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FIFTY YEARS IN FIFTY MINUTES?

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Most car magazines are written by and for people who move their lips when they read. This is a little disconcerting for the thinking gearhead. Honest, intelligent opinions about cars and the auto industry can be hard to come by. But without Car & Driver magazine, finding such opinions might well be impossible.

The magazine celebrated its 50th year of publication during 2005 with a year-long flood of special content, peaking with a special 50th anniversary issue this July, along with a weekend-long party at (where else?) the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. But one part of that celebration is just now trickling out to customers: a high-quality coffee-table book published by Hachette Filipacchi, the magazine’s current owners.

Written by former C/D staffer Martin Padgett, the book covers the magazine’s history, from its roots as a regional racing-enthusiast publication, through its difficult first few years as a pro-import voice amid the golden age of big Detroit iron, lingering extensively during the muscle-car era of the late 1960s, then sort of rushing the reader through the magazine’s most recent quarter-century. A number of the magazine’s greatest articles and editorials are reproduced in whole or part, including the infamous “GTO vs. GTO” article of 1964, which established C/D’s tone as an irreverent, iconoclastic voice for the thinking car geek. You can also read Brock Yates’ account of the real “Cannonball Run,” an actual coast-to-coast road race held on multiple occasions in the years prior to the Burt Reynolds/Dom DeLuise farce. An infamous multi-car comparison held in Baja California is also reprinted, along with lurid accounts of dead cows, morditas, and flooded Nissans. Long-time C/D staffer Patrick Bedard was the first automotive journalist to qualify for the Indy 500; his account of a horrific crash in the 1984 race is compelling reading for anybody who’s ever dreamed of racing at Indy, and fortunately, it’s in this book. Padgett even includes his own very funny account of a one-night stint in the Joie Chitwood Thrill Show as a “human battering ram.”

What has always made C/D unique among car magazines has been its continual editorial policy of finding good writers and letting them write. The personalities of C/D’s staffers always come through in their writing. This has had the effect of making C/D one of the better-written magazines on any subject, let alone cars. Padgett allows the reader to peek behind the curtain a bit at some of the larger-than-life personalities who have shaped the magazine, editors like David E. Davis Jr. (who would go on to found Automobile magazine), Brock Yates, Patrick Bedard, Don Sherman, and many others. For long-time fans of the magazine like myself, this is a real treat and I found myself greedily wanting more of it. But I suppose Padgett had an obligation not to drag down the book with too much “inside baseball” talk.

The book looks fantastic. The quality of photography and typography is simply stunning. Magazines aren’t printed in such a way as to last forever; this book allows longtime C/D readers to really see some of the magazine’s stunning photographs for the first time.

One quibble I have is that much–make that much–of the book’s content is lifted more or less verbatim from the 50th anniversary issue of the magazine. Virtually all of Patrick Bedard’s comments come from the several pieces he wrote for that issue, for example. There’s really nothing wrong with using the magazine’s own version of its history as a source, but for most C/D fans it represents a redundancy. And if this $50 (suggested list) book isn’t for C/D fans, who is it for?

Nevertheless, radical C/D completists such as myself (I have every issue since December 1969) know they have to have this book. It probably isn’t as good as it could have been. But it’s still very, very good. Just like the magazine.

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About Mark Hasty