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Gentlemen, start your engines: Why racing creates mechanical art forms

Updated 29th June 2015
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Gentlemen, start your engines: Why racing creates mechanical art forms
Written by Jared Zaugg, CNN
Jared Zaugg is the author of Gentlemen, Start Your Engines! - The Bonhams guide to classic sports & race cars. The views expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
The first race? It was conceived when the second car was built.
There's no question the automobile has changed the world -- physically, economically, culturally and emotionally.
Its invention and, especially, availability through mass production is one of the greatest revolutions in human history. And one of the most important catalysts in all this was the desire for speed.

From the track to the road

The adage "racing improves the breed" was never truer for motor vehicles.
The drive to win, to be the fastest, to be the best, to simply go faster, accounts for innumerable advances in the development and evolution of the automobile, benefiting all of today's classes of transportation.
If it were not for the spirit of competition, cars as we know them today would not exist.
There are very few things in any contemporary automobile that have not been either directly developed or improved by racing.
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The 1972 Lamborghini Miura, the world's first supercar. Credit: courtesy Tom Wood / Bonhams
From basic engine design (the overhead camshaft), transmissions, gearboxes and tire technology, to independent suspension, superchargers and turbochargers, fuel injection and push-button ignition, not to mention a host of safety features like disc brakes, roll cages, seat belts, rear-view mirrors, and so much more -- even the basic aerodynamic shape of automobiles and the use of wind tunnels to create more slippery designs -- the benefits from the pursuit of swiftness are ever present.
Each time we step into even the most mundane of vehicles, we are profiting in some way from the sport of racing and the craving for speed.
Not only that, but racing represents the best of us -- ingenuity, competitiveness, perseverance, hope, bravery, sportsmanship and, just sometimes, humility.
In race car drivers we see pioneers, people who are willing to risk their lives in the pursuit of not just winning but also breaking records and pushing frontiers.
Even more important are race car designers, the innovators whose labors have such far reaching effects.

The birth of the "dream car"

Perhaps most important of all is the emotional impact of sports and racing cars.
Who can forget the first time they saw their "dream car" in person or drove or rode in their first sports car?
Not just a means of conveyance, sports and racing cars transcend -- or defy -- practicality and engage all of our five senses.
They are the reason motoring is so fun, whether we realize it or not.
In the world of collectible motorcars, I've seen an incredible array of machines offered at auction, the collective value of which -- in terms of history, culture, engineering, design and currency -- is staggering.
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The 1902 De Dietrich motor carriage. Credit: courtesy Tom Wood / Bonhams
After several years of watching so many significant models cross the auction block I thought a book featuring a selection of these mechanical sculptures was due.
Bonhams, an auction house with a great car tradition, has given me access to their archives.
While by no means comprehensive (far from it, there is so much more), my hope is that this curated collection provokes thought and stirs emotion. The effort is not so much history book as it is art museum.
Beginning with a Brass Era 1902 De Dietrich motor carriage with 16 horsepower that was designed to win the Paris to Vienna road race that year, and culminating with a Space Age 1997 McLaren F1 racer with 550 horsepower that was also designed to be the fastest car in the world that year, the selection of just over 50 cars exemplifies the mind-blowing progress of the automobile in less than a century.

The men behind the wheel

Similarities between all these vehicles and the industry's evolutionary path are evident, providing a fascinating insight into what is arguably mankind's most transformative invention.
What I find most intriguing, however, are the human stories behind these machines.
The designers, racers, businessmen, clients -- all the characters that combined to give life to metal and infuse these objects with so much meaning -- it's this history that captivates.
Take for instance the open-wheel, single-seat car driven to an impossible victory by a diminutive Italian name Tazio Nuvolari.
When one realizes that in terms of technological advancement and sheer power this Alfa Romeo 8C 35 was vastly inferior to its German Silver Arrow competitors, the story of its win at Livorno in 1936 is all the more inspiring.
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The 1935 Alfa Romeo 8C 35 Supercharged GP Monoposto. Credit: courtesy Pawel Litwinski / Bonhams
The masterful Nuvolari -- one of the greatest drivers, if not the greatest, of all time -- found advantages that few or none could recognize and, together with his legendary skill and tenacity came from behind, literally and metaphorically, to triumph.
Then there's the incredible backstory of Antonio Lago, the man behind Talbot-Lago, that involves a grenade, death, escape, exile and ultimately one of the most impactful cars of the age.
The story of the Scottish underdogs, Ecurie Ecosse, that came from the shadows with their metallic blue Jaguars to dominate the world's most prestigious endurance race -- the 24 Hours of Le Mans -- not once but twice, is also rousing, as is the famous personal feud between Henry Ford and Enzo Ferrari that gave rise to the world-beating Ford GT40.

Extensions of humanity

Less emotive but equally interesting is the story of how the Mercedes-Benz 300 SL "Gullwing" came to be.
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The 1954 Mercedes-Benz 300 SL Coupe "Gullwing". Credit: courtesy Pawel Litwinski / Bonhams
Most people probably don't realize that it was born from a race car, that the doors were never a design element, rather a solution to an engineering problem, or that it was a salesman in America that was responsible for its production.
Today this car is recognized as a paragon of design and one of the most significant cars ever created. It's simply legendary.
Cars are so much more than transportation, they're extensions of humanity.
And sports and racing cars are their pure essence.