Burt Levy is something of a cult icon in the world of road racing, having so far written four novels that peel back the early history of the sport in post-WWII America. The series, which includes The Last Open Road, Montezuma’s Ferrari, The Fabulous Trashwagon, and Toly’s Ghost, interweaves a cast of fictional characters with the lives of some of racing’s most storied heroes: Carroll Shelby, Briggs Cunningham, James Dean, Masten Gregory, Jim Clark and many others.
Burt’s work comes out of his passion for sports car racing and the culture that surrounds it. As a friend of Kilometer Magazine, he sat down with us recently to discuss his love of European cars and, of course, to pimp his newest novel in the series, called The 200 MPH Steamroller, which is due out shortly. As usual, Burt’s true personality comes through in his words:
KM- You’ve written four novels so far that focus on the world of road racing in the 1950s and ‘60s. Why that time period?
BL- I grew up in the ‘60s, and we looked back at the ‘50s as a pretty dim-bulb generation. And yet I think I came to it [that period] through driving so many of the cars to do stories for magazines. That was an era when the art of building a racecar hadn’t yet become the science of building a racecar. The cars were still very much the product of one or maybe two or three brains instead of committees – so I loved the simplicity of them.
As I got older, it seemed at least in retrospect that the generation of the 1950s was probably the last truly confident, optimistic generation that this country will ever see. We had just kicked everybody’s ass in World War II, we were riding a burgeoning economy, we certainly weren’t aware – painfully aware as we are today – of the social inequalities built into our system. It’s one of the reasons Sylvester [the black mechanic] is there in the book, so it doesn’t look like I’m looking back completely through rose-colored glasses..
I had been to Watkins Glen, I’d been to Elkhart Lake, I’d driven an Allard and some of the other old cars – I had actually sat down to write a history [of American road racing]. And the way I wanted to do it was to have this fictitious character, this mechanic – I didn’t want to make him a driver because you don’t need all this ego, and drivers are always full of shit – who’s in it, but not really in it; he’s on the sidelines and he can afford to be honest. What I didn’t see coming is that along the way, the lives of my fictional characters grew and started to be more interesting to me than the history that I had set out to tell. And I was pleased that I found an audience, and also I wanted to find out what happened next. It comes out of my imagination, and I can’t stop the voices in my head, so I just kept going. So that’s where it started; five novels later I’m still going
KM- Your first novel, The Last Open Road, seems to reinforce certain truths that we hold self evident today: that British sports cars are unreliable, that the Germans are calculating and humorless, that certain big car clubs are political…
BL- There’s a line in the second book (Montezuma’s Ferrari) where he [the protagonist Buddy] says, “Inside every stereotype is a little kernel of truth.” Which is true. If you live by stereotypes, you’re making a huge, huge mistake, but how do you think [the stereotypes] got there?
That’s one of the things I love about the older cars. [In mock German voice] In ze old days…I could get in a car and tell you what country it came from blindfolded by the way it felt, the way it smelled, the way it handled. I did a little piece once, long ago, talking about different philosophies of design. I proposed that if you needed a given part, the Americans will stamp it out of sheet steel, the Germans will machine it out of a billet, the Italians will make a beautiful finned casting, the Japanese will make you a casting that doesn’t look nearly as nice as the Italian casting but is probably technically better even though it looks a little porous, and the British will take one piece of angle iron and bolt it to another piece of angle iron with one SAE and one Whitworth bolt. There’s a little truth in all that stuff.
I’ve had a real love affair with British cars, but I think you have to look at the price point they were aimed at to understand them. In this new book I focus quite a bit on what created the British sports car phenomenon after World War II. After the war, England was devastated obviously; they were hurting for raw materials, they were hurting even worse for exports. So anything they could sell to the Yanks or anyone else was huge. And sports cars turned out to be a way to do it. And all of these cars were built down to a price. They were all made out of stuff that was already in the parts bins from various economy sedans. So none of it was very sophisticated stuff; I’m talking about MG, Triumph, and Healey. You get up to Jaguar, and here’s a car that offered an unbelievable amount of style and performance for the money, but one of the reasons it was so cheap is they didn’t quite finish the job.
So I love that, and it bothers me today that you can still tell differences, but not nearly so much. Cars are much better today than they’ve ever been, but out of that there’s come a certain sameness and a certain lack of national character and certain lack of character overall.
