The Growing Swamp of Terrible Car Books

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Have you ever read a motoring publication that was so bad it actually made you angry? They are out there, books which promise one thing and deliver quite another. A lot of these books as generous gifts by well-meaning family members (and before I mercilessly slay the book pictured above, I’d like to first thank my Brother-in-law for the kind gesture in case I come across ungrateful) and are bought on a near whim based on the interesting images on the cover.
Some books are disappointing. We’ve all read books which profess to be “about” a particular car, only to find that nothing is discussed that you don’t know already. Then there are the books which are poorly researched, or incorrect,  or just poorly presented and unpleasant to behold. Then there are those special books which are so wretched in every detail of their conception and execution that they merit discussion on an international motoring website of high regard.

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On first unwrapping “Bizarre cars” by Keith Ray at Christmas, it showed considerable promise. Quick glances showed a wide variety of subjects, some of which I didn’t recognise. This was good news, I love learning about obscure Automobiles so I put the book to one side looking forward to absorbing it after Christmas Dinner. It also has a foreword by Tim-Brooke Taylor, one of Britain’s pre-eminent comedy writers.
Later, with a stomach full of beautifully cooked stodge, I set to work… and after about 15 pages I had to stop. My mood had darkened to a point that really wasn’t appropriate at such a whimsical time of year, for the first occasion in quite a long time I was actually finding reading a book an unpleasant experience.
The topic of “Bizarre Cars” carries almost unlimited potential. The automotive world has seen countless developmental dead-ends, strange concepts and wild flights of fantasy that turned out to be one man’s folly. Each and every one of these has its own fascinating starting with “Why?” and ending with “Because”. And in virtually every single case the author avoids treating the resulting product on its merits, preferring lightly comedic derision and clinched ridicule. The Burney Streamline, for example, was an extraordinary engineering project, envisaged by a visionary whose heart was clearly in its right place. Yet Ray’s write-up consists largely of pathetic jibes that the car looked like a wheeled potting shed.
Ray comes over as the kind of chap who hasn’t the wit or intelligence to match Jeremy Clarkson, yet falls into the trap of emulating him without the knowledge or insight to carry it off. Indeed, many of the “gags” littered throughout the book are recycled from Top Gear, but are delivered as punchlines rather than in the delicious throwaway manner that makes the old BBC format so palatable.
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Those which are entirely the Author’s own work are simply not funny, and take up space which would have been better off filled with information. On discussing the Nissan Cherry Europe and it’s Italian branded sister, he writes “And they decide to call it the ‘Arna’, something to do with Alfa Romeo Nissan Arseholes or something. Alfa Romeo Anus would have been better”  This is not sardonic wit, nor is it dry, knowing, acerbic, satirical or absurdist wit. It’s nitwit.
And witness the Chrysler airflow, a car which aside from its styling and construction wasn’t actually so much bizarre as temporally misplaced, yet which so enrages the author that he suggests the designer jumps off the Empire State Building. Well, that’s not very nice, is it? Also, what few facts there are get totally smothered by an endless stream of conscious blathering and, rather than editing all the rubbish out, the production balance of the volume clearly favours words over pictures. The Toyota Crown earns an image 20mm by 35mm in size  and is wedged in right at the bottom corner of Ray’s “hilarious”, summation,
I hate everything about this book right down to the tiny spaces between its atoms. It exists, has been published and is presumably taking up space in dozens of homes, having been bought by people using actual money. I find this fact difficult to handle.
What’s the worst automotive book you’ve ever read?
(Images copyright Chris Haining / Hooniverse 2016)

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23 responses to “The Growing Swamp of Terrible Car Books”

  1. Citric Avatar
    Citric

    Why is the Toyota Crown a “bizarre car?” It’s more a normal car. Possibly the most normal car.

    1. Batshitbox Avatar
      Batshitbox

      Sounds like there won’t be a clear answer found in Mr Ray’s screed against it.

      1. karonetwentyc Avatar
        karonetwentyc

        My personal favourite: E-Class Mercedes owners who believe that they have purchased a luxury car from a prestigious marque. Every time I see one, I can’t help but think back to climbing into any number of them with 2-litre diesels, manual transmissions, dralon seats, rubber floor mats, and the slight but lingering aroma of late-night vomit in the cabin all working to complement the ‘TAXI’ sign on the roof.
        I hope that Mr. Ray drives an E-Class.

  2. theskitter Avatar

    A corollary of Sturgeon’s Revelation says that 90% of the car books will have less literary merit than the original brochures of their subject material.

    1. LEROOOY Avatar
      LEROOOY

      When I was a kid I repeatedly enjoyed reading the Honda Accord Owner’s Manual on long trips, more than whatever reading material I was stuck with. Taught my folks how to use the radio, too. They could have saved lots of book money and just dropped a Chilton’s guide in my wee hands.

      1. Tiller188 Avatar
        Tiller188

        Could’ve saved on some maintenance costs that way, too, I imagine…

  3. Alff Avatar
    Alff

    While a number of automotive books are worthy of condemnation, the worst of automotive writing must surely appear on the internet.

    1. LEROOOY Avatar
      LEROOOY

      Isn’t that one of the postulated Laws Of The Internet? If not, it should be:
      Regardless of the breadth of information on a topic across multiple media formats, the least correct information will be found on the Internet, even if directly transcribed from other formats.”

    2. Van_Sarockin Avatar
      Van_Sarockin

      Automotive journalism is not renowned as a locus of quality. Which is why the work of a Paul Frere, Peter Egan, or Murilee Martin, shine like diamonds in the desert.
      And too much auto writing is breathless, uncritical enthusiasm, and a recitation of stats, with a modesty-restoring modicum of connective tissue text.
      It’s basically a charnel house.

