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Car books you have to read

If you’re after a good automotive books, Ben Horton’s your man. He picks some of his favourites from those he sells

Everyone loves a good read. Immersing yourself in a decent book is a great way of passing the time, and over the years there have been some fantastic offerings for petrolheads to get stuck into. 

But which are the very finest books about motoring and motorsport? Ben Horton, of Hortons Books (www.hortonsbooks.co.uk) in Marlborough, Wiltshire, is the man to ask, because he is one of the world’s foremost experts when it comes to selling books.

Ben has been around books and cars his whole life, having spent his childhood attending motorsport events with his father, Michael – a racing driver and team manager – collecting memorabilia along the way.

In August 1997, he went into business as Hortons Books, trading from a garden table at the back of the family house. Some 24 years later, the firm has 15,000 motoring and motorsport books in stock at its warehouse, and is renowned globally as a leader in its field.

Despite – or maybe because of – the pandemic, Ben says the automotive book industry is in good health. “People have definitely been consuming more books,” he explains. “Since the first lockdown, we have seen a huge upturn in sales, including our busiest Christmas ever. There has been a resurgence in printed matter – people realise there is a benefit to not staring at a computer screen.”

We asked Ben to share his thoughts on the greatest motoring books ever. Some are serious investments only for affluent collectors, others are more affordable page- turners suitable for everyone, but one thing is for sure: his selections represent the best of the best. 

Top reads

The best motoring biography

Enzo Ferrari: Power, Politics and the Making of an Automotive Empire By Luca Dal Monte

The legendary racing driver and founder of Ferrari died in 1988, and the passing of time until the publication of this heavyweight 954-page biography in 2018 ensures it is a riveting and comprehensive read.  

“This is a really fresh look at Enzo Ferrari’s life and Ferrari as a company,” says Ben. “By doing this so many years after Enzo passed, you get what you would like to think is the true story. As time goes on, people are probably more honest in their opinions of the man, and I think you’ll get a far truer account [from this] than if you had read Enzo’s book on himself, or one of the early biographies from someone formerly employed by Ferrari.” 

The book, which cost £40 new, is currently out of print. If you can track one down, it’s likely to cost around £450.

The best book dedicated to a single model

Dino Compendium 206gt, 246gt, 246gts

By Matthias Bartz

The Ferrari Dino is one of the most iconic models ever made, and has inspired a book that truly does its status justice in the shape of this 396-page limited edition. 

Says Ben: “As far as a book on a single model goes, this is how they should all be produced. If you’re buying a book on a single model you obviously have huge interest in it. You might be looking to buy one or sell one, and this has all the information you would need – for example differences in production years, chassis numbers, what toolkits should be in them – all in beautiful colour photography and with great production values. A book doesn’t get much better than this.” 

It cost £160 new in 2011, and is worth £2,250 today.

The book with the best photography

At Speed

By Jesse Alexander

Motorsport lends itself to dramatic imagery, and Ben’s selection here is a sublime documentation of Formula One, IndyCar, sportscars and Le Mans from the 1971 season by US photographer Alexander. The 158-page large-format book has huge fold-out pictures in full colour, and many of the images are, according to Ben, “mind-blowing”. 

But there’s more to its appeal than that. He explains: “To me, a great photographer is someone who sees beyond solely an image; they see an image that tells a story, just as an artist does. This is in my top 10 motoring books of all time. Whenever I look through it I get drawn in.” 

Standard editions go for £650.

The best history of a manufacturer

Maserati – The Family Silver

By Nigel Trow

“THIS is a difficult one,” admits Ben. “There are many histories of manufacturers, but most of them are illustrated and don’t truly provide the facts and figures. But Maserati – The Family Silver is a two-volume slip-case book produced in 2016 and has 872 pages, with very few illustrations, so you can imagine the depth of information.” 

Fourteen years of research went into the title, and the two volumes are split chronologically, from 1881-1944 and 1945-2014. Only 1,000 were printed, priced from £195, and the book has been a strong seller at Hortons.

The best book about motorsport

Mon Ami Mate: The Bright, Brief Lives of Mike Hawthorn & Peter Collins

By Chris Nixon

A Look back to a very different era of Formula One gets Ben’s vote here. Mon Ami Mate is a dual biography of British racing drivers Hawthorn and Collins, with the title referring to their nickname for each other. “This is very entertaining to read,” Ben reflects. “It harks back to the fifties and gives you a great insight into motor racing then. It’s a fascinating story of when motorsport was hugely dangerous, and many people were lost, including Collins and Hawthorn.”

