Le Mans

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.

What I do when I’m not Reading, Writing or Watching Old Movies

I’ve spoken here about the creative impulse before, but this time I’m going to make it a little more personal and discuss what I do when I’m not writing (or working on other stuff, or watching movies, or reading books or taking care of children), mainly because I realized that I also try to create stuff when I’m in downtime mode.

Now, one hobby I’ve got is building scale models, but that one seems a little like cheating. While it takes a little practice to get them looking decent, the real skill (at least in the case of the ones I build) is on the part of the model builder. Even on mass-produced plastic kits, at some point a prototype maker did the work of carving and engineering it so it would fit together and look correct. I can’t even begin to imagine the kind of talent that takes.

My own contribution to the arts is my other hobby: drawing stuff (admittedly, mostly cars) with colored pencils. These are amateur efforts, but I like the results and occasionally sell an original for a few hundred dollars to auto enthusiasts (it takes a couple of months of highly interrupted work to draw these, so I’m not exactly getting rich). As an example, here’s my latest effort.

As you can tell, my obsession with Le Mans extends to drawing… this is a Ford Mustand leading an Alpine at Le Mans in 1967, just before dusk.

Unlike my fiction, which is my primary creative output, these will likely never compete on the world level or win prestigious awards. But they give me enormous amounts of pleasure, both to create and to look at afterward. The delight is well out of proportion to the actual quality of the drawings, but it’s totally worth it to me.

In fact, I like them so much that I have put some of the drawings on products in a Zazzle store, which I’ve discussed here before. And if you’re interested in looking at the full collection of cars, they’re in this online gallery.

Anyway, I thought I’d share… and I’d love to hear about your own alternative pursuits.

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose latest novel is entitled Test Site Horror. It’s fast-paces and unrelenting… like the monsters inside. You can check it out here.

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.

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.

…but don’t Forget the Racing

We’ve mentioned how automobiles in 1971 were the victim of a concerted attack by politicians, but in reading this huge pile of car magazines, there is more than just gloom and doom and things that make you want to go back to 1971 and slap Ralph Nader around.

There is also racing.

Road & Track September 1971

Yes, that is a Porsche 917 on the cover, on its way to winning the greatest race still around in 1971 (and, happily, still around today).  The regulators soon “realized” that the 917 and its contemporaries were too dangerous to compete (of course, that would assume that people were somehow forced to drive the things instad of the reality, which was that the real drivers were lining up for a chance) and legislated them out of existence, but it hadn’t happened yet.

So we had a glorious Le Mans, and we had the Denny Show in Can-Am with the glorious orange McLarens (Bruce himself had been killed testing one recently, so Denny Hulme was the soul of the team).  These, too, were magnificent automobiles, the likes of which (unlimited except for mandatory roll bars, essentially) we will never see again.  Ironically, the Porsche 917–in a turbocharged 1500 bhp form–and the McLaren would soon cross swords in Can-Am, in what was the greatest example of unlimited auto racing ever seen.

But that was in the future, and the present was glorious enough, something reflected in the coverage.  Apart from Le Mans and the analysis of the Can-Am car, this issue covered the SCCA Trans Am (also in its glory years as ponycars battled for supremacy in the hands of Donohue and Parnelli Jones and others).  Formula One was also traversing one of its golden ages (compare that to today’s boring Mercedes dominance) as Jacky Icxx attempted to wrest the title from Jackie Stewart.

Finally, this magazine contains an article that has become a classic, a piece entitled “The Empty Bleacher League” by Allan Girdler.  It describes a small Midwest Auto Club and its races, and makes you want to join right now…  the problem being, of course, that I forgot where I left my time machine.  Probably in 1812 or something.

Anyway, a good counterpoint to what was happening to road cars at the time.

Interestingly, this was the most butchered of all my 1971 R&Ts.  Not only were the classifieds missing, but also a couple of articles, the Isotta Fraschini Salon (which I do regret) and the road test of the De Tomaso Pantera (not so much).  The ’72s seem to be in better shape.