KM- So do those early stereotypes still hold up today?
BL- Yes and no. You get in a new Jag, and it doesn’t feel… well, I would say the German cars feel closer to their roots and the Japanese cars feel less like their roots. A “Jap car” used to be tinny piece of shit that would run forever, and they aggressively tried to engineer themselves into a more tactile driving experience. But I don’t want a perfect car. Character comes out of flaws; perfection is dull.
KM- A reader might gather that you have a love-hate relationship with European cars. Is that the case?
BL- Oh, I love them.
KM- In the 1970s you ran an import car repair shop in Chicago. How were your attitudes about European cars affected by that experience?
BL- Mellow Motors…oh, we were desperate; we’d work on anything. If you had come into the shop you might find a Land Rover that had caught fire that we were trying to put a wiring loom in one wire at a time; we had a Morgan that we were restoring; we had old rusted out Beetles sitting around. The good news is that a lot of the stories I wound up writing came from real experiences I had there and from real people I met there.
KM- Any thoughts on the return of Fiat and Alfa Romeo to this market?
BL- You know, I’ve got a very soft spot for Alfas. I raced Alfas for years, drove them on the street and had a very close relationship with Alfa and the people in their organization – and am still friends with many of them – even though their organization was shit.
If you look back at Renault, Peugeot, Alfa, Fiat – it was their dealer networks [that let them down]. Here are marques that were successful in Europe, but their dealers here… the overall perception was [the cars] were junk because their dealers looked like junk.
Fiat’s got an even worse reputation here than Alfa. They need to start out small in a couple of regional markets – California, maybe Florida – as they work the bugs out. Unfortunately, I think they’ll do it the way they’ve done in the past and try to come in and establish themselves nationwide as a major force at a time when the market is shrinking. If they do that, I don’t think it will be a successful venture. To support a nationwide infrastructure, you’ve got to sell a lot of fucking cars. Chrysler has one foot in the grave and another on a banana peel, and is that who you want as a partner?
KM- Tell us about the new novel.
BL- It’s coming out this summer. As to the content, I tried to write this book so that you don’t have to have read all the other books to get into this one. There’s a different narrator, although he’s a character that has appeared in the previous books. Many of the characters that have appeared before reappear in this one, but they’re not major roles because we’re going off in a different direction. Although I’m very proud of the last novel [Toly’s Ghost] in one way, in that it’s a very complicated book structurally – I’m juggling three different stories in three different areas geographically simultaneously through one narrator, and I kept most of the balls in the air most of the time – I think it also got a little dark and a little long. I think the history of the era got in the way of the narrative sometimes. A lot of people tell me they loved the first one but each one [after that] was not as much fun. And I say, “Yeah, the kid’s growing up! That’s what happens in life. The fun part of life is at the beginning.”
It occurred to me the real vibrant stories in life are always about things you do for the first time, and the characters that I’ve established and have been following in the previous four books, they’re getting – I won’t say they’re at the end of the line, but they’re running out of options. You get to a certain point in your life, and you spend your days maintaining that life you’ve already created and the days get to be pretty much the same. So I didn’t want to follow these characters into divorce and gum disease and parents dying; I have real life for all that. So I wanted to get back to somebody who wasn’t yet settled in his life, doing things for the first time, because I think that’s when you’re really alive. That’s the fun stuff.
So in the new book we’re following Hank Lyons, the [fictional] automotive scribe from the previous books who’s going to get sucked into Fairway Motors, which is obviously a completely fictitious version of Ford. This book is going to be dedicated to the men and women of the Ford Motor Company and the success they had at LeMans (1966). I was cheering louder than anybody and proud as hell that they did that.
There’s still a lot of racing in the new book. When it starts out, Hank is writing for Car and Track magazine in Europe. It’s his dream job. Then the publisher sells the magazine and Hank gets fired and winds up working as a PR flak in the field for Fairway Motors as they try to buy Ferrari and work on the GT40 program. The story also looks at two real people who are heroes of mine: Colin Chapman and Enzo Ferrari. Two guys; completely different men and completely different cars. And yet the kind of success they had and the area of endeavor they went into is so similar. I’ve done a lot of research on those two; you wouldn’t want to work for either of those two, and yet look what they did.
But I’ve already told you too much. The book is called the 200 MPH Steamroller. It’s up on the Last Open Road site.