Entries in Book review (7)


Book Review: Lamborghini Urraco from Veloce Publishing

I really wanted to get this review done for the Holiday Season, but now that it's 2012 and some of you have some Amazon gift certificates from loved ones, this is the book you should spend them on.  I've obtained some really top notch car books this year which will be covered in subsequent reviews, but I have to say that Veloce Publishing's new Lamborgini Urraco book by Arnstein Landsem --himself an Urraco owner--really provides the perfect balance of historical background, comprehensive documentation, copious amounts of photos and smart yet objective editorial observation on the topic. Veloce has gone from strength to strength lately, and at this point I would consider them the foremost publisher of affordable automotive books in the world.  Veloce consistently delivers books that are comprehensive without being pedantic, profusely illustrated, well produced in terms of printing and layout, and accessibly priced.  And the new Urraco book is no exception.

From a purely casual browsing point of view, this book is just crammed with gorgeous shots of the Urraco, combining historic press photos with scans of magazine reviews, and top notch modern photography that looks like it was taken right out of the pages of Octane. There are also plenty of detail shots for the true restoration enthusiast showing how the interior and engine bay should look.  For an underappreciated car like the Urraco, you are unlikely to find more shots of these cars in one place even on the web.  In addition to this wealth of imagery, there is a very thorough telling of the history of the car and of the ups and downs of the Lamborghini company in the tumultuous late 70s. Extensive quotes from famed Lamborghini development driver Valentino Balboni add character and first-person intimacy to the subject matter.  There is a lot of discussion of the car's development from both a technical and stylistic point of view. Another nice feature is that each styling iteration is accompanied by a very nicely done photoshop rendering so you can really follow the changes that occured in the car's gestation.

After the history section, there are also extensive summaries of period road tests and magazine articles. The Silhouette and the Jalpa, which were both cars developed off the Urraco's platform are both well described here as well.  Although Landsem isn't a gifted writer, I think he did a remarkable job of packing a lot of information into a very attractive and digestible package. He also provides the reader with a very honest, sometimes blunt description of the pros and cons of owning and maintaining an Urraco which I found very refreshing and enjoyable to read. There are helpful pointers about what to look for when buying one of these cars, as well as a value guide.  At the very end, there is a very cool chart allowing you to compare the specifications of the various Urraco models to the other cars of the period.

Overall, this is a really solid book that will provide enjoyment on multiple levels, and definitely a commendable effort at telling the story of an under-appreciated classic.

Available at Motorbooks and at Amazon.


Book Review: "The Limit" by Michael Cannell

I just finished reading "The Limit" by Michael Cannell, which tells the tragic story of the 1961 F1 world championship season.  The detailed narrative culminates in a fascinating title chase, which ultimately saw Phil Hill triumph as the first American F1 champion, while his closest rival and Ferrari team mate, Wolfgang von Trips met a gruesome and fateful end at the Italian Grand Prix.  Along the way, we are treated to a vivid and occasionally shocking portrayal of the time, and of all the colorful characters who inhabited the world of motor racing in the late 1950s.

This wonderful and enthralling new work comes from an unlikely source: Michael Cannell is best known as a design/architecture journalist and author who professes little interest in or knowledge of cars and motor racing. Yet his journalistic research and storytelling powers are so strong that I never for a moment felt I was being narrated to by a neophyte. The highest compliment I can pay to the author is that his book is so thoroughly researched, it gives the impression the author is steeped in racing history, and understands the technical side of the sport rather well.

But it's really the human story that interests Cannell, and he delves deeply into the psyche of the neurotic, obsessive Phil Hill and the brash, yet boyishly charming Wolfgang von Trips. Making use of extensive interviews, diaries, letters and historical material, Cannell is able to weave together a remarkably human portrait of each driver, allowing us to really understand each man's philosophy about his sport, and how he coped with triumphs, setbacks, and the inevitable tragedies that were an all-too-common facet of racing in that most dangerous era.By 1957, Phil Hill (at center) and Wolfgang von Trips (to Hill’s left in a polo shirt) had joined the Grand Prix, an international fraternity with a grisly mortality rate. Credit: Klemantaski CollectionI personally picked up this book knowing relatively little about the personal biography of Hill or Trips, but by the end of the volume, I felt I had seen the fascinating intersection between two men's very different trajectories both as people and as athletes. This book is essentially the story of two men who came from wildly opposed circumstances, but came to share the same métier.  The randomness with which one triumphed and the other perished illustrates so poignantly the callous omnipresence of death in that era of racing.