Interestingly, the mad clipper didn’t touch the race reporting, which is what makes these magazines worthwhile.  Perhaps he just didn’t know he was living in a racing renaissance.  His loss, my gain.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer who enjoys writing about people and places that most people have never heard of.  His collection Off the Beaten Path is a shining example of this.  You can check it out here.

A Decade of Growth that Ended Horribly

Le Mans 1930-39 - Quentin Spurring

Le Mans 1930-39: The Official History Of The World’s Greatest Motor Race is certainly an impressive title.  But this is an impressive book.  It’s a race-by-race, team-by-team and car-by-car chronicle of what I consider to be the best race in the world, and while I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it to the layman, it does go well beyond the pure racing aspect and give a glimpse into the lives of the characters behind the race.  (If you want to see my review of the first book in the series, it’s here.)

In today’s world of polished multimillion-dollar (or Euro or Yen or Yuan) operations with corporate backing, the colorful character is all but absent in many aspects of motorsport, especially in po-faced F1 paddocks.  Le Mans is, to a certain degree an oasis where millionaire playboys right out of a Sidney Sheldon novel still drink champagne well into the small hours, but even this paragon of individuality can’t hold a candle to the way it used to be.

In the thirties, the cast of characters included rich boys, yes.  But it also included rich girls in numbers never seen before, backyard mechanics, British Nazi sympathizers, a slew of Italians who’d moved to France to escape Mussolini, the might of Hitler’s industrial complex and, of course, hundreds of thousands of wine-drinking spectators (those are still there).

With that volatile mix of people–has there ever been a more interesting case of such mixed social and political beliefs coexisting peacefully even while trying to beat each other?–the races themselves became almost a backdrop to the characters.

Almost.

This is Le Mans, and even when everything around it is a circus, the race forces you to take it seriously.  Heavily-favored cars break down.  The glorious Alfa coupe retires from the lead.  People die.  Others celebrate.  For a day, the outside stuff is forgotten, reduced to noise.

But eventually, the race ends and you have to get back to real life.  And when the 1939 race ended, it would be another 10 years before the next was run.  Quentin Spurring reminds us gently of what was to come, telling us that this or that race was the last for one or another of the drivers.  Especially powerful were the mentions of men who fought or flew in the War to come, or, in the cases of Robert Benoist or William Grover-Williams, men who joined the Resistance and where executed for it by the Gestapo.

Ignore the spoiled, millionaire crybabies of today who count a sprained ankle while training their greatest fear (witness the halo on F1 cars).  Racing drivers should be lions, men who live outside of society’s timidity and who, when the occasion calls for it are capable of great acts of courage, even outside the cockpit.

The best part of this book is probably that it reminds us that this is what they once were.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer.  His latest novel, Ice Station Death is not likely to help him win the Nobel Prize for Literature… but it is guaranteed to entertain.  You can check it out here.

The Hardest Day

1923 Chenard et Walcker Sport

1923 Le Mans Winning Chenard et Walcker Sport (prints available here)

 

We did say eclectic, right?

Let’s move away from our more mainstream cultural, literary and cinematic concerns to talk about the 24 Hours of Le Mans.  Yes.  An auto race.

I’m allowed to do this because Tom Wolfe, he of the white suits and Bonfire of the Vanities, did it before me, with little negative effect on his career… and he was writing about NASCAR for chrissakes.

The 24 Hours is not NASCAR.  It’s a global event of massive proportions (congrats to Toyota for finally breaking their curse in 2018–despite the relatively weak field, I was very happy to see a loyal and determined competitor finally achieve the prize), steeped in a tradition that few other sporting events can match.

It survived the deadliest motorsport accident in history (84 people dead in 1955) without missing a beat and continues to be the best race in the world to this day.

But it would have been hard to imagine that on its first running nearly 100 years ago.  In 1923 a field of relatively stock touring cars set off on awful roads to drive for a day.  Automobiles were still mostly for the rich, especially in Europe, although some manufacturers of cyclecars were emerging (of course, the Ford Model T had already put America on wheels, but this wasn’t America).  The cars at Le Mans, however, weren’t transportation for the masses; they were serious machines for the gentleman enthusiast.

