Silvio Calabi: Turning pages instead of wheels
As a relic who still prefers print (when is this Web fad going away?), I can’t ignore shiny car books, with their crisp black type and luscious images on fine white paper. Here are three new ones that you or yours might like.
“Airstream: America’s World Traveler” (Patrick R. Foster; Motorbooks, $45, 192 pages) The Airstream travel trailer company was the brainchild of one Wallace Merle Byam, born in 1896 in Oregon to a veterinarian and a bookkeeper. When they split up Wally became a shuttlecock child, bouncing from one side of the family to the other. He was orphaned as a teenager, but put himself through Stanford. After graduating with a law degree, Wally went to Los Angeles, wanting to direct movies. Instead, he sold newspaper ads, a skill that he parlayed into a successful mini-empire of trade magazines. At home, however, Wally couldn’t convince his new wife of the joys of camping. To make her more comfortable afield, he built a tiny travel trailer modeled on the one he’d spent a happy summer in as a shepherd in Oregon. Mrs. Byam didn’t appreciate her husband’s efforts, but plenty of other people did, and Wally began selling plans to DIY trailer-builders. The Great Depression of 1929 killed the Byam publishing business but, unexpectedly, it helped create Airstream. People needed living quarters that could move from job to job and that were cheaper than hotel rooms.
The rest is, well, history — the evolution of the light but rugged, shiny aluminum monocoque travel trailer that is still around, and still instantly recognizable, 85 years on. Byam personally became his product’s premier ambassador, often leading enormous Airstream caravans around the world. One especially ambitious “outing” was a 1959-60 trailer trek the length of Africa, from Capetown to Cairo.
At first blush, the book is an extended travel postcard from your white, middle-class parents, or grandparents, but a closer read takes us inside the company. This book isn’t just 272 photos; the Airstream folks opened their archives to the author, and he did his homework (except for putting tigers in Africa and captioning sailfish as swordfish). Much of the text could be a case study in classic American entrepreneurship, or a business-school survey course subtitled “Do What You Love and You’ll Never Work a Day in Your Life.”
“American Muscle Cars — A Full-Throttle History” (Darwin Holmstrom, Tom Glatch; Motorbooks $50, 224 pages) This is hardly the first big, glossy photo book about muscle cars, but it might be the best one. So far, anyway. This is a modern, clear-eyed but loving look back at a lost era, a time when Detroit torque, horsepower and cubic inches ruled our blacktop the way the Tyrannosaurus Rex stomped the savannas of the upper Cretaceous. Here, from the introduction, is what I mean by clear-eyed: “Even though building (muscle cars) for kids was unwise, like giving heroin to Keith Richards or a race car to James Dean or Marilyn Monroe to a horny president, the resulting cars were pretty cool, and the time was right for anything that symbolized a raised middle finger thrust at conformity.”
Author Darwin Holmstrom is not only a degreed novelist and journalist; he’s also the senior editor of Motorbooks, publisher of this tome as well as Airstream, above. Photographer Tom Glatch is a large-format specialist who has been shooting cars since 1976. With the help of a strong layout team, they’ve created a book that’s worth reading, not just looking at, even by people who aren’t necessarily in thrall to Baby Boomer automotive dreams. Heck, even the readouts and captions are good.
“Tiny Lego Wonders” (Mattia Zamboni; No Starch Press, $24.95, 208 pages) Subtitled “Build 40 surprisingly realistic mini-models,” this book made me dig out the Lego Ferrari F40 kit that my son gave me for Christmas when he was a kid. Alex, forgive me for taking 18 years to get around to it, but now I have a new appreciation for Legos. One point of the book — which has almost no words, just step-by-step illustrations — is that special kits aren’t needed. Each of the featured aircraft, ships, trains, trucks and cars can be constructed with fewer than 100 of the basic blocks that come with most Lego sets.
The mini-cars caught my eye, but what had already made me Lego-sensitive was a photo that Ford sent, back in June, of a one-third-scale model of its new GT sports car, built of almost 40,000 Lego blocks and weighing close to 80 pounds. It was displayed at Le Mans during Ford’s historic return to the famous French 24-hour race. Then, incredibly, Ford’s new GTs took first and third in class on the very day of the original GT’s stunning first-second-third sweep at Le Mans 50 years before.
By the way, there is a brilliant 26-minute documentary about Ford’s campaign to crush the opposition at the 1966 race, called “8 Meters: Triumph, Tragedy and a Photo Finish,” on YouTube. No Legos, though.
— Silvio Calabi reviews the latest from Detroit, Munich, Yokohama, Gothenburg, Crewe, Seoul and wherever else interesting cars are born. Silvio is a member of the International Motor Press Association whose automotive reviews date back to the Reagan administration. He is the former publisher of Speedway Illustrated magazine and an author. Contact him at email@example.com.