Road & Track

Welcome to the 1980s – Everyone’s Favorite Bad Hair Decade

I’m pretty sure that everyone who loves cars or freedom will have breathed a huge sigh of relief when December 31, 1979 rolled into January 1, 1980. The decade of ignorant knee-jerk overregulation was over. Sure, the regulation was still on the books but engineers are smarter than regulators, so now that the frenzy was past, they could start making cars better and faster again.

(Ironically, the July 1980 cover below proves that they didn’t always get it right, and few wheeled objects have ever been as ugly as the Aston Martin Bulldog).

Fittingly, April 1980 Road & Track had a huge article describing the evolution of the 1970s emissions and safety regs. The irony was that they still didn’t know that the regs forced in during the 70s were going to destroy the US car industry while simultaneously making the emissions of greenhouse gases much worse than they would have been otherwise (CO2 was not identified as problematic until later). This one made for really interesting reading, as it showed how government can be easily prodded by a few motivated bureaucrats looking to extend their own power, guided by a few special interest groups (any resemblance to today’s world is not coincidental).

The other memorable article was a Henry Manney piece about a Land Speed Record attempt by a Budweiser-sponsored jet car. Entertaining stuff.

The July issue was the one with the Bulldog… and despite the awfulness of the cover car, this was a good issue. Plenty of racing and vintage stuff to balance out the industry news and road tests. Best article, though, had to be the story by Rob Walker talking about the cars and motorcycles he had in the war years, in between doing some truly dangerous stuff. Seeing the way he glosses over his war activities makes you realize why no one was too concerned about the dangers of auto racing in the postwar era: these were men who’d been exposed to much greater risks than just the chance of wrapping your Ferrari around a tree at the Ring.

On a sad note, the Grand Prix coverage showed us the end of Clay Regazzoni’s career, as this includes the Long Beach GP where he was paralyzed. This was a driver that was with us all through the 1970s, and we’ll miss him going forward (weirdly, he was killed in a road crash in 2006 while driving at a considerably slower speed than the crash he survived in 1980).

Anyway, we’re well into the 80s now, and enjoying it. Any moment now, Reagan will be elected, MTV will launch, Miami Vice will go on the air, and we’ll have the true power of that decade giving rise to bewinged Lamborghini Countachs and stockbrokers driving Porsche’s looking to kick some commie butt. While good taste was only marginally more present than in the awful 1970s, at least the bad taste was brash and in your face, with no pretense or toleration for do-goody activism. And though we thought it was all in awful taste back then, a little bit of that attitude would make today’s world a much more interesting place, because we’ve gone completely off the other end… and it’s just as bad, if not worse.

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose latest book is called Lost Island Rampage. And just like it says on the tin, it’s about a tropical paradise infested with monsters. Even the waters around them are infested with monsters… so you have to survive the sea gauntlet if you want the land monsters to kill you. You can check it out here.

Goodbye to the Worst Decade for Cars

Yes, I know the worst decade for cars is still coming. As the forces that conspire against personal freedoms gain traction worldwide, there seem to be ever more people who believe that individually-owned vehicles are some kind of antisocial crime against the masses. Hopefully, the forces of common sense will squash the stupid before it goes too far, but I’m not optimistic. Stupid people outnumber people with common sense by a large margin, so it’s likely that public sentiment against automobiles will continue.

Nevertheless, that is speculation. What we DO know is that the 1970s were the worst decade for automobiles to date. Overzealous US regulators (and the stupid people who just nod along to the buzzwords without ever understanding the underlying issues) managed to pass safety laws that went way beyond the reasonable, making cars permanently uglier in the process. Then, their anti-smog charge ended up favoring global warming by increasing CO2 emissions and lowering fuel economy (to be fair, they thought they were doing the right thing, but they are just legislators, not scientists, and they dropped the ball). Then came the fuel crisis and the imbecility of speed limits on highways. The excuse for the abominable 55 mph was that the fuel savings justified it… but the legislators left it in place even after the fuel crisis passed. It was probably the most hated US law since prohibition. Unlimited European highways used the excuse to impose speed limits for the first time, in a victory by the plodding and scared segment of the population over the dashing and debonair. Sad.

Fortunately, the Germans read the numbers, realized there’s no real safety gain in limiting speeds. So they reversed the stupid as soon as the immediate fuel crisis passed. Autobahns are still unlimited today. The strange part is that one would think the civic-minded Germans would be the first to impose limits on “dangerous” activity… but, on the contrary, the Germans looked at the numbers and ignored unfounded silly little fears.

