Just plain folks, who happened to make racing history

People in racing do superhuman things, even if they’re ordinary in background and comportment. They weld, bend, grind and wrench on the cars they create, using skills handed down from an eternal past. They compile stunning accomplishments using grit, resilience and intellect. And occasionally, they make tradition, a heritage of winning, that outlives them. In the world of pavement Modified racing, the great postwar revolution that combined cutdown stock cars with weekly short tracks, that was the odyssey of Lenny Boehler. His very ordinary back-road garage in East Freetown, Massachusetts, turned out cars that were visually unassuming but mechanically potent, first doing battle with hired guns in the hot seat at Bay State locales such as Seekonk and Norwood. A phalanx of big names from the glory years of Modified competition, men like Bugs Stevens, Fred DeSarro, Leo Cleary and Ron Bouchard, won big races in Lenny’s car all over the northeast. And when lymphoma claimed Lenny in 2001, his family soldiered on with a new roster of drivers in Ole Blue, as Lenny’s number 3 cars have long been known, still winning races. After 65 years of fielding winning Modifieds, the story of Lenny and his family is finally being told.

It may escape you initially, but the title of this book, The Soul of a Modified, is entirely apropos. Unlike some people in Modified racing, the Boehler family never enjoyed a bottomless bank account, but Lenny and his descendants selflessly poured themselves into making his cars fast. My friend Lew Boyd at Coastal 181 in Newburyport, Massachusetts, which published this volume, knew Lenny intimately, but lets the people who lived with him, worked with him and drove for him describe his unassuming, but unshakable, determination to win. In 210 softcover pages, Boyd makes it plain that even though the patriarch has been gone for close to 20 years, his family’s dedication has kept it strong in this wild, costly, fanatically supported regional motorsport, running up front with a new generation of stars including the late Ted Christopher, Eric Beers, Bobby Santos III and current NASCAR Cup stalwart Ryan Preece, among others. Part of racing’s ethos, its truth, is that if you can get up and fight after being knocked flat countless times, you can indeed enjoy success, and even a measure of immortality. Rest assured, this book will leave you both impressed and inspired. Just released, it retails for $29.95. You ought to read it.

A new take on a magical engine

Not every technological advance is compelling enough to instantly earn it a spot in automotive industry folklore, but the Chevrolet small-block V-8 unquestionably passes that test. Designed under the guidance of the great Ed Cole, and first introduced in late 1954, the small-block was a low-weight, high-rev, high-compression engine designed for performance, serviceability and low production cost. The design had a short-skirt, thinwall engine block, stamped-steel rocker arms, cylinder heads with side-to-side interchangeability, and excellent breathing capability. It was so successful that it put the previous benchmark American V-8, the flathead Ford, on the trailer when it came to hot rodders and serious racers. Tens of million have since been produced in a dizzying variety of generations, displacements and application, and new-generation small-blocks power a variety of today’s General Motors vehicles. You can also leaf through the GM Genuine Parts catalog and shop for ready-to-fire crate engines that will complement your muscle car or hot rod buildup. And then, for the truck crowd, there’s this.

GM has taken a prominent page from its past in crafting and introducing an all-new replacement small-block V-8 displacing 350 cubic inches, a legendary engine size that first appeared in 1967, with its 4.00-inch bore, as an optional powerplant for the first Chevrolet Camaro. Let’s make it immediately clear that this is a brand-new engine, its long block not remanufactured from an old Chevy core or reverse-engineered in any way. Though it’s ostensibly intended for truck use, this new 350 has some very substantial design elements that will appeal to performance enthusiasts, starting with its four-bolt main bearing caps, forged-steel crankshaft, CNC-machined cylinder heads and compatibility with roller-bearing valvetrain components. While the new engine is specifically aimed at truck applications, you could still certainly build up a heck of a stout performance or competition small-block with a baseline like this. It’s being produced at the assembly plant in Springfield, Missouri, that GM jointly operates with Navistar, and where the Chevrolet Express and GMC Savanna vans are already built.

Climbing on the Cote d’Azur

If you’ve ever had the experience of traveling along the Mediterranean coast in France, Monaco or Italy, you are already aware that it’s a location whether sheer, unadulterated, in-your-face, politically incorrect levels of unbridled wealth and consumption are as much an element of life as breathing. If it bespeaks big bucks, it’s got a home there. That explains why Bentley, a nameplate as proudly British as the Union Jack and Yorkshire pudding, chose the megadollar Cheval Blanc resort on the St. Tropez coast as the location for the upcoming launch of its most exclusive convertible, the Continental GT Mulliner, named for Bentley’s in-house coachwork partner, the oldest such firm in the world, which produces highly individualized, extraordinarily exclusive takes on Bentley’s existing model range. If you’ve got to have something totally unique that bespeaks the monetary investment required to own one – a figure that’s yet to be disclosed in this automobile’s case – then a Bentley like this one has its crosshairs squarely on you.

