I’m Jim Donnelly, and thanks for stopping by my new website, Jim Donnelly On Wheels. Some of you already know who I am. I was previously the senior editor of Hemmings Motor News in Bennington, Vermont, and before that, I held a bunch of positions at a daily newspaper in the Philadelphia area, including automotive and motorsport writer. I hold more than 50 journalism awards and have been in this life for more than 35 years. I’ve written books about my friend Don Miller, the former president of Penske Racing and a mega car guy; and one on the history of automotive advertising. What I hope to accomplish here is to share some of the stuff that I consider so worthy, inspiring and, really, life-changing. The automobile unhitched us all from the pieces of dirt we once called home. Going fast brought us thrills. Watching others compete in cars made us marvel at people with such limitless skills, determination and fortitude. Cars upended our whole existence totally and irreversibly, the same way that computers are doing today, so it’s entirely appropriate to marry the two of them here. What you’re going to find here is fresh info on what’s going on in the world of cars, what’s innovative, history that’s worth remembering, roads worth driving, races worth attending, books worth reading, cars worth buying, and maybe even some places to dine that are worth a stop when you’re out on the highways. No politics. I’ll leave that sordid topic to those who claim to know it. Let’s get rolling, because this is going to be a hell of a ride we’re going on together.
If you like to read about cars (and other transportation subjects), you’d do well to familiarize yourself with the books created by McFarland Publishing of Jefferson, North Carolina. Most of their titles are paperbacks, but they’re uniformly thick and crammed with information from authors who intimately know their subject matter. One of McFarland’s recent automotive releases is an unusual motorsports history that looks at American auto racing in the crazy years that paralleled World War I. It was an era of crudely overpowered race cars, dust-blinded fairgrounds horse tracks, a new breed of wooden speedways, and drivers in cloth helmets and glass goggles who risked death every time the engines fired.
Look at the driver in the book’s cover image, peering defiantly around the nose of a beastly, straight-axle competition machine. Auto Racing in the Shadow of the Great War is an exhaustive, 440-page recounting of American racing from 1915 to 1922, years when the sport was marked by booming publicity and constant technical innovation spurred by advances on both sides of the Atlantic. It’s a tale of how race cars and drivers (including the great Roscoe Sarles, shown in the cover photo of his Frontenac-Monroe) evolved in an environment of growing horsepower, dizzying speeds and an enthusiastic national audience looking for diversion from wartime travails. The advances made during these years would endure as cars grew sleeker, more powerful and even more dangerous as the 1920s continued. The author, Robert Dick, is based in Germany and is an authority on the technological history of this era. The book is crammed with period action and portrait photos, technical illustrations, engineering drawings, and the greats of early racing stride proudly through its pages. Anyone fascinated by early racing technology and its development will find this book beneficial. The price is $49.95.
Let’s face it, we’ve all got stuff we need to carry around from time to time. Snowboards, boxes of old car magazines, flats of flowers for the garden from the nursery. But not everybody out there likes SUVs, despite what the automakers certainly seem to believe. Even though many of them are now built on car platforms, they don’t always drive like cars. They’re tall, regardless of the commanding driver position. They necessarily have a higher center of gravity. You can’t attack corners with them like you would in a sedan. Some people would prefer a different way to haul their goods. Then, along comes Audi.
The wizards from Ingolstadt, Germany, made an announcement this week that ought to give pause to any would-be buyer of a high-end SUV. Audi makes SUVs, too, but it said this week that its all-new RS 6 Avant station wagon will be coming to the U.S. in 2020. It will become the eighth model in Audi Sport’s lineup of U.S. models. This is something that we need some more of here, an honest station wagon, one that accelerates rapidly, is good in all weather and can slice and dice curves with just about any performance car. The RS 6 Avant’s U.S.-spec performance numbers haven’t been compiled as yet, but its home-market variant is capable of 0-100 km/hr in 3.6 seconds, thanks to its standard 4.0-liter twin-turbocharged V-8. The engine is mated to an eight-speed Tiptronic automatic transmission, which feeds power to all four wheels via Audi’s quattro all-wheel-drive system. Audi has fitted adaptive air suspension that’s specifically tuned for the Avant, with dual modes and leveling control. Dynamic Ride Control with variable dampers will also be available. Six power and efficiency modes will be selectable via a button on the steering wheel. The exterior body panels are all RS-specific. Orders from U.S. buyers will be accepted in the future.
