My brother, a car enthusiast extraordinaire, has driven them all—Porsches, Ferraris, BMWs, Jags, Aston Martins, Cobras, Corvettes, two-place Mercedes, you name it. The worst—the bottom of the barrel—was Corvette. Pretty face, no brains. And no wonder: too heavy, balky handling, so-so brakes, slightly-tweaked passenger car suspension. That was then. Recently, my brother drove one of the latest Vettes and was positively stunned: lethal horsepower, responsive steering, lots of grip, incredible brakes. What’s not to love? “I never thought I’d say this,” he told me over the phone, “but for the price you can’t beat it. If I was looking to replace my Porsche this is what I’d get.” Which brings us to Randy Leffingwell’s book: CORVETTE--FIFTY YEARS. It covers the entire Corvette history, starting way back in the 1920s when the company was being reorganized by managing genius Alfred Sloan, to the realization in the 1930s that style drove sales, to the immediate post-WWII years when sports cars such as Jags and Triumphs and MGs were making inwards into the American car market. At that point, GM was pumping new life into the Chevrolet Division and looking for a symbol to excite buyers. That was the question—the answer was the Corvette. It didn’t sell a lick (300 cars in 1953), but it attracted the attention of the media, particularly magazines like Road & Track and Motor Trend. The engine wasn’t much to get excited about—the venerable stove bolt-Chevy 6, coupled to an automatic trans. But it was a start, and soon the Corvette became the focus of GM’s quest to attract the growing youth market, with the lure of high performance options. Enter an ex-patriot Russian engineer named Zora Arkus Duntov, introduction of the small-block Chevy V8, dual four-barrel carbs, tricked out camshafts, fuel injection, four-speed transmissions, and a foray into motor racing. Corvette was still not a money maker, but it was the symbol of GM’s obsession with style coupled with performance, and it was drawing buyers away from Ford and Chrysler like never before. Duntov had his toys—the CERV I and CERV II concept cars to amuse himself and to improve the Corvette breed, of course. Looking as if it had been unloaded from some alien spaceship, the Corvette Stingray arrived in the Fall of 1962, exciting the public even more. Chevrolet withdrew from racing—or so they said—while supplying under-the-counter high-performance parts, and priceless engineering advice to Chevrolet runners. And—in the case of road-racer Jim Hall--a complete racecar, the Corvette GSIIB (which evolved into the Chaparral 2E Can Am racer). Also to emerge from Chevrolet’s performance-crazed engineers--and be placed in the hands of racers like Roger Penske--was the super-light Corvette Grand Sport, built to whip the Cobra-Fords. And so it went, with Chevrolet refining the Corvette to the point where—in our time—it can be said to be the equal of any mass-produced high-performance car made anywhere in the world. It’s an amazing story, really, and Leffingwell tells it well, with scads of research, color photos galore, in a quality book—what’s not to like?
MUSTANG—FORTY YEARS, by Randy Leffingwell
If you’re looking for a big, glossy coffee table book about the iconic Ford Mustang, this book may not be for you. Yes, it has lots of arresting color photos, and it’s printed on quality paper, and excellently bound. But it’s something of a think-piece, too, with lots of in-depth text. The author, Randy Leffingwell, is interested in how things get started and how they develop and become a part of American culture, and the vaunted Mustang is a case in a point. Leffingwell wants to tell the entire story, of the cars that preceded and influenced the Mustang, of the men who developed the original design and saw it through several setbacks and finally into production, and of all the changes the famed pony car has undergone down through the years. It makes for a fascinating tale. For a car guy like me, who was a kid when the rumor went around that Ford was developing a sporty new car to compete with the Corvette, and 18 months later seeing the very car on the showroom floor, this book fills in the gaps. The photos are arresting but I was enthralled by the people behind the story. Among the telling photos: the 1946 Ford Sportsman convertible that pointed the way; the ’55 T-Bird (gorgeous); the Edsel (oops! how did that get in there?); the original Mustang I prototype two-seater; the muscular Ford-Cobra; and of course all the Mustangs produced down through the years, including the Shelby Mustang GT350 and GT500. Glorious. Also included is the story behind the proposed independent rear suspension that didn’t make it into production. A pity. The story really begins with Ford president Lee Iacocca and his desire to make Ford viable again with an exciting line-up of stylish new cars, an emphasis on high performance options (and "Total Performance" themed advertising), and a return to motor racing in a Big Way, with victories at Daytona, Indy, Le Mans and at the local drag strip, and, of course, introduction of the Mustang in 1964. The Mustang was originally planned to be something akin to a Corvette that seated four—a family sports car, if you will. But tool-up costs were prohibitive, especially after the 1958-60 Edsel debacle that nearly broke the company. The answer was to use the existing Falcon platform, the new small-block Ford V8, and an arresting European-style body (long hood, short trunk, minimal chrome). Coupled with a low, low price, the Mustang captured the young-adult buyers market, made scads of money for the company, and converted loyal GM customers into loyal Ford customers. This is wonderful book, filled with intriguing photos and informative text.