America's fascination with the automobile as a culture object has long been a matter of interest to this magazine and on occasion we have enjoyed probing and analyzing the love affair. What is it in a man that leads him to sacrifice health, wealth and all pretense to a normal life for a piece of machinery?
Two of our earliest examinations of this phenomenon came just 16 years ago this month. The first was an article entitled Souped-Up and Hot, which took a look at the Bonneville Salt Flats speedsters of that era. At that time the record was a comparatively somnolent 252.80 mph. Four weeks later there was an appreciation of classic cars, the wonderful world of Stutzes, Bentleys and other dream machines. We called that one Genevieve Rides Again.
This week SI takes an updated look at the romance between man and his machine, from nearly the same vantage points. First is what might be called the torrid, or let-it-all-hang-out, school of automobiling: Gary Gabelich's recent assault on the land-speed record (page 50), which he consequently shoved up to 622.407 mph. Correspondent George Ferguson interviewed Gabelich at Bonneville shortly after his successful runs, and then a few days later Writer-Reporter Dan Levin caught up with him on the asphalt flats of Seventh Avenue for still added angles on what drove the man, and vice versa.
On page 62, Robert Campbell spins what might be described as an auto buff's true confession, showing just how far a man's attachment for metal objects can plunge him. For example, Campbell and his family live in Rock-away Township, N.J. Do they live there for the reasons the rest of us might live there—low taxes, good schools or convenient transportation? No, the Campbells live in Rockaway because a lot of auto mechanics also live in that part of New Jersey, which is a necessity when you own a vintage Bugatti and you're not too handy with tools yourself.
November 9, 1970
When Bob Campbell isn't writing about Bugattis or looking after the domestic needs of a wife and two "demolition experts, ages 7 and 8½," he writes prizewinning corporate and documentary films. Sharing the Campbell household are four cats and an "extremely amiable" German shepherd named Rufus—and, of course, the dismembered Bugatti.
When he was 30 years old, back in 1952, Campbell was not even remotely interested in cars, except as a means to an end—that is, to a job. Then he was introduced to his first Bug, owned by a friend, and the flame was kindled. It still hasn't gone out. At St. John's College in Annapolis, Campbell says, by way of explaining his magnificent obsession, "I was much smitten by philosophy and mathematics. Both subjects are relevant to Bugattis, the former when the car isn't running, the latter when it is."
All readers who tingle when they read Bob Campbell's story—and many will—are warned to proceed with caution next time they're in the vicinity of a vintage car for sale. As Campbell points out, the automobile disease runs a long course and has no known cure.