Behind the Wheel

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 27 February, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 27 February, 2011, 12:00am

Behind the Wheel
by Robert Puyal
Flammarion HK$390

Robert Puyal has been a motoring writer for about 30 years and knows his cars. A contributor to several magazines in his native France, he also authored a book of the 50 best stories about Renault and motor racing. His latest anthology, Behind the Wheel: The Great Automobile Aficionados, profiles the lives and cars of 54 famous drivers, mechanics, industrialists and celebrities in 240 large pages.

Puyal writes well-researched, often ripping yarns about intrepid early racers such as Jules Goux, Tazio Nuvolari and Juan Manuel Fangio, and delights in the petrolhead compulsions of actor Paul Newman, designer-constructor Horacio Pagani and car-collecting Pink Floyd drummer Nick Mason.

Packed with about 200 photographs in five chronological chapters, Behind the Wheel is best at its beginning, pre-1914, when magnificent men and women in their driving machines put their foot down over bumpy tracks with scant concern for safety.

The most heroic of them all, perhaps, was the red-bearded Belgian, Camille 'The Red Devil' Jenatzy. He disproved contemporary learned opinion that a man might faint beyond the 50km/h rush of a horse's gallop when in 1899 he revved his bullet-shaped Jamais Contente to a Luciferesque 66.6km/h and then a breathtaking 105.882km/h. He later drove for Mercedes and was shot in a hunting accident in 1913.

Camille du Gast was as colourful. She was widowed, beautiful and wealthy at 27 and divided her time between parachuting and racing de Dietrichs to 120km/h with a prince as her mechanic. Her chivalrous assistance to a fellow competitor might have saved her from the carnage of the 1903 Paris-Madrid race, but she was forbidden to drive again, officials said, 'to avoid the risks of her feminine nervousness'.

Puyal also describes the rise and fall of industrialist Louis Renault, and the bullet-riddled end in 1912 of Jules Bonnot, the former chauffeur to Arthur Conan Doyle who became the notorious getaway driver for a gang of anarchists. He revives memories of the Spanish playboy prince, Alfonso de Portago, who perished in the 1959 Mille Miglia, Britain's tragic Mike Hawthorn, and concludes with homages to Alain Prost's moods and Gildo Pallanca Pastor, the Monagesque millionaire maker of electric racing cars.

However he omits the Nascar legend of Dale Earnhardt, the drifting of Keiichi Tsuchiya, and only skims past the heroics of Germany's pre-war Mercedes and Auto Union drivers. Porsche fans will also miss test driver Walter Rohrl.

Behind the Wheel is a worthy anthology, and Puyal's writing is engaging, but its production occasionally skids with clunky translations from the original work. In addition, some illustrations are missing captions and other choices are quite odd. Puyal's work deserves more thoughtful photo editing.