      1. CraigSu Avatar
        CraigSu

        Please don’t forget our good friend Aaron Severson from Ate Up With Motor (ateupwithmotor.com). He certainly ranks right up there for his thoroughness, his accuracy, and his entertaining writing style.

      2. karonetwentyc Avatar
        karonetwentyc

        Or the late LJK Setright. His work should be required reading for anyone even contemplating stepping into automotive writing. Ditto Phil Llewellyn.

      3. Van_Sarockin Avatar
        Van_Sarockin

        I was thinking more of Ken Purdy, Henry Manney and Karl Ludvigson (sp?), but yes, there have been more than a few remarkable auto writers

  4. karonetwentyc Avatar
    karonetwentyc

    For an automotive author tackling this subject, it appears as though there are essentially two choices: writing an informed, well-researched critical analysis that highlights the strengths, weaknesses, and development and sales history from which a car has come to be considered ‘bad’ (for whatever that term may mean in this context); alternatively, the readers can be told that Yugos, Pacers, and Subaru 360s are crap. Again.
    To the credit of the latter approach, it requires much less effort on the writer’s behalf and in all likelihood will sell better than the former, particularly if given some zippy cover graphics involving a Lada and a Le Car.
    Unfortunately, from spending time browsing each year’s crop of remarkably-rehashed Top N Crap Cars lists (an exercise that usually results in muttering things like, “had one of those; liked it”, “haven’t had one of those; ought to drive one and see if I like it”), I suspect that I’m in for a very long wait for the detailed and objective histories that I’d like to read.

    1. Citric Avatar
      Citric

      The title “Bizarre Cars” opens it up though, you don’t have to focus on stuff that’s bad, instead you’re open to talk about stuff that’s very strange and relatively obscure. Like highlighting something like the Fascination, or odd microcars designed to drive through tax loopholes. And if one approaches it seriously instead of as a platform for bad jokes, you could get an interesting read.

      1. karonetwentyc Avatar
        karonetwentyc

        Absolutely, and I would certainly love to see more books in that vein. The problem, however, is that it seems as though it’s easier to sell a publisher (print or otherwise) on the idea of a subjective list of crap cars accompanied by some pretty pictures than it is to explain why vehicles like the Citroën BX or Jeep Cherokee vans could use chronicling.

        1. Citric Avatar
          Citric

          I think you could sell a publisher on it if you took the right approach. Keep the pretty pictures and the glossy coffee table book format and use the right really strange but interesting thing for the cover, like a big glossy photo of a Helicron, just make the text not awful. Actually it might be an easier sale, because the Yugo isn’t all that interesting looking, but a car with a giant propeller on the front is going to get people who aren’t necessarily into cars to at least look twice.

    2. Vairship Avatar
      Vairship

      To the credit of the latter approach, it requires much less effort on the writer’s behalf To simplify writing a book in the first category, one could simply visit a certain household in Washington State, and chronicle the vehicles in that household. The owner of said vehicles will provide plenty of well-researched critical analysis

  5. Guest Avatar
    Guest

    I’m ashamed to admit that I have this book.

    I did snicker at few jokes (I was around 12 when I got it), not knowing the Top Gear gags they apparently came from but when I turned the page to find the same joke made about a different car… well, even my younger self got annoyed fast.

    The most frustrating thing about this book was complete lack of actual information. There were few to no dates of manufacture or engine sizes or really even country of manufacture.

    I can a surprising amount of tasteless jabs, but at least tell me about the car!

    1. karonetwentyc Avatar
      karonetwentyc

      I will admit to owning a copy of Automotive Atrocities: The Cars We Love To Hate by Eric Peters. It is at least somewhat entertaining on its first pass, and is more or less the only book of its type that anyone really needs to own. Not terrible, but glad that I received it as a gift rather than actually purchasing it as there isn’t really much in it that hasn’t been seen before and it’s not really the sort of thing that holds up to repeat readings.

      1. Cool_Cadillac_Cat Avatar
        Cool_Cadillac_Cat

        I’m fairly certain the Peters’ book is the one I saw in a Half Price Books down in Austin about 8 years ago.
        Should have purchased every copy, for giving out to gearhead imaginary Internet friends. I think it was marked down to $2, and they had a dozen. I wasn’t employed, or I’d have gotten all of them, and asked if they had more.

  6. marmer Avatar
    marmer

    Mass-market coffee-table publishers like DK are hit and miss. I think my absolute favorite “popular” car books are the “Cars of the Fantastic 40’s” etc. by the catchall “Auto Editors of Consumer Guide.” There are editions covering the 30’s through the 70’s. I’d love to see one for the 80’s but I’m not holding my breath. They focus on the US market and manufacturers although some significant foreign cars of the appropriate period (VW Beetle, early Toyota, Hillman, etc.) are mentioned. Lots of color pictures and examples of most manufacturers full lines. Now, I also have a ridiculously high number of books with words like “weird,” “strangest,” and “crap” in their titles, mostly given as gifts. None of them are very good, and the Brit ones especially are trying too hard to be funny. And “weird cars” or “ugly cars” is too broad a category to really treat with any real rigor. Factory prototypes, manufacturer miscalculations, heavily modified customs, homebuilt oddball labors of love, even art cars — “oddness” is too vague (and in fact you could say the same about “beauty.”)

    1. marmer Avatar
      marmer

      For what it’s worth there are similar books about aircraft, which are just as bad.

  7. dukeisduke Avatar
    dukeisduke

    I’ll have to grab it off of the shelf at home to get the exact title, but, years ago my sister gave me a big coffee table book titled something like, “100 Years Of The Automobile”. Tons of pictures, but riddled with errors, like incorrect date ranges when models were made. A truly awful book.

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