Road & Track

…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.

Heaven, Hell and a Volkswagen Bus

I got a respite from reading the 1970s Road & Tracks in my pile, because I discovered that I had the January 1963 edition sitting there, so I grabbed that one for reference.

Road & Track January 1963

Wow, what a difference a mere 8 years makes.  In 1963, the regulatory madness of the 1970s, the conviction that automobiles were somehow responsible for all of society’s ills were not even in the radar.  Even the cover is gloriously devoid of emissions-controlled subcompacts and features a close up of the Great Pedro Rodriguez on a three-wide starting line (remember when everyone’s front row was three wide?  Me neither, the safety campaigners killed it before I was born, leaving only Indy to hold the torch).

The prevailing attitude in this era was sensible and had  a recent world war to put things in perspective: Storming the beaches of Normandy was dangerous, driving Ferrari sports cars wearing an open-faced helmet was fun.

The 1963 issue, edited by the immortal Dean Batchelor (the Hot Rodder, hero at Bonneville and El Mirage) was reflective of that joyful era (I hear the 1960s were famous for things other than cars, but let’s concentrate on the important stuff for now).  Racing coverage, auto show articles and even an analysis of the entire Formula 1 grid.  Only one article was about a small car, and that one, the Austin 1100 was about a car with a very novel suspension system, a technical first which, though not adopted by everyone, worked very well.

Of course, the world, sadly, moved on from the sixties and, as dictators say when facing the war crimes tribunal, mistakes were made.  In the US, those mistakes apparently included siring an entire generation of people whose sole concern was… concern.

Deeply concerned individuals wanted to make certain that everyone was safe enough to satisfy them, and that anything unregulated should be subject to government oversight forthwith.  Remember that this was the middle of the Cold War and that Americans had an excellent example of how to regulate the joy out of life in the Soviet Union.  People like Ralph Nader and many, many others, led the assault on Capitol Hill.

They were probably still angry that prohibition, the greatest experiment in adults imposing their opinions on other adults ever attempted, got repealed, so they were looking for new ways to tell everyone what to do.

We dealt with bumpers (the law passed), emissions (the law destroyed many livelihoods and American Motors, and caused the current global warming problem) and the second most hated law ever passed in the US, the 55 mph speed limit.

But the forces of darkness never rest and even more evil was being plotted.

Road & Track July 1971

The July 1971 issue of Road & Track opened with the appalling news that a group called Youth Organization Toward Highway Safety (probably a bunch of people who got beat up a lot at school and were out for revenge by destroying any fun on the planet) advised that the following laws should be put into effect.

  1.  Cars should, by law, be limited to 95 miles per hour.  No manufacturer could build a faster car than this for sale to the public.  At all.
  2. Cars should be made 100% crashworthy at speeds up to 30 mph, meaning that the occupants–even without seat belts–should be uninjured in all 30 mph accidents.
  3. each year, maximum speeds should be lowered and crash-worthiness increased until glorious success would be reached when automobiles could go exactly as fast as the speed that guaranteed absolute safety of the occupants.
  4. (this one is an assumption) Much obligatory rejoicing and thanking the party for keeping adults from themselves.  All hail!

Now, a single look out the nearest window confirms that this insanity failed.  How?  I don’t actually know, but I suspect that someone intelligent with a little power heard about this and had the leading members of the group quietly shot.

(Seriously, I know these avenues were pursued, but in the end, the cost of meeting them and the public outcry against yet another attack on their liberty was considered too high a political cost, so common sense, unusually for automotive regulation in the 70s won out).

Of course, it wasn’t all gloom and doom.  The racing scene in 1971 was wonderful, particularly because it was the day of the Porsche 917, one of the most glorious objects ever devised by man.  The January 1971 issue even had a profile on that car’s not-quite-as-successful rival, the Ferrari 512.  So not a total loss, but definitely not a golden age for road cars.

