Auto Racing

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.

The Best of the Seventies? Or a Trend Toward Improvement?

When I read the August 1977 issue of Road & Track, I was surprised to realize how quickly I finished it. At first, I simply thought that might be due to the fact that I’d recently read the mammoth 30th anniversary edition, but soon came to realize that this particular issue is just that good.

The reasons for this are myriad, but I think the most important is that we’re in the late 1970s… and that means that the worst of the decade with regards to legislation and cars becoming utter crap was past. The eighties, a spectacular decade for cars, were just around the corner. In addition to the gloom starting to life, the eighties idiom is one I’m more comfortable with because that’s when I started reading the magazine, so maybe some of that familiarity made this one a breeze.

But mainly, I think the content was responsible. And it starts with a Ferrari show car on the cover. When your idea of fun is to take a styling exercise capable of outrunning everything else on the road and drive it on public streets, it kinda sets the tone for the rest of the publication.

And it actually does work out that way. There isn’t a single boring feature in the entire magazine. No road test of slow family sedans. No technical analysis of tires we can no longer buy. Just performance cars and race reports. The perfect car magazine.

So, we’ll see if this renaissance continues. Stay tuned.

Gustavo Bondoni’s latest novel is an action-packed romp through the Russian countryside while being chased by genetically-modified dinosaurs. And that’s not even hyperbole… it’s the description of the book. You can check out Test Site Horror here.

Back to the Future is Just the Tip of the Iceberg Here

If you like to cinematic ties to your car magazine reading, but are into classic cinema more than the modern Rush, then the July 1977 issue of Road & Track is the one for you.

Starting with the obvious, that prototype of the forthcoming DeLorean immediately makes everyone think of Back to the Future, and makes me wonder if any car has ever been so unbreakably linked to a film as that one. Even people who were much too young to remember the eighties know this, and the young SF fandom still connects (there was a Back to the Future-style DeLorean in the dealers room of the 2019 WorldCon, and still attracting crowds).

But it didn’t end there… and remember that when this issue was printed, Marty McFly was a decade in the future. There were other Hollywood links in this one. Actually appearing earlier in the magazine than the cover story, there was a road test of the Lotus Esprit, James Bond’s ride in The Spy Who Loved Me. You know the one–it’s white and jumps off a pier where it becomes a submarine. The magazine even features an articla about how they made the film and how they built the sub.

The best of the film links, at least from the Classically Educated perspective, is the fact that the Salon story (about an older car) deal with the Napier Railton. Now, most of my readers who aren’t serious car buffs will never have heard of this aero-engined beast, but it’s the car that appeared, suitably disguised, as the record-breaker in the wonderful film Pandora and the Flying Dutchman, which we reviewed here.

So, film star cars, in all their glory.

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer from Argentina whose latest book is a fast-paced monster adventure entitled Test Site Horror. You can check it out here.

Well, They put One of my Two Favorite Ferraris on the Cover

I don’t particularly love cars from the 1970s, but there were some true icons. While Lamborghini was stuck with the utterly awful Countach which only an ’80s stockbroker could love, Ferrari designed it’s two prettiest cars ever.

If someone were to gift me one Ferrari with the caveat that I couldn’t sell it, I’d go for a 512 BBi. But if no 512s were available, the 308 GTB (it has to be a coupe) would be my next choice. These are far from the fastest Ferraris today, and they are far from the most expensive… but they are so pretty. Hell, even the Dino pales before these in my eyes.

So, seeing it on the cover of the December 1976 issue of Road & Track was very cool, as was the comment by Bob Bondurant–a man who knows a lot about Ferraris–that it was the best sports car he’d ever driven. I may need to buy one of these before the price skyrockets, as it eventually does on all cars that wear the prancing horse. They seem to be about $80K today for a reasonable if not perfect one, and they’ll only go up, so that’s my investor tip for the day.

Anyway, this mag was a good one. The 308 article is fun, as is the coverage of the Pebble Beach concours and the Monterey Historics, and the article on the Maserati Birdcage is as cool as expected (coverage of the Birdcage is not as frequent as that around other classic racers). Finally, a paragraph apart for the Penske that won a Grand Prix. As far as I can remember, it’s the last American car to win an F1 race.

So a great issue and overall and a good step towards the 1980s. After the drama of the early emissions and safety madness, engineers were finally managing to make the cars less bad. They still had a long way to make them as good as the cars from before the legislation… but engineers are smarter than lawmakers, so they will eventually win the tug-of-war.

Anyway, a worthwhile issue.

Gustavo Bondoni’s is a novelist and short story writer whose latest book is called Test Site Horror. It’s an action-packed thriller in which genetically modified dinosaurs and indescribable monsters vie for superiority… while a group of people try to stay alive in the middle of it all. You can check it out here.

