Auto Racing

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.

The Year of Rush

It’s not often that anything I write about outside the 1001 movies list has wide appeal, much less is something related to a blockbuster movie. But now that I’ve gotten to the 1976 Road & Tracks, I can finally link it to a big film.

You see, 1976 was the year of Rush.

So, it’s fitting that the May 1976 edition has a cover photo showing a Ferrari Formula One car, if not the one that Lauda drove in ’76, at least one that he’d driven earlier. Of course, the race coverage in this one and the June 1976 edition had no idea of the drama that was about to unfold during the season, and Rob Walker limited himself to noting how well the Ferrari steamroller, world champions in ’75 were performing in the new season.

Aligned with the Rush theme of hedonism, the joy of living and the acceptance as risk as a part of life, the June issue was full of convertibles, which is R&T’s way of thumbing its nose at the social engineers of the day, as convertibles were disappearing because many considered them unsafe. Fortunately, the misguided jackasses trying to save us from ourselves didn’t win that battle – you can still buy a convertible in a showroom today.

And the more I spend time in the 70s with these mags, the more I realize that people in that decade were much more concerned with having fun than we are. Now before you tell me that the economy today and yadda yadda yadda, remember that the 1970s were a time of rampant inflation and economic woe (and stupid legislation like the 55 mph speed limit). And yet people were out to enjoy life.

You can see it in the race reports, in the way cars were styled and in the irreverent tone of some of the articles, but mostly, you can see it in the ads. This was a time before people were supposed to hide their preferences, before the mass oppression of society got into everyone’s life. So yeah, cigarette ads on every other page showing people outdoors or living risky lifestyles (race drivers, hang gliding). Bikini-clad models selling carpets, ads for catamarans, weird Dodge Van customizing kits for sale from Dodge itself. Everyone wore bushy mustaches.

Even if the mustaches aren’t your thing, you end up with an image of the seventies being a hedonistic age, and like all hedonistic ages, a good one. It’s hard for me to say this, as I’ve always thought it was a decade that should have been erased from history (and disco, hedonistic or not, definitely should be deleted from the record forever), but I’ve come to understand that the people from back then could teach our dour, moralistic society a thing or two about relaxing and just having a good time.

That sociological trip through the decade might be the best part of reading these old magazines… even though I also love the car stuff.

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose latest novel is entitled Test Site Horror. It follows a Russian Special Forces soldier trying to keep an alluring journalist alive after she bites off a story much too big to chew. Fast-paced and exciting, you can check it out here.

Little and Large R&Ts

The January and April 1976 issues of Road & Track are a study in contrasts, with March being a slimline one of just 111 pages and April being a big block of a magazine of 152. It may not seem like much of a difference, but you can definitely feel the heft of one and the insubstantiality of the other.

The differences don’t end in size, though. There’s also the question of what that extra bulk is used for in the April edition… notably a massive tire test in the tradition of the October 1974 shock absorber test we ignored when we reviewed that issue. That made up quite a few of the extra pages, with some more coming from the April Fool’s test, a Road & Track tradition in which they test some utterly inappropriate vehicle in a tongue-in-cheek way. They’ve done the Queen Mary, the Concorde, etc., but this time it was more prosaic. They simply did a slightly satirical Road Test of a Lincoln limo. Of course, it could only have been written by R&Ts resident wit, Henry N. Manney III.

Other notable features of these two are the fact that the Salon article (the Salon is a traditional feature of this magazine which showcases a classic car) was the first I’ve seen which had the format I fell in love with in the 1980s and 1990s – a full-color article highlighted by a double-page photo. Running into that made me very happy.

The other major thing going on was the runup to the first Long Beach Formula One Grand Prix. First, they ran an F5000 race (article by that man Manney, again) which, being a rousing success, paved the way for the full grand prix cars to come later. It’s a major item as they became one of the few countries to hold two Grands Prix in the same year.

Of course, there are more similarities than differences – both are 1970s R&Ts after all, but it was interesting to note the differences. I’ll keep everyone posted as to how things go in the rest of the 1970s. I know you’re all sitting on the edge of your seat waiting for this…

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and shorts story writer whose latest book is a creature feature entitled Test Site Horror which, as the title gently hints, is about bad things happening where people played with the wrong kind of experiments. Some of the bad things happen to bad people, some to good people, and most involve large monsters. It that sounds like something you’d enjoy, you can check it out here.

This is where I came in

December 1975. A good month, if only because I was born in it (well, a good month for me, anyhow). Of course, the December 1975 issue of R&T was probably not published in December, landing on newsstands sometime in November, and it certainly didn’t report stuff happening in December. But it’s still, to a certain degree, “my” issue.

Starts off with a good cover for me. No econoboxes on my month, but no overly ostentatious exotica, either. Just a weird, one-of-a-kind concept car that was too strange to build more of. Sounds about right to represent me, so I’ll leave off the analysis and dive into the mag.

