesting.

Now, most of you will likely be wondering of what possible interest the catalogue of an exhibition I didn’t see could possibly be.  It’s a valid question, but the truth is that here at CE a) we like art and b) we like books, so it was a no-brainer.  Even if I hated it, I would at least have learned what it was like to read an auction catalogue.

Caravaggio y Sus Seguidores - Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes

I didn’t hate it, though.  Quite the contrary.  The book was a fascinating collection of essays on several topics.  The first was a biography of the painter himself, the second a discussion about the works, both by the man himself and by some of the painters who followed his innovative footsteps.  Finally, the volume closed with a history of pre-8th-century art in the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes.

In a nutshell, Caravaggio was a fascinating figure both as an artist and a person.  He was involved in duels, murder and dissipation, and he spent his later years on the run from the law (an interesting situation considering his high profile).

Of course, it was as an artist, not an amateur murderer, where he made his mark.  His combination of chiaroscuro technique (of which he was a pioneer) with psychological realism (which wasn’t to be imitated until centuries later) was utterly new at the time, and broke all kinds of ground.  This is why the collection of his imitators / followers–even though he never had his own school–is so impressive.

So that’s what the book was about, and yes, it was mostly new information.  But what really jumped out at me from the text was the awful difficulties presented in attempting to assign attribution to unsigned paintings four hundred years old with gaps in their history.

A good chunk of the text is devoted to explaining why a certain painting is presented to us as being by a particular painter, often despite centuries of attribution to another.  Apparently imaging techniques that came into use in the past 30 years or so have rendered many of the expert opinions of the past obsolete.

Now the text was pretty dry, but reading between the lines, I imagine that the arguments back and forth are pretty heated.  Will they turn murderous, the way Caravaggio’s often did?  I hope not… but with so many of the people involved being Italian, I imagine passions will run hot and tempers will flare.

Another body or two could only add to his legacy.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer whose latest novel is a thriller entitled Timeless.  You can check it out here.

Casting a New Light

I live about forty blocks from a street named FitzRoy.  A lot of streets, places and geographical elements in Argentina are named after old Robert, as well as his boat (called the Beagle) and passenger (some guy named Darwin).  It’s not particularly surprising, considering that all three made their names in large part because of the time they spent exploring the waters around Argentina and Chile.

Most people will assume that Charles Darwin was the most interesting character on those particular voyages, and perhaps they are correct–he’s certainly the one whose effect on popular culture (not to mention religious controversy) has been most pronounced…

this thing of darkness by harry thompson

And yet, the critically acclaimed novel This Thing of Darkness, by the late Harry Thompson, makes a compelling case for the naval officer Robert FitzRoy as the most interesting man aboard.  Certainly, he comes off as a man whose honor could never be besmirched, and a modern man in some regards.

Of course, in other ways, he is also portrayed as a man of his times (the first half of the 19th century), especially in certain inflexibility and in his religious outlook.  Nevertheless, his character in this book makes one question the silly postmodern conviction that being an officer and a gentleman is somehow a bad thing.  If there’s one thing the modern world could use more of it’s people like Robert FitzRoy.

Apart from casting FitzRoy in the role of the Hero–deservedly so–the book is notable for making a six-year-long voyage of hardship and unspeakable tedium read like an action/adventure romp.  While Thompson probably took large liberties with the characters of the men involved (and delved into their minds with unbridled imagination), he also created a page-turning novelization.

Does he commit the crime of superposing his modern views on some of the characters and events?  Sadly, yes (judging the actions of the past by the standards of today is, of course, imbecilic) but he does TRY to avoid it, even if he’s not completely successful.  As a result of this effort, we gain a picture of this time as a moment in history in which scientific observation was in a life-and-death struggle with the philosophical status quo that had guided man through the enlightenment… and that means that Thompson succeeds where so many other modern writers failed.

This is a good book.  It will make you yearn for the age of exploration and seethe at the injustice of the colonial system, but most of all, it will keep you reading.  Also, it will teach you a bunch of stuff you didn’t remember about Darwin’s voyage.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer who also explores historical times.  His novel The Malakiad is a romp set in ancient Greece which… well, let’s just say it isn’t exactly based on facts.  You can check it out here.

Aristocracy… The Natural State of the World?

Madame Le Guillotine

In 1789, a bunch of people in France decided their nobles were a bit too tall and began shortening them by use of the guillotine.  A little over a hundred years later, bored Russian intellectuals raised an army and killed off the Romanovs for want of anything better to do (the above might be a slight simplification of actual historical events).

In both cases, the earlier aristocratic way of life was wiped off the map, supposedly forever.

Of course, by the time of the Russian Revolution, the French had replaced their aristocracy with captains of industry who drove enormous motorcars and drank expensive champagne and made the court of Louis XVI look like a bunch of unwashed yahoos (all right, the French are always unwashed, but you know what I mean).

I suppose that if one takes a socialist view of things, you could say that it’s only natural that the capitalist society born of the Industrial Revolution would spawn gross inequalities, but that would also be a lie.  If one looks at the Soviet state a few years later, one would find the same inequalities between the Party elite and everyone else.  Within the limits of the disastrous Soviet economy–communism is not a system that motivates people to generate wealth–there existed an aristocracy.  Sure, they had crappy cars and their Dachas were not particularly sumptuous, but compared to everyone else, they lived like kings.

And the pattern is repeated everywhere.  Among every single group of humans whether living in free market economies or closed systems there arises a group that everyone else envies, that has more stuff than others, or access to a more enjoyable form of life.

French Life in the 1930s

An aristocracy in all but name.

Why, though.  Weren’t aristocrats supposedly a cancer on society that the countless revolutions were aimed at eradicating?