Anyway, the May and December issues of Road & Track are the last ones from my big pile from the 70s and it’s a bit unfair to blame the entire debacle of the decade on them. The cars here show more of an 80s mentality–remember, engineers are always a few years ahead of the public: they were designing the cars of the 80s while the rest of the world was consuming the products of the 70s.

The cars features in these two show a certain amount of hope. And I think that’s what the world in general must have been feeling as the 70s ended, not just the automotive world. After all, the era over-regulation and excessive government was coming to a temporary end, and people were ready to party, wear big hair, kill off disco (especially this) and rediscover cocaine.

It’s obviously an oversimplification to attempt to find the roots of 80s excess in the automotive landscape of the decade that preceded it, but we’ll do it anyway. What happened to cars in the 70s pretty much made the 80s inevitable, because it was a symptom of larger things in society. It’s pretty clear that the world in the 1970s was gripped in one of its periodic moralist eras in which being too free or not conforming to society’s expectations was to be punished. Unfortunately the society of the 1970s put a premium on safety, security and a lack of ostentation. The nail that stuck out too far got hammered.

That is how the people who come after you decide cocaine is a good thing.

And that is also how you are forever saddled with the most humiliating nickname ever: the Disco Generation. It is a shameful cross that the adults of this era will forever have to bear.

Gustavo Bondoni hates to admit it, but he was actually born in the 70s (the horror). Nevertheless, he has attempted to break away from that unfortunate beginning and has since gone on to write several books, the latest of which describes a fun trip through rural Russia while chased by vicious monsters. Okay, maybe not fun for the protagonists… but definitely fun for the reader. It’s called Test Site Horror and you can check it out here.

Mazda Takes Over

In the early 70s, Mazda was a bit of a curiosity because they were the company that bet earliest and most profoundly on the Wankel engine in the US.

Unfortunately for Mazda, the fuel crisis and the rotary’s reputation for thirst put a serious dent in Mazda’s mid-seventies plans, and the potential dried up for some time as Mazda regrouped and licked its wounds.

But by the end of the decade, the brains back in Japan had crafted a wonderful new strategy: use regular piston engines for the family-oriented cars like the 626 featured on the cover of Road & Track’s March ’79 issue, and use the rotary in the RX-7.

It worked brilliantly. The RX-7 sold like there was no tomorrow, and the 626 was very well received. Better still, the sports car was so good that, in the comparison test that headlined the April 1979 issue, the editorial choice (if not the numerical one) went overwhelmingly to Mazda – despite the presence of Porsche and Corvette, and the fact that the Mazda was considerably cheaper than all the other cars included.

The other notable feature of these two magazines is a huge profile of Mario Andretti right after he became World Champion (and a timely feature it was, too. I’d just been watching Mario holding court at the 2021 Indy 500 and looking incredibly fit and younger than his age).

Anyhow, as the 70s wind down and give way to the 80s, I suppose the cultural aspect of these magazines will gradually give way to purely automotive interest and maybe some memory jogging–I actually remember the 80s!

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose latest book is a creature feature entitled Test Site Horror. If you like fast-paced adventure in which special forces soldiers fight a running battle withe genetically engineered dinosaurs (and who doesn’t) then this one might be for you. You can check it out here.

b+b Scores Two Covers

German tuner / manufacturer b+b is an unlikely company to get two Road & Track covers in a short span of time. They weren’t actually consecutive, though I’m blogging them that way. It’s just that I have the October 1978 and January 1979 issues but am missing the November and December issues between them.

Perhaps late in the year other car companies had already done their major launches. Perhaps it was just a slow period. Perhaps those missing issues were full of major news. Whatever the reason, this must have been a huge boost for a comparatively tiny concern (normally, the smallest company to grace that cover would be something like Aston Martin).

Of the two b+b articles the one about the Cw311, a dream car that eventually became the Isdera Imperator, is much more interesting than the piece about modified 911s (even though the rainbow-decorated silver car must be the most 70s thing ever). If R&T‘s attention is anything to go by the , the Cw311 was taken very seriously in its day, with technical and styling analyses being done by the magazines.

Interestingly, the weirdness didn’t end with the Cw311 in the January issue – there was also a first drive of the Panther Six, a strange, expensive 6-wheeled folly. Perhaps the makers were inspired by the Tyrrells of the previous years.

Fun stuff here included the Salons, which, by now, were in the format I saw in my first R&T‘s: full color and a central spread of the car in question, the competition stories in which Michelin-shod Ferraris were taking on the might of Chapman’s wing-car 79s, as well as one of the most incredible articles to appear in R&T that I can recall: Phil Hill’s reminiscences of what Le Mans used to be like in his day, wonderfully illustrated by Ellen Griesedieck. A wonderful piece and the perfect segue to the coverage of 1978’s edition which followed.

