Friday, 9 May 2014

AN INTERVIEW WITH KARL LUDWIGSEN

Many thanks to Margus-Hans Kuuse from Estonia for sending us this set of questions with automotive writing legend Karl Ludwigsen.


1. We have all inherited something from our childhood. Do you remember your first ever automotive book, important article, association with autos, or racing event, or maybe it was your family members or relatives who influenced you in that particular way?

I was exposed to the world of cars at an early age. My father was vice president and general manager of the Fuller Manufacturing Company in Kalamazoo, where we lived, a leading maker of transmissions for medium and heavy trucks. My father, a graduate in mechanical engineering, had played an important role in its success. He regularly received the magazines such as Commercial Car Journal, Automotive Industries and SAE Journal that reported on industry activities. We also received Fortune, then a wonderful magazine, from which I extracted all the automotive advertisements of the 1930s. Sadly they didn’t survive a flood in my school’s cellar.
On Saturdays my father would go down to the works to catch up on things in his office and I would come along. We then might walk through some of the production floors to see what was happening.
My father, Elliot L. Ludvigsen, was car-aware. The first one I remember was a Lincoln Zephyr in which we drove to visit his parents in Minnesota. My mother had a 1935 Ford convertible with rumble seat. Then he had a 1941 Buick Super sedan and my mother a 1940 Buick convertible—nice cars that we had through the war.
I started getting other information on cars through Mechanix Illustrated and Popular Science, which I preferred to Popular Mechanics. True magazine’s Ken Purdy also wrote movingly about sports cars and his ‘Kings of the Road’ was an important early source. A friend introduced me to Floyd Clymer’s Motor Scrapbooks, all of which I bought and through which I learned about many kinds of cars at an early age.
I scoured our local news stands for car magazines, buying Road & Track as soon as it was nationally distributed, Motor Trend and Hot Rod as well. In 1948, when I was 14, I started receiving The Motor weekly from England, thanks to a subscription offer by Floyd Clymer. This was a revelation, opening up a great world of cars and racing. I immediately wrote to the British distributors of all interesting cars and received many brochures and photos in return.
My aim became to be technical editor of a car magazine like Laurence Pomeroy, Jr., who I thought had the best job in the world for a car enthusiast. I attained that ambition in 1956, at the age of 22, when I became technical editor of Sports Cars Illustrated.

2. At which point in your early career, having possibilities of advancing in either engineering or design, did you decide that putting words to paper was the thing you wanted to do more than anything else?

Writing about cars and writing in general has always been a security blanket for me. I gained a good grasp of composition at my high school, Phillips Exeter Academy. But I have always found it interesting to work in the industry. This I did for some six years at GM, two years with Fiat and four years with Ford of Europe. Then for 15 years I owned and ran a management consulting company that served the world motor industry, based in London. This was extremely involving and demanding, drawing as it did on all my experience, knowledge and interest in the world of auto making. But researching and writing has always been attractive and absorbing for a person who is — let’s face it — comfortable with working on his own. Since 2000 I’ve been committed to this as my main way of working although I still advise on industry matters.

3. Do you agree that technical journalism (auto journalism included), is a demanding profession and can only be done properly when a writer is well educated and/or self-taught in a wide variety of subjects? Which ones are often neglected/overlooked in journalism?

This is a difficult subject. If there were a strong demand among the public at large for detailed technical insights into auto design, then the press would gear up to meet it. If on the other hand people were mainly interested in the features that they understand and other aspects of car equipment — as they are — they would get the stories and publications that meet their expectations.
For me, writing books gives me the best opportunity to explored technical developments in depth as I enjoy doing. My interest is in finding out why and how things happened in the car world, a topic that is hard to deal with in journalism.

4. Please name some of the most important qualities which makes a good researcher and historian.

Curiosity, curiosity and curiosity, coupled with a determination to get to the bottom of things. But in the real world this must be coupled with an ability to stop researching and start writing!

5. Perhaps everyone in our profession had heroes among engineers, designers, racers, industrialists, even writers, auto artists and photographers. Can you name a few?

As I said earlier, in his versatility and expressiveness Laurence Pomeroy, Jr. was a role model. I also greatly appreciated the skills and achievements of my friend and colleague Griff Borgeson. In the motor industry GM designer Bill Mitchell was an important mentor, an amazing individual, as were friends Chuck Jordan and John DeLorean. Bob Lutz is both a friend and a boss who brought me to Europe, where I remain!

6. The role of a technical journalist as a teacher and educator, seems to me, has generally downgraded over past few decades, thanks to a number of factors, some seemingly inevitable. Do you agree?

Here we return to the answer to question 3. We get what we deserve in this respect. Some publications I think are doing a very good job. I cite in particular my old stamping grounds of Car and Driver, where Don Sherman is among those contributors who achieve a remarkably high level of engineering analysis and interpretation. There are also magazines devoted to racing technology that cover new developments in depth and detail. So not all is lost, thank goodness.