Best article in either of these two magazines, however, was a love poem in prose form dedicated, of all things, to the Volkswagen Bus.  Written by Dick O’Kane, entitled “O’Kane & the People’s Bus”, it is a wonderful, whimsical paean to that most versatile beatnik vehicle, and it really, really brings the “civilian” (as opposed to racing) side of the 1971 mag to life.  After all, not everything can be small, imported cars that struggle with future emissions laws.

And if anyone is keeping score at home, the mad clipper had removed the classifieds and an article about the newest Mercedes SL launch from the 1971 edition.  The ’63 is uncut.

I know you can sleep better knowing that.

 

Gustavo Bondoni’s latest novel is a monster book set in the most dangerous place in the Western Hemisphere, the Darien Gap.  It’s called Jungle Lab Terror, and if you want a thrilling ride, you can buy it here.

Emissions and Wankel Engines

Last time we talked about the huge pile of Road & Tracks I’m reading, we were in 1988, a year in which cars were finally getting better after nearly two decades of regulatory hell.

The next two, the ones I’m going to talk about today, give us the early portion of the crusade to make cars worse.  We will do this by immersing ourselves in two Road & Track magazines from the early 70’s, the January and February 1971 issues.

Road & Track January 1971.jpeg

These are not optimistic magazines, and a good portion of the writing is aimed at trying to justify why, to get cleaner air, you need to burn more fuel.  In a nutshell, the reason for this is that the automotive industry was not technologically prepared for the emissions legislation that was forced upon them.  Do-gooder lawmakers, of course, simply said: “The auto companies just don’t want to invest in this, we should regulate it anyway.”  And they did.

The upshot is that fuel economy went to hell because cars actually had to burn MORE gas to lower emissions (thermodynamics make this necessary).  This means carbon dioxide emissions (greenhouse gasses, anyone?) went up, and contributed to our current global warming mess.  Overeager and under-informed legislators, as usual, proving once again that the road to Hell is paved with good intentions.

Road & Track February 1971

But all of that was in the future.  In 1971, even the extremely well-informed automotive press had no idea what the consequences might be.  Their technical editors were more concerned with whether the internal combustion engine would be viable beyond 1975 when the new laws took full effect.  Yes, that was a real concern.  In the end, as we know, the engine survived, but at a horrific cost to consumers… and now to the environment.

That situation actually gave birth to the most interesting parts of these magazines.  While it’s fun to read about the launch of cars that either went on to make no mark whatsoever on the marketplace or, to the contrary see what the press were saying about vehicles that are now classics, it’s absolutely fascinating to read about the new technology which could power cars if the Otto engine did bite the dust.

The two big alternatives, as seen in 1971 were the gas turbine and the Wankel.  Though the Wankel was, at that time, worse in emissions, it controlled oxides of nitrogen (NOx) better than the internal combustion engine… and these were tougher to engineer out of the Otto engine than other pollutants were for the Wankel.  So maybe…

The most memorable article of this pair is a long piece explaining the Wankel engine.  Good stuff.

Another thing that I enjoyed about these two is that the “& Track” portion of the magazine was much meatier than in the eighties, and it’s wonderful to read about the Can Am as a series that was taking place even then as opposed to looking back at it from our nostalgia as something unique and awesome the likes of which we’ll never, sadly see again.

Finally, the weird notes to my reading.  These mags are nearly fifty years old, so it’s interesting to see what kind of lives they’ve led.  While in decent condition, my copies have had the classified section carefully cut away by some earlier owner as well as one article: a piece about the 1971 Duesenberg replica.  Which is probably the strangest article to remove.  Why that piece, when there is so much stuff about original cars in there? I’ll probably never know.

Finally, the strangest thing of all is that these editions have the price in Swedish Krone on the cover.  That, the UK and US currency.  Why Krone?  Maybe because it was a big market… but no Deutsch Marks, French Francs or Lire… Weird.

