DTW Considers a Well-Thumbed Volume
As Simon has pointed out in his excellent introduction, there was a time when information did not exist at your fingertips. Back then, you had to go out and find it or, if you wanted it to come to you, you needed to invest in as much printed reference material as you could afford. As an 11 year old, I had not yet discovered the world of motoring books, and it’s unlikely that my pocket money could have supported such an addiction, so what I knew of cars was what I picked up from a knowledgeable friend of my parents who was restoring a Bentley 3 Litre (the sort of thing that people did in their garages back then) who loaned me about ten years back issues of Motor Sport and what I read in the pages of Autocar, which came through the letterbox once a week.
This meant that there were huge gaps in my knowledge, not just of specific models, but of complete manufacturers. As such, the casual Christmas present of The Observer’s Book of Automobiles came as a complete revelation. Here were wonders from around the world. I was aware that the Americans made cars, as well as France, Germany and, possibly, Italy but there were, apparently, car makers in Japan.
Designed to fit into your pocket, Observer’s Books were a series of 100 volumes published from 1937 to 2003 covering diverse subjects from Cathedrals to Mosses & Liverworts. Although popular with adults, their majority readership would have been drawn from those compulsive compilers of lists and tickers of boxes, male children.
I fitted that demographic perfectly and was suitably thrilled as a wider world opened up before me. Following a short history of the motor car, manufacturers were, of course, listed alphabetically. For selected manufacturers, there was a short introduction, with a potted history, then for all entries a modest black & white photo and specification of each featured model, sometimes accompanied by a fairly accurate line drawing of the front view.
The descriptions, edited by the finely named L.A.Manwaring, were admirably objective, elaborating on what you might already see in the photos and with no opinion expressed on the quality of any of the vehicles featured. “…. straight through wing line to paired tail-lamps mounted vertically. Squarish contour to boot. Angular windows, rear window well wrapped round and roof line forms slight ‘peak’ over. Disc wheels have large hub-caps.” That was the Opel Kapitan P2.
There was the Tatra 2-603 (“well rounded, heavy looking car”), like something from a Forties science fiction film, made all the more mysterious since the grainy photo appeared to have been taken by a low-flying U2 spy plane, peering over the top of the Iron Curtain. From other Comecon countries came the Russian Moskvich (“Thin, full-length styling line hooks down at front”) as well as two cars using the last letter of the alphabet, the Zaporoghets (“blunt, rounded ‘bonnet’ with oblong intake”).and the Zil (“lavish use of bright trim”) plus the East German Wartburg (“note rather unusual utility type body”). From the Federal Republic there was the BMW 3200S (“Thrust-forward radiator air-intake has grille of traditional two elongated ovals”), an inexplicably bulbous yet oddly fascinating saloon – and with a V8 engine! From Australia there seemed to be Morrises and Austins, but not as we knew them. This was the first time I had seen the impossibly decadent rectangular headlamped Maserati 5000GT (“Rear bumper is mounted high”) and the equally louche Facel-Vega (“well raked windscreen and rear window”). My first sight of a Buick Riviera (“razor-edged styling to passenger area”) was its front wing set at a jaunty angle, showing old-school US styling at its very best. At this point my infatuation with American cars was still at a high point and I wondered whether my Dad wouldn’t be better off changing his Mark 10 Jaguar for the stacked-headlamp Pontiac Grand Prix (“similar to other Series but grille is deeply inset”) featured on Page 202.
The vital statistics included weight (in hundredweight of course) and dimensions but, disappointingly for an 11 year old kid, performance figures were sparse – maximum speed was only given for performance oriented cars – so I was reduced to gawping in amazement at the hugely inflated SAE figures of Chevrolets and their like. Thus, I would have been shamefully dismissive of the Lancia Flaminia Saloon (“wrap around front bumper with wide, under-curved overriders”) with its 110 bhp, which fell outside my parameters for a suitably swift big car.
For a while I innocently assumed that this was a complete survey of every car in production. After a time I noticed gaps, so realised that there must be other omissions that I wasn’t aware of. Nevertheless, this little book did cover a high proportion of the models available in the world of fifty-two years ago. How thick would today’s volume have to be?
Some of the cars shown I have still never seen. Somehow, although I visited Israel three years later, I don’t remember seeing an Autocars Sussita (“note lack of front bumper”) in the short time I was there. Closer to home, I don’t think I’ve ever seen the finned and fastbacked Elva Courier Coupe (“well-rounded tail-line with rear window almost flat”), which seemed rather smart at the time but, on review, shows the shortcomings of the fibreglass mould makers’ craft, combined with ill-matched parts-bin glass.
The book ends with a useful guide for the nerdish. A list of international country disc initials, the British counties relating to the last two letters of registration plates and a verbal description, without illustration, of what different countries’ registration plates looked like.
Since then, although not extensive, I have acquired a modest motoring library. Even allowing for inflation, probably all of the books have cost a fair bit more than the Observer’s Book and a handful were a costly indulgence. However, none of them has probably fuelled my imagination or given me the pleasure that I received from Mr Manwaring’s earnest publication. It turned what had been, until then, an interest in cars closer to an obsession, one that is only now finally beginning to receed. Should I be grateful to it, or should I curse it?