And although the gloom, doom and regulatory stupidity of the early seventies appeared to have passed, it’s interesting to note that there was also a look at alternative engine designs in this day and age, too. The focus in the later seventies was on diesels and turbos… with more hope being placed on the former. Considering that the internal combustion Otto engine is still the best power plant design forty years later, one has to wonder about the energy expended by everyone in trying to dethrone it.

Interesting times.

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose latest book is a fast-paced forest romp liberally sprinkled with monsters and Russian Special Forces soldiers entitled Test Site Horror. You can check it out here.

Familiarity Breeds Happiness

By the summer of 1978, Road & Track was featuring the cars I remember as the ones I loved as a young car nut in the eighties (apart from the ones my family actually owned). These were the ones I could see on the street and the ones that caused me to love cars to this very day.

For example, as kids, we would say to each other: “I saw an MG on the road,” and everyone would immediately know we were referring to a rubber-bumpered MGB. My six-year-old self would never have been able to recognize any other vehicle wearing the octagon badge. The same way, a triumph was a TR7, while a Ferrari was a swoopy wedge (I couldn’t really tell the difference between a 308 (as on the July 1978 cover) and a 512 at the time, and didn’t care – they were both wonderful) or a formula one car.

And Mustangs, a little later in my youth, when I moved from Europe to the US, looked like the car on the August cover. To me, these will always be 1980s cars as opposed to cars of the 70s, even if I know, intellectually, that they aren’t.

In addition, this is the magazine era that got mined for Top Trump cards and their South American knockoffs (which I would purchase whenever I was down in Argentina visiting family).

So, while I didn’t really enjoy the early seventies R&Ts, except for the sport part (the fuel crisis, smog rules and the safety legislation made every mag depressing as we watched awesome cars simply disappear – the social engineers scoring a knockout victory against anyone who simply loved life), these are comforting and hopeful, and I get lost in them without effort. There’s nothing specifically magical about these two in particular (although the Salon of the Renault AX is lovely), but I’m enjoying the transition to the eighties enormously.

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose latest novel is entitled Test Site horror. It’s a romp in the Ural mountains, chased by genetically modified dinosaurs. You can check it out here.

Immortal Silliness, R&T Style

Every year, Road & Track does (or did, I don’t know because haven’t read a recent Road & Track in ages. I have a couple from last year in my enormous TBR Pile, so I’ll let you know how it looks) something called an April Fool’s test.

These tests mostly take the form of putting an utterly bonkers vehicle through the regular road test procedure. Since all the equipment, data tables, etc. are aimed at cars, the whole thing is farcial and the attempts to make things fit intentionally comedic. Subjects over the years have included parade floats, a dog sled team, the Queen Mary, and the Concorde.

The April 1978 issue was no exception, but this one was one of those I’d never seen but already knew about.

In order to understand that last sentence, you first need to realize that I’m not a lunatic (you regular readers int he back row need to stop sniggering, please). I don’t go around the internet investigating stuff that I might have missed from forty-year-old magazines (not even forty year old Playboy magazines). That’s not why I know about this one. The thing is that the editors of Road & Track would often write about the history of their own publication, particularly in the myriad anniversary issues.

Unsurprisingly, the April Fools tests were some of the most fondly remembered, and they talked about the great ones from the seventies as a matter of course.

And this one was particularly oft-cited, probably because it involved several staffers riding motorized skateboards. Henry N. Manney III was the star of the show–as was his wont with this kind of thing in the 1970s, and the picture of the man himself riding the thing wearing armor was an image we grew accustomed to seeing every few years. So finally reading the article was fun.

Other than that, this one bucked the trend for a few too many family cars in the issue and was a fast, fun red with a lot of competition stuff, a decent Salon and the Porsche 928 which was a great car (though it never replaced the 911 as planned) on the cover. The late seventies, apparently, were a good time to be alive.

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer. His latest novel is a fast-paced romp through the Ural mountains, chased by dinosaurs. You can check it out here.

Innes Ireland, A Man From When Racers Were Tough

One of the things that always typified Road & Track was that its pages have always been full of characters. My favorite of R&T‘s writers is the incredibly talented Peter Egan, but there are others who’ve made the pages of the magazine colorful (for example Henry N Manney III) and dignified (mainly Rob Walker).

A third great began to appear in late 1977 and early 1978: Innes Ireland.

