Race Cars

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.

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.

Emissions and Wankel Engines

Last time we talked about the huge pile of Road & Tracks I’m reading, we were in 1988, a year in which cars were finally getting better after nearly two decades of regulatory hell.

The next two, the ones I’m going to talk about today, give us the early portion of the crusade to make cars worse.  We will do this by immersing ourselves in two Road & Track magazines from the early 70’s, the January and February 1971 issues.

Road & Track January 1971.jpeg

These are not optimistic magazines, and a good portion of the writing is aimed at trying to justify why, to get cleaner air, you need to burn more fuel.  In a nutshell, the reason for this is that the automotive industry was not technologically prepared for the emissions legislation that was forced upon them.  Do-gooder lawmakers, of course, simply said: “The auto companies just don’t want to invest in this, we should regulate it anyway.”  And they did.

The upshot is that fuel economy went to hell because cars actually had to burn MORE gas to lower emissions (thermodynamics make this necessary).  This means carbon dioxide emissions (greenhouse gasses, anyone?) went up, and contributed to our current global warming mess.  Overeager and under-informed legislators, as usual, proving once again that the road to Hell is paved with good intentions.

Road & Track February 1971

But all of that was in the future.  In 1971, even the extremely well-informed automotive press had no idea what the consequences might be.  Their technical editors were more concerned with whether the internal combustion engine would be viable beyond 1975 when the new laws took full effect.  Yes, that was a real concern.  In the end, as we know, the engine survived, but at a horrific cost to consumers… and now to the environment.

That situation actually gave birth to the most interesting parts of these magazines.  While it’s fun to read about the launch of cars that either went on to make no mark whatsoever on the marketplace or, to the contrary see what the press were saying about vehicles that are now classics, it’s absolutely fascinating to read about the new technology which could power cars if the Otto engine did bite the dust.

The two big alternatives, as seen in 1971 were the gas turbine and the Wankel.  Though the Wankel was, at that time, worse in emissions, it controlled oxides of nitrogen (NOx) better than the internal combustion engine… and these were tougher to engineer out of the Otto engine than other pollutants were for the Wankel.  So maybe…

The most memorable article of this pair is a long piece explaining the Wankel engine.  Good stuff.

Another thing that I enjoyed about these two is that the “& Track” portion of the magazine was much meatier than in the eighties, and it’s wonderful to read about the Can Am as a series that was taking place even then as opposed to looking back at it from our nostalgia as something unique and awesome the likes of which we’ll never, sadly see again.

Finally, the weird notes to my reading.  These mags are nearly fifty years old, so it’s interesting to see what kind of lives they’ve led.  While in decent condition, my copies have had the classified section carefully cut away by some earlier owner as well as one article: a piece about the 1971 Duesenberg replica.  Which is probably the strangest article to remove.  Why that piece, when there is so much stuff about original cars in there? I’ll probably never know.

Finally, the strangest thing of all is that these editions have the price in Swedish Krone on the cover.  That, the UK and US currency.  Why Krone?  Maybe because it was a big market… but no Deutsch Marks, French Francs or Lire… Weird.

All in all, it’s very fun to read these, especially to see what the world was like fifty years ago, and to compare this mature magazine with the early ones where you got maybe thirty pages of articles copied from other publications.

 

Gustavo Bondoni’s latest book is Jungle Lab Terror, a thriller set in the most dangerous place in the Western Hemisphere, the Darien gap.  If you dare, you can buy it here.

Has it really been more than 30 years?

I started reading Road & Track as a teenager in 1989.  That pretty much means that I have a complete run into the 2000’s, but that everything before 1988 was blank.  So I’m filling in those blanks slowly.  I have a few of the earliest ones, and also some 1988s.

I recently found a guy here in Argentina selling a large lot of mainly 1970s and 1980s R&Ts, so I bought them and have finally had the time to read through the missing 1988s (all except for the March issue, which I will have to track down…).

Road & Track - January 1988.jpg

As I have said in earlier posts, 1988 was a vintage year for this magazine.  Firing on all cylinders, hitting their stride, almost mature from a design point of view (that would come in 1989) and with subject matter that actually gave hope.

For non-auto enthusiasts, that last sentence needs a little clarification.  In the 70s and early 80s, the automotive industry was reeling.  Smog controls and safety crusades made the cars mechanically inferior to the ones in 1969 as well as more complicated to work on, uglier and generally less interesting tow write about.  There was a fuel crisis in there, too, so regulators imposed a corporate average fuel economy.  Ralph Nader’s biased and unfortunate Unsafe at Any Speed, published in 1966, was also a factor.

The speed limit was an imbecilic 55 miles an hour.

Many manufacturers closed or left the US market (R&T, being US-based, tended to concentrate on the American scene), AMC died, and even the surviving big three were in trouble.  Economy car companies, particularly Japanese companies who didn’t have a reputation to uphold, did well.  Layoffs abounded.

