Every car enthusiast has a library. It might be small, it might be diverse, and it might only comprise magazines, but everyone has one. They provide solace, wisdom, inspiration, and an excuse to spend money.
However, you don’t need to spend a fortune and to prove it here is the Motoring Journo Guide to building the perfect, ten-volume motoring library.
LJK Setright’s Drive On! is as close as you’ll ever find to being a car enthusiast’s bible; frequently incomprehensible, often complex but always compelling this is Setright’s magnum opus tracing the development of the motor car from its earliest days through to modern times. It is on my desk next to the dictionary (something that you will have to use frequently whenever you read Setright) and I refer to it several times a week, reminding me that motoring journalism can be erudite and eloquent as well as informative.
Here he is on wood and wooden wheels:
“It is a nasty, tricky, treacherous substance, truly fit only for making trees or lining cigar boxes, and if made into a wheel it will shrink, split, crack, and generally come apart at all the joints.”
They say that every author wants to write like Ernest Hemingway or tries equally hard not to write like him. I think that the same holds true for LJKS and motoring journos. Trust me; you’ll never spend a better £20.
I Know You Got Soul establishes Jeremy Clarkson’s credentials as a bona fide motoring journalist and engineering enthusiast better than anything else he has written or produced before or since. Frequently pilloried as a caricature of himself (some even go so far as to suggest that he isn’t a ‘proper’ journalist and author) this book reveals a sensitivity and an eloquence that might surprise you. As the title suggests, he examines a variety of machinery – only three of which are cars – and explains why he finds them inspirational, haunting, and, well, soulful.
Here he is talking about the Blackbird SR-71:
“When a Blackbird flies the friction is so massive, and generates so much heat, that the whole plane grows by a foot. Then, after it lands and begins to cool, it shrinks back down again.
The plane that I was pawing had not flown for six months but you could still hear it creaking and groaning. And there was a constant drip-drip-drip as its oils and fuel leaked out of their tanks, their seams distorted by the shrinkage.”
You should buy this book because it will force you to rethink everything that you thought you knew about Clarkson. And it’ll only cost you a penny from Amazon.
The Road to Muckle Flugga by Phil Llewellin is a book of road trips, albeit one that has been beautifully written by a natural-born storyteller. Llewellin understood better than anyone else that cars are essentially dull; it’s what you do with them that makes them interesting. For him it was never about the car, and always about the trip, the people, and the history of the environment in which he found himself.
“The longest day of the year is a good time to drive north. Such a journey is also a useful test of a vehicle with a dash of adventure in its character, such as the Ford Maverick. The route to Aberdeen and the ferry to Lerwick, Shetland’s capital, is motorway or dual carriageway all the way. The only conditions that could have suited the Maverick better would have been 400 downhill miles supplemented by a benevolent wind. Cruising in fifth gear, preferably with a light load, is what this 2.4-litre Tonka Toy does best. Less flattering circumstances focus attention on the rather dismal power-to-weight ratio. My left arm and both legs have developed bigger muscles from ripping up and down the gearbox and repeatedly flooring the accelerator in an attempt to maintain an acceptable rate of progress.”
Llewellin is a compassionate, modest and engaging writer and is the one motoring journalist with whom I would have loved to share a long journey. I never met him but I know people who considered him a friend and they agree that he was as a character the like of which you come across only once in a lifetime.
Jenks : a passion for motorsport by the legendary motoring writer Denis Jenkinson is out of print and hideously expensive, but no-one can call themselves an enthusiast until a copy sits on their bookshelves. The story, taken from Motor Sport, June 1955, of how he and Stirling Moss won that year’s Mille Miglia in a Mercedes-Benz 300SLR is a classic and is frequently cited as the most exciting and most beautifully-written motoring story of all time.
“Ever since leaving the start we had had the rising sun shining in our eyes and, now, with the continual effects of sideways ‘g’ on my body, my poor stomach was beginning to suffer and, together with the heat of the gearbox by my left buttock, the engine fumes, and the nauseating brake-lining smells from the inboard-mounted brakes, it cried “enough” and what little breakfast I had eaten went overboard, together with my spectacles, for I had made the fatal mistake of turning my head sideways at 150mph with my goggles lowered.”
Beg, steal, or borrow a copy and immerse yourself in the finest motorsport writer of his generation.
The Gold-Plated Porsche by Stephan Wilkinson is, at heart, a story about one’s mans struggle to rebuild an old Porsche 911. However, Wilkinson actually writes about far, far more than that; it is, if you like, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance brought bang up to date. As he puts it:
“Finally, I took to explaining that I was simply spending two years and $70,000 to make a brand-new 1983 Porsche that would never in my lifetime be worth more than twenty grand, tops. It was like the Mastercard commercials: ‘Car, $10,000. Parts, $59,500. Experience, priceless.’ A few people got it, most didn’t. This book is for those who Get It.”
If you Get It there is no finer book on actually getting your hands dirty and fixing stuff.
