The year in car books has been, like the year for cars themselves, a good one. In spite of the printed word's interminable lament for better days, there was still released a healthy number of tomes for your automotive edification, enjoyment and escapism. The ten we've listed certainly here aren't the only good ones, but we think every one of them will make for a great first read in 2011. Follow the jump for the list...
1. LIFE IS A HIGHWAY
Edited by Darwin Holstrom and Melinda Keefe
It didn't take the automobile to get people writing about wheeled transport – Madame Bovary, in fact has one of the most well-known scenes on wheels in all of literature. But what the internal combustion engine did for the carriage it also did for travel writing: sped it up and made it much more intense. And that is how we get Life is a Highway, a collection of some of the best writing on, in, of and around cars to come from 44 different writers spanning a library's worth of genres. Jack Kerouac checks in from On the Road, father of the Corvette Zora Arkus-Duntov gets it all wrong at Le Mans, GM impresario Alfred P. Sloan wonders "What's a Good Name Worth?", and there's a plentiful touch of modern with pieces from Automobile's Jamie Kitman and Jean Lindamood (now Jean Jennings). Hell, even J. Edgar Hoover swings by to discuss car theft and the ever popular Anonymous sends a piece from The Onion on anger-powered cars...
If nothing else, reading the earliest pieces – like that from Author Unknown in Popular Mechanics in 1902 – will teach any 21st century car owner the most fundamental thing about all of us who have ever dug the automobile: we've all been saying the same thing all along...
2. Art of the Formula 1 Race Car
Stuart Codling, Gordon Murray, James Mann
A companion to Science of the Formula 1 Race Car, if your bent is more for four-color spreads than coefficients then this one is worth it for the pictures alone. It starts with the Alfa Romeo 158/159 and progresses through 17 more of the finest chapters in F1 history, like the Mercedes-Benz W196, BRM P57, Lotus 72, Tyrrell P34 (of six-wheeled fame), Adrian Newey's third car, the Leyton House CG901, and on up to the McLaren MP4/23 (an effort by Mike Coughlan, of Stepneygate fame).
Their stories are told by veteran F1 writer Stuart Codling, who's adept at laying out the drama behind beauties that have screamed and roared throughout the 60-year history of the pinnacle of motorsport. Not that science is completely left out, for McLaren's former race and road car designer Gordon Murray provides the color commentary, with takes such as this on the incomprehensibly narrow struts on the Lotus 49: "The rear wing stays look flimsy but it would only have been inertial force pushing it sideways – if the rear wheels let go and gripped again..."
Not all of the cars in the book won championships, but they are all – to the F1 fan at least – nothing less than art.
3. REAL NASCAR: WHITE LIGHTNING, RED CLAY, AND BIG BILL FRANCE
Daniel S. Pierce
The story of NASCAR is a big, impressive and intriguing American tale. It is also one of the most persistently and forcefully shunned stories. Viewed solely as the trajectory of one man, Bill France, who started as a mechanic and rose to lead one of the country's biggest sporting companies, it is not outrageous to suggest that Bill France is the Bernie Ecclestone of American motor racing. Don't get us wrong, it took a long pause before we could write that sentence. Yet, since France's machinery raced on dirt, and often as if contesting a demolition derby instead of a race, and since his stars had funnier accents and even funnier turns-of-phrase, and since it all hailed from a slice of the U.S. at which the rest of the nation still looks askance, the whole thing gets dismissed.
Oh, and there is that thing about only turning left, which not only isn't true, it is 20,000 leagues harder than anyone who hasn't done it can imagine.
Daniel Pierce's book puts research and rigor into the rise of NASCAR, from its well known migration off the back roads of moonshine running to the paved Talledega Raceway. There are the lesser known gems of fact like how the drivers ran moonshine, and who were folks like Banjo Matthews and Smoky Yunick, and how France fought drivers' attempts to unionize, and what The Big Three thought of dirt track racing when they weren't so ready to dish out for full-body stickers.
We aren't suggesting that everyone should become a NASCAR convert, Danica Patrick or not – but Real NASCAR is a fun way to find out the glorious deeds and misdeeds of the series either way.
4. CAN-AM CARS IN DETAIL
Pete Lyons and Peter Harholdt
The Canadian American Challenge Cup lasted but nine years. Yet the unsurpassed bait of technical regulations that practically read "Race what you brung" and impressive prize money lured almost all of the motorsport names we still revere today: Andretti, Brabham, Donohue, Gurney, Hill, Hulme, Ickx, Jones, McLaren, Newman, Posey, Stewart and Surtees. Manufacturers like Lola, McLaren, Porsche, Ferrari, Ford and Chaparral built 1,500-horsepower racers for them, festooned with enough techno oddities to qualify for the Wacky Races.
Can-Am Cars in Detail, with photos by Peter Harholdt and text by Peter Lyons, is 224 pages of high-gloss nuts, bolts, trumpets and cockpits from 22 of the cars that competed. Every single page adds a rare bit of substance to the phrase, "Now that was racing."