As an old-car enthusiast, I found the article on the 25th Anniversary of the Pebble Beach Concours D’Elegance to be a wonderful piece, especially since it speaks to the origins of the concours which is still going on 45 years later. Delightful.

The rest of the issue also worked for me, as Road & Track went the interesting cars route for this issue, eschewing the more mundane stuff your neighbor was driving in ’75. So Alfas and Maseratis and Porsches (lots of Porsches) instead of Fords and Cadillacs.

A side note when talking about the competition pieces is that this is the issue where R&T reported the death of Mark Donohue. If this hadn’t been the December issue, this post would have dealt entirely with Donohue, who was truly a one-of-a-kind driver. He raced, retired and was miserable out of the cockpit, so he returned and was killed in an F1 practice. Knowing just how bad his life was without racing, maybe it was for the best… but the sport lost a beloved ambassador and a man equally at home developing race cars as driving them. The hole he left is still felt today.

Other than that, the racing coverage was amazing, which ended up making me think that the good folks at R&T built it especially for me.

They didn’t, of course, but who’s going to take away a newborn baby’s fantasy?

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose latest book is a fast-paced action adventure romp with genetically modified monsters. Fun from page one. You can check it out here.

The Glory of Lella Lombardi

The July and August 1975 Road & Tracks continue the line we’ve been seeing in the 1970s, although I will admit that the writing is a bit more inspiring than in the earlier 1970s issues. How much of this is due to the fact that the regulatory excess had stabilized and how much was due to the simple fact that the writers were happier as automotive engineers began to get a handle on the stumbling blocks the legislators had put in there is not something I can elucidate on.

But one person simply took over the two magazines… even though it was probably unintentional.

The July edition contained a long article about Lella Lombardi, a female racer who had just gotten a Formula One drive for the 1975 World Championship season in a March. No one was expecting too much in the first year, both due to her inexperience and the fact that she wasn’t in a top-line car, but her simple presence, the first woman in nearly two decades to drive at the top level of motorsport, made her a significant character and someone worthy of a profile.

Not only that, but her presence inspired another article in the July issue: a review of the greatest female drivers until 1975. And yes, there were many and some were great, even in the early days of motorsport when driving was for seriously strong people , regardless of gender.

And then, in the August issue, serendipity struck. In the chaotic, tragic Spanish GP of 1975, a race marked by attrition and very few finishers (halted before the halfway mark and therefore only awarding half points), Lella Lombardi finished sixth, gaining half a world championship point.

To this day, these are the only points ever won by a woman in the Formula One World Championship.

And in 1975, that made put Lombardi among the greatest female drivers ever even though she probably wasn’t objectively as good as some of the giants that blazed the trail for her.

In 1975, no one knew that the greatest female driver in history was already contesting a few European rallies and entering the 24 Hours of Le Mans in a minor all-female entry. Michelle Mouton would come within a hair’s breadth of winning the World Rally Championship by taming a fire-breathing Audi. She won four rallies against the men, cementing her position as the greatest woman ever to sit behind the wheel.

And since then, no woman has managed to come close to her achievements. Danica Patrick came closest but, despite having top-line equipment, she only one a single race in her entire career and never on the world level, always in the US.

So our hats are off to Lella, a pure racer who is still unique in history.

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose book Timeless is about another strong woman, a journalist who follows her story to the very last consequences–even at the risk of her life. You can check it out here.

Econoboxes on the Cover

When you think of cars in the 1970s, it’s likely that you think of the kind of Detroit iron that cops would drive in the movies. Squarish Fords of some kind, and not small ones, either.

But the truth is that the mid-seventies, post fuel crisis is when the American love affair with the automobile ended with a regulatory and socially-responsible thud. Much like today, this was an era that frowned upon the fun and the frivolous.

The era’s most lasting contribution to humanity? The econobox, that wonderful combination of low-performance, small size and low-driving-pleasure mitigated only by low cost and better fuel mileage. The social engineer’s dream car.

Of course, automotive engineers being what they are (wonderful enthusiasts at heart), the econobox soon grew offshoots into the world of pleasure, but the only clue to that brighter future was the green VW Golf on the cover. Though this wasn’t a sporting Golf, it was nimble and fun… and great things were to come with something called a GTI in short order.

As if to balance out the econoboxes (Consumer Reports couldn’t have done a better job of getting boring cars together), there is a boatload of motorsports content in this issue, everything from going to the Daytona 24 with the BMW IMSA team to the start of the 1975 F1 season…

Overall, a frightening cover, but a good read.

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer whose latest book, Test Site Horror, continues his success in the monster genre (and he hopes it is as critically well-received as his previous efforts in the category). This one is about a herd of prehistoric killers released into a valley in the Ural Mountains and the men who try to avoid getting killed by them. You can check it out here.

