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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.
Something about this exotic breed of cars crystallized a latent disaffection with life as I saw it at the time. To a restless adolescent seeking his place in the culturally constipated world of the late forties and early fifties, the sports car dramatically symbolized freedom and self-expression and, pithiest of all, nonconformity. It was flamboyantly individualistic, even selfish: only two seats, for God’s sake. It was impractical. You looked silly driving one in a suit and tie. It was all about speed and exuded a frisson of danger. It was flagrantly anti-American. In brief, the sports car cocked a snook at everything—the John Foster Dulleses and Arthur Godfreys, the Rotary Club, “Your Hit Parade,” fedoras, golf, The Saturday Evening Post , suburbia—that middle-class America in the fifties held dear. It was a playful poke in the eye of the whole weary, dreary, middle-aged Establishment that ran everything and that seemed determined to smother society’s and my life force under layer upon layer of safe conventionality.
And if, in the process, my emerging sports car mania might just happened to stir up a bit of oedipal mischief in the McCall family, well, what the hell. You have to break with the old man sometime, and at seventeen, an eager voluntary commissar of the sports car revolution, I couldn’t imagine a worthier pretext.
It may have been the first oedipal dilemma fought out on four wheels. Dad might be described as the worldliest Babbitt on earth. He was an ex-newspaperman, well traveled, who considered his mind broad and his sophistication cosmopolitan. He also distrusted every new idea he ever met, hugged convention the way a koala hugs a tree, and knew in his bones that “European” was a synonym for decadence, corruption, and seventy or so other deadly sins. A stodgy Dodge was good enough for him, for any normal person. His own flesh and blood’s curious affinity for European sports cars verged on perversion.
It rapidly escalated in his eyes to something like attempted patricide in 1953, when Dad took a job as the head of public relations for Chrysler of Canada. When you hired T. C. McCall, you got his heart and his soul, and his Doberman loyalty, at no extra cost. Never particularly car-minded before, he became a walking, talking, full-time one-man lobby for the Automobile Manufacturers’ Association and a splenetic one. No matter that the foreign-car invasion was still no more than a lone rowboat far out at sea, and that 99.5 percent of the market belonged to the domestic industry; any Canadian or American caught even thinking about cars with foreign nameplates deserved to be caned. The sight of a foreign puddle jumper parked within eyeshot of his house was a personal affront. And any son of his caught up in this idiotic fad was a professional embarrassment and an ingrate. No, make that a viper nursing at his breast.
Sorry, Dad, but I was too far gone. If my deviant automotive beliefs brought family exile and martyrdom, so be it. Like a persecuted Christian in ancient Rome, I went underground, feeding my religious zeal with smuggled tracts— Sports Cars Illustrated, Car Life , and Road & Track from the U.S.A., Autocar and Motor from the U.K., quickie sports car guides and classic car paperbacks from wherever I could grab them. I hadn’t money enough to even dream about owning one, but sports cars by now more than dominated my life; they were the prism through which I saw life. It was all so clear: If only everything were as enlightened and creative and bold, as fresh as the sports car, what a wonderful world it would be.
The agony of choice could drive men mad. The sports car landscape of the mid-fifties resembled a pre-1914 map of the Balkans, a bewildering patchwork of tiny independent entities. That a good two-thirds of them were English was no coincidence. Their factories pounded into varying heaps of rubble during the war, the handful of German, Italian, and French carmakers that had managed to resume production after 1945 were only now turning again to sports cars. Continental sensations like the first-generation Mercedes-Benz 300SL and the Alfa Romeo Giulietta as yet had few North American dealers, much less customers. Meanwhile, England—where the sports car had always been a virtual cottage industry—was again a hive of manufacture, and from AC to Aston Martin, Berkeley to Bristol, Jaguar to Jensen, MG to Morgan, and Sunbeam to Singer, most makers were shipping the lion’s share of their output overseas in England’s desperate postwar export drive. In the U.S.A. and perhaps even more so in the British Commonwealth member Canada, you could have virtually any English sports car you fancied.