The hyperbole train can very quickly find itself derailed, Casey Jones style, when you’re talking about a car like this. Take the interior. Buyers can select from eight different three-tone leather combinations, with machined metal accents and a Breitling clock – priced one of those lately? – embedded in the dashboard. That dash can be inlaid with one of 88 piano-finish wood veneers offered on the Continental GT Mulliner. To that variety, you can add choose between 88 exterior colors, or else have Bentley custom-mix any shade you want, matching a proferred sample. The interior is assembled using 400,000 individual stitches, and boasts a standard Naim for Bentley audio system with 2,200 watts and 18 speakers. If you buy this car, you’ll receive your keys in a handcrafted Mulliner presentation box, matching your car’s three-color interior hides, with the keys placed in similarly color-matched leather cases. The car has interior mood lighting in seven driver-selectable themes. Powertrain choices range up to a 6.0-liter, twin-turbocharged W-12 – three banks of four cylinders each – that can propel this enormous automobile to 207 MPH. Maybe nobody can travel to the Med right now, but buying this isn’t a bad, or downscale, substitute.

A past-tense Porsche project

We’ll say it up front: In the nutty, drooling frenzy that envelops the world of Porsche heritage and collecting, the 944 has long been kind of on the fringes. The manufacturer would likely disagree, and rightly so, but too many people out there have never really embraced the 944 because A) it’s not a 911, B) the engine is up front, C) it’s water cooled, and D) it shares its platform with the preceding 924, which was a joint development between Volkswagen and Porsche, just like the car that preceded the 924, the mid-engine Porsche 914. So to make it plain, in the eyes of some self-styled arbiters of worthiness, it’s not a “real” Porsche. You tend to see the same thing at auctions. When 944s show up, even of the turbocharged variety, they’re viewed more as used cars than true collectibles. To which we say, hooey. First, the 944 was Porsche’s biggest-selling sports car before the Boxster was introduced. And anybody who ever experienced the nearly perfect front-to-rear balance of a 944, with its rear-mounted transaxle, on the road was uniformly smitten by the adventure. That’s true both here and in Germany. Read on.

The staff at Porsche Klassik, a German magazine dedicated to the history of the hallowed marque from Stuttgart, decided to undertake the restoration of one of these cars. It selected a home-market 1991 944 S2, representing the final year of 944 production, a car that was equipped with not just factory air conditioning but also an all-fabric interior, as opposed to the commonly ordered leather seating, which is a rare find today. Another reason this car was picked was that 944s from 1991 were produced with airbags, a desired extra for whistling down choked autobahns. Body technicians in Germany massaged away the dents and dings and refinished the S2 in its original Cobalt Blue Metallic. OEM parts were almost exclusively used in the restoration, including a replacement leather shift knob, a single component that set the magazine back a cool 243 euros. It proves what most of us already know: The Porsche ownership experience is always scintillating, but never cheap.

A grand prize of a book deal

Formula 1 is back competing live on the global stage, as the rest of the world begins to tiptoe its way out of the coronavirus crisis. And that’s good, because quality automobile racing can salve a lot of wounds. In that spirit, we’ve got a deal for you. Evro Publishing in the United Kingdom has a catalog full of premium titles on global motorsports, which obviously includes F1, which also happens to be marking its 70th anniversary as racing’s pinnacle this season. Part of Evro’s portfolio is a series of books on F1 history from a different standpoint: They’re decade-by-decade retellings of F1’s past, only this story’s projected through the prism of the individual cars that formed the series’ fields. Formula 1 Car By Car is currently up to four volumes. Here’s a look at the one that covers the all-important initial decade of F1.

As the title implies, the book examines each season of F1 during the 1950s. Each season is then further broken down into the year’s performances by individual marques or teams. The internationals icons like Ferrari, Maserati and Mercedes-Benz are here, sure, but so are largely forgotten curiosities like HWM, Connaught and even Rennkollektiv EMW – go ahead, try and translate the name – the latter of which is likely the only team from East Germany to have contested Formula 1. A ton of research went into this literary effort, which also extensively covers the welter of small privateer operations that existed in that era. This book runs to 304 durably bound (which we love) pages, with more than 600 photos. Three additional books in the series cover F1 in the same fashion through 1989. All are the work of Peter Higham, who once managed the huge racing photo archive at what was then LAT Photographic, in addition to editorial stints at respected periodicals including Autosport and Motor Sport. So here’s the deal: Go to the website and you’ll learn that all four titles in the series are on sale to commemorate F1’s post-pandemic revival. Based on current exchange rates, each volume is now priced at $38.67 in U.S. currency, as opposed to the normal $64.44 price per volume. Evro’s also got similar F1 celebratory pricing on designer John Barnard’s biography, The Perfect Car, plus Formula 1: All the Races and Evro’s noted biography of Patrick Tambay. Check them out, literally.