While much is discussed about the 1960s as a "killer era" in F1, Cannell describes the death toll of the late 1950s with great aplomb and gruesome detail. The deaths were as grisly as they were frequent. Whereas the 1960s was an era predominated by drivers belted in to die in horrific fires, the 1950s saw drivers ejected from their mounts, causing broken necks, decapitations, dismemberments, and sometimes massive civilian casualties due to poor circuit safety.  The author, with whom I have become personally acquainted through his blog, likens the bloody F1 battle of the era as a proxy war that continued the nationalistic overtones and unfinished business of the second world war. And while I agree with him, I would add that the legacy of the war also seemed to steel the public against the shock of senseless death that became a regular occurrence.  We learn, for example, that as a young lad, von Trips was a member of a team looking for survivors in the cadaver-strewn rubble after the Allied fire bombing of Cologne.  Having seen humanity at its most shattered, surely this anaesthetized him to the scenes of carnage that were often on view --most notoriously at the 1955 running of Le Mans or the 1957 Mille Miglia.  The ability to look past tragedy and focus on winning, even at the risk of one's life, is the central enigma of the racing driver that is well examined in "The Limit."

The book is already available on Amazon, and although it's a little early in the season, I definitely recommend it as a holiday gift for anyone interested in racing history. The book should be on shelves in bookstores across the nation in the coming weeks.  Below is a video trailer for "The Limit" that you might enjoy watching:


Book Review: Bob Lutz's "Car Guys vs. Bean Counters"

Bob Lutz, the cigar-chomping, fighter jet-flying, tell-it-like-it-is septuagenarian retired auto executive otherwise known as "Maximum Bob," has released a new book about his time at General Motors. As a longtime Lutz fanboy, I had to rush out an buy a copy. At $26.95 I found it a tad steep, but I was so eager to read what Lutz has to say that I forked over the cash anyway.

The 232 page book is part memoir, part political diatribe, and part business philosophy.  The writing is informal and direct, but Lutz's tone is relentlessly cocky and self-serving, punctuated with moments of feigned modesty or introspection that only serve to reinforce the overriding arrogance of the author.  I admire Bob Lutz, but not as much as Bob Lutz admires Bob Lutz. Let's just put it that way.While it was interesting and frequently entertaining to read the author's humorous and intelligent anecdotes about why and how GM got into the deplorable state it was in for so many years, the narrative was tainted by personal bias. In Lutz's brief history of GM, the people he admires or knows personally are the "good guys" and the incompetent, pencil-pushing, left-brained losers --Lutz's enemies-- are "the bad guys" who wrecked the company.  In short, there is little dispassionate analysis of the way GM went from the most successful automaker in the world to purveyor of...shall we say...crap. Instead, Lutz seems to take the gloves off selectively, letting the UAW off surprisingly lightly, and pulling many punches at people who were managing GM during the bad old days, but with whom he is personally friends.  For someone so famous for being controversial and saying what he thinks, I got the feeling he was being very precious about who he chose to attack and defend.Lutz saves the bulk of his venom for auto industry outsiders.  He rants, as silver-haired FOX News watchers are wont to do, about the "liberal media" (he tellingly singles FOX out as more objective than other networks) and the "green zealots" who undermined GM at every turn while fawning over Toyota.  While I share his disgust at the way many journos (most notably Thomas Friedman) praise and defend Toyota with blind devotion, he utterly glosses over the real reason why journalists, and frankly much of the American public hated GM and the big three: Because they made shitty, poorly-designed, gas-guzzling cars for nearly 30 years, all the while fighting any new labor or environmental regulation tooth and nail --and made boneheaded strategic and marketing decisions on top of it all. Honestly, is there any GM car worth a damn between 1973 and 2001 when Lutz returned to the company? Ok, maybe the Fiero--once they solved the engine fires.

Today's GM is more enlightened on every front, and their products are now truly world class (ask any friend of mine and they can attest to my proselytizing for GM and Ford products!) but Bob seems to act as if the vitriol poured on GM from the left were undeserved. It was not. The real problem was that as GM changed for the better, those haters and enemies failed to recognize the real, palpable changes afoot and give credit where credit was due. Furthermore, they ignored or forgave the increasingly bad behavior of Toyota and other imports, who filled the market with equally massive and profligate SUVs to compete with domestic offerings. But Lutz's counter-attacks on the supposed "green left journalistic establishment" ring terribly false. That Lutz defends the SUV as the "workhorse of the American middle class family" is one of the more blatant and disappointing moments of shilling in this book.  That Lutz--the evangelist of the sports sedan and European driving dynamics--would defend and even ennoble these ugly, monstrous, wasteful body-on-frame vehicles is really a sign that he isn't being truly honest with the reader here. The SUV craze of the 90s was a despicable and wasteful fad. And just saying, as Lutz does, that "we just made the cars people wanted to buy" is the disingenuous language of an apologist. For someone so brash and opinionated, Lutz again seems to pull his punches where a solid left jab to the gut is what's called for.If you carve away all the fat, bone, and gristle, the really choice part of the book is towards the end, when Lutz expatiates upon the state of American business thinking and makes some very salient points about why American companies have lost market share in a wide range of product categories.  He rightfully points out that business leaders have become so rational, and so pseudo-scientific in their approach to product development that there is no place for a real, messy, non-linear creative process that leads to disruptive innovation and desirable products that people will covet.  His essential argument is that GM wallowed in mediocrity for years not due to lack of talent or capability. They failed because their management was obsessed with measuring and quantifying the wrong things, while ignoring the important stuff and imprisoning its most creative people within bureaucratic fiefdoms run by numbers crunchers, not visionaries.

