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Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Reading List: Tom McCahill's Car Owner Handbook

McCahill, Tom. Tom McCahill's Car Owner Handbook. Greenwich, CT: Fawcett, 1956.
The 1950s in the United States were immersed in the car culture, and cars meant domestic Detroit iron, not those funny little bugs from Europe that eccentric people drove. American cars of the fifties may have lacked refinement and appear somewhat grotesque to modern eyes, but they were affordable, capacious, fast, and rugged. Just about anybody with a rudimentary knowledge of mechanics could work on them, and their simple design invited customisation and performance tuning. Tom McCahill was the most prominent automotive journalist of this epoch. His monthly column and reviews of cars in Mechanix Illustrated could make or break a model's prospects in the market. He was known for his colourful language: a car didn't just go fast, but “took off like a Killarney bat”, and cornered “like a bowling ball in a sewer pipe”. McCahill was one of the first voices to speak out about the poor build quality of domestic automobiles and their mushy suspension and handling compared to European imports, and he was one of the few automotive writers at the time to regularly review imports.

In this book, McCahill shares his wisdom on many aspects of car ownership: buying a new or used car; tune-up tips; choosing tires, lubricants, and fuel; dealing with break-downs on the road; long-distance trips; performance tweaks and more. You'll also encounter long-forgotten parts of the mid-century car culture such as the whole family making a trip to Detroit to pick up their new car at the factory and breaking it in on the way home. Somewhat surprisingly for a publication from the era of big V-8 engines and twenty-five cent gas, there's even a chapter on improving mileage. The book concludes with “When to Phone the Junkman”.

Although cars have been transformed from the straightforward designs of the 1950s into machines of inscrutable complexity, often mandated by bureaucrats who ride the bus or subway to work, there is a tremendous amount of wisdom here about automobiles and driving, some of it very much ahead of its time.

This “Fawcett How-To Book” is basically an issue of Mechanix Illustrated consisting entirely of McCahill's work, and even includes the usual advertisements. This work is, of course, hopelessly out of print. Used copies are available, but often at absurdly elevated prices for what amounts to a pulp magazine which sold for 75 cents new. You may have more luck finding a copy on eBay than through Amazon used book sellers. As best I can determine, this publication was never assigned a Library of Congress control number, although others in the series were.

Posted at December 18, 2012 17:13