The monster beckons anew

Look, either you liked these things or you wondered what somebody was thinking when they were turned loose on the street. If you served in our armed forces, you get a pass, first for serving our country, and for helping the military-spec Humvee, which is really what this is all about, become a vital tool in coalition military deployments. The Pentagon now specifies that its light scout vehicles, today known as MRAPs, must be hardened against improvised explosive devices. So the Humvee’s missions, both military and civilian, are undergoing some change. The most elemental is that General Motors is getting ready to revive the Hummer brand as a sub-marque of GMC, given that the erstwhile Hummer dealer network – anybody remember the lavish Hummer showroom on Route 17 in Paramus, New Jersey? – no longer exists.

This time around, the Hummer is going to be an all-electric vehicle, so the criticisms that the old civilian Hummer was a hydrocarbon junkie will no longer be operative. We’re right now in the official teaser-ad stage, as the above photo from GMC makes clear, although GM announced this morning that the GMC Hummer, as its being called, will make its official debut at a TBD date this fall with a rollout as a 2021 model. On paper, at least, it looks impressive, with a claimed 1,000 horsepower and a predicted 0-60 time of three seconds flat. We know this much already: The GMC Hummer will take the T-top to a whole new dimension, with a four-panel removable roof apparently standard. Take that, Wrangler and Bronco!

Bonneville beats the bug

We could all use a little bit of good news right about now. Here’s our contribution: One of America’s must-see automotive happenings, and we mean that sincerely, is really going to happen early next month. The 2020 Bonneville Speed Week, with appropriate social distancing, will indeed take place on the hallowed, yawning reaches of the Salt Flats beginning August 8th and running, weather and salt conditions permitting, through August 14th. With the exception of rainouts, this celebration of pure, naked, unadulterated maximum velocity has been run on the hard-packed salt continuously since 1949. This is an absolutely vital element in the development of hot rodding and land-speed competition in the United States. Bonneville is, in a word, sacred. Full disclosure: In 63 years, I’ve never been lucky enough to make it out there – regrettably, Speed Week usually runs up against the Knoxville Nationals for Sprint cars in Iowa – but rest assure, this event is at the very top of my must-see list and it belongs on yours, too.

Whether it’s an EV, a Honda Trail 50 from the 1970s or a rocket-powered supersonic needle, there’s a class for it in the Southern California Timing Association’s rule book. As evidence, we present the photo above: A diesel-powered Crosley pickup is right at home on the salt, whose sheer, majestic emptiness make it one of the most distancing-friendly spots on the planet. Interested? Start out at Salt Lake City and mosey west on Interstate 80; remember to exit at Wendover, Utah, right on the Nevada border. Entries are being accepted through the end of the month, and you can learn more here. As a piece of trivia, the SCTA’s club journal is America’s oldest published car magazine, dating without interruption to 1937. Thanks to our longtime pal Tina Van Curen at Autobooks-Aerobooks in Burbank, California, for sharing this positive news.

Inside the street race that transformed a city, along with American motorsports

We’ve taken it for granted for years, and we really shouldn’t, because the Grand Prix of Long Beach stands alone as a groundbreaking event in the long history of American auto racing. Hands down, it’s the most successful American street race of all time, outlasting the imitators that followed it, including the event around the Meadowlands parking lot that I covered a couple of times. Long Beach has been contested successfully with four distinct types of racing cars. Begun in 1975 as a Formula 5000 race through the streets on the oceanfront of Long Beach, California, the LBGP has enjoyed enormous public support in the metro Los Angeles area. It’s survived evolution into a date on the Formula 1 calendar and as a fixture for CART and later, IndyCar. It’s run continuously until COVID-19 forced its cancellation this spring and Gordon Kirby, one of North America’s most respected racing journalists and historians, has covered every single one of them. He’s now written an authoritative, intensively researched account of the race’s long history, and of the man who envisioned that it all really could happen if everybody just worked and just as critically, believed.