All in all, it’s very fun to read these, especially to see what the world was like fifty years ago, and to compare this mature magazine with the early ones where you got maybe thirty pages of articles copied from other publications.

 

Gustavo Bondoni’s latest book is Jungle Lab Terror, a thriller set in the most dangerous place in the Western Hemisphere, the Darien gap.  If you dare, you can buy it 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.

Eventually, they Restarted

Last year, I read and reviewed the very first Road & Track Magazine, from June 1947.  Nowadays, it’s a monthly but, like many magazines, getting the first few issues out was a bit of a rocky road.

May 1948 saw the second volume published, so nearly an entire year later.

A

Like the first issue, this one has a lot of material reprinted from other sources.  Photographs, particularly are credited to several other publications.

Additionally, as someone used to reading the fat issues from the 1990s, a Road & Track only 36 pages long is an unexpected item.

As always, these are interesting for their period features and their antiquated assumptions.  But two things make them worth tracking down (and they aren’t easy to find sometimes–this one was an original, not a reprint).  The first is to see how auto enthusiasts of seventy years ago viewed the future, and the second is for those forgotten wrinkles and oddities which, though widely reported at the time, are long forgotten.

This one can be read in one sitting, but it will be a pleasant one in which you are smiling–often nostalgically–the whole time.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose love of automobiles even seeps over to his literary fiction.  It reached the point that his story “August Nights”, included in  his book Love and Death deals with the joy of driving fast and well (among other modern things).  And it’s not the only one where cars are characters.  You can buy the book here.

Hitting its Stride – R&T’s Vintage Year

Let’s go back in time to 1988.  Why?  Just because I happened to read a couple of car magazines from that year (I promise to get back to the normal, more literate style of this blog in the next post, but today, we’re doing car mags again – here, here and here are the earlier installments of this series) and I wanted to keep my thoughts about them more or less all together before I forget what I was going to say.

It’s one of the prices of getting older, but aging also has its advantages.  I get to look at thirty-year-old magazines and judge them with a future perspective.

So, 1988.  I read The final pair of mags in my pile: Road & Track Exotic Cars: 7 and the regular monthly magazine from September 1988.

Road & Track Magazine September 1988

The first thing one notices is that the two mags appear to have been designed by two different graphics departments.  The monthly magazine feels very much a product of the eighties, while Exotic Cars looks forward to the nineties, a departure from the earlier installments in the series, which looked much more similar to the magazines.

The Exotic Cars series was one of Road & Track Specials, which explains the discrepancy, a series that was run by Thos L. Bryant, the man who later–as from January of 1989–became the editor of the regular magazine.

This one was, nostalgia aside, much better than the early installments of Exotic Cars.  The selection of cars was mature, the design was excellent, and the writing engaging.  It was a solid effort which was easier to read than its predecessors.

Road & Track Exotic Cars 7

The regular magazine looked a little dowdier, but that impression only lasts until you flip open the front cover.

Once you do that, you are transported to different world.  Not the world of 1988, though.  Road & Track in the late eighties bore little relationship to the universe of Gordon Gecko and the Coca-Cola Wardrobe (remember that piece of eighties awfulness?).  Instead, you’re almost transported to the Scottish moorlands somewhere around 1975.

This might not have been seen as a good thing in 1988, but it’s certainly wonderful reading these old pages today.  The words flow comfortably, and the reading never becomes a chore.  It’s a warm pleasure from cover to cover, like conversation with an old friend.  It was literally one of the most pleasurable reading experiences I’ve had in a long, long time.

Of course, in the eighties, warm and fuzzy was on its way out and, as I’ve mentioned, December 1988 was the last month under John Dinkel, the man who edited this issue.  The January 1989 issue had adopted the design of the specials and looked bang up to date.

The writing, however, was still essentially the same.  It would take a few years to iron out the quirkiness that made 1988 a vintage year.  Bryant was an excellent editor who brought the magazine upscale while keeping its personality alive.