That it was likely to be underpowered, unreliable, uncomfortable, and ugly reflected the fact that the average English sports car manufactory was equally likely to be run more along the lines of an Ealing comedy than a giant of industry, and underfinanced or eccentric or reactionary or all three. But at the fevered peak of the sports car revolution, such drawbacks seemed to be almost pluses. No bland American blob, thank you. Character was the thing. And what revealed character more than cantankerousness? It overheated? It wouldn’t start on a cold morning, wouldn’t keep running in the rain, blew fuses and clutches oftener than its owner blew his nose? Well, of course. It wasn’t another boring family hack, it was a sports car .
I had mentally window-shopped the sports car market until there wasn’t a specification I didn’t know, a marque history I couldn’t recite going back to Edwardian times. Like everyone else, I dreamed of nestling into the all-conquering new Jaguar XK120, of lording it over all mankind in a handmade Aston Martin DB3, or of lording it over even Aston Martins in a Bentley Continental. Reality, alas, ordained that I settle for 50 percent of much, much less. Only by pooling my puny financial resources with Hugh’s might we just barely manage between us what neither could individually afford. Not the sports car of our dreams, not even a clapped-out old Riley—not on a budget in the middling-low three figures. But by astute reconnaissance of the used-car lots and shrewd bargaining, we could surely land something. Maybe even something European.
Neither Hugh nor I happened to be in the least astute or shrewd, and car fever was lowering our standards almost hourly. That some slickster didn’t hornswoggle us into a deathtrap seems in retrospect a minor miracle. Our maiden set of wheels was proof of our father’s adage that even a blind hog finds an acorn once in a while: It was only three years old, it had been driven by the proverbial little old lady, and it was English.
For years after the end of World War II, America’s and Canada’s pent-up demand for new cars far outstripped even Detroit’s capacity to satisfy it. The motor industry of the United Kingdom saw its chance and favored the Canadian market in particular with a trickle of sports cars and a flood of left-hand-drive versions of the same cheap, small sedans that were the staple of British driving life. They briefly bloomed like mayflies on the streets of Toronto, a watered vintage compared with their sports car cousins, but better these than waiting years for a new Ford or Chevy or taking a flyer on something used. They buzz past in review: the Triumph Mayflower, a grotesque parody of Rolls-Royce styling in pint size; the Hillman Minx, with its inexplicably ass-backward shift pattern; the Vauxhall Victor, cowering under its heavy-handed American styling; the redoubtable Morris Minor; the long Austin A35, a metal pup tent on wheels. There were entertaining oddballs and flashes in the pan like the Jowett Javelin with its flat-four engine, and big, staid Humber Super Snipes and Wolseleys. The Germans belatedly muscled in with their Borgwards and NSUs and Lloyds and Isetta bubble cars and two-stroke DKWs, and eventually the French as well, most notoriously with the Renault 4CV, an evil-handling little rear-engine bug designed by Dr. Ferdinand Porsche while in captivity just after the war and known forever after as “Porsche’s Revenge.” But once Detroit’s production and North American buyer demand became more or less equal, those imported stopgaps largely fell from favor. You could pick up a used English flyweight sedan for a song.
Ours was a seasick green 1951 Ford Anglia, a tinny little thirty-horsepower relic of pre-war economy car design barely gripping the lowest-known rung of automotive status, barely good for 63 miles per hour in a strong tail wind, homely as a meat loaf, stark as a monk’s cell. But it was a car. And it wasn’t American.