You had the feeling that the outcome was preordained somehow. After all, 2019 marks the 100th anniversary of Bentley, and the grand marque, now owned by BMW, was going all out this year to celebrate its centenary. So you had to think Bentley was going to have a prominent place in the results of this year’s 69th edition of the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance, the world’s most prestigious and exclusive judged car show. Of the invited cars to this year’s event, about a quarter were Bentleys, with the competing cars spread out across six classes. You had the feeling that one of them was going to be recognized in the biggest way possible.
After the show cars were hemmed in by the horde of attendees and it was time for the confetti to fly, the Best in Show winner was a Bentley that aptly hearkened back to the British firm’s most glorious days. The biggest prize went to the 1931 Bentley 8 Liter Gurney Nutting Sports Tourer presented by Sir Michael Kadoorie of Hong Kong. As you can see, it was an absolutely outstanding car from a presentation standpoint. First introduced in 1930, the 8 Liter rode on the largest chassis ever produced at Bentley’s Cricklewood factory in London, with most of the 100 or so examples ever built riding on wheelbases of 144 or 156 inches. W.O. Bentley said that his goal was to produce a silent speedster capable of competing in the marketplace with the best of Rolls-Royce. Bentley specified that the 8 Litre would be powered by a gargantuan straight-six displacing 7,983 cubic centimeters – that’s 487.1 cubic inches – which produced 220hp, and assured that the 8 Litre would achieve 100 MPH regardless of the fitted coachwork. Gurney Nutting was a popular English coachbuilder with both Bentley and Rolls-Royce customers. This car was said to be one of two 8 Liter short-wheelbase chassis fitted with Sport Tourer bodywork by Gurney Nutting; the other car allegedly had its coachwork later transferred to a Rolls-Royce chassis, making the Kadoorie car the last of its kind in the world. It was a bittersweet year for Bentley: Despite building what was arguably the world’s most luxurious sporting car, Bentley went into receivership in 1931, and ended up under Rolls-Royce ownership. The Kimball Studio photo of the Bentley in the victory parade was furnished by the concours, and came to me courtesy of my friend Kurt Ernst at Hemmings Motor News.
We’re talking, of course, of the Mazda MX-5, known widely since it first appeared as the Miata. A post like this one can make you really feel your years, I guess, given that this marks 30 years since the first Miata scampered onto our shores. With more than 1 million units sold across four generations, the MX-5 Miata is far and away the biggest-selling two-seat roadster in automotive history. Then and now, its success is based in large part on its mating Japanese reliability with the ethos of the classic British sports car, like those from MG and Triumph: Simple, totally fun and sanely priced.
Mazda, obviously, wasn’t going to let the 30th anniversary of its bite-size delight pass unnoticed. This year, its dealers have been offering a commemorative run of MX-5 Miatas, all done in a paint and stripe scheme of Racing Orange, with special badging, plus Brembo brakes and Recaro seats to build its road cred. Just 3,000 copies will be sold worldwide, and much of the U.S. allotment is already spoken for through customer pre-orders. See your local dealer.
The United States Auto Club sanctions a variety of open-wheel classes, including a national tour for non-wing Sprint cars and Midgets. For an exceptionally talented few, success in USAC could punch their ticket to Indianapolis. Every year, USAC honors its best by inducting them into its hall of fame. The class of 2019 brings the number of the enshrined to 80, and its members include a really decent guy who I had the pleasure of working with for years. Dick Jordan was USAC’s director of public relations for more than 50 years. He had an encyclopedic knowledge of open-wheel racing in the heartland, and always was around to provide an even hand of help to young journalists learning their craft, including me. Dick died earlier this year and I’m thrilled to see him so honored.
