Road & Track

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.

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.