We loved and tended that knock-kneed runt as if it were a Rolls, duly recording its every mile and gallon of fuel and pint of oil, fretting over its every random squeak and hiccup, weekly and often daily waxing and rubbing its every surface, manicuring the thing like a prize miniature poodle at Westminster. Feeling at least halfway certified for admission to the sports car elite, we bought Kangol driving caps and mesh-backed driving gloves and affected long English scarves. We enrolled in the local sports car club, joining our fellow zealots one evening per month in the Grange Hall to watch documentaries on the Monte Carlo and Redex Round Australia rallies of two or three years before. We drove in Sunday rallies, competed in parking-lot gymkhanas and in time trials on frozen lakes. I became editor of The Crankshaft Journal , the club newsletter, and turned it into a screed packed with anti-Detroit polemics instead of news. If my father had ever seen an issue, I’d have been disinherited on the spot. I didn’t care.
SIX MONTHS INTO THE GIDDY EXPERIENCE of car ownership, we finally worked up our nerve to drive all the way from Windsor to Toronto, 240 miles across table-flat country
A young man’s first car is a sweaty emotional and financial investment, a fragile basket of eggs on four wheels. No little old lady could have driven that Anglia more gingerly than I did. Keep the revs down. Coast along in top gear. Avoid hard, sudden stops. Close, don’t slam, the doors. The more miles it rolled up, the nearer loomed wear-out and the scrapyard, so its outings were carefully planned and rationed. Six months into the giddy experience of car ownership, Hugh and I finally worked up our nerve to drive the Anglia all the way from Windsor to Toronto, 240 miles across table-flat southern Ontario. It was high adventure nonetheless. “What’s that funny noise?” “I’d swear it’s losing power!” “That temperature gauge needle—it’s moving up!” Surely the engine would burst from its exertions. Something had to go wrong. Miraculously nothing did. We rolled to a stop in Toronto six hours later as flushed with triumph as Lindbergh landing at Le Bourget.
Faithful and willing the little Anglia was. But a genteel year behind its wheel was enough. Hormones and the lure of the sports car ever more insistently churned, and driving this car was like dating a nun. Back to the used-car bazaar in search of something more robust.
Slim pickings. There couldn’t have been more than a hundred sports cars at the time in all of Essex County, Ontario. Only a few had found their way onto used-car lots, and fewer still were as yet old or debilitated enough for Hugh’s and my combined buying power to afford. Mercifully for the purposes of choosing from among the ratty available examples, a romantic haze dulled our critical faculties. We must have been half-blinded by a particularly dense roseate hue the day we finally struck. If it had been a dog at the ASPCA, that 1953 Morgan Plus Four roadster would have had to be put down. What Hugh and I saw as a classic British sports car with a long louvered hood, swooping clamshell fenders, cutaway doors, and a flat Bugattiesque radiator proved, once reality descended—and it descended hard and fast—to be a one-thousand-dollar down payment on an adventure in disillusion.
Morgans had always been an idiosyncratic footnote in the annals of the sports car, crafted in the low hundreds annually by an old family-owned English firm where the clock of technological progress had stopped dead around 1936. The archetypal Morgan was old-fashioned from its wood body framing to its mid-thirties bodywork, hard-riding, and Spartan. But its rarity and character and very primitivism gave it cachet wherever sports car aficionados gathered. The “Mog”: sui generis .
Our very own Mog gave us grief whenever we turned the key. Only after it was legally too late did Hugh and I discover that its previous back-yard-mechanic owner had decided to plane the Standard four-cylinder engine’s cylinder head in a misguided quest to up its power. Maybe he’d used a wood plane; the job was bungled, the engine was sick. The four-speed manual transmission snatched and jammed in every gear. The electrical system’s frequent shortcuts vouched for the notorious nickname of its maker, Lucas: Prince of Darkness. The windshield wipers had only one mode, intermittent, and clearance between the wiper motor and the steering wheel was tight enough to bark the driver’s knuckles whenever he turned. The frame flexed so violently over bumps that the hood and doors popped open.
Brilliant top-down, wind-whipped autumn days out on the open road: Ah, this was sports car life, this was living, we lied. Week by week we lavished our patented manic affection and care on the Morgan—only to find ourselves week by week lavishing dollars we couldn’t afford, just to keep it from falling apart.
