Once upon a time the American people thought of the automobile as an instrument of sensuous pleasure. Once upon a time, indeed, it was just that, and many a man still alive remembers the day. Aye, many a man crossing a city street that is a turgid river of jelly-bodied clunkers too clumsy to get out of their own way remembers a day when he ripped down a country road in a canary-yellow, bucket-seated Mercer, master of all he surveyed, high-riding, able to see where he was going, with a wheel in his hands that really steered the car instead of shyly suggesting that it change direction. Or he remembers the dead-silent steamers and the thrill of their incredible acceleration. He may be younger, and remember Stutzes, Cords, Auburns and the regal Duesenberg roadsters that used power normally apportioned to a couple of lorries to move a mere two passengers in utter glory.
It’s all past now.
We make more cars than any other people. We buy more, use more, bur more, crash more and junk more. Every 15 seconds or so, with a profligate bashing of tin, we smash a car into some firm, unyielding surface, haul it away, mop up the blood and hurry on. We produce cars at a rate that is frightening. A Detroit final assembly line is a study in compulsive neurosis. Ours is an economy of consumption and nowhere does it show more clearly. One every 60 seconds, 18 hours a day! What if the haulaway lorries and the railways fail? Who can imagine such a catastrophe? A carpet of automobiles, hot from the presses, would spread over the receiving yards like lava down a Mexican hillside. What if a production line stops and the foreman and the superintendents – on the spot in 60 seconds – fail to restart it? Let one more minute pass and the $25,000 boss of the whole works comes on a dead run, his eyes dark with panic.
Indeed, the automobile is here to stay. And all the fun has gone out of it.
Perhaps it had to be that way? Certainly not. To qualify for its ordained function – the transportation of a nation – it was not required that the American car grow 500 pounds heavier than it need be; it was not graven on stone that it had to have a huge prairie of bonnet for the hapless pilot to peer across wondering vainly where his right mudguard might be. Whose fiat laid down that every car should look like every other, so that only the most knowledgeable of knowledgeable small boys could tell them apart twenty yards away? Chrome piled on chrome and tin upon tin, they look so much alike that even the ineffable vulgarity of a squirrel-tail on the radio antenna marks Jones’s from Smith’s. They look alike and they act alike – so much so that only the expert, with stop watch, measured mile and much experience in his bones, can tell the difference in performance.
We have raised a generation of Americans who have been cheated out of one of life’s important pleasures: the joy of driving a light, fast, safe and supple automobile, a vehicle to sit in, not on, a vehicle that steers where it’s told, stops when it’s bidden – and goes like the devil the rest of the time. Wonder of wonders, these same Americans are sure that their cars are the world’s fastest, safest and best.
Gentlemen, I have news for you. You have rocks in your heads.
Mark you: for reliable day-in, day-out transportation, for the carting of the limp and supine body about from pillar to post, Detroit delivers the goods. It’s not safe transportation, it’s not economical transportation, but it’s reliable, as reliable as the regular appearance of the 5.05 around the bend this side of Whisker Junction, and just about as exciting.
It could be reliable, safe, cheap and a hell of a lot of fun to boot. Once upon a time, it was, right here. In some other places in the world it still is, right now. That is what this book is about. It is about automobiles for which any man in his right mind would embezzle money, leave his wife and skip the country. It is about cars that herald their coming for a mile and break your neck as you try to watch them pass. We will treat, in these pages, of automobiles designed to run for 20 years, and of the men who built them and drove them. We sing here of motor-cars beautiful as sunsets, strong as bank vaults, desirable as dark-eyed houris never were, and safe as churches.
Let us consider the fabulous Bugatti, prince of motors. Imagine a string-straight, poplar-lined Route Nationale in France on a summer’s day. That growing dot in the middle distance is a sky-blue Bugatti coupe, rasping down fro Paris to Nice at 110 miles an hour….