So, for some time, we lived in the best of both worlds.  And I was luck enough to be thirteen in January of 1989…

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose most recent book is entitled Ice Station: Death.  You can check it out here.

Exotica Continued

Last week, we looked at the beginning of Road & Track‘s Exotic Car Specials.  As you’ve probably surmised from our long-running project to watch the 1001 films you must see before you die, in order, we don’t do things halfway here at Classically Educated.  So today, we continue the Exotic Cars series with numbers 3 and 4.

Road & Track Exotic Cars 3

Our main criticism of 1 and 2, read so close together was that the editors seemed to be severely limited in the menu of cars they could choose from, which caused some repetition.

This is also true, to a much lesser extent in volume 3, although it’s clear that the editors made a conscious effort to minimize the effect.  They began to add German tuner cars, which I suppose is reasonable, but also included a couple of sedans that, even though they were a Mercedes and a BMW, I’m not entirely convinced qualify as exotic.

A lot of what is good about this issue has more to do with the fact that they had two new Ferraris to discuss, which is always a boon to people putting together a magazine dealing with exotica, than to the efforts of the staff…

Nevertheless, a hat must be doffed to whoever decided to include the Morgan (probably Simanaitis) and especially to the lunatic who decided to road test a Lola race car modified for street use.

The result, though still not quite mature, showed signs of steering the series in the direction that I remembered from my youth.

 

Road & Track Exotic Cars 4

In volume 4, the process extends even further.  Despite the inexplicable fact that the Maserati Biturbo, a car that was later reviled by almost everyone (I like it, but I think I’m the only one) was included again, making it a perfect four-for-four in these magazines and the head-scratching decision to include a Ford Scorpio, this one is the best yet.

Even though they didn’t have any major launches, the editors managed to juggle the usual suspects, mixed in with tuners and obscurities like Marcos and TVR to create a well balanced issue that is the best of the lot so far.  Another good decision was to drop the Road Test section.

But beyond the critical discussion of what is good and bad about these magazines, the fact that, just after the fuel crisis of the late seventies, and in the midst of regulatory upheaval that was making cars worse each year instead of better, Road & Track had the balls to launch a magazine celebrating cars whose only purpose was to go fast, look good and be enjoyed is laudable.

And among todays rash of humorless responsibility where any display of excess or wealth is frowned upon, these magazines are a joyful reminder that life exists to be enjoyed.  These cars are an expression of that fact, and should be celebrated, even if only by reading magazines devoted to them more than thirty years ago.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine writer best known for his far future science fiction novel Siege.  You can check it out here.

Exotica!

On Wednesday, we looked back at the very first Road & Track magazine.  It was an interesting start to a publication that later became an icon in its field, and if I can find the second volume, I’ll be having a look at that, too.

But in the meantime, I’m moving through a stack of Road & Track publications and came across the first two volumes in yet another innovation that they tried.  Namely, a Road & Track Special entitled Exotic Cars.

Now, most people wouldn’t have given these mags a second glance if they’d encountered them in a used bookstore, but I have a history with them.  Back when I was thirteen or so, and an avid R&T reader, I came across an edition of this special (I think it was number 8 in the series).  To my teenage eye, it was to the regular magazine what the Big Mac is to a regular McDonald’s cheeseburger (I was going to make an analogy involving the Moulin Rouge and today’s adult film industry but I stopped myself because I don’t want to give too much away about my teenage years…).

It was an object of pure desire, mainly because it held absolutely no news about economy cars or stuff your mother might drive.  It only held cars you lusted after, or utterly hated (continuing the Big Mac theme, those would be the pickles), gloriously photographed and described by people who, like yourself, couldn’t care less about the socially irresponsible message this kind of excess sent.  In your world, cars that went a bazillion miles an hour and cost a bazillion dollars were perfect, and why such a miserable vehicle as the Toyota Tercel existed was a mystery.