Lutz explains that many product executives at GM were evaluated and rewarded based solely on whether their cars came out on time and within budget, and actual sales results--poor as they inevitably were--were blamed on other outside factors giving the execs deniability of responsibility.  But in fact, the line executives were the only people with access to the results of consumer testing, and were well aware that the cars they were developing were likely to fail in the marketplace.  They simply didn't care because as long as the car came out on time, and within budget they'd get a bonus.  Lutz came in and changed the process, saying he'd rather have a great car come out a few months behind than rush out a sub-par product to the public.  He also made consumer testing results "public" within the upper management so that the line executives no longer had anywhere to hide.  He also consolidated and politically re-empowered the design studios at GM, restoring them the powerhouse they once were under Bill Mitchell.  Seems like a no-brainer, but that is essentially the crux of Lutz's argument in this book: American business has over-intellectualized and over-rationalized things that to most ordinary people are "no-brainers" (see also Pontiac Aztek).  Lutz argues cogently for an enlightened despot to run a company rather than consensus building and team-oriented approach that will inevitably lead to watered-down results.photo credit: new york timesFor too long, GM took their customers and market share for granted, whittling down to the minimum of what a consumer would "accept" rather than "desire." This drive for minimizing cost and maximizing efficiencies at the expense of quality and desirability is Lutz's antichrist.  He argues and indeed demonstrated in the market that when given high quality product offerings, people not only recognize the quality, but will pay more for it.  As a product designer who has seen many a client hobble an otherwise promising new product with artifical launch deadlines and ever-tightening cost targets, it was music to my ears to hear a seasoned business executive articulate this point of view. I sincerely hope that leaders of other consumer-facing companies will have the same epiphany.  So many of them seem to want to be a Steve Jobs without really walking the walk. Lutz, during his tenure at GM, did walk the walk, and worked tirelessly to teach others to walk that walk, changing the culture at the company in the process. He deserves tremedous credit for doing so.

If you can stomach the page after page of self-congratulation, climate change denial, and attacks on the "elite" media, there is a lot of good food for thought in "Car Guys vs. Bean Counters." I would love to see it edited down to a tight, powerful, apolitical 75 page business manifesto stapled to the door (or forehead) of every B-school dean, professor and student. Maybe then, we'd see the real cultural shift in our business community that is so urgently needed to surpass foreign competition and make American products winners in the marketplace once again.


Book Review: Karl Ludvigsen's Colin Chapman - Inside the Innovator

Last week, I wrote a piece lamenting that many of today's car books are either glossy coffee table books of car porn, or poorly-produced works by passionate amateurs, lacking in finish and presentation.  This week, I'd like to tell you how Karl Ludvigsen's incredibly detailed and richly illustrated new biography of Colin Chapman delivers satisfaction on every level.

If you are a regular reader of this site, I don't need to go into much detail about who Chapman was, or the man's numerous accomplishments. But to summarize in one pithy sentence, Colin Chapman was a brilliantly innovative creator of racing machines whose ideas fundamentally changed the sport on nearly every level. And Ludvigsen's book is a definitive compendium of all the ways, large and small, in which Chapman left his indelible legacy on Formula One and Sports Car design. Colin Chapman: Inside the Innovator is --to my knowledge-- the most comprehensive volume yet written about the charismatic and ingenious founder of the Lotus marque.  Ludvigsen, arguably one of the foremost automotive historians around today, has left no stone unturned in his categoric analysis of Chapman's genius.  Rather than organize his book in chronological fashion, the author has adopted a thematic approach for this nearly 400 page work. 

