automobiles

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.

Road & Track’s 30th Anniversary

A couple of years ago, I read the very first issue of Road & Track (as it was then called, without the ampersand): June 1947. Now, in my pile of 1970s and 1980s issues, I’ve reached the June 1977 edition.

No mathematical genius is required to realize that June 1977 is the magazine’s 30th anniversary issue and, as such, it’s quite an important one. As the sticker on the cover above illustrates, it was the magazine’s largest issue ever to that date (for all I know, it may still be the largest ever). It even had that original 1947 issue bound in.

Of course, I bought R&T every month from 1989 to the mid 2010s, so I’d seen quite a few anniversary issues in my time. They are wonderful, nostalgic things which universally highlight the best of R&T‘s history as well as including some new stuff.

The best part of this is that R&T was, until recently, a magazine that gave space on its pages to quirky writing. In later years it was Peter Egan who carried that banner, but before that, Henry N. Manney III was the idol of the noncomforming multitudes. In the late 70s, his output seemed to be winding down, but the history was there to mine.

This issue was similar to the ones I’d seen, but even better in some ways as many of the early players were still alive. John and Elaine Bond, the publishers who saved the struggling magazine in its early days and turned it into the world’s foremost car mag, were not only alive, but only recently retired and willing to talk about the olden days.

Modern news was a little less pleasant than the reminiscences, as the report on the 1977 South African Grand Prix not only touched on the death of Tom Price in the race but also commented that Carlos Pace had been killed in a light aircraft accident a couple of weeks later. One thing that was very nice, however was to see that, despite the death of Pryce and a marshal (whose carelessness killed them both) during the race, the competition went on. Nowadays, you’d have it red-flagged and the race cancelled. Now this might sound callous, but we need to remember that the men who strap themselves into a race car have always done so willingly, knowing that there is a real (if lessened, nowadays) risk of death. This isn’t a soccer match–it’s a serious proposition, and the participants understand. Cancelling a race because of a death is an insult to the memory of the dead man. Modern audiences, unfortunately, do not understand this, with the result that, except for on the Isle of Man (where the organizers and the crowd actually get it), dead racers are insulted often.

Other modern reports included the launch of the Porsche 928, a brilliant V8 GT which never did manage to replace the immortal 911 and several road tests.

But it’s the nostalgia that carried the day here. A great walk down memory lane.

Gustavo Bondoni’s latest novel, Test Site Horror, is a romp through a dinosaur-infested valley in southern Russia. Action-packed and fast-paced, this one is ideal for people who still like to be entertained when reading. You can check it out here.

The Aerovette… Again

Hindsight, of course, is proverbially infallible. But I had to smile when, in February 1977 Road & Track put the mid engined Aerovette on the cover, stating unequivocally both there and in the copy of the relevant article, that the mid-engine Corvette, so long a design study would absolutely be coming out this time.

We now know, of course, that the mid-engine corvette was not the 1980 fourth generation car but the 2019 C8 (eighth generation for those who are keeping track at home), so R&T was right to predict it… and they only missed by 39 years.

As a science fiction writer, I really feel for anyone who tries to predict the future, but at least I’m doing fiction, and I invent or extrapolate my scenarios. These guys are supposed to be journalists who transmit information from auto industry sources to an avid, enthusiastic public.

And with the mid-engine Corvette, an excess of enthusiasm might actually have been a significant part of the issue. Not so much on the part of the readers but of the journalists themselves. The men who wrote for Road & Track in 1977 were car guys who really, really wanted the mid-engine Corvette to happen. Many of them died of old age before it did.

The rest of the magazine was also interesting seen through modern eyes for an unusual reason: it linked to a couple of recent-ish movies. Rush was represented by the fact that the final GP of James Hunt’s championship season is reported here. And then we have a Ford v. Ferrari link in the fact that Ken Miles’ R1 MG Special is the Salon feature (in Road & Track parlance, a Salon is an article about a significant historical automobile). Nostalgia for auto racing in its romantic age (already close to dying in 1977) means that these old magazines are fun because you can compare the reality with the Hollywood versions (in this sense, Rush is much more realistic than Ford v. Ferrari).

A good, if perhaps not great issue.

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose attempts at predicting the future are on display in many places, most notably in his novel Outside, which showcases not one but two very different futures for the human race. 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.