Come to think of it, that hasn’t really changed at all–the GT category in this year’s race was composed of cars similar to those that the well-heeled can buy off the showroom floor.

Le Mans 1923-1929 by Quentin Spurring

If you’ve already got a couple of general Le Mans books, the absolute best way to get a feel for how this race really was in its early days is to read the incredible book Le Mans 1923-29.  This one, part of a wonderful series by Quentin Spurring, goes really deep and talks about every race and every car and team in every race.  It’s the absolute best description of this era available.

Even if you aren’t really into auto racing, it’s a good read.  Why?  Because it gives you a feel for the 1920s in France from a viewpoint that you won’t get anywhere else.  I’ve already got the next volume (1930-39) sitting in my to-be-read pile, and am looking forward to it anxiously.

I may, at some point in the near future, write a novel where early racing figures prominently, so I can call these books research.  Yeah, I think I’ll do that…

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine writer whose novel Outside is available on Amazon through this link.

A Great Sportsman, A Great Time

Perhaps the golden era of the playboy sportsman took place during the Victorian and Edwardian periods.  Of course, anglophones normally read about the exploits of English nobles in those days, but the rest of Europe was also in on the fun.  The first world war put an end to that, and the second applied the exclamation point, the final nail in the coffin for those who persisted in trying to enjoy life.  A decade of austerity lay ahead.

But the same couldn’t be said of Americans.  The 1950s became the golden age of the American playboy sportsman.

Cunningham Sports Cars By Karl Ludvigsen

Why so late?

Well, while the European nobles were busy refining the art of yacht racing all over the continent, and also learning about internal combustion engines and fielding legendary polo teams, their American equivalents were dragging an agricultural nation kicking and screaming into the industrial age after the civil war.  They didn’t have time to goof off.  Also, a lot of them were of a slightly puritanical bent, and hadn’t yet realized that the main reason to have money is to be able to enjoy yourself with it in ways that everyone else simply can’t.

So yes, by the 1950s, the scions of American industrialists had finally understood their position and went off to get serious about having a good time.

And that brings us to Karl Ludvigsen, one of the great automotive historians.  Because, of course, this post is about a book, as well as being about amazing race cars (we did say “eclectic” in the manifesto, didn’t we?  If we didn’t, we meant to).

You see, Ludvigsen wrote a book entitled Cunningham Sports Cars, which might sound like a dry racing title, but is actually a lasting monument to a great American playboy sportsman: Briggs Cunningham.  The book, like all Ludvigsen titles, is painstakingly researched and evocatively illustrated but what it is most notable for is making the reader wish he was Cunningham.

You see Briggs, who died in 2003, was not content to use his enormous wealth to buy cars and yachts – he actually built his own, painted them in American racing colors (blue over white) and tried to win Le Mans (with the cars) and improve the breed (with his yachting innovation).  He also won the America’s Cup, but that was while skippering a tub built by someone else, so he might not have been happy with it (we are, of course, kidding).

In an age where the excesses of the rich are indulged in private or at least with as little publicity as possible (to avoid having the po-faced masses* attempt to raise income taxes or establish even more draconian luxury taxes), it’s refreshing to read about a man who did so openly and under his own name (kind of like an Elon Musk without any kind of social concern or wish to advance humanity).

Cunningham c2-r

Even more importantly was the fact that he learned from his mistakes.  Le Monstre (a special-bodied Cadillac) is rightly remembered as the ugliest thing to defile the sacred Mulsanne straight (and this is hard to do because, other than on race weekends, that is a stretch of French highway, and we assume that Ami 6s were allowed to use it), but his later, Cunningham-branded cars were truly beautiful.

So we at Classically Educated invite you to raise our glass of whatever obscenely expensive bubbly you might have to hand to a man who was more concerned with the good things in life than with why enjoying them is antisocial in some way.

Living well is the best revenge, of course.  And if you buy the book you can do so for a modest sum… at least vicariously.  And you can wish you were Briggs Cunningham, as well as reliving yet another age lost to the merciless passage of time.

*I have a defective socialism gene.  Can’t be helped.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist who writes in English.  His latest book, Incursion, was published in 2017.