It was a grim time to be in the car business, even as a magazine.

But by 1988, the industry was recovering, and manufacturers, having gotten a grasp of emissions technology were actually building cars that people wanted to drive again.  Horsepower numbers were rising, convertibles reappeared (Nader must have been distracted, probably off annoying some other industry) and it was a good time to be alive.

Road & Track reflected this.  1988 was a vivacious, optimistic year for the magazine, exuding confidence in the wake of the launches of the brash Ferrari Testarossa, the glorious GTO and F40 and the Porsche 959.  Cars, it appeared, were exciting again.

Over the course of the year, this played out again and again.  Performance cars were given the nod over family sedans.  The first wave of the 4WD revolution in passenger cars was studied.

Life was good.

Good enough, in fact that their standout article of the year was among the ballsiest that I’ve ever seen from a car magazine. In an era when the specialist press was proudly displayed on every supermarket magazine rack and newsstand in the US, they openly re-analyzed the Audi unintended acceleration case and concluded that Sixty Minutes was wrong, sensationalist and journalistically compromised.  While that is often true for Sixty Minutes, it is unusual for a car magazine to shout it out.

Even more unusual is that a magazine conclude that the operators (drivers) were to blame.  While the public was out for corporate blood, having a major media outlet come out and say that the public itself is to blame, essentially because they don’t know how to drive correctly (which anyone who has driven in the US will be unsurprised by), and that the lawsuits should all be dismissed was an act of sheer integrity, not to mention courage.

Things like this are why R&T was the class of the automotive magazine field for decades, and why I still read back issues thirty years out of date.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and all around media opinionologist (he does read or watch the stuff he has opinions about, first, if that’s any consolation) whose latest book is Jungle Lab Terror.  You can buy it here.

Eventually, they Restarted

Last year, I read and reviewed the very first Road & Track Magazine, from June 1947.  Nowadays, it’s a monthly but, like many magazines, getting the first few issues out was a bit of a rocky road.

May 1948 saw the second volume published, so nearly an entire year later.

A

Like the first issue, this one has a lot of material reprinted from other sources.  Photographs, particularly are credited to several other publications.

Additionally, as someone used to reading the fat issues from the 1990s, a Road & Track only 36 pages long is an unexpected item.

As always, these are interesting for their period features and their antiquated assumptions.  But two things make them worth tracking down (and they aren’t easy to find sometimes–this one was an original, not a reprint).  The first is to see how auto enthusiasts of seventy years ago viewed the future, and the second is for those forgotten wrinkles and oddities which, though widely reported at the time, are long forgotten.

This one can be read in one sitting, but it will be a pleasant one in which you are smiling–often nostalgically–the whole time.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose love of automobiles even seeps over to his literary fiction.  It reached the point that his story “August Nights”, included in  his book Love and Death deals with the joy of driving fast and well (among other modern things).  And it’s not the only one where cars are characters.  You can buy the book here.

The Dean of Motor Racing Magazines

I’m pretty sure that a deep love of literature and art is not often corresponded by an equally deep passion for all things automotive, and that whenever I write about cars, some of my readers just skip that bit.

But I wanted to take a moment to talk about Motor Sport magazine, which, like Road & Track (which I’ve talked about here before quite often) is a classic publication that has been around for a certain amount of time.

But Road & Track, born in 1947 started out borrowing articles from established journalists that had made their names in the British motoring press, in Autocar, The Motor and, yes, Motor Sport.

Founded in 1924, and with a green cover that acknowledged its British heritage (green is the racing color for Britain), Motor Sport is one of my favorite magazines, and one of the few automotive publications I read regularly despite having gone through several different editorial directions within the past couple of decades.  It even had a red cover at one point (gasp!).

Why?

Well, for one thing, it focuses on race cars, which are the most exciting part of the automobile kingdom.  For another, it keeps the modern stuff to a minimum and concentrates on the history of racing, which is where the romance and heroics live.  I assume that today’s action will become more interesting as the hidden stories come to light, but right now, all we have are results.

Motor Sport February 2018

A good case in point is the issue I recently finished reading (and which prompted this post), the February 2018 magazine.  This one combines a huge tribute to the late Colin McRae with current (well, from 2018) Formula One news, an interview with Adrian Newey and another with Gordon Murray–probably the two most groundbreaking designers in the past 40 years of F1–plus reports on classic car racing and a feature on Group C.

For anyone with a love for the history of racing, this is paradise.  I won’t recommend that you go out and buy an issue, because I assume that anyone with an interest in motorsport will already be familiar with it.  But on the off chance that you’ve been living under a rock for the past nine decades, go get an issue.

You can thank me later.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose Military SF novels Siege and Incursion have been well received.  You can check them out here and here.

