Oldies but goodies

Posted on October 23rd, 2005 in Opinion by Julian Edgar

I love reading; in fact it puzzles me slightly that anyone who has any interest in anything wouldn’t love reading. I also love buying secondhand goods; put those two together and lots of old books come my way. Via eBay, from garage sales and secondhand book shops, at auctions and by tender.

Over the last year or two I have been buying lots of old car books, especially those that deal with car technology. Given that my major car modification interests are electronic systems, turbocharging, aerodynamics and hybrid cars, you might wonder why I’d bother buying old car engineering books. After all, aren’t they all way outdated?

Well, yes and no.

Sure, you won’t find mention of the latest in Bosch electronic stability controls, or active aero, or ball-bearing turbos. But equally, there’s been almost zero change in car fundamentals. Engines still have pistons and cams and crankshafts, the concept of valve timing hasn’t changed much in 100 years, and Ackerman steering geometries have as much validity then as now. Even more importantly, the physics of power and torque and engine revs; sprung and unsprung weight; engine balance – and a host of other topics – hasn’t changed one whit.

And the best thing about some of these books is that the way they explain these concepts is simply second to none. Perhaps in times past it was much more common for someone to get interested in a topic, buy some books and then set out to teach themself the whole thing from scratch. (These days, the same person just subscribes to a web discussion group and gets a mix of advice that is typically 80:20 in quality… and no, that’s not 80 per cent good stuff!)

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Take the superbly named ‘The Trained Man Wins’. Published in 1941 by the General Motors-Holden’s Limited Service Division (and based almost 100 per cent on generic US GM materials) the book is subtitled: ‘Home Study Course No.2’. Inside it has hundreds (in fact probably thousands) of diagrams showing how every part of the car works in superb, glorious, back-to-fundamentals detail. I’m about half way through it and can categorically state that I have already gained far more in value than the AUD$15 or so I paid for it on eBay.

It’s simply a bloody good book.

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Or there’s the book I bought today – AUD$1 from a secondhand junk store. First published in 1906 and with continuous update editions through to (at least) this 1960 edition, it’s called ‘The Complete Guide to the Modern Car – The Autocar Handbook’. Like many of these early and so well written books, it’s by a full-blown engineer – J.R. Singham, Ph.D., B.Sc. (Eng). With excellent line drawings and an understated prose, it covers everything from carburettor functioning to why a steam turbine powered car is unlikely to soon appear. (In fact, just the ‘Alternatives to the Petrol Engine’ chapter was worth far more than the dollar.)

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The best book I have read on brakes – how they work, how to test them, principles of braking – is a thin volume of just 94 pages first published in 1938. I have the second edition, which saw the light of day in 1958 – it cost me AUD$2. The book is called ‘Automobile Brakes and Brake Testing’.  I was so amazed by the quality of the contents I did a web search of the author, Maurice Platt, only to find that he was a former chief engineer of British car maker, Vauxhall. Nothing like having hands-on experience to go with his masters degree in engineering….

I could go on about the worth of these old books – but I won’t. If you find an old automotive engineering book, and it’s not too expensive, buy it.

But having said that: some words of caution.

Most of the older books I have found devoted to modification and engineering racing cars have been out of date. Cylinder head modification on a 4000 rpm L-head engine is very different to port mods on a 4-valves-per-cylinder engine that revs to 7000 rpm! (These books are still interesting, but in a historical manner only.) So I’d suggest buying only those books that generically cover ‘how cars work’ and similar topics.

Secondly, it’s very easy to spend a helluva lot of money buying old technical car books. Secondhand book shops will often sticker these books at AUD$60 or more – and as antiquities, they’re probably worth that much. But if you just want to absorb some engineering fundamentals, that’s a bit rich. So if you’ve got lots of dosh, by all means do web searches on www.amazon.com for specific old titles, chase major secondhand bookshops and so on. But if you haven’t got any spare money, simply keep an eye out wherever old goods are being sold.

Like I said, these books can provide fascinating reading that has a profound effect on your whole thinking. And isn’t that what good books are all about?

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