Book Reviews, April 1957, April 1957

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“No Excuses,” by Sheila Van Damm. 238 pp. 8 in. by 5¼ in. (G. Putnam, Ltd., 42, Great Russell Street, London, W.1. 16s.)

There are now lots of books about rallies but this one stands out because it is sincere, modest, frank and tells a jolly good story. Sheila Van Damm achieved fame as an official driver in the Rootes competition team in a very short time; she is an accomplished young woman, because she can fly and manage the Windmill Theatre as well as drive fast cars fast for very long spells under rally conditions.

With Anne Hall she was the first Englishwoman to win a Coupe des Alpes and two years ago she led the team which was the first for 23 years to win the Ladies’ Prize in the Monte Carlo Rally. Twice she won the Ladies’ European Rally Championship. Sheila is as charming and modest as an authoress as she is in conversation. She tells how she achieved these and other rally successes, starting with not very much confidence and not a lot of driving experience, but ably tutored by Norman Garrad, Sales Manager of Sunbeam-Talbot Ltd. She made the mistakes beginners make, suffered as drivers suffer in the co-driver’s seat, even had to ask Mrs. Bill Wisdom to stop within 20 minutes of starting a Monte Carlo Rally so that she could be sick. But the enthusiastic Sheila Van Damm was a good pupil, keen to learn, and very soon she was in charge of official Rootes-team rally cars and driving as fast and effectively as the best of them, not only in International rallies in this country and on the Continent but in high-speed prototype tests of the Sunbeam Alpine and in the Mille Miglia with a Sunbeam Rapier.

Her account of her competition career is laced with humour, anxiety and a few narrow escapes, but good humour predominates. Sheila is, above everything, sincere in setting it all down, and refuses to dramatise the story; although her awe at being asked to drive a modern car at 100 m.p.h. on closed straight roads may cause Kay Petre or Bill Wisdom, who drove much older machinery much faster on Brooklands, to smile, even here one feels she is merely being sincere. She puts in enough for the ordinary reader to appreciate the value of rallies to the bread-and-margarine motorist and lets them see the enormous importance of success to manufacturers, who deem an Alpine Rally success worth £1,600 per car entered. Incidentally, Sheila is warm in her praise of Nancy Mitchell’s skill and astounding stamina, admitting freely to being scared silly when Nancy drove the icy sections of the 1952 Monte Carlo Rally.

If anything, Sheila writes too little rather than too much about her varied experience and the divers aspects of modern competition motoring. But this renders her book essentially enjoyable both to enthusiasts who know much of it already and to non-motorists who would tire of endless technicalities but who will wish to read “No Excuses” in order to discover how an essentially charming, anything but tough, young woman faces up to driving over sheet ice and up Alpine mountains when they are safely in their beds.

There are extremely worthwhile glimpses of Moss, Collins, Garrad and other rally personalities — glimpses of Stirling, Peter and Norman as they really are, not overlooking Stirling’s technique for getting to the front row at “The Windmill” and the wolf-whistle on Peter’s Aston Martin!

Apart from motoring, this book contains some interesting information about the famous Windmill Theatre owned by Sheila’s father — and if this lengthens the booking-office queue that is fair enough, just as, if the Van Damm rally successes sold more Rootes’ motor cars, that was the proper and natural outcome of their trust and confidence in her skill and stamina. From all angles, “No Excuses” is a book for which no excuses are required. — W. B.

“The Volkswagen Complete Owner’s Handbook,” by Hank Elfink. 141 pp. 8½ in. by 5½ in., soft covers. (Floyd Clymer, 1268, So. Alvarado Street, Los Angeles 6, California. 2 dollars.)

The introduction explains that this is not a Workshop Manual and is not intended to be one. But it does cover VW construction and maintenance very thoroughly, with a host of useful, practical illustrations, together with some familiar “hand-out” photographs of the Wolfsburg factory and production methods.

Elfink went to Wolfsburg and attended VW mechanics’ classes before writing it. Floyd Clymer, the American publisher, also went to Wolfsburg, and the VW magic seems to have impressed him as it has others, for he writes:

“Volkswagen may well be considered a phenomenon in the automotive world. It is one of the most unconventional production cars built, with features unlike the average car. To some it is the ‘ugly duckling’ of all cars and yet others claim its unique design intrigues them. Year after year the appearance and basic design remain the same — a value to the owner from the depreciation angle. Volkswagen styling seems to grow on one, when one becomes accustomed to it.