But at least it wasn’t an MG. The mass-market sports car world of the time formed a competing all-English trinity of MG, Triumph, and Austin-Healey that engendered partisanship as fierce as that between Muslim, Jew, and Hindu. I viewed the new MGA as a characterless sop to know-nothing Americans, Austin-Healey as an overpriced lounge lizard’s sports car, and the stumpy Triumph TR2 as a doughty underdog, sans pedigree but by far the best performance-for-dollar buy extant. Hugh’s and my English friend Mike Barber disagreed. He had just taken delivery of a brand-new MGA. With its Standard-Vanguard engine, the Morgan was at least lineally a Triumph.
I SOMETIMES MARVEL AT THE ENERGY and passion I poured into the cause of the sports car day after day for years. “Get a life,’ indeed. But I guess you had to be there.
Honor demanded a showdown. Purring new MGA and lumpy-idling Morgan Plus Four met side by side on an unopened twenty-mile stretch of the new Highway 401 one blustery Sunday afternoon in December. It was a rolling start in a flat-out straight-line duel from standstill to valve float. And may the car with the highest maximum speed win.
The torqueier Morgan shot ahead, but by 70 mph Mike’s MG had drawn abreast. I mashed foot to floor and held it there. One car length, two car lengths; the MG receded. My engine’s rising scream now leveled off to a steady shriek, and the speedometer reading leveled off at 90 mph. Had it only been in working order, the Morgan’s tachometer needle would by now be nudging into the red zone. Suddenly a vicious, ripping noise and howling cockpit turbulence. The weather-beaten canvas roof had just sheared itself in two, straight down the middle, and co-driver Hugh grappled with the flapping remnants. Then seconds later a shudder, a clatter, and only the sound of the wind and the co-owners blubbering as the speedometer needle arced backward from 80 to 60 to 40 toward O, and the powerless Morgan rolled to a stop.
The damage assessment was the Morgan’s autopsy. “She’s thrown a rod,” explained Bert, the kindly Yorkshireman proprietor of British Sports Cars Ltd. Resuscitating it would cost quadruple what the corpse was worth. Bert, a master mechanic and the local authorized Triumph dealer, had by now become a father confessor in all things automotive. We withdrew to the corner desk in his Hogarthian pit of a garage to mull our options.
We emerged an hour later the co-owners of a brand-new 1956 British Racing Green Triumph TR3. Avuncular Bert’s willingness to extend generous terms and our ability to rationalize when it came to cars had lofted us from the slums to the near pinnacle. The penury threatened by the monthly payments would be worth it. The new-car smell alone rendered Hugh and me almost dizzy. We drove home in triumph in our Triumph, insisting that even Dad take it out for a ride. He came back shaking his head, of course, but what in hell did he know? Not that the TR3’s gutsy two-liter, four-cylinder engine cracked the mystical hundred-horsepower barrier. Not that it out-accelerated his beloved mushy Plymouth, with a lusty growl, and topped out at an exalted 110 mph. It sat so low that your fanny was mere inches off the road. It was pugnacious to the point of brutality—the two-liters-and-under racing king. It could eat MGs for breakfast. A day with a brand-new TR3 was better than a night with Ava Gardner. How could two guys be so lucky?
Twenty-four hours later, with the brand-new TR3 a crumpled ball of wreckage steaming in a cornfield near London, Ontario, second thoughts had occurred.
I’d decided to celebrate the dawn of this golden era by driving to Toronto for New Year’s Eve, leaving Hugh behind at home. I’d made it almost halfway, tiptoeing along over roads glazed by black ice and powdered with windblown snow, when a car towing a trailer slowly lumbered off a side road on the left and into my lane only a hundred feet ahead. I reflexively stomped the brake pedal just as the Triumph hit a patch of glare ice and started a long, lazy spin, and an oncoming Oldsmobile did the rest.
That I was lucky to have escaped alive, much less uninjured, and that Hugh would have probably been killed if he’d been with me—the Oldsmobile impacted the passenger side and smashed through it right up to the transmission tunnel—was of scant solace; the Triumph was a total wreck. I felt as if a newborn baby had died.