Long story short, I bought the magazines, and a bunch of others which I might discuss some other time.

Road & Track Exotic Cars 1

The first of these, released in 1983 was a very nice first effort and showed just how far R&T had come since its humble and unprofessional beginnings.  29 articles showcased 30 cars.  Sure, there were a few road tests culled from the pages of the magazine itself, but, for the most part, the articles were pure celebration of exotics with gorgeous color photography (most of the regular magazine was black and white in 1983).

I’d give this one near top marks for a first effort, and apparently the market responded well, because a second volume was soon to follow:

Road & Track Exotic Cars 2

This one landed on newsstands in 1984 and it was a mistake.  A beautifully produced and probably successful mistake, but a mistake.

The reason it’s an error was that, being released a year after the first, the editors had little time to dig for new veins of exotica.  Remember that, 35 years ago, you couldn’t go onto the internet to look up whether some little cottage industry in Denmark was building the vehicle you needed to beef up your magazine.  Also, coming out of the fuel crisis, there were fewer companies building amazing cars.

So there’s repetition… a lot of repetition. Of the 27 cars featured in articles or road tests from the main magazine, fully 14 were either tests of the same car as one that had been featured in Volume 1 or slight variations (perhaps a convertible version or a model-year upgrade) of the same.  Another couple were basically the same car with significant differences, so I didn’t count them.

To be fair, the editors seem to have realized this and created a segment about the carrozerias of the City of Turin, a nice little segment, but it wasn’t quite enough to mask the issue.  They also dug up a couple of new cars and some stuff they’d neglected the first time around… but the sense of “I’ve seen this before” was predominant.

Now, I read these in the space of three or fur days, which is not the way they’re meant to be read.  That year between editions should have been enough for people to forget what they’d read about where and make the content seem relatively fresh… but it didn’t hold up well over the years.

In spite of this, readers apparently enjoyed it and the series continued for several more years.  I’ll return to the subject soon.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose latest book is Ice Station: Death.  You can check it out here.

The Beginning of a Classic Magazine

Road and Track June 1947

Those of us over about thirty years old will remember a time when a lot of our information about hobbies and interests came from reading magazines.  Today, magazines still often give us information that we can’t get online, so imagine how much more we relied on them in the early days of the net or even in pre-internet days.

Those of us that like cars will likely accept that, until fairly recently, Road & Track was the magazine of choice for the most discerning enthusiasts.  On one hand it was had a high-class, globalized outlook with one eye on Europe and Japan, while on the other it also commented on the American auto industry in depth.  In this sense, it achieved the best overview of the world scene… and it was the 500 pound gorilla in the room regardless of whether you were American, European or, as in my case, from  South America.

Yes, magazines like Car & Driver in the US or any number of local mags in Europe might have had more readers in their respective countries… but no one did it better globally.

So it’s interesting to pick up the first ever issue of the publication and see where it started from.

It’s surprising to say the least.

In 1947, many publications were less sophisticated than they are today, but Road and Track’s first issue is…

Well, it’s terrible.  You could tell they put the thing together on a shoestring and grabbed whatever articles and pictures they could find.  A nationalistic technical article by the great Laurence Pomeroy kicks it off–impeccable credentials, but the article itself was useless–and then a hodgepodge of other things, including a race report of a very minor hillclimb, the description of a foreign car dealership and a few photos.

These last are interesting, especially as they include pics of the Wilmille production car, but the overall effect gives the impression that they knew the starved postwar audience would pay for any kind of content, and grabbed what they could get, published it and called it an issue.

Interestingly, the mix of street and race cars continued into the 21st century… and probably contributed enormously to the publication’s success… interesting to see that it came about almost by mistake.

BTW, if you’re interested in seeing it for yourself, these mags are still pretty reasonably priced on Ebay and similar, and the first few issues were reprinted in facsimile editions (keeping everything, including the original advertisements, which are wonderful windows into the time), which makes it even cheaper to study a piece of history.