7. We have heard tales that industry bigwigs are worried when opening a newspaper with a critical article of Keith Bradsher and the like. Do you believe that a top writer can actually influence the industry (excessive and greedy a priority ... people like Ralph Nader tell you) for better?

No car maker likes to get bad reviews. The first instinct of top executives is to ask their PR people to do something to change the writer’s opinion! The last thing they consider is changing the car to get a better review next time. I experienced this when Fiat’s Vittorio Ghidella asked me to investigate Which? Magazine in the UK, which was being mean to Fiat’s products. He clearly felt that somehow Fiat wasn’t taking care of the right people there. I had to tell him that the cars themselves were the problem, that, like Vauxhall, it was possible to get better reviews with better products.
Some car-company people will pay close attention to the judgements of writers whom they respect. But today there are few towering figures in the field like Pomeroy, Paul Frere, John Bond, David E. Davis, Jr. and others of yore.

8. Internet and author rights clash every second. Hi-res images, some for restricted or one-time usage only, have been taken from password-protected sites by irresponsible people, put on various non-professional sites, and are now available worldwide. What will the future bring?

This is an alarming trend which fortunately had not developed to its present extent before we sold our picture library several years ago. The solution will be in more rigorous policing of such transgressions and better technology to prevent such illegal usage.

9. You were owner of the Ludvigsen Library, possessing immense amounts of rare and invaluable information. Behind every great writing must be an immense amount of first-hand information and illustrations. How has an age of digitizing etc influenced the accessibility of really important information for researchers?

Well, as I said we sold our automotive library several years ago. I still have a number of books that I consider important and useful on topics in which I am interested. Being in this position I often resort to the internet and am pleasantly surprised by the amount of information available there. I believe that I have enough knowledge in my fields to sort the wheat from the chaff.

10. The scope of the themes you have touched in your innumerous books is unbelievable. But having returned to the Porsche theme so profoundly over the decades makes me feel that legendary Stuttgart marque is your all-time favourite? Am I right?

Yes, I think you’ve rumbled me there. Porsche as a company producing great sports and racing cars has been a subject of continued interest. This has been linked with my researches and writing on the subject of Ferdinand Porsche, in which I have been encouraged not only by Bentley Publishers but also by his oldest grandson Ernst Piëch. I still have much t say about both the man and the company.
Not far behind however is Mercedes-Benz, a remarkable company that I have been able to study in some depth and detail. I also enjoy recording the history of Chevrolet’s Corvette. And of course racing cars of any kind are high on my interest scale.

11. The socialist countries separated themselves from the world’s automobiliana from 1917, 1940 or 1945 and most of them have not done enough for compensating those lost decades. I think the enthusiasts deserve to be given hugely missing information about the period 1886-1991 in their respective languages, but people in those comparatively poor countries can’t generally afford books. What should we do in these circumstances?

The answer lies in the internet. This is able to provide not only mini-squibs of information but also lengthy reports and reviews that are of high educational value. As an example I give you and your readers http://www.grandprixengines.co.uk, a truly remarkable source of information and interpretation on a subject close to my heart. I also commend http://www.forix.com for those interested in racing more generally. I should mention http://www.enginehistory.org, the website of the Aircraft Engine Historical Society, of which I am a member. These are good examples of the great value of the web as a source of such ‘missing information’.

12. Can you give our readers an idea about your 2014 agenda, or even just this month, as a start? Can you reveal some of your publishing plans or book ideas? Any new titles, second or third editions on the horizon? Any books in digital format planned?

It’s a pleasure. In June Bentley will publish Volume 1 of my completely revised and updated history of the Chevrolet Corvette, in more than 700 pages covering the C1 through C3, 1953 to 1982. In September Pen & Sword will publish Professor Porsche’s Wars, my book about the military work of Ferdinand Porsche in both world wars and between them as well, bringing many surprises for students of both Porsche and military machinery.
Right now I’m working on a complete and final update and revision of my Porsche history, which in its new format will extend to four volumes. This is a big job but my Porsche readers will only be happy with the best that I can deliver—a very demanding constituency! After that I will write the biography of one of the greatest-ever auto engineers, Reid Railton, designer of land speed record cars for both John Cobb and Malcolm Campbell. And then I need to write Corvette Volume 2!
In the middle of all this I am half-way through my history of supercharging and turbocharging, a huge but satisfying undertaking. And a German publisher wants me to write an autobiography …

Available from Veloce!
BRM V16 by Karl Ludwigsen

Few racing cars of any kind have a more exotic and exciting reputation among enthusiasts than the first BRM, a 16-cylinder wonder machine that was a bright beacon of promise in Britain’s drab post-war years. Packed with photos from the author’s collection, this is the story of a bold but ultimately misguided venture that delivered too much, too late. More info.