Most are just outdated…

Posted on November 20th, 2007 in Opinion by Julian Edgar

old-books.jpgAs I have often written here, I love buying (and reading too, of course!) car books. I have a very extensive library of automotive books, including many technical examples dating back up to ninety years.

Invariably, even when opening a very old book, I learn something. For example, a few months ago I bought a series on automotive engineering published in the late 1920s. I was amazed at the coverage given to steam and electric cars, and that in part triggered the series we ran in AutoSpeed on alternative forms of propulsion.

After all, if steam and electric were then so strong in comparison to the internal combustion engine, why not now as well?

However, there’s one type of old book which is usually a dead loss. Except, I guess, as a historical curiosity. And the type of book? Those that cover modification, or as it was often called then, ‘tuning’. Even the tuning books seen as classics – and so worth quite a lot of money – are today usually irrelevant.

For example, Automobile Engine Tuning (1962) is a book that is usually commands very good secondhand prices. Its author, Phil Irving, was a highly regarded automotive and motorcycle engineer. But open the book today and it’s all so dated that there’s nearly nothing you can use. Before people write defending the man, I’ve no doubt that in its time the information was all useful. But today I couldn’t find a single thing that benefited me. Not one thing.

David Vizard is another very well known and well regarded technical writer. But his Performance with Economy (published 1981 and 1987) is another that time has not treated favourably. I recently bought it, thinking that at least in an area like camshaft design and tuning there may be relevant material. But I was wrong. Instead, there’s excitement about electronic ignition…

Simply, the use of 4-valve heads, full engine management with closed loop control, variable valve timing – and all the rest – makes the technologies covered in these books pedestrian. Like, they get enormously excited dealing with stuff that was available mainstream 20 years ago. Or, to put it another way, what was then exotic and on the cutting edge is now available in cars so old they’re being sent to the wreckers for a hundred bucks.

But there’s another side. If the modification book looks not at hands-on tweaks but instead at the theory behind them, the material dates far less quickly. The superbly named Souping the Stock Engine, published in 1950, has plenty in it as relevant today as when it was published. For example, its Five Paths to Power are: increase piston displacement; increase the weight of the mixture drawn in on the intake stroke; increase the efficiency of combustion; increase the mechanical efficiency; increase the peak rpm.

Doesn’t get much more relevant that that, eh?

5 Responses to 'Most are just outdated…'

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  1. Matt said,

    on November 20th, 2007 at 1:42 pm

    If you’re into interesting motor books, find a copy of “Some Unusual Engines” by LJK Setright.

  2. Blair said,

    on November 21st, 2007 at 11:34 am

    Anything by Setright is worth reading. He had an ability to see the engineering beauty in everything from a 1935 Bugatti wheel to Citroen DS suspension to anything done in the Honda tradition (though less and less of that happens now) Quite a few of his views were controversial, though most likely purposely ?
    Best bit is that he was Australian, OK born in the UK, but his parents were both Australians.
    The world of automotive journalism was lessened by his death.

  3. Blake Parry said,

    on November 23rd, 2007 at 1:35 am

    as a relatively young motoring enthusiast, i find a large amount of info from the internet. Forums can be good when you sift through the junk, theres usually at least 1 or 2 posters who actually know what they are talking about….

  4. Wolf said,

    on February 12th, 2008 at 10:19 pm

    Last year I bought the book ‘Modern Engine Tuning’ by Gragham Bell , who also wrote ‘4stroke Performance Tuning’ and a lot of other great books.

    When I bought the book , I hadn’t checked the year of publishing. The book turned out to be from the mid 80’s. But , there was quite a lot of usefull info in it. Too bad most of the book was about carburators

  5. Julian Edgar said,

    on July 22nd, 2008 at 6:02 pm

    ‘If you’re into interesting motor books, find a copy of “Some Unusual Engines” by LJK Setright.’

    As it happens, I bought this book just the other day, having forgotten your post!