This allows a more casual reader to digest the book in sections, so if you just want to know about how Chapman approached his chassis design, you can go directly to the chapter about Chassis and Structure, and skip all the engine and gearbox bits. My favorite chapter was the "Discovering Downforce" section, which details how Chapman and his designers gradually came to understand the Ground Effect in the wind tunnel, and how they translated these experiments into devastatingly effective racing machines that dominated Formula 1 in the late 1970s. I had no idea how technically-minded Mario Andretti was, but he comes across in the book as an extremely astute strategist and test driver, aside from being a fast-as-hell racing champion. His observations and anecdotes about his time with Chapman are particularly insightful.Other sections of the book focus on technical aspects such as suspensions, engines, and chassis design, as well as less concrete topics such as Chapman's management style and his conceptual approach to design. In short, it's a huge all-you-can-eat buffet of facts, analysis, interviews, photographs, and technical drawings, and there is something for everyone's taste!

The picture of Chapman that emerges is of a charming yet un-knowable Sphinx. One might even say he had certain psychopathic characteristics such as narcissism, lack of empathy, lack of personal accountability, and his manner of instinctively knowing how to treat people according to how he could best manipulate them (either through flattery or brutality). Either way, he was a very canny reader of other people, and adept at getting the best out of those around him, even if he had to run roughshod over others' pride. The death of his dear friend Jim Clark, in a Lotus F2 car in 1968 is the only point at which we see Chapman's human emotions really come to the fore as he became engulfed in deep mourning and sorrow.Although the text is sometimes very dense in the more technical chapters, and reading the book cover to cover took me quite some time (I always read every book I review from cover to cover, folks), I found it to be a very illuminating portrait of Chapman in all his guises: engineer, businessman, side show impresario, mentor and tyrant.  The only areas that the book covers very little are Chapman's personal life as well as his later financial dealings with John Z. DeLorean that might have ultimately landed him in jail for defrauding investors had he not suddenly passed away in 1982 at the age of 54. Perhaps this omission was intended to focus more on solid history than on gossip, and more on innovation than pure biography, but it seems that a work this comprehensive nature should make more than a passing mention of Chapman's involvement with DeLorean, since it defined the last few years of Chapman's life.  Perhaps Ludvigsen didn't want to tarnish the luster of Chapman's genius by detailing his financial chicanery, but this was nevertheless part of what made Chapman such a complex and interesting character --he was definitely a shady dealer by all accounts-- and might have added some spice to the read.

Through Ludvigsen's meticulous and expansive documentation of Chapman's exploits, one comes to understand the incredibly fertile nature of Chapman's mind and the incredible passion for success at all levels that drove him and sustained him through peaks and valleys in F1 as well as the production car and boat businesses.  Interviews with colleagues and drivers, as well as a wealth of historical documents and photographs weave a vibrant and fascinating portrait that is at once informative as well as fun to flip through and just look at the pictures.  One can spend hours studying the reproduced technical sketches drawn in Chapman's own hand, or reading facsimiles of his manifesto-like design briefs for his engineers.  The thematic nature of the book serves to reinforce the breadth and depth of Chapman's genius. When you come to understand all the various skills and principles he had to master in order to design his cars, from gearboxes to fluid dynamics, not to mention all the balls he had to keep in the air as a businessman and team manager, it's nothing short of a remarkable life.  In my opinion, Ettore Bugatti and Henry Ford are the only other geniuses of this type in the history of the motorcar, who did everything from technical design to administration, to management, and did it so very well.  Much has been written about the other two men. At last there is a book that elucidates Chapman's staggering talents in such a complete way.

Available through Motorbooks and Amazon


Objects of Desire: Car Books of the 1970s

There's something I just love about car books of the 1970s.  They are often just packed so densely with archival photos and detailed history, plus the layout design is often really cool. They usually have a great old-book smell, too.  I think the 70s was the golden age of car publishing, when printing technology was good enough to make affordable books with tons of high quality photos (many 1960's books have lousy printing quality, especially in color), and when the market really was open -for whatever reason- to geeky books about automotive arcania.  The historians of the 70s took their job seriously, and fortunately for us, the protagonists of the 20 century's motoring history tended to still be alive and accessible in that era, providing a lot of great first-hand accounts of racing and automotive history which are increasingly hard to obtain today now that folks are dying off, or just tired of being interviewed.

In today's landscape of auto books, things have increasingly polarized.  At one end are the high-end glossy art books with stellar photography, beautiful layout and mind-blowing printing quality, but often light on substance. Then there are the car geek books full of B/W photos and chassis numbers, but these usually are written by passionate amateurs and hobbyists for small imprints, and have low standards of layout and printing. Many of the color photos will be taken by the author at historic racing meets, and aren't of high artistic quality. It's rare in today's book market to see a book like those from the 70s that combines all the best of historical rigor and depth, great photography and layout, all in a beautiful and satisfying package.  Fortunately for all of us, such special books are still being produced from time to time, and we'll have a review of one next week! Stay tuned!