“Volkswagen performance is exceptional for a car of its size, price and horsepower, so in all countries of the world the VW continues to gain in popularity. Whether it be in the Alps of Switzerland, the Mojave Desert of California, the mountains of Mexico, or the great plains of the Midwest, an ever increasing number of these little cars can now be seen.

“Volkswagen has again shattered the belief that a small car cannot be sold in quantities in the United States, for month after month sales have topped many well-known makes of domestic and foreign cars. At the time this article is written more Volkswagens are being sold in the United States than all other makes of foreign cars combined.

“When I visited the VW factory in Wolfsburg, Germany, I was amazed at the mass-production methods in use there. The plant, in the city of Wolfsburg, and the entire method of VW operation are just as unique as the car itself. Under the direction of Dr. Heinz Nordhoff, VW’s practical, experienced and capable general manager, its factory continues to grow and the car gains in popularity year after year. Trained in the Opel plant (G.M.’s German factory). Dr. Nordhoff has brought to VW a wealth of ‘know-how’ in engineering and business administration experience.” –.W. B.

“Peridot Flight,” by Doris Leslie. 331 pp. 8 in. by 3½ in. (Hutchinson & Co., Ltd., 178-202, Great Portland Street, London, W.1. 16s.)

It may be remembered that some time ago Motor Sport published an article by the Editor on the motor car in fiction which aroused great interest and set enthusiasts searching for rare and obscure books containing references to motor cars, fictional and otherwise. In time to come such collectors will no doubt be searching for copies of “Peridot Flight,” because the plot is influenced by an early car which runs a big-end on the Brighton Road and causes a lady and gentleman to spend an enforced night at a country inn. This incident is depicted on the coloured dust-jacket but its make is as much your guess as the reviewer’s. There are also passing references to Renault, King George’s first experience of motoring in a Daimler and a chauffeur-driven Daimler of circa 1910.

Enough to set collectors seeking — better still, buy the book while it is readily available. If you like an authentic novel about social life in the nineties and the first decade of the twentieth century, set against a background of London, Paris and Florence, you will enjoy reading it — if not, hand it to your wife or girl-friend. — W. B.

“The Difference to Me,” by John Bryan. 286 pp. 73/5 in. by 5 in. (Faber and Faber Ltd., 24, Russell Square, London, W.C.1. 13s. 6d.)

This is a mystery story in the modern manner, with plenty of sex thrown in with the blood, the murders, the language and the shooting and narrow escapes. The reason for referring to it here is that a strong motoring theme runs right through Bryan’s story and, what is more, he knows his subject sufficiently not to make obvious errors. His hero, a Canadian intelligence officer on holiday, drives an Aston Martin DB2 (at. least, that is what he thinks he has bought, even detailing it as a 2.6-litre fixed-head coupe, but astute readers will realise that apparently be was passed off with an earlier model, at all events until he had driven as far as page 278!), and the heroine a remarkably well-preserved blue blown 1934 Alfa-Romeo Pinin Farina drophead. She is, incidentally, a society-divorcee who used to compete not only at Brooklands and Le Mans but also in the Targa Florio(!) and is still a fine driver, although the Aston Martin catches her out: “‘Nicely done,’ I said. ‘But,’ I added, ‘you almost hesitated.’ ‘You’re observant . . . I’ll tell you. I’m used to a supercharger.'” Her young sister has a hotted-up early Ford saloon, alas with “Toots” painted on the bonnet, and one of the several villains drives a Bristol 403, which is accorded due praise. Buick, Citroen, Morris Minor, Austin Seven, M.G., 4¼ Bentley and Humber figure in the story and several other makes are mentioned conversationally. Indeed, the author seems determined to display his comprehensive knowledge of cars and, if anything, overdoes it. But if you like a mystery story of this sort this one is as good as most and you will no doubt like it all the more on account of its motoring flavour. — W. B. 

“Famous Racing Cars of the World,” by Dennis May. 142 pp. 7½ in. by 5 in (Frederick Muller Ltd., 110, Fleet Street. London, E.C.4. 8s. 6d.)

This little work in the Globe Book series is for the youngsters and describes 13 racing cars, of G.P., sports/racing, sprint and hill-climb types. There are circuit maps, some good pictures and plenty of technicalities. Errors are few, but the Railton-Mobil Land Speed Record car is confusingly called by its early title of Napier-Railton, T. & T.’s name is wrongly spelt and Collins is captioned as the late Ken Wharton in a B.R.M. picture.