In the February 1978 issue of the magazine, the Japanese Grand Prix report capping the 1977 season was penned by Ireland as opposed to Walker. Why? Well, it seemed that two factors were in play. The first was that, with the increasing number of races in the Formula One calendar, Walker’s own packed schedule made it increasingly difficult for him to attend them all.

But there’s another reason, and that was the reason Innes was originally contacted: with the decision of the organizers not to hold the German Grand Prix on the glorious, difficult and, yes, dangerous Nürburgring circuit, Walker, who was a true sportsman, refused to cover the emasculated race at Hockenheim. Enter Ireland.

(Just an aside to say that I absolutely agree with Walker on this one. If a racing circuit is dangerous, you either accept the danger–slow drivers lose their ride very quickly–or find another pastime. Crochet is pleasant, I hear)

And I’d assume that Ireland also tended to agree, but the gig writing for R&T kept him from being a fanatic about it (Walker could afford not to write for magazines – he was heir to the Johnnie Walker empire). Why would he agree? Simple, even in his era (1950s and 60s), which was a dangerous, rough-and-tumble time to be a race car driver, Ireland was a breed apart. He drove for Colin Chapman’s Lotus team in the days when wheels were falling off and drivers were dying in Lotuses (Loti?) in considerable numbers. He will always be remembered for being the man who won the factory team’s first F1 race.

Of course, having been a paratrooper during the war, he probably thought that the danger in a mere race car was laughable. (“This is boring mates, we should spice it up. How about having the organizers lob mortar shells at the leaders entering turn three?”)

And he was an opinionated writer, too, letting you know when someone was utterly slow or when a car didn’t belong on the track with the rest of them. He’d been there. He’d done it. And he could tell the men from the boys and the real thing from the pretenders. I often wonder what he’d think of today’s bunch of whiners.

He’d like Kimi, that’s for sure.

The rest of the issue was standard fare for the day. Getting better than what the early seventies showed, but it’s tough to get overly excited about a mag that features four mid-price coupes on the cover (the 1970s weren’t a good era for mid-priced coupes. The same test in 2000 would have featured stuff that could outrun race cars). They also had a long term test wrap-up of the Renault 5 (called Le Car in the US, for that authentic 70s vibe). I like the 5, but it’s anything but exciting (well, except for the rabid rally cars, but this wasn’t one of those).

Still, incrementally, the magazine was getting more and more modern-feeling.

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose latest novel is a monster-filled romp through the Russian countryside… with special forces soldiers of which Innes Ireland would probably have approved, too. You can check it out right here.

Another Trip Down Memory Lane

Reading these old Road & Tracks is about more than just the automotive history you absorb and the old races you relive. It’s also about remembering things that happened when you were young.

I’ve loved cars since I was old enough to remember. Some of my oldest toys in my parents’ house are old Matchbox cars (well, that and Star Wars figures… and people wonder why I came out how I did).

Even though I was alive (and able to walk) I can’t say I remember the races described in the magazines from the late seventies. The oldest races I remember watching date from around 1983. But I do remember the cars.

In fact, the earliest cars I remember our family having date from this era, a light blue Chevy Nova (brand new in 1979) and a used and yellow Gremlin X. The Gremlin, in particular, gets mentioned a lot by R&T since they were always in favor of small, efficient cars, and the Gremlin is much smaller than pretty much anything else Detroit was selling when it was launched.

But this month’s cover car hit much closer to home.

December 1977’s cover car, apart from the round US-Spec headlights, is one of the cars my family bought when we moved to Switzerland after three Gremlin-running years in the States. Of course it wasn’t called the 5000 there, but the Audi 100. And ours was a medium-dark grey metallic tone. But this is the car I recall from when I was six years old. And it’s on the cover of Road & Track. The other car my family bought after the move was a red Fiat Panda. A Fiat Panda will never, unless something truly unusual happens, appear on the cover of an enthusiasts magazine.

It’s a cool feeling, like having the table next to a celebrity in a restaurant. Vicarious notoriety. And they said nice things about it in the article.

But unless you’re a former Audi 100 / 5000 child, this issue will have little to recommend it. There are a couple of Grand Prix reports by Rob Walker and Innes Ireland (we’ll need to talk about Innes at some point) and quite a bit of other competition-related goodies, but the road-car side is mainly sedans, running the gamut from economy-minded imports to luxury Jaguars, but nothing too hugely exciting.

Still, I’m enjoying the chance to wallow in the seventies (not many of the 1970s ones left before the decade turns) and when the cover car is one I’ve ridden in so often, it’s even better.

Gustavo Bondoni’s latest novel is a fast-paced romp through a monster-infested stretch of Russian countryside. Test Site Horror is available to purchase here.