Alan Clark, the love-him-or-loathe-him politician, was much more than just a legendary swordsman, Thatcherite, and castle owner; he also had impeccable taste in cars and, contrary to the public’s perception of him, wasn’t a snob – at least in matters pertaining to motoring. He was as happy at the wheel of a 2CV as he was a Jaguar C-Type, Bentley Continental, or Porsche 911 Cabriolet – all of which he owned.
“What do we want a classic car for? Showing off, of course. Nothing wrong with that; they are more idiosyncratic than beach jewellery… But the real fun is driving them, on long journeys, at high touring speeds and, preferably, on unfrequented roads.”
Opinionated, eloquent, civilised, and wearing that wonderful patina that only long and close familiarity with your subject brings Backfire is a fitting testament to an extraordinary man.
Michael Krumm is that rare animal; a top-flight athlete who can describe fluidly and clearly how he does what he does. (If you doubt the exclusivity of his talent then try and recall the last time you heard any professional sportsman or woman give a compelling post-performance interview. Hard, isn’t it?) Krumm describes how to drive faster and, more importantly, how to analyse why the car is behaving in the way that it is.
“The truth is that most drivers don’t really know what they should change to improve their car… Too often, drivers make the big mistake of adjusting the set-up to their driving style, rather than considering overall performance.”
Even though Driving on the Edge is primarily concerned with circuit racing I found him incredibly useful as a fledgling motoring journalist helping me to understand – and so be able to describe – how and why a car’s dynamic behaviour is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ and I have no doubt that anyone who enjoys driving fast will be just as appreciative.
Rocket Boys is a bit of a cheat, as it isn’t about cars at all. It deserves a place in our list though because it is a beautifully-written account of one man’s obsession with building rockets as a child, an obsession that led to him building them for NASA. If you have an ounce of interest in engineering then you will love this book.
Homer Hickam is a modest, engaging writer who captures the zeitgeist of living in 1950s American better than anyone; the world seemed so huge, and yet so small, that anything was possible. Children played with rockets because the world was so full of opportunity and hope and excitement that if they hadn’t they would have been squandering a God-given opportunity to explore not just their country or planet but the whole universe.
The opening paragraph of Rocket Boys is:
“Until I began to build and launch rockets, I didn’t know my hometown was at war with itself over its children and that my parents were locked in aÂ kind of bloodless combat over how my brother and I would live our lives. I didn’t know that if a girl broke your heart, another girl, virtuous at least in spirit, could mend it on the same night. And I didn’t know that the enthalpy decrease in a converging passage could be transformed into jet kinetic energy if a divergent passage was added. The other boys discovered their own truths when we built our rockets, but those were mine.”
Don’t you wish that you’d had a childhood like that?
Fred Basnett is, without doubt, the funniest motoring writer you’ll ever read. Travels of a Capitalist Lackey is a genuinely snort-out-loud account of a long-distance road trip across Europe and Russia. It’s so funny because Basnett isn’t just a very humourous writer – he also has an artist’s eye for minutiae, conjuring scenes that make the mundane interesting and the interesting enchanting.
“My first twinges of heartburn were aggravated by the fact that my pipe, both lens caps from the cameras and a pair of sun-glasses which clipped on to my own glasses had been stolen from the car. If one ruled out idiots, this could only mean that the thief was a myopic, pipe-smoker owning two Japanese cameras, but when I tried to explain this to the fat militiaman who’d moved us on he shrugged as if to say, ‘If you will go leaving your car in a spot like this…’”
Travels will inspire you to get out and experience the world in an old car; it led to me doing The Measham in a vintage Alvis and many others have cited it as their inspiration for a variety of long-distance follys, including the Peking to Paris in one case…
You may have noticed my penchant for writers who enjoying using cars, rather than admiring them as abstract objects. Well, nobody uses them quite like P. J. O’Rourke in Driving Like Crazy. Consider this passage describing just one small part of a 1980′s group road test:
“When we were arrested the next day – for driving a hundred miles per hour through La Paz with wallets – Jean gathered the police around the Maxima. Then, by leaving a door ajar, she made it talk. We were let off with a small fine. Maybe they were awed by our powers. Maybe we were too pathetic for jail.
We decided that driving at night was dangerous. Unfortunately it was night when we decided this. Csaba Csere promptly hit a cow. It did a flip, leaving two pointy horn dents in the roof.”
Let me tell you, road tests aren’t that much fun these days. And therein lies the appeal of ole P.J.; he writes about the stuff that you’d love to do but can’t because you’re too scared of getting arrested – or killed.
What do you think? Have we missed your favourite motoring book – or do you think that our whole list is flawed? Why not leave a comment before the 30th June 2012 letting us know what you think? The most interesting, off-beat, profound, or downright funny reply will receive a small selection of UK press launch goodies. (You must live in the UK though I’m afraid as we can’t afford to post stuff worldwide. Sorry.)
If you like the sound of any of these books then please click on the links, which will take you to Amazon.co.uk. If you buy them after following that link Motoring Journo gets a very small kickback and it won’t cost you a penny extra. Thanks.