A year into my seniority, indeed, the joys of Triumph driving had started to wane. Fast car, strong car for its price and class, but after all, only a common Triumph. Drivers of my sophistication hankered for a more challenging machine; that, or I’d overdosed on Road & Track reports on exotic sports cars. Whatever, the risk of fiscal suicide was once again brushed aside. Hugh and I could, for only a few dollars more per month, graduate to the inner circle of sports car connoisseurship. We could own a red 1600-cc 1956 Porsche 356A Normal Coupe, barely used—and by an anal-compulsive engineer owner at that. And one hasty session of breathtaking rationalizations later, we did.
Porsches were a bold enough departure from traditional sports car design of the day to seem almost Martian: rear-engined, air-cooled, soft-sprung, sinuously round and flowing of shape. Their designer and namesake, Dr. Ferdinand Porsche—former engineering chief of Mercedes-Benz, creator of the Volkswagen—was a genius. The Porsche did carry one minor P.R. liability. It was German, and Dad disliked the Germans. No, he hated them. No, he despised them, and all their works, their babies and puppies included, with every fiber of his being. A Royal Canadian Air Force press officer posted to the 6th Canadian Bomber Group in England during the war, he had seen scores, hundreds of his country’s finest young men—including his best friend—take off for missions over Germany, never to return. And now his own sons had embraced a car made in Germany, by members of that incorrigibly evil race.
Porsche the man and the car were 100 percent de-Nazified as far as Hugh and I were concerned, but we kept our new prize hidden from Dad’s sight (not to mention the fact that Herr Porsche had designed the feared Tiger tank; it was 1958, let bygones be bygones) and stifled our enthusiasm in his presence. But the Porsche relationship was even for us a strange one. In our hearts we knew it was too good a car, too fine an object to be wasted on the likes of us; our maintaining a Porsche was like Dot’s Kozy Motor Kabins hosting Count von Bismarck. We repainted it silver and botched the job. I ran it in the grueling Canadian Winter Rally and smashed it into a fence post in a blizzard in the middle of the night. No sooner had it been patched together again than I missed a shift during a time trial, cracked the bell housing, and, lacking anywhere near the price of the repair, finally surrendered. Some people just weren’t good enough for a Porsche.
The enforced demotion to a Volkswagen Beetle drew the curtains on the first act of my sports car mania. By then it was early 1960, and over those five years since the first drive in the Anglia the American automotive scene—prompted by the sports car revolution in the Euroconsciousness that followed—was halfway toward turning upside down. The once-ridiculous VW Beetle, that giant Schuco toy, was a bestseller. Detroit had been panicked into partial reform and was readying the downsized Corvair and Falcon and Valiant and trumpeting the blunderbuss Corvette as if the sports car were an American invention. Elvis had happened, and JFK was about to, and the benighted, constricted squareness that had seemingly hemmed in America forever was crumbling everywhere.
I would climb the sports car ladder from the bottom up a second time, but maturity made it a mellower journey. A bug-eyed Austin-Healey Sprite, almost immediately written off in another horrifying crash; a dip into sports sedans via two successive turtlebacked PV444 Volvos; a turbocharged Corvair Monza; simultaneous ownership of astronaut Alan Shepard’s former Corvette and an Austin Mini-Cooper S; and the first of what would become a series of Mercedes-Benzes—the marque that incarnated, I had decided, the best of the European automotive philosophy. And still does.
I long ago set aside my driving gloves, threw out my collection of vintage-car magazines, strayed from sports car clubs, and retired from my post at the barricades. I sometimes marvel at the energy and passion I poured into the cause of the sports car day after day for years. “Get a life,” indeed. But I guess you had to be there, had to experience the allure and the thrill of playing David to the Goliath, of finding something to believe in, heart and soul. I’m proud to have served in the sports car revolution. The cars are all gone now, the battles long forgotten. But the younger generation owes us a medal.