On the Road: Books for Gearheads
There’s no denying that books make excellent Christmas gifts, so in that giving spirit it’s time for our annual On the Road book review tradition. Here’s a look at three titles that any gearhead should enjoy finding wrapped up under the tree.
First up is Hot Rod Empire: Robert E. Petersen and the Creation of the World’s Most Popular Car and Motorcycle Magazines. Written by Matt Stone with Gigi Carleton, Hot Rod Empire traces the history of one of the most influential figures in the publishing industry.
Robert Petersen was born in 1926. After the death of his mother, he lived with his mechanic/machinist father in Barstow, California. According to author Stone, Petersen was told by his high school principal “he’d never amount to anything.” Little could that educator have known that Petersen would go on to find his name on the “Forbes 400 list of the wealthiest people in America.”
Petersen was trained in the Army Air Corps as a photography technician, and when he was discharged in 1945, became a publicist for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studios. That lasted a year before he was laid off. Petersen and friend Robert Lindsay started their own PR agency, which was hired to promote a Los Angeles car and trade show called the Hot Rod Exposition. This connection prompted the 22-year old Petersen and business partner Lindsay to begin publishing in January 1948 Hot Rod magazine, a publication “dedicated to the cars, people, and places of the hot rod movement,” Stone writes.
Petersen trained his camera lens on the burgeoning Southern California hot rod scene and wrote stories about car culture, printing an inaugural run of 5,000 issues of the magazine. Hot Rod magazine met with immediate success and formed the basis for what, indeed, became a publishing empire. The book is filled with archival images that help illustrate hot rod culture and the life of the Petersens, including details about the renowned Petersen Automotive Museum.
Next on the list is Triumph Bonneville 60 Years by motorcycle historian Ian Falloon.
‘Bonneville’ is one of the most recognizable motorcycle names on the planet. It all goes back to Triumph designer Edward Turner’s 500cc parallel-twin cylinder engine that launched the Speed Twin in 1937. By 1951, that 500 had been increased to 650cc in the Thunderbird. In 1956, the sporting potential of the 650cc twin was exploited by Texas-based Johnny Allen. With the aid of nitro-methane, Allen piloted a highly-modified Thunderbird-powered streamlined motorcycle across the Bonneville Salt Flats at an average speed of 345.188 kilometres an hour. Triumph’s Turner took advantage of that accomplishment and, in 1959 when the manufacturer released a twin-carburetor version of its more sporting T110 model, he dubbed the bike the Bonneville.
Officially known as the T120, Falloon covers in great detail all of the fine mechanical points of the earliest Bonnevilles, and the book is divided into chapters that succinctly summarize all subsequent development. For example, after the Bonneville found success in the American market, Triumph updated the twin-cylinder engine design with unit-construction in 1963.
Falloon covers the transition to oil-in-frame construction, the Meriden union strike and, after looking like the end of both the make and the model, the rebirth of Triumph in the early 1990s and the Bonneville itself in 2001. The book is well-illustrated with archival photos and images of relevant Bonneville models and is required reading for anyone with even a passing interest in the motorcycle.
And last on this list is a book about one of the world’s most popular toys, the Hot Wheels die-cast cars. Hot Wheels: From 0 to 50 at 1:64 Scale is written by Kris Palmer and the book comes in a collector case that’s a nod to the vinyl covered boxes meant to store the little cars. Palmer recounts the story about toy mastermind Elliot Handler and his company, Mattel, and how the inventor dreamed up the idea for Hot Wheels cars.
“When Handler had the idea for a better toy car, the market for die-cast vehicles was neither underdeveloped nor considered vulnerable,” Palmer writes. “Rather, by the mid-1960s, play cars were a solid presence in stores and being produced by manufacturers of international renown.”
Handler assembled a team of designers to create toy cars with a distinctive appearance, “with bright paint, high level of detail, and customized touches.” The cars that were developed rolled faster and farther than any of the competition, too, and when released in 1968, Hot Wheels had what other play cars lacked.
Billions of Hot Wheels cars have been sold and Palmer’s book shines a light on all aspects of the little cars’ popularity, from the designers to the manufacturing processes. Well-illustrated with hundreds of images, Hot Wheels: From 0 to 50 is sure to appeal to anyone who played with them as a youngster, or who continues to collect them as an adult.
All of these books are published by Motorbooks, and a quick check of both Amazon and Indigo websites indicated availability. Of course, a local bookseller should be able to help. Happy reading this Christmas season.
Greg Williams is a member of the Automobile Journalists Association of Canada (AJAC). Have a column tip? Contact him at 403-287-1067 or firstname.lastname@example.org