Porsche

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 Enduring Legacy of Dr. Ferdinand Porsche

To most people, the name Porsche is given to a bunch of cars they can’t buy, and which many people associate with 1980’s douchebags with mullets.

To be fair, Porsches often WERE driven by dudes with questionable looks in the 80s, but to be equally fair, almost everyone in that decade had hair problems.

 

Even with these caveats, the August 1974 issue of Road & Track might be an eye-opened to many. The cover photo indicated that the editors of the magazine thought that the two smaller models from Ford were the big news, but I see little evidence today that they were anything but a desperate attempt to grab market share. They might have sold well in the day (no clue, I’m not interested in that kind of car), but were completely irrelevant in the larger scheme of things.

Not so Porsche, and any knowledgeable person will immediately realize that this is a Porsche-dominated issue.

First, the obvious. There’s a celebration of 25 years of the Porsche company, speaking of the road and competition cars. Remember, in the early 1970s, Porsche was involved in all sorts of sports car racing, from Prototypes to GTs to Silhouettes to Can Am. The 917 was just behind them and the 935 and 936 were just around the corner. Glory years past and future.

But that’s just the obvious. The big news for everyone else, in fat the most important article in the magazine when it comes to the general public was the launch of a little car called the Volkswagen Golf (referred to as the Rabbit in the US for some unfathomable reason).

Though the editors of R&T wondered whether it would fail to replace the Beetle in the way that so many other VW cars already had, we now know that it not only replaced the beetle, but it set a foundation for a much more dominant VW company today… and the model, much evolved is still going strong nearly 50 years later.

But what about Porsche? Well, Dr. Ferdinand Porsche designed the original Volkswagen for the German government in the 1930s. It might not have been the greatest government to work for, but fortunately, engineering is not affected by ideology and the Beetle was produced all the way into the 21st century.

The company founded on that design is the Volkswagen we know and love today. We owe it to Porsche.

Finally, looking at the competition pages, you need to understand that every pure race car in the issue (interestingly, not the rear-engined Porshe 356 and 911 derivatives, though) is a mid-engined design.

The first significant mid-engine racers on the world stage were the Auto Union silver arrows from the 1930s. So who designed those?

Glad you asked: it was Dr. Ferdinand Porsche (not to be confused with his son Ferdinand (Ferry) or his grandson Ferdinand (Butzi) who also contributed greatly to automotive history, but whose stories will have to wait for another day).

So you can ignore the two pieces of Detroit iron on the cover. This was a Porsche tribute edition.

 

When not writing blog posts, Gustavo Bondoni is an author whose work spans the genres from serious literary fiction to action/adventure science fiction. For those who enjoy an action-packed romp in space, his novel Incursion is great fun. You can check it out here.

Has it really been more than 30 years?

I started reading Road & Track as a teenager in 1989.  That pretty much means that I have a complete run into the 2000’s, but that everything before 1988 was blank.  So I’m filling in those blanks slowly.  I have a few of the earliest ones, and also some 1988s.

I recently found a guy here in Argentina selling a large lot of mainly 1970s and 1980s R&Ts, so I bought them and have finally had the time to read through the missing 1988s (all except for the March issue, which I will have to track down…).

Road & Track - January 1988.jpg

As I have said in earlier posts, 1988 was a vintage year for this magazine.  Firing on all cylinders, hitting their stride, almost mature from a design point of view (that would come in 1989) and with subject matter that actually gave hope.

For non-auto enthusiasts, that last sentence needs a little clarification.  In the 70s and early 80s, the automotive industry was reeling.  Smog controls and safety crusades made the cars mechanically inferior to the ones in 1969 as well as more complicated to work on, uglier and generally less interesting tow write about.  There was a fuel crisis in there, too, so regulators imposed a corporate average fuel economy.  Ralph Nader’s biased and unfortunate Unsafe at Any Speed, published in 1966, was also a factor.

The speed limit was an imbecilic 55 miles an hour.

Many manufacturers closed or left the US market (R&T, being US-based, tended to concentrate on the American scene), AMC died, and even the surviving big three were in trouble.  Economy car companies, particularly Japanese companies who didn’t have a reputation to uphold, did well.  Layoffs abounded.

It was a grim time to be in the car business, even as a magazine.

But by 1988, the industry was recovering, and manufacturers, having gotten a grasp of emissions technology were actually building cars that people wanted to drive again.  Horsepower numbers were rising, convertibles reappeared (Nader must have been distracted, probably off annoying some other industry) and it was a good time to be alive.

Road & Track reflected this.  1988 was a vivacious, optimistic year for the magazine, exuding confidence in the wake of the launches of the brash Ferrari Testarossa, the glorious GTO and F40 and the Porsche 959.  Cars, it appeared, were exciting again.

Over the course of the year, this played out again and again.  Performance cars were given the nod over family sedans.  The first wave of the 4WD revolution in passenger cars was studied.

Life was good.

Good enough, in fact that their standout article of the year was among the ballsiest that I’ve ever seen from a car magazine. In an era when the specialist press was proudly displayed on every supermarket magazine rack and newsstand in the US, they openly re-analyzed the Audi unintended acceleration case and concluded that Sixty Minutes was wrong, sensationalist and journalistically compromised.  While that is often true for Sixty Minutes, it is unusual for a car magazine to shout it out.

Even more unusual is that a magazine conclude that the operators (drivers) were to blame.  While the public was out for corporate blood, having a major media outlet come out and say that the public itself is to blame, essentially because they don’t know how to drive correctly (which anyone who has driven in the US will be unsurprised by), and that the lawsuits should all be dismissed was an act of sheer integrity, not to mention courage.

Things like this are why R&T was the class of the automotive magazine field for decades, and why I still read back issues thirty years out of date.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and all around media opinionologist (he does read or watch the stuff he has opinions about, first, if that’s any consolation) whose latest book is Jungle Lab Terror.  You can buy it here.