Supposedly.  But reality says that the revolutions only succeeded in changing the names, not the structure.  There is still a tiny portion of the world that has all the fun while everyone else is on the outside looking in, resentment growing day by day.

And this is why I never listen to the people who argue for the redistribution of wealth on a global scale.  They’re ignoring every lesson history has ever taught, and expecting everyone else to blithely ignore them as well.  Of course, fanatics always have a “Yes, but that was a special case” argument, but when every single time turned into an exception, one begins to suspect that those exceptions are actually the rule, and that the utopians are a bit misguided.

So, instead of spending our time trying to give the wealth of the planet to a completely different minority group, I propose that the readers of Classically Educated dedicate their lives to hedonism and itellectuality.  You can’t see the flaws of the world through the bottom of a bottle, and, as Blake said, we should open the doors of perception (the substances you use for that purpose are your own business…).

I know this isn’t my greatest insight ever, but one needs to understand that it’s Monday morning, and you can’t expect too much.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist whose latest book, Timeless, has a lot of hedonism wrapped up in the trappings of intellectuality (a romantic thriller hinging around a book written by a monk is almost the definition of that combo).  You can check it out here.

The Golden Age of Speed

Used book stores in Argentina are a hit-or-miss proposition when it comes to books in English.  On one hand, since most people are much more proficient in Spanish, a lot of places don’t bother to have a decent stock of books in other languages but on the other, since Argentina is way off the beaten path of English-language collecting (it’s not Hay-on-Wye by any stretch of the imagination) and since there was a huge influx of immigration from Britain in the second half of the nineteenth century and first half of the twentieth, it’s still possible to find interesting and odd (as opposed to valuable) books in the piles.

The Book of Speed

One of my more recent discoveries is a book of essays entitled The Book of Speed (the one in the image isn’t my copy–mine is moth-eaten and ragged and the dust jacket is long gone).  This one is a compilation of essays by notable celebrities of the time, including men who broke the land and water speed records, such as Malcolm Campbell and George Eyston) and airplane manufacturer Geoffrey de Havilland (paternal cousin of Olivia, who acted in the screen adaptation of Gone with the Wind and countless other films).

But the true fascination is that the book was compiled in 1934, which comes through beautifully in several aspects.  The most notable, perhaps, is the innocence with which German vehicles such as the Do.X flying boat are describes as technical marvels by this British book.

The second is the style of writing, in which the British Empire is still a palpable character and in which there is a delightful mix among the men writing the book.  Some are military, some are from the aristocracy, and some have pulled themselves into the text by their bootstraps–but all are treated equally as experts in their field.  It was a time of transitions, but one where the old ways were still alive and well.  It’s extremely easy to see, just from reading this book, why the loss of Empire hit Britain so hard: the way of life that was lost truly did have some exceptional qualities that modern life can’t begin to approach.

Book of Speed - Speed in Modern Warfare Chapter

That glory of living, the gusto for human advancement comes through loud and clear, but it isn’t the central tenet of this book.  That would be the search for going ever faster and, ironically, destroying the leisurely pace of life they don’t even know they’re celebrating.  Unbeknownst to them, and unlike other books that serve as an elegy to the same era, the authors of this book are describing the very things that ended the way of life they’re talking about.

Speed is everywhere: on land, in the air, on the water.  Trains, planes, automobiles, ocean liners, war boats, Zeppelins–each has its place in the text.  And the photos serve as a fascinating backdrop.  Most pictures from this time period are either of war (especially things like the Spanish Civil War) or of the buildup to war, so seeing the civilian side is amazing.

It’s certainly worth the fifteen dollars or so a demolished copy would set you back on ebay.  If you want a high-quality example, you may need to budget many times that.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine author whose most popular book is the far-future novel Siege.  You can check it out here.

Hitler’s Last Gamble Brought to Life

Tiger Tank

The Battle of the Bulge is one of the most legendary actions of WW2.  It might not be up there with the D-Day landings, The invasion of Poland, the Siege of Stalingrad or the attack on Pearl Harbor, but it’s definitely in the second tier, and, like all the rest, many misconceptions about it survive.  I know I certainly didn’t know all that much about the details–to me it was always just about German Tiger tanks in a snowy forest demolishing numerically superior allied forces.

The truth is more complicated, of course, so we return to WWII to have a look.  Now, for those who’ve been following this blog over the years, WWII means film and excerpts from Stacy Danielle Stephens’ excellent novel-in-progress, but today we turn to a nonfiction book that aims to be the definitive record of the Battle of the Bulge.

Ardennes 1944 - The Battle of the Bulge - Anthony Beevor

Now, whenever someone says the phrase “definitive history” in my presence, I’m immediately assaulted by a sense of utter ennui.  Definitive means exhaustive and authoritative, and that usually corresponds to boring.

But Anthony Beevor’s book Ardennes 1944: The Battle of the Bulge, is anything but boring.  It’s a nonfiction book–an exhaustive, authoritative nonfiction book–that reads like a thriller.  The real people depicted are shown in much the same light, with their strengths and weaknesses, heroism and foibles, as would be the characters in a novel.  The effect it electrifying, and keeps you turning the pages to find out what happened next.

Of course, there is a lot of detail.  Anyone reading this will learn a lot that they never knew–or didn’t remember–about these cold days in 1944.  You’ll also be reminded that war wasn’t just about soldiers prancing around in armored vehicles–civilians were often caught in the crossfire, and played ambiguous roles as well, both as victims of atrocities and willing or unwilling accomplices to one side or the other.

Finally, the book places the battle of the bulge in strategic context with regards to the rest of the war and explains how events on the Eastern Front, as well as in the Pacific Theater created the conditions for a tremendous battle.

It is a complete book – history and entertainment in one convenient package.

Recommended.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine author.  He is the author of Incursion, a novel of interstellar war played out over centuries.  You can see the novel here.