The Spirit of ’76

All right, so it might not be the best post title for something about two magazines that feature an Italian car and a German-designed ford on the covers. But at least they’re American car magazines edited in 1976, specifically in September and October of that year.

But the title isn’t as misleading as you might think, either. Whenever someone speaks to me of the spirit of the bicentennial as an automotive question, I immediately think of John Greenwood’s Corvette which ran at Le Mans that year. Cartoonish, overdone and the fastest thing down the Mulsanne until the 400 Km/h WMPs (and still one of the fastest things that will ever go down the straight since they emasculated the course with chicanes). The French, of course, loved the thing. Pure spectacle has always had its place at La Sarthe.

One car can’t make a race, of course, so the organizers invited a couple of NASCAR stockers, too. None of these cars would last very long… but it didn’t matter. Le Mans in 1976 will always be AMericanized.

The other interesting stuff in this duo are the Italianate interview of Giorgetto Giugaro, possibly the last master of Italian design and also the Bertone Navajo on the cover.

But the truly huge news was the coverage of the Swedish GP in which the six-wheeled Tyrrells won their only race. Such a glorious vehicle deserved to go out with a win. Everyone who saw them race remembers them (and those of us too young to see them can’t believe they raced them!), just like everyone who heard a Ferrari GP V12 won’t forget. To be honest, in today’s Formula One, there is zero technical interest unless you’re an aerodynamicist and the cars sound stupid. The only interest in F1 is to see if it rains and Max Verstappen can do something from the second row (And I hate Verstappen because his car isn’t the right color… remember that, in F1, there are three types of drivers: arch enemies, field fillers and wonderful drivers in red cars).

But the F1 six-wheelers. Hell, they were far from the most successful of Ken Tyrrell’s machines… but they are the one that everyone remembers.

And they won that Swedish GP. Awesome.

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose work spans every genre except Westerns. Well, that’s not true, he’ll write an occasional SFF Western story. His latest novel is a monster book entitled Test Lab Horror, which follows the adventures of a team of Spetsnaz soldiers as they try to keep a group of civilians alive while genetically modified dinosaurs rampage around them. You can check it out here.

Hearing the Footsteps: Japanese Cars Poised to Take Over the US

Road & Track has always been a magazine for enthusiasts. That means it focuses mostly on cars people who like to drive would find interesting. There are certain corollaries to that, one of them being that the cars they write about might not be large-volume items (the cover of the July 1976 issue below is a good example… very few people buy two-door sports cars). So I’m assuming, with the aid of being more than forty years in the future, that Detroit wasn’t paying too much attention to what Road & Track was telling them.

That was a mistake.

You see, in the mid-1970s one of the thing that R&T found interesting were small cars with good fuel economy, forward-looking engineering and fun handling (to be fair, everything was fun compared to most of the American cars on the road back then).

Detroit, of course, believed that some small cars would be sold, but that people still wanted slightly larger cars. Again, a mistake.

All you need to see the writing on the wall is to read the caption above the picture of the first Honda Accors sold in America. It simply asks: Best Buy in the US?

Though I’ll be the first to admit that, as a child in the early 1980s, I found accords and other Japanese cars to be kind of crappy (but then again, I loved the TR7 as a child, so I might be a bad benchmark. Plus, my dad drove Audis, so my tastes were skewed in that direction), but that was likely because I didn’t have to buy or drive my own cars back then. The truth was that, when each Accord was built, it was better than anything in its price class, and better than a lot of cars more expensive that it was, too. And better than a lot of bigger cars.

That last sentence is what ended up transforming Detroit’s Big Three from a dominant force to just another group of companies competing for the automotive market in the US. Detroit’s big cars just weren’t as good as Japan’s compacts. And they were more expensive, guzzled gas and took up more space.

Worse still, it wasn’t just Honda. Toyota and Nissan were on the same path, and even Mazda was involved in the invasion.

As an exercise to the reader, have a look at the two covers pictured. Count how many references to American cars are made, and how many to foreign ones.

As a final data point, I’ll reveal that the American cars are only there because of two recent racing conversions made of those cars. Very cool stuff, but not exactly the kind of thing you can sell in the millions of units.

If you ever wondered why the US auto market no longer belongs to Ford, GM and Chrysler (and why Chrysler now belongs to Fiat), you have your answer in these two covers. This is where it all started.

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose work spans genres from highbrow literary to creature feature. His latest book is a monster novel entitled Test Site Horror, which follows the adventures of a Russian Special Forces soldier as he tries to keep his team and the civilians in his charge from getting killed by genetically-modified dinosaurs. What’s not to like? You can check it out here.