- Historic Sites
Confessions of a Sports Car Bolshevik
What it was like to be young and in the front lines when Europe mounted an assault on Detroit with small, snarling, irresistible machines that changed the way we drove and thought
November 1996 | Volume 47, Issue 7
But one day in 1952, scrounging in the remainder bins of a Toronto bookstore in search of cheap diversion, my slightly older brother, Hugh, dredged up a reprinted compendium of pre-war articles celebrating British exploits in speed. The Schneider Trophy Supermarine floatplanes, Malcolm Campbell’s Bluebird land-speed-record car, and … what was this? Look what they’d been up to with cars! Lord Carnarvon could have been no more boggled the day they pried open Tutankhamen’s bedroom door. An entire epoch of automotive prehistory suddenly glittered in those mottled black-and-white photos and that hack journalese. All through the twenties and thirties, while America’s automotive expertise was funneling ever more narrowly down to perfection of the mass-produced mobile sofa, Europe had reveled in an automotive golden age. And nobody had told me.
They called it motor racing over there; it was Olympian combat. Mighty titans—Mercedes-Benz, Auto-Union, Alfa Romeo—clashed in epic road races from English parks to the streets of Tripoli, piloted by demigods named Nuvolari and Caracciola and Seaman. They’d turned the passenger car into rolling sculpture; ateliers in Paris and Berlin and Turin minted exquisite one-off coupes and roadsters and Berlins, no two technically or stylistically alike, on chassis whose names—Talbot-Lago, Delahaye, Isotta-Fraschini, Lagonda, Hispano-Suiza—sounded like fine wines. Bentley, Bugatti, Jaguar, Frazer-Nash, Maserati, H.R.G., ERA, BMW ad infinitum—the noble marques of Europe formed a menagerie more colorful and varied than the birds of the Amazon. America, of course, had had its swashbuckling Mercers and Stutzes and Duesenbergs and Auburns, before Darwinian industry economics snuffed such free spirits. The notion that a car could be primarily a source of sport and fun was then as alien to everyday American life as the tango.
The American millions might be complacently content with cars that rendered all the excitement of their refrigerators and stoves; across the Atlantic mundanity seemed to be almost against the law. Europeans took to the roads in radical Citroën Traction Avants and sensuous Lancia Aprilias and baroque Horches. Their automotive culture was and always had been a hotbed of creativity and excitement and pleasure. Even sports cars cheap enough for Everyman abounded.
THE SPORTS CAR COCKED A SNOOK AT everything—the John Foster Dulleses and Arthur Godfreys, the Rotary Club, fedoras, golf, The Saturday Evening Post , suburbia …
A violent value shift ensued. The American automobile receded overnight into insipid irrelevance, a plow horse versus Europe’s stallions. Even the mousiest little Fiat Topolino was a paragon of panache compared with its stolid American counterpart. At seventeen, still a pedestrian, I became a believer, an acolyte, a propagandist, a crusader for the European and against the American way of automotive life.
Why did I so passionately care? Cars, after all, were only cars. Come right down to it and a Hooper-bodied Alvis drophead had more in common with a Chevy than not; both were four-wheeled vehicles powered by internal-combustion engines, with radiators up front and occupants in the middle and a pair of taillights at the back. True, divining the myriad actual differences could—and for thousands of gearhead enthusiasts did—constitute something akin to Talmudic scholarship. Technical distinctions were interesting, aesthetic distinctions entertaining, performance differences exciting. But ultimately it wasn’t the sports car as machine that so fired my youthful imagination. It was the sports car as metaphor.