A Small World

Here at CE we’ve looked at hobbies before.  Most notably, we often look at book collecting which may be the first modern hobby, though we do it tangentially by mentioning pretty books.  We also looked at stamp collecting which, in the 20th century, might have been the most popular hobby of all.

One thing I’ve found many traditional hobbies to have in common is that the age of the people who practice them has been creeping up to the point that one of the biggest challenges the organizing bodies (wherever organizing bodies are found) is to get younger enthusiasts involved or risk disappearing.

Book collections and, to a lesser extent, stamp collections, have academic value and are often absorbed by institutions, but other hobbies are at risk.

A good case in point might be scale modeling.  It’s a kid’s pastime, right?

Nope.  Not anymore, at least.  Most practitioners are adults with a perfectionist streak, a passion for detail work and access to serious tools, all of which become obvious when you pick up any publication dedicated to the activity.

Scale Auto Modeler - August 2004

I recently picked up an issue of Scale Auto Modeler (August 2004) and read through it.  Though I’m not detail oriented enough to ever consider entering a model in a contest, I enjoy building a scale car every now and then, and I’m good enough at it that my non-modeling acquaintances think they’re store-bought expensive handbuilts (the secret is, of course, shiny paint).

So I loved reading this one, but I see where a novice would be scared away (I always shake my head that, to get decent results at a contest level, you need both proficiency with an airbrush and a reliable source of compressed air, both of which can be daunting for someone who just wants to build a little car).  I also notice (see the cover) that the subjects most admired by the target audience (I assume that the editors know what they’re doing and that the magazine is adequately targeted) tend to classic vehicles as opposed to more modern expressions.

There’s a good and a bad side to this aging of the customer base. On one hand, older consumers are wealthier, and the hobby does seem to be in robust good health, with truly expensive kits dominating the landscape.  On the other hand, of course, model builders aren’t getting any younger.

I imagine a lot of “crafty” pursuits are in a similar situation as the current generation spends more time immersed in intangible virtual worlds and wonder if they will ever make it out.  If you’ve read my novel Outside, then you know one way I think it could end.  There are other takes.

Anyway, for a writer, it’s all grist for the mill.  There are countless story ideas in these situations.  I just need to make time to write them all.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer.  Outside, mentioned above is a novel of both warning and hope.  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 Decade of Growth that Ended Horribly

Le Mans 1930-39 - Quentin Spurring

Le Mans 1930-39: The Official History Of The World’s Greatest Motor Race is certainly an impressive title.  But this is an impressive book.  It’s a race-by-race, team-by-team and car-by-car chronicle of what I consider to be the best race in the world, and while I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it to the layman, it does go well beyond the pure racing aspect and give a glimpse into the lives of the characters behind the race.  (If you want to see my review of the first book in the series, it’s here.)

In today’s world of polished multimillion-dollar (or Euro or Yen or Yuan) operations with corporate backing, the colorful character is all but absent in many aspects of motorsport, especially in po-faced F1 paddocks.  Le Mans is, to a certain degree an oasis where millionaire playboys right out of a Sidney Sheldon novel still drink champagne well into the small hours, but even this paragon of individuality can’t hold a candle to the way it used to be.

In the thirties, the cast of characters included rich boys, yes.  But it also included rich girls in numbers never seen before, backyard mechanics, British Nazi sympathizers, a slew of Italians who’d moved to France to escape Mussolini, the might of Hitler’s industrial complex and, of course, hundreds of thousands of wine-drinking spectators (those are still there).

With that volatile mix of people–has there ever been a more interesting case of such mixed social and political beliefs coexisting peacefully even while trying to beat each other?–the races themselves became almost a backdrop to the characters.

Almost.

This is Le Mans, and even when everything around it is a circus, the race forces you to take it seriously.  Heavily-favored cars break down.  The glorious Alfa coupe retires from the lead.  People die.  Others celebrate.  For a day, the outside stuff is forgotten, reduced to noise.

But eventually, the race ends and you have to get back to real life.  And when the 1939 race ended, it would be another 10 years before the next was run.  Quentin Spurring reminds us gently of what was to come, telling us that this or that race was the last for one or another of the drivers.  Especially powerful were the mentions of men who fought or flew in the War to come, or, in the cases of Robert Benoist or William Grover-Williams, men who joined the Resistance and where executed for it by the Gestapo.

Ignore the spoiled, millionaire crybabies of today who count a sprained ankle while training their greatest fear (witness the halo on F1 cars).  Racing drivers should be lions, men who live outside of society’s timidity and who, when the occasion calls for it are capable of great acts of courage, even outside the cockpit.

The best part of this book is probably that it reminds us that this is what they once were.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer.  His latest novel, Ice Station Death is not likely to help him win the Nobel Prize for Literature… but it is guaranteed to entertain.  You can check it out here.