5. INTERMECCANICA: THE STORY OF THE PRANCING BULL
Andrew McCredie, Paula Reisner
Founded by a Hungarian-born, eventual Canadian ex-pat chemical engineer in Turin, Italy, but still ticking along today as a Vancouver company, is the story of Intermeccanica. The 41-year story of the company took three years to tell, having been related by Frank Reisner's widow, Paula, and being so full of war, the immigrant's journey, odd jobs, university studies, racing, coachbuilding, finance and the naturally volatile day-to-day of the small entrepreneur's life. Few but serious car buffs or replica buyers remember period Intermeccanica models like the Imp and Apollo, but that is merely a cruelty of history: the illuminating and rewarding tale of Frank Reisner's company and his cars is well worth the detour into this book. And for those Intermeccanica fans, the book also includes detailed tables charting every model made, down to the serial number.
6. FIFTY CARS THAT CHANGED THE WORLD
London Design Museum
This is one of those books made for hours of debate and horrified exclamations of "What?! The Fiat Multipla?!" But yes, that carbuncled steed is in here, too, along with 49 other wheeled contraptions that are each given two pages to explain how tey have affected what we drive today. However, the book isn't devoted only to shining examples of automotive glory – hence the Multipla – and it doesn't only limit its purview to a car's effect on the automotive world, hence the discussion of how another Italian creation, the Fiat 600, helped that country claw its way out of the rubble of World War II. It is certain that you won't agree with every car's inclusion (the 1998 smart fortwo?), it is certain that you won't have heard of all fifty cars (the Bertone Carabo show car) and it is certain that you'll wonder why some other cars were left out (the EV1). But with the help of this book it is also certain that you and your like-minded car associates will be able to spend quite some time coming up with your own list of fifty in response...
7. THE MAN WHO SUPERCHARGED BOND: THE EXTRAORDINARY STORY OF CHARLES AMHERST VILLIERS
We all know about James Bond's exploits – and we all know that they're fictitious. Charles Amherst Villiers, by contrast, was the very real inventor of a very real supercharger fitted to a very real and record-breaking Blower Bentley that James Bond drove in the first novel, Casino Royale. And Villiers needs no help in the adventure stakes: born into aristocracy, he was a cousin of Winston Churchill. Villiers started his career by turning Brescia Bugattis so well that Ettore invited him to the factory. He designed the first land speed record car. He was a ferry pilot in World War II. He spent two decades working on the U.S. space program. He consulted on the BRM engine that powered Graham Hill to his first F1 World Championship. He retired to study art in Florence, painted such as John Paull II, and got so good at it that his artwork hangs in London's National Gallery. Oh, and he gets a shoutout in the recent Casino Royale. No, of course he isn't Bond, but Bond wouldn't be Bond without Villiers, and the latter could be just as interesting...
8. COLIN CHAPMAN: INSIDE THE INNOVATOR
We should all know by now that you cannot be a historically esteemed visionary and have nothing but good things said about you. It appears that the system just isn't set up that way. Lotus founder and tinkerer extraordinaire Colin Chapman was noted by UK mag Motor Sport as the third most important man in F1 behind Bernie Ecclestone and Enzo Ferrari, but the English carbuilder was known just as much for his stubbornness, cheapness, prevarication and potentially illegal financial dealings as he was for his innovation.
Not that any of that should take away from the race-changing inventions, it should only add color and the whiff of the back-room deal to them. In his book on Chapman, Karl Ludvigsen takes a close look at the business and aerodynamic details – good and bad – that defined the man, and he comes up with an oft-told tale: that of the hero with the feet of clay. In the topical stakes, though, with a Bahar-led Lotus looking to reignite the company torch (some of which was originally done with stolen fire), the book will ultimately provide a compelling contrast between of the Hethel of then and the one of now.
9. ROADSIDE AMERICA
Thirty-some years in the making, John Margolies' camera rescues memories of the American highway from the obliterating jaws of history. Its 256 pages present hundreds of relics that today we'd only expect to see in a National Lampoon's film, but were once taken surprisingly seriously. Well, as seriously as one could ever take a billboard for a jail in St. Augustine, Florida, a supersonic car wash in Billings, Montana or The Leaning Tower of Niles, Illinois.
The pictures would certainly be enough, but there is accompanying text by New York Times writer Phil Patton. Don't look for answers in the words, though - because, let's face it, there aren't words to resolve enigmas like the giant, angry ape on the Rawhide City billboard in Mandan, North Dakota. And it's probably best not to even ask. Just enjoy the show...
10. AT THE CROSSROADS: MIDDLE AMERICA AND THE BATTLE TO SAVE THE CAR INDUSTRY
Abe Aamidor & Ted Evanoff
Steven Rattner is the star at the center of Overhaul, his story of the federal auto task force. Yet his own light shines so brightly that the nuances in the auto industry landscape he attempts to describe were washed out, or simply failed to ever register. That's a shame, because the tale of General Motors and Chrysler capsizing cannot be accurately told without the specifics of how and why leaders, labor and government all strapped themselves to the decks of these ultimately dysfunctional ships.
At the Crossroads: Middle America and the Battle to Save the Car Industry returns a great many of those details to the picture. Written by two alumni of the Indianapolis Star, the book goes back to the mid-20th century labor agreements that helped prepare the disaster, looks at Wall Street's methods and effects after the deregulation of the 80s, and examines how the municipal governments and residents of towns like Kokomo, Marion, and Bedford Indiana have worked to respond to the gutted carcass of American manufacturing.
It's not a casual read, but it is a good one. And to begin to really know what is the what, it is an important one.