(first posted 11/4/2014) If you’re growing up a car nut in 2014 you have all sorts of information at your fingertips, with as much detail and context as you’d like. I grew up a car nut in the 1970’s, and I can now see that a diverse set of automotive interests was kindled in me by a crazily diverse collection of books:
When I was very young Canada was still very British. This played out in everyday life, our Television programmes, our food, our cars, and even our books about cars were heavily influenced by the Mother country.
The first two car books I had were British: The Car Makers (1968) covered the engineering and assembly of the Austin Mini.
Published by Ladybird, the same folks who brought us Dick and Jane, it was a basic overview; I don’t recall them mentioning labour strife or per unit profit figures on the Mini.
Much more informative was JD Scheel’s Cars of the World (1963). This gave me the history of the motor car from Cugnot’s steam powered wagon through to the not-quite-present age, along with hand rendered drawings of cars from every auto producing nation of the world. Because of the very British slant to this book I initially thought that England made pretty much all the worthwhile vehicles on earth.
My intense study paid off handsomely, upon seeing my first Humber Super Snipe I was able to say “Wow, a Humber Super Snipe!” whereas most normal people would say “What is that thing?” Ditto for the Fairthorpe Electron, Jowett Jupiter and many other obscure British models. Additionally this book had a section of essays on auto racing, which introduced me to the famous (and long gone) Brooklands circuit, and to the land speed exploits of Sir Malcolm Campbell and John Cobb.
In elementary school I first encountered the works of Henry Gregor Felsen, a name most American gearheads of a certain age will recognize. These books rocked my world, I read every bit of his work that I could find in the library, multiple times.
Felsen was a prolific Iowa writer who in 1950 was asked by the Des Moines Safety Council to write a cautionary tale of teens and cars, to try and do something about the rising tide of injury and death from motor vehicle crashes.
Hot Rod was wildly successful, my well-worn 1966 edition is from the 18th printing. Felsen authored a string of books with automotive lessons within, and I must say it worked for me. Street Rod (1953) was the one that scared me straight, and taught me to respect machinery and what it could do. His daughter Holly has brought them back into print, so if you can’t quite remember what happened to Bud Crayne I’d encourage you to enjoy them again.
I made sure to balance my intake of Felsen’s sobering words against more upbeat, enabling fiction of teen car adventure. Books like John Tomberlin’s The Magnificent Jalopy (1967), which tells the story of teens who rescue a 1931 Packard from a chicken barn and enter a long distance challenge.
Or W.E. Butterworth’s The Wheel of a Fast Car (1969), which covers a young man’s adventures tagging along with his uncle and cousin as they work the stock car circuit. The descriptions of the scope and culture of mid 60’s NASCAR racing made it sound like honest work by real people, a far cry from the bloated corporate circus it is today.
An abrupt change of direction happened when another Uncle gave me Markmann & Sherwin’s The Book of Sports Cars (1959), a well-researched and weighty 320 page tome on the genteel world of sports cars and sports car racing, with a foreword written by Briggs Cunningham.
Of course I devoured this book 20 years too late, learning about the budding careers of Masten Gregory and Stirling Moss, and sports car races held at Watkins Glen and Put-In-Bay. I had thought that a 1957 Ferrari Mondial or a curbside Lotus Eleven might be pretty cool cars to own one day, not knowing how impossible that would be, or that the sun had long set on that golden era of sports car racing.
Although I never tested my admiration of drivers like John Fitch and Denise McCluggage against the favourites of my school mates, one area where we did come into conflict was the subject of Hot Rods.
In addition to his direct involvement in my young life, my Uncle Peter had gifted me his six inch high stack of Rod & Custom magazines dating from the late sixties to early seventies.
During this period R&C staffers like Bud Bryan, Tom Medley and Gray Baskerville pioneered the Street Rod movement, moving the focus from the stagnating show car scene back to the road. They conceived and staged the first Street Rod Nationals in Peoria Ill in 1970. Contributor Jim Jacobs performed the first Hot Rod Restoration on the storied Bill Niekamp roadster, then DROVE it 1,800 miles from Los Angeles to Memphis for the 2nd Nats.
These magazines are still great reading, the excitement these guys felt still springs from the page, and defined hot rods for me, except that outside of my world it was now the 1980’s. Tubbed Pro Street rods were in, Boyd Coddington was setting hot rod trends with his smoothed style and I argued with my high school friends that no, THESE are hot rods:
And to top it off, when you were done building your own car with your own hands, you had to grow a beard and drive it cross country.
My friends thought I was crazy, and as with most adolescent car arguments I didn’t convince anyone. Although I haven’t built a hot rod myself (yet) a lot of the backyard technical instruction came in very handy later on, as did the emphasis on self-reliance and a spirit of fun. Ironically, in 2014 the market value of traditional hot rods with provenance has escalated to the point where they are now shown at Pebble Beach, which seems very serious and un-fun.
The Niekamp roadster sits silent in the Petersen museum, and will nevermore be driven cross country by guys wearing funny hats.
To mark the end of childhood, I read Harold Stevens & Al Podell’s Who Needs a Road? (1969) in my mid teens. I was perusing travel books at the local library when I saw the cover, and was hooked before I even turned a page.
A round the world trip in a Toyota FJ40 Land Cruiser, one of my childhood dreams come true! The book turned out to be all I expected, and so much more; deserts, danger, jungles, kidnapping, breakdowns (mostly the trailer, not the FJ) all told in swashbuckling style by the two bachelor travelers and the various companions they met along the way.
This story also opened my young eyes to a whole other facet of adventure travel that I hadn’t considered, because among the companions were South African nurses, an Australian lounge singer, and various other ladies they encountered in their travels. If you haven’t read this, I’d heartily recommend it whether you be a kid or a grownup. It sure was a different world then.
When you look at these influences, these diverse, out of context influences from different decades they’re like pieces from random puzzles, never made to fit together. What possible activity or purpose could this have prepared me for?
Why, this of course..