Reviewed: Legendary Race Cars

Let me preface this review by saying that I’m not a fan of Greatest Hits albums. Usually when I like a band, I dive headlong into their catalog; collecting all the LPs, digging through crates for 45s with unreleased B-sides. I usually find that my favorite songs by an artist weren’t one of their ‘greatest hits’ and that the album cuts are the heart and soul of a musical act. I’ve always thought that Greatest Hits albums were for people that like the radio, not people that like music.

As more of a completist, my tastes in automotive books tend to run to the specific and detailed. I’ve always loved a heavy tome about a single make—even better, a single model—of car. On the surface, Basem Wasef’s book Legendary Race Cars seems like a Greatest Hits. Skimming the racing cars covered in the book revealed that things start off with the platinum records: GT40, Lotus 49, Senna’s McLaren MP4. This was definitely greatest hits. But then things got very interesting: The Greer-Black-Prudhomme dragster, Colin McRae’s Impreza rally car, Petty’s Plymouth Superbird, The 1937 Delahaye 145 speed record car. Now these are deeper cuts. These are B-Sides. This was something I could dig my teeth into. It is the variety and surprises in Legendary Race Cars that make this book so unexpected and fun.

Sure, there are familiar stories here: the yarn about stripping the white paint from Mercedes “Silver Arrows” to satisfy the weight restriction; the Ford/Ferrari wars; Wyer racing’s sorting of the aerodynamics that turned the Porsche 917 from a death-trap into a world beater. Of course, the reason these stories are so lasting and perennial is that they truly are the great myths and legends in the history of auto racing. When I encounter stories like Parnelli Jones’ Big Offy Baja racing rig, though, it makes the stories—even the common ones—all the more interesting for what they’ve collectively brought to our sport.

This isn’t a greatest hits album at all. Greatest hits records dive into a single artist and show a simple introduction to a single act—a single point of view. Legendary Race Cars gives us an introduction to an entire sport. Not a single point of view, not a single venue, not a single type of competition. There’s lovely choices here from every vein of auto racing; F1, World Sportscar Championship, Baja, NASCAR, Drag Racing, Land-Speed Records, Hillclimbing, Rally. Representatives from each of these disciplines each tell their individual stories, but they also tell the story of the automobile through the fierce competition that so rapidly drove its evolution.

I suppose you could call this a coffee table book, but the quality of the text and the research that Basem has put together for each of these machines elevate it to so much more than a typical coffee table book provides. Each car’s story is accompanied by a wide assortment of marvelously reproduced photography—both historic shots of these cars in action and, when possible, contemporary images of the cars as they exist today. Basem’s introduction tells a wonderful tale of his trip around the world with his wife tracking these cars down, visiting them in the manufacturer’s museum or private collections, and gathering their stories. It’s a trip that many of us have fantasized about taking, and living vicariously through this tour of legendary machines is a satisfying way to make a small step towards that promise we’ve made ourselves. You know the one, where we round the German and Italian museums, drop by Goodwood for the Revival, then wrap our way up the Pacific coast of the States, with long wanders around Pebble Beach and the Quail, as well as quick stops by the personal garages of prominent collectors. Since it’s not looking likely that this yearlong jaunt is in my immediate future, I’m glad that Basem has done the legwork for me.

Whether that trip would result in the same list for me is questionable. Whether any of us would make the same list is questionable. Thank goodness for that! As Sir Stirling Moss mentions in the book’s forward, these types of lists are always prone to argument. After reading Basem’s list and the stories behind them, I feel better acquainted with the breadth and variety of machines that have changed racing. It’s true that few can agree on what the most legendary racing cars are. But, if we all agreed on the same handful of machines, what the Hell would we debate about over pints after a race weekend?

Legendary Race Cars, by Basem Wasef, would make a fine addition to any car nerd’s library, and makes for good ammunition at your next impassioned back and forth over “the greatest”.

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