Starting off 1975 nice and varied

As it’s the year of my birth, I entered my reading of the 1975 R&Ts interested to see what was happening in the automotive world, and the first two magazines in my pile of 75s, March and April, did a good job of that.

The first piece of welcome news was that the Energy Crisis was over, and some of the more outlandish legislation was being revisited–at least in Europe. Speed limits were being returned to slightly higher levels and Germany went back to unlimited highway speed, which is logical considering that it was proven that most of the reduction in road deaths during the crisis months had little to do with reduced highway speed limits. In fact, an interesting article in one of these magazines highlights the fact that, even with the unlimited speed limit reinstated, Germany had the one of the highest reductions in road deaths.

Unfortunately, the US ignored the data, bowed to those who went with their feelings and retained the imbecilic 55 for another two decades in one of the dumbest examples of the tyranny of the majority ever seen. But the editors of the magazine didn’t know that at the time, and the text was rife with hope that sanity, as opposed to parsimonious big-brotherism, would prevail.

Another interesting thing discussed in these issues was the Bricklin, a now-forgotten safety sports car that attracted plenty of attention in its day and then sank without a trace. The first drive here gives a few good reasons for the debacle… and the nice thing about 1970’s automotive journalism is that there’s little need to read between the lines: the build quality and some of the design decisions were utterly awful.

In other news, this was the era of the launch of cars that would become juggernauts (the VW Golf) and cars that were heralded as the next great thing and sold really well, but are now reviled (the Triumph TR7).

And they’re the years of Porsche coming to maturity. After being the enfant terrible of the racing and production car circles for years, the company now had to navigate a fuel crisis while selling only expensive sports cars and also wait for the top class of GT racing to evolve to the point where they could truly compete against others.

We now know that the 935 was coming, but Porsche didn’t, and they were understandably nervous. And yet… the tiny company always took up an amount of space in the pages of this magazine that is truly disproportionate to its size.

These two make a good ’75 sampler.

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose latest book is an entertaining romp through the Ural mountains… which have become infesed with genetically-modified monsters. Test Site Horror has everything for both the horror lovers and the thriller enthusiasts among you, and you can check it out here.

Death and Rebirth – The 1950s at Le Mans

Le Mans is my favorite auto race. It competes for that position with the Indy 500, but it wins because it’s an entire day on a long, challenging, character-filled track. Yes, the chicanes on the line droit des hunaudieres are a travesty and those who approved them in the 90s should be retroactively shot… but even with that, it’s a beautiful thing. I’d love to see it in person someday.

So Quentin Spurring’s wonderful decade-by-decade look at the race, including the organization, each entrant and the events of the race itself, represent my absolute favorite piece of nonfiction reading. I like these even better than the Collector’s Press Horror/Science Fiction/Fantasy of the 20th Century series, and that’s saying a huge amount.

The 1950’s are not my favorite Le Mans Decades (those would be the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s), but Le Mans 1949-59 is a truly wonderful book anyway. The best thing about it is that it dedicates few pages to the 1955 accident.

For those of you who are new to this, that race is infamous because a Mercedes 300 SLR driven by Pierre Levegh crashed on the pit straight, got airborne and landed in the crowd, killing the driver and 84 spectators.

Cue the immediate overreaction in which several countries banned motorsport outright. Most countries saw how ridiculous that was almost immediately–only the dorky Swiss still insist on keeping the ban around.

Worse, however is the fact that so much ink has been spilled, all the way to the modern day, about that crash, as if it was a difficult phenomenon to explain. Essentially, it can be summed up in a few lines–in an era where speeds were increasing faster than most people expected, and crowd protection was laissez-faire, to put it mildly, something like this was in the cards. To a certain degree, considering that a lot of races were still run on open roads with people wandering in to see race cars capable of nearly 200 mph flashing past, it’s unfair that it happened to Le Mans.

Unfortunately, it did, and the French, to their credit, ignored the initial overreaction, corrected the public safety issues and went on with the race the next year.

What I love about this book is that the 1955 race report is not about the accident. It’s about the race and the drivers and the cars, which is how it should be. The accident is given its own section, much smaller than the race report proper. It was an important event (the deadliest motor racing accident in history, and a real tragedy), so ignoring it would have been just as bad as giving it too much space. Spurring got the balance exactly right.

Which is pretty much what I’d say about the rest of the book. It’s a hefty tome with a lot of minor teams and entrants profiled, yet it never bores the reader because there’s always something interesting about every last entrant… and I can’t even imagine what kind of research was involved in getting that data on obscure teams.

When you remember that this decade represents the rebirth after the destruction of WW2, one can only be thankful the race survived, and came back stronger than ever.

Anyhow, I can’t recommend this one to the general public because I fear a lynch mob as much as the next man. But if you’re a motorsport enthusiast, these are not only indispensable but fun.

Get them. Read them. You can thank me later.

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose latest book is a monster romp through the Darien Gap. It’s fun, too, and the title is Jungle Lab Terror. You can check it out here.