Speed bumps Happen

Last week, we crowed that yes, the world of Road & Track had, in 1977 finally overcome the gloom and doom and regulatory nightmares that characterized the seventies and was moving into the glorious materialism of the eighties with gay abandon.

And then we hit a snag: the November 1977 issue of the magazine wasn’t quite up to the same standard as the previous ones. This one was–dare we say it?–a bit boring.

Now, if I know my readers, you’ll likely be grinning at this point and saying: “Of course it’s boring. You’re rereading 40-year-old car magazines. What do you expect? Scoops? Thrilling and unexpected news?”

Har, har. Apart from missing the point of why one rereads old car magazines (hint, for the same reason you read yet another history book about WWII or the Harlem Renaissance), there’s a specific reason this one is less interesting than the last few.

Fortunately, this reason actually doesn’t have to do with the regulatory situation or the fact that cars had gotten steadily worse in the early-to-mid seventies. In fact, the magazine, though not scintillating, is brimming with optimism (proving that, given half a chance, real engineers will defeat social engineers every time). It’s simply a matter of Road & Track having to give their readers information about cars they could actually buy after romps through nostalgia and supercars.

Even the cover car was not as fun as some recent ones. Though it was breathed-upon and expensive, it’s tough to get truly starry-eyed about a 1970s 3-series (even the turbo racers seem a little blah to me). Worse was within, with road tests and features about Beetles, the 1970s Dodge Challenger (not the car we think of when Challengers are mentioned, an Oldsmobile diesel, the 7 series Bimmer and front-wheel-drive. These made the mag a bit of a slog at times.

But R&T is always R&T, so the slightly dry parts get peppered with excellent complements. Three grands prix were covered here, an there’s a profile of new writer, Innes Ireland (he was writing half the Grand Prix reports when I started reading R&T in 1989) as well as a look at DeKon engineering. The Salon was a Bentley 8 Liter, in case the seventies trend for downsizing engines got you down. Oh, and the Renault F1 Turbo, the car that was to revolutionize the entire sport… even if no one suspected it yet.

In conclusion, and despite the trudging nature of some of the features, this one proves that, when the industry wasn’t being choked to death, Road & Track is a good read overall. Which is why, in a weirdly adapted form, it’s still alive today (maybe I can find a modern issue at some point to review and talk about the contrasts).

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose latest series is a monster romp in the traditional creature feature sense. The series starts with Ice Station: Death, which you can check out here, and continues to this day. A fourth book is planned for release in 2021.

We can Confirm the Trend Towards Improvement

Last Monday we wondered whether the August 1977 issue of Road & Track was better because it simply collected a few good things in one issue or whether we were seeing the beginning of a trend. Well, if the October issue was anything to go by, it’s definitely a trend.

This is nearly the perfect issue for someone like me. It contains several competition pieces, including a couple of Grands Prix, the annual Le Mans report (Le Mans is my favorite race ever) and even a test of the Mirage GR8, which was a fun car to see tested.

Road cars were good, too. The car that later became known as the BMW M1 graced the cover. Interestingly, the styling was panned in its day, but this is one of the seventies supercars that I would love to have as a daily driver today. It has, to my eye, aged very well.

That reflection brings us (perhaps too neatly) to something that happened in the 1970s that bucked the automotive trend. While we’ve gone on and on and ON about the grimness of the decade for lovers of cars and personal freedom (remember, this was the age where the government decided that everything had to be regulated even if the people were dead set against it… and they went at it with typical bureaucratic glee and cluelessness), we haven’t really spoken about the one shining light in the era: the birth of the Supercar.

Yes, I know the first supercar, the Miura, was from the sixties, but it wasn’t until the seventies that everyone got aboard, to the point that even serious-minded BMW had a mid-engined vehicle in its lineup. This is a wonderful era that gave us, apart from the M1, the Countach, the Berlinetta Boxer, several mid-engined Maseratis. Even junior supercars such as the Esprit, the M1 or the Porsche 911 Turbo were more exciting than anything most drivers had seen before.

Why did this happen in the middle of an outbreak of nanny-state awfulness? Well, probably because the well-heeled, seeing life become so dull under the new regulations wanted to rebel, to make a bold statement that they, at least, were not following the sheep.

In fact, the 1970s supercars could be seen as the preview of the entire decade of the eighties, were individualism again came to the forefront and the greyness of conformity was soundly denounced by everyone from Madonna to the stockbroker next door.

And, in 1977, the eighties were just around the corner.

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose work has been published all over the place and translated into eight languages. His latest collection is called Pale Reflection and looks at the darker side of fantasy lore. You can check it out here.