I’ll be looking at a few more of these over the next couple of weeks, as I find it interesting.  Hope some of you will come along for the ride.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer.  His novel Outside deals with the possible ultimate consequences of the current transition from physical media to digital…  You can have a look here.

Inspiration Comes from Unexpected Sources

Can you quote a lot of writers?  I mainly can’t.

Sure, I remember some Shakespeare from when I was in high school, and everyone knows the first part of the opening sentence to A Tale of Two Cities, but I’ve never really been one for literary quotes.  I generally try to stay away from other people’s words and to create my own phrases with, it must be admitted, varying degrees of success.

There are a few writers I can quote verbatim.  I’m always telling anyone who’ll listen that the opening line of Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca is the greatest opening line in all of literature.  I can also, by dint of having read it a lot, quote great chunks of Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide series.  But, despite reading dozens of books every year, that’s it.

There’s one exception, though, and I bet most readers of this blog won’t have heard of him.  In my opinion, one of the best writers of the past 40 years – in fact, possibly the greatest writer still living from the point of view of craft – isn’t a famous novelist.  In fact, he isn’t even a writer of fiction.

He’s a journalist… well, sort of.

Peter Egan was a long time columnist for Road & Track and Cycle World, two magazines which are not noted for their dedication to literary criticism.  While he often got drafted in to write features for those two publications, his true genius was in teaching us about life.

Not his life, not even particularly the life of a lifelong gear head and car and bike nut, but about life itself.  I am tempted to say that he used his experiences with an eclectic assortment of malfunctioning machinery (much of it British) as a metaphor for the vicissitudes of daily existence but if I were to write something and mindlessly pretentious as that, I fear the man himself would never forgive me.  So I won’t.  I’ll just say that, if Mark Twain had owned an endless string of cars and bikes (and guitars) and lived in the latter half of the 20th century, he’d write about the same as Peter Egan.  Except Twain would be emailing Egan for advice.

Yes.  The man is really that good.  Folksy and self-deprecating but with a solid literary background underlying (and belying when he isn’t careful) this image, the prose makes you want to read until you drop, and then keep reading, propped on the hospital bed on one elbow while the nurses keep saying that if you don’t get some rest, you’ll lose the other kidney.

His collected columns come in two series.  The Side Glances series collects his work for Road & Track, while the Leanings books are his columns for Cycle World.

Side Glances Volume I by Peter Egan

I recently read the first in the Side Glances books (I have volumes 2 and 3, but this one had been hard to find on Amazon until recently) and, though I’d already read and reread many of the columns in the magazine itself, was once more transported by the sheer truth of Egan’s way of looking at the world.  The cars are, very nearly, secondary, but if you have any tendency to go out and buy old cars to restore, stay away from these books.  They will lead you down questionable financial paths.

Leanings 3 by Peter Egan

I only bought the first of the Leanings books because I like Egan’s writing.  I didn’t really care for motorcycles when I started reading this one.  And yet, I have recently finished the third volume of the series… and I suddenly find that, though extremely unlikely to go out and buy a brand new sportbike, I wouldn’t mind learning to ride on an old Norton.  Such is the power of this guy’s writing.

I always forget to name him among the two or three writers I most admire.  He’s not a writer of fiction, after all, and I don’t really find journalists of any kind inspiring in the least.  But this is an exception.  Peter Egan is truly great and only his very specific, and highly non-literary niche has kept him secret.

I know most of you are shaking your heads right now and saying “Bondoni has finally lost it.  Mind you, he was always close to the edge, but now he’s fallen, kicking and screaming, right off.”  All I can say in my defense is that you’ll have to trust me.  Find one of these books.  Read even one or two columns (they take about five minutes to read).

You can come back and thank me any time you want.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer.  His latest novel, released in 2018, is The Malakiad.