“Automobile Design: Great Designers And Their Work.” Edited by Ronald Barker and Anthony Harding. 374 pp. 10 in. x 6 1/4 in. (David & Charles, South Devon House, Newton Abbot, Devon. £4 4s.)
At first this weighty tome seems to cover an odd selection of designers, because engineers of the calibre of Sir Henry Royce, Laurence Pomeroy, Georges Roesch, Louis Coatalen, Ernest Henry, Ettore Bugatti, etc., are omitted. But in their Introduction the two Editors explain that this is, indeed, intentional, and remind their readers that not only those designers just named, but others like Adam Opel, Wilhelm Maybach, Henry Ford, the Stanley Brothers, Herbert Austin, Walter Bentley, and Louis Renault, Vincenzo Lancia and Dante Giacosa were purposely left out—although arguments in favour of doing this are weakened by stating that there is the threat of a companion volume about them.
These days, with so much motoring history and legend unveiled, the reader avid for more of it has to be content with what crumbs of fresh information can be picked up from books which inevitably are repetitions of earlier work. This appeared to apply to this four-guinea volume, but in fact there are enough crumbs in it to make half a loaf. The designers chosen for inclusion number a round dozen—the Bollées, done by Jacques lckx, Frederick Lanchester (by Anthony Bird), Henry M. Leland (by Maurice D. Hendry), Hans Ledwinka (by Jerrold Sloniger). Marc Birkigt (by Michael Sedgwick and José Manuel Rodriguez de la Vina), Ferdinand Porsche (by D. B. Tubbs), Harry Miller (by Griffith Borgeson), Vittorio Jano (by Peter Hull and Angela Cherrett), Gabriel Voisin (by Rudy Kousbroek), Alec Issigonis (by Ronald Barker) and Colin Chapman (by Philip Turner).
As a purely personal opinion, one of the most readable chapters is that about the Bollées, in which lckx reminds us of how so many significant features of automobile engineering originated in the steam carriages of Amédée Bollée père et fils prior to 1880. This makes astonishing reading, very clearly put, and the study of these remarkable pioneering Frenchmen gains stature by including just enough about the later Bollée petrol cars, including the luxury E-type which in 1907 cost about as much as the Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost, to round off the story. Interestingly, too, Leon Bollée’s famous tricycles get the scant mention Ickx thinks they deserve.
I also derived great enjoyment from the accounts of Birkigt and Leland, but particularly from reading Kousbroek’s masterly piece on Gabriel Voisin. The other chapters seemed mainly repetition of known data, although that about Sir Alec Issigonis is enlivened by a few fresh quotes from the lips of that always-entertaining gentleman. Otherwise, this is old wine in an expensive new carafe and most of the pictures are old-hat.
Some views expressed in “Great Designers” merit enlargement. For instance, Tubbs remarks that Parry Thomas used torsion bars on his Thomas Specials seven years before Porsche adopted this form of springing. This is true but Tubbs might have said Leyland Thomas, for the bigger Thomas creations had this first and it was abandoned on the better-known Thomas Special “flat-irons”. In the study of Marc Birkigt his great V8 Hispano Suiza aero engine is called the most reliable engine of the First World War—was it? In its native form possibly., but much trouble was attributed to many of the Hispano Suiza V8s flown in the aeroplanes of the Allies. The answer to this question is difficult because so few books about aero engines, as distinct from aeroplanes have been published—as far as I know Geoffrey de Holden Stone’s astonishing serialised review of all the WW1 aero engines in The Aeroplane has never been republished, and practically nothing after Burl’s early volume on aero engines, published by Charles Griffin—what about it, Messrs. Putnam’s?
An amusing item arising from this book is lckx’s reminder that Bollée’s La Nouvelle competed in the Paris-Bordeaux-Paris race of 1895 when it was 15 years old—surely a pioneer vintage vehicle?
On the whole, a book really determined students of automobile history should read. If only to have Ickx convince them that Issigonis didn’t invent maximum space conservation by the ingenious arrangement of engine and chassis components, or Sizaire-Naudin i.f.s., or Lancia “sliding-pillar” suspension units, or de Dion transverse universally-jointed drive shafts, or Latil front-wheel-drive, or Sizaire all-wheel independent suspension, or Renault shaft drive, or Austin/Morris a gear train below the crankshaft, or Mors streamlined bodywork, or Rateau the turbo-compressor, or Krebs and Claudel the automatic, submerged-jet carburetter, or Hotchkiss road springs taking thrust and reaction, or Packard spiral-bevels, or Panhard the divided track-rod, or Stabila the underslung chassis, or Cadillac and Buick hydraulic tappets, or, come to that, American designers central chassis lubrication and power steering. The Bollées had them all! Incidentally, the Lawson in this country was really a Leon-Bollée, as was the Darracq of 1899 a four-wheeler Leon-Bollée.
It is encouraging to discover from this book how long car designers last. Amedée Bollée died aged 73, his son at the age of 59. Lanchester lived to 78, Leland to 89. Ledwinka was also 89 when he died. Birkigt lived to be 75, Porsche was 75 when a stroke killed him (the potted biography preceding Tubbs’ chapter gives him two more years), the disillusioned Miller died at 32, Jano shot himself at the age of 74 (a horribly terse ending to the Hull/Cherrett chapter), Voisin is still going strong, at 90. Issigonis and Chapman are comparative youngsters. If this book teaches nothing else, it is that parents should prefer their children to be automotive technicians rather than racing drivers, even though the financial rewards are much less.—W. B.