The other inductees for 2019 are led by Johnny Capels, who won national championships as a crew chief with Joe Leonard, Al Unser Sr., Mario Andretti and Pancho Carter before becoming USAC competition director and chairman of its board. He also owned a USAC Sprint victory as a driver. Bryan Clauson won 112 USAC features in various divisions, parlaying that experience into several starts in the Indianapolis 500. Clauson was on track to run 200 races in a single season when he was killed at the Belleville Midget Nationals in 2016. David Steele was a pavement specialist in Sprint, Midget and Silver Crown cars, where he notched 60 USAC wins, all on blacktop, plus two Silver Crown national titles. He died in 2017 in a Sprint car crash at Desoto Speedway in Florida.
Let’s get the full disclosure out of the way first. I sometimes write capsules on vehicles that Mecum Auctions is presenting for sale, most recently several lots from its just-concluding extravaganza during Monterey Car Week. As I’ve said here before, that whole happening is awash in money. Which explains why Mecum stunned so many by rolling out the remains of the Ford Mustang that Steve McQueen used to rampage through San Francisco in Bullitt. Mecum presented the car at a media event during the Monterey sale and proclaimed that it will sell the fabled car at its auction in Kissimmee, Florida, set for January 2nd through 12th, 2020.
This is staggering news. After years of rumors and blind alleys, the Bullitt Mustang, authenticated by its VIN number, emerged at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit in 2018, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the movie and its jaw-dropping chase scene, considered the greatest in motion picture history. It’s the only survivor of the two Highland Green 1968 Mustang GTs, with 390-cu.in. power, that were used in the film. Both were modified for stunt workby Max Balchowsky, long a figure in California road racing circles who was famous for his series of Ol’ Yaller racing specials. One was crushed after the filming. The surviving car is being offered by Sean Kiernan, whose father bought it years ago in New Jersey, where it was being used as a daily driver, and left it unrestored. McQueen, who specified how the Mustang was supposed to look for the movie, tried unsuccessfully to buy it back late in his life. This is the most mythical Mustang of all time, hands down, beyond any dispute. So what will it bring on the block? Put it this way: When Bullitt was filmed, McQueen was the highest-paid film star in the world. Any kind of memorabilia associated with him is a guaranteed gilt-edged collectible. In 2012, the Heuer Monaco chronograph that McQueen wore during the filming of Le Mans sold for $650,000, more than double its pre-auction estimate. So do the math.
We need a lot more books like this one. I had occasion to get to know the late photojournalist Pete Biro when he and I collaborated on several stories about racing history for Hemmings Sports & Exotic Car magazine. Pete was conversational, urbane and superbly grounded in his field of study, international motor racing. Pete passed away last year after a half-century of shooting races, both here and abroad. He counted as personal friends some of the greatest drivers and most influential figures the sport has ever known. Now, Motorbooks has combined Pete’s photography and the words of motoring journalist George Levy into a major new volume on Formula 1’s transformative years, entitled F1 Mavericks.
The book, with 240 hardcover pages, parallels the era in Formula 1 that began with the rear-engine revolution led by Britons such as John Cooper and Colin Chapman (even though Chapman had designed the Vanwall, one of the last successful front-engine cars) and ended with the FISA-FOCA split of 1980. In between were years that completely transformed F1 in terms of speed, harrowing danger and onrushing technology. Biro’s photography, both action and portrait, is simply brilliant. Levy gives it enough literary heft to turn it into something truly memorable. Mario Andretti contributed the book’s foreword and the late Niki Lauda authored the afterword. This will easily take its place among the great photo histories of Formula 1. The retail price is $50.00.