Chris Pook & The History of the Long Beach GP tells the tale of how Pook, a transplanted Englishman with a background in travel and hospitality, pulled this all off. It’s important to remember that in the early 1970s, Long Beach was more the end of the road than an actual destination for most people. The city was ridiculed, in some corners, for paying millions to have the decommissioned Queen Mary roped to its waterfront and turned into a convention center. The original Gone in 60 Seconds of 1974 was built around a car chase through its streets. While others were guffawing, Pook took things a step further, and convinced the city fathers that a pro-level auto race through the streets could actually succeed. They were persuaded in part when Southern California racing immortals Dan Gurney and Phil Hill embraced the race conceptually, and thus provided Pook’s wild idea with credibility in the greater racing universe. What made Long Beach so successful, and so important, was that it succeeded as an event, a great big block party, along with being a compelling race. Having Mario Andretti win it when it was a Formula 1 round helped immensely. So did Al Unser Jr.’s decisive, repeated conquests of the difficult street circuit. Hollywood celebrities flocked to attend and sometimes, run in the Toyota pro-am preliminary that became a fan favorite. As the author told us this morning, “Long Beach is by far the most successful and enduring of the American street races. Chris achieved his goal of seeing the race help in the redevelopment of the city. Long Beach was a big gamble for CART after Formula 1 left, but the race, and Chris, was a key component of CART’s success during the 1990s.” Kirby, the author of biographies of Andretti, Rick Mears, Bobby Rahal and the late Greg Moore, knows of what he speaks. The book encompasses 317 richly illustrated pages with full appendices on results and the track’s changing configurations, and retails for $80.00. It’s published by Racemaker Press out of Boston, where Kirby is now working on his magnum opus, a single-volume full history of American auto racing that he hopes to complete in a full years. Racemaker is run by Joe Freeman, the author, historian and collector of historic race cars, who genuinely deserves appreciation for producing a series of lavish, meticulously researched volumes on the great heritage of motorsports in the United States. I own several Racemaker titles, and I assure you, they’re all keepers.

A home for Lotus high tech

Among many other advances in its history, Lotus Cars has been revolutionized the Formula 1 car on three different occasions, innovations that embraced feathery weight, ground effects and even turbine power. Cutting-edge engineering is still very much what this specialist automaker is all about, especially when it comes to road cars that mortals can buy. We looked with interest on last week’s announcement by Group Lotus, as it’s now officially known, that its consulting subsidiary of Lotus Engineering will establish a new technology center in partnership with WMG and the University of Warwick, where about 130 engineers will work on advanced research projects. They will thus join the engineering staff of some 500 radical thinkers that now design Lotus road cars at the marque’s production headquarters in Hethel, Norfolk, in the United Kingdom.

The artist’s impression shows what the new technology center on the University of Warwick’s Wellesbourne campus, located in the Midlands region of Great Britain, will look like. As a geographical marker, the center will be located near Stratford-on-Avon. The technological partnership between Lotus and WMG, formerly known as the Warwick Manufacturing Group, will see the staff at Wellesbourne working on academics, teaching, training and production technologies relevant to future Lotus Group production cars. One such discipline will be the development of advanced propulsion, very much in vogue in today’s auto industry. We can only imagine that Lotus founder Colin Chapman, himself a degreed aeronautical engineer, would have been pleased at this news. Lotus Engineering was established as a free-standing subsidiary of the automaker since 1980s. Its past projects have included development of the Vauxhall/Opel-based Lotus Carlton sedan, various F1 projects, track bikes, boats, and light aircraft, with a strong emphasis on lightweight structures and vehicle dynamics.

Tomorrow is “charging” closer

In the recent past, we’ve published updates on Volkswagen’s all-ahead-full effort to create an infrastructure that can support the wave of EVs it expects to produce – some under its new alliance with the Ford Motor Company on electric and self-driving vehicles – over the coming decade. Part of that plan is the creation, by both automakers, of a new commercial infrastructure that will allow EVs to be conveniently serviced and recharged. That is going to be a huge undertaking, second only to developing the new vehicles themselves. Volkswagen Group of America last week took a stride forward in that department, as it announced the opening of a next-generation charging station at its Arizona Proving Grounds outside Phoenix. The site will handle real-world testing of EV charging systems under severe heat conditions – remember, daytime summer temperatures of 110 degrees are commonplace in that locale.

This, cousins, is what getting “gas” is going to look like in the immediate future. Volkswagen’s facility in Maricopa, Arizona, will have charging stations for 50 vehicles, comprising 25 DC fast chargers, capable of producing up to 350kW and recharging EVs at the rate of 20 miles’ range per minute; plus 10 Level 2 AC chargers to simulate less complex home-based recharging. The charging systems will utilize standard connector plus as used in North America, the European Union and China. A remote-controlled shade will provide some relief from the sun at various charging spots. Volkswagen Group of America invested $9 million in the charging station, which became operational in February. The long-term plan from Wolfsburg calls for Volkswagen to operate a global network of charging stations at dealerships outfitted to handle volume EV service and repair.