The Cars, The Times, And The Characters Who Drove Them
by Ronald D. Sieber
“To properly unfold their collective history, I selected a variety of speedsters and the companies that made them. The cars’ designers and makers, the times in which these cars existed, and the personalities that were drawn to drive these cars also inform the narrative. This mix provides a context to explain when, why, and how each speedster was made and used.
The selection of speedsters covered by this book is meant to be emblematic but not all-encompassing.”
Do a Duesenberg J Speedster and a Porsche Speedster really have anything in common? Kinda, if your criteria include “a simple but powerful car meant for speed, fun, and adventure.” Speed and powerful may seem a stretch for, say, the Ford Model T—until you think about it in the context of its time.
And context, that is the main thing this book offers for exploring the question to which the author could not find an answer in the existing literature, a decade ago: Just what IS a speedster?
You can probably name a couple of cars off the top of your head that have “speedster” right in the name. And probably some that don’t but ought to fit the bill. But is this a marketing gimmick or is there really a common denominator? Ah, there’s the rub—it is an imprecise classification so let’s read the last sentence of the excerpt above once more lest there be noises about all the cars this book is “missing”!
Few things tickle us more around here than presenting a new voice. “New” here is only apropos when it comes to book-writing because Sieber has penned material for a wide variety of outlets so whether your interests lie in the old (cf. SAH or AACA, both of which recognized the quality of his work with awards) or the new (say the Porsche blog flatsixes.com) chances are you’ve come across his name somewhere already. In fact, if you follow the blog he started in 2018, already deep into the work for this book, you will have seen versions of some of the material that is now gathered here.
And an extraordinarily polished book it is, not least because it has benefited from most excellent professional-grade design. For a first-time book effort, and self-published too, it shows just how much can be accomplished when the right people put their minds to it. Speaking of minds, a look at the Acknowledgments reveals just how deep the bench of marque and subject matter experts who test-drove parts of the manuscript is. That the eminent Karl Ludvigsen (as a Porsche specialist he is no stranger to the idea of the speedster) contributed the Foreword is in itself no small feat. If a well-read fellow like him writes that “the author has a flair for presentation that puts the cars, their makers, and their stories front and center—without distracting frippery” you don’t really want to argue with that. Although . . . there is a fine line between “frippery” and “color”—take as an example the last chapter, about the Porsche 356 Speedster. What theme do you think dominates that story? You’ll read more about James Dean here than the car (and Dean fans will roll their eyes loudly because the young and, sure, troubled actor comes off as a reckless speed junkie).
But, that last sentence is also already foreshadowed in the introductory quote: the book is as much about this species of car as it is about the species of people who seek out such a very specific mode of transport. A speedster, no matter what exact form it takes—open/closed, creature comforts, physical size—won’t ever top the list of practical people hauler (but it’ll have a premium price anyway). So: 12 chapters, 12 car companies, 12 noteworthy owners or drivers.
If nothing else it’s a romp through time, examining the speedster concept over four principal periods between 1904 and about the 1970s. A common theme in this exposition is that the speedster is a distinctly American idea, which is why the waypoints are Haynes-Apperson, Knox, Marmon, Mercer, Stutz, Ford Model T, Kissel, Franklin, Packard, Auburn and Duesenberg, with a quick final jump to Porsche. (Sieber owns, among other cars, a Porsche 356A Speedster on whose restoration he has labored for even more years than he devoted to putting this book together. He does, incidentally, not own the 1914 Stutz Bearcat speedster over which he drapes a proprietary arm on the book jacket flap and the last book page.)
Sieber has worn many professional hats (automotive, construction, manufacturing) in his life but at the core he is an educator. To wit, consider the thoughtful Index: Stutz Black Hawks are listed separately from Stutz Blackhawks, or that all illustrations are numbered and that number is then referenced within the main text so even when an illo is not on the same page as the related text, you’ll always know what its purpose is. Downside: often neither photo caption nor body copy give a date. The illustrations are very well chosen. It is this sort of attention to detail that elevate the book. That there are a few typos, albeit only in material that is really ancillary to Sieber’s subject, will aggrieve him plenty without us dwelling on it here.
Sieber is not done running the speedster question down; you can follow the journey by frequenting his website or subscribing to his newsletter.
Copyright 2022, Sabu Advani (speedreaders.info).