The first edition was published in 1991 and now sells for around £125; reprints go for £60-£70.

The best book about a road trip

Peking to Paris

By Luigi Barzini

Subtitled ‘Prince Borghese’s Journey Across Two Continents in 1907’, this volume chronicles the Italian aristocrat’s success in an extraordinary race from China to France over two months 114 years ago. The book, says Ben, is an “all-time classic” and expertly paints a fascinating picture. 

“Obviously travel then was not as common as it is now, especially in a car, so the cultural differences are absolutely massive,” he continues. “These days, if you suggested driving from Peking to Paris, it would be an astonishing thing to do, but in those days, it was like going to the moon.” 

A first edition (published in 1908) can fetch up to £1,000, but numerous reprints have been released over the years, and it’s possible to get your hands on one for as little as £10.

The best motoring self-help guide

Pretty much everybody who has ever tinkered under the bonnet of a car has used – or at least heard of – Haynes manuals, and it’s this ubiquity that earns the series its recommendation here. “John Haynes was very young [16] when he produced his first book [on the Austin 7 in 1956],” reflects Ben. “To go from there to where Haynes is today is just astonishing.” 

And the reasons for the success are straightforward, according to Ben. “The original Haynes manuals are very clear and concise and easy to use, otherwise they would never have sold as many as they have,” he says.

Although current owner Infopro Digital has said it will no longer print new manuals, preferring digital content instead, Haynes’ status as the default workshop assistant is assured.

An underappreciated classic

Gilles Villeneuve, The Life of a Legendary Racing Driver

By Gerald Donaldson

The Canadian was one of Formula One’s brightest lights in the late seventies and early eighties, winning six grands prix for Ferrari before his shocking death in qualifying for the Belgian GP in 1982. His life and career are well worth revisiting in this biography. 

Ben reflects: “This was hugely appreciated as a new book, but now it’s gone out of fashion and not so many people ask for it. It’s a fascinating story – Donaldson knew Villeneuve incredibly well, and I would still argue that he was one of the greatest racing drivers of all time. 

“It’s a book that really deserves to sell more. You learn what a great guy Villeneuve was, and how he lived his life on the limit. It’s one of the best-written automotive biographies bar none.” Around £20 should secure a copy.

The best book about supercars

Driving Ambition, The Official Inside Story of the McLaren F1 By Doug Nye with Ron Dennis and Gordon Murray

The roadgoing McLaren F1 is one of the most legendary cars of all time, and has been endlessly documented and pictured. But if you’re a fan, this authoritative guide to its remarkable story is essential due to the access author Nye had to some of the key protagonists in the project. 

Ben says: “Doug Nye is one of the greatest motoring authors of all-time, and this was produced in conjunction with Gordon Murray and Ron Dennis. With all those people involved it was always going to be a classic, and provide the true inside story of the car. It has interesting, good- quality illustrations, and is a nice large format.” 

The book cost £60 when new, but a first edition now sells for £250, although copies that have been signed by Dennis or Murray go for more.

A motoring book to make you laugh out loud

Touch Wood and All Arms And Elbows By Duncan Hamilton and Innes Ireland

Not one but two books here, both autobiographies of fifties racing drivers and extremely entertaining. Hamilton took victory at Le Mans in 1953, and Ireland was a GP winner in F1 but, while successful, it was their personalities that make their stories so compelling. 

“These were two larger than life characters,” explains Ben. “They were both uncompromising, did exactly what they wanted to do and there are some hilarious tales in these books. For example, Hamilton was following a young couple who were kissing and cuddling in the front seat of their car. He locked bumpers with them and drove them up the street at 90mph. Today’s world might see it as completely un-PC, but in the fifties that’s how it was!” 

Signed first editions of either book would cost around £200, but reprints can be picked up for as little as £20.

The best book about car design

Jacques Saoutchik, Maitre Carrossier By Peter Larsen and Ben Erickson

Russian-born Jacques Saoutchik made his name in France as one of the coach-building industry’s greatest ever artists, and this lavish celebration of his life and work is a fitting tribute to the man. 

Saoutchik designed extravagant bodies for brands such as Bugatti and Delahaye, achieving particular prominence in the thirties, and his triumphs are recorded in detail in this three-volume limited-edition book. It was published in 2014 and originally sold for £300, but now fetches up to £2,500. 

“This is the most incredible book,” says Ben. “The content is well written and well researched with beautiful images, and the production is really high quality. In fact, everything about the book is quality – it’s just unfortunate the price is beyond most mortals.”

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