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Sunday, February 24, 2019
Machines and Music: Capturing the Sounds of Sports and Race Cars
The basis for a presentation I will give at the HVA/SAH Conference in Allentown, PA, April 13, 2019
“Machines and Music: Capturing the Sounds of Sports and Race Cars”
Department of History
University of Dayton
300 College Park
Dayton, OH 45469-1540
Racing, when you get right down to it, is about the sound as much as anything. It's music. Those engines, they grab you in the gut. It's a sacred sound, a siren cry, a raw and cruel symphony. Men have died for it.… A racetrack is never completely silent. The motors echo across the generations.[i]– Author Matthew DeBord (2017).
During the past decade historians and sociologists of technology, including Karin Bijsterveld, Stefan Krebs, Gijs Mom, Michael Bull and John Urry, have explored the topic of automotive sounds.[ii] Drawing on the seminal work of Canadian composer R. Murray Schafer, these European and British scholars have examined the “silencing” of the automobile, beginning with the closed car of the 1920s and ending with contemporary “sonic bubbles” and “mobile capsules.”[iii]Humorously, perhaps, Schafer concluded that the best approximation of the sound emanating from an internal combustion engine’s exhaust is “a fart,” noting that both come from the rear![iv]How apt, given that Tuner car mufflers are called fart cans! Seriously, however, Schafer’s enlightening scholarship on the automobile and indeed the broader Industrial Revolution focused on phenomena that negatively affected Western soundscapes.[v]Nevertheless, I want to go in an entirely opposite direction, exploring race cars and production sports cars and the music (and at times noise) that they make on and off the track.
Indeed, these high performance vehicles make music amidst a sea of noise. They escaped what German historian Kurt Moser called the process of “desportification,” a transition that began in the 1920s. “Desportification “ proved to be a set of technological improvements that redefined the everyday motoring experience. Driving in increasingly refined “capsules” became more of a habit and less of an art, as operations were simplified and the ride made more comfortable.[vi]
To anyone driving an old school sports car or attending a race, noise and music are at the heart of it all. As Robert Daley described the sound in his The Cruel Sport:
At the pits there is constant commotion—and colossal noise. Drivers coming in to complain about their cars must shout over their own engine noise and that of other engines being revved up and down nearby. Mechanics shout (right), engineers shout, wives shout. Everybody shouts. Engine fumes rise all about. The fumes are sweet, sharp, the distinctive odor of motor racing. But moistly the pit area, during practice, is ear-splitting noise.[vii]
Until the coming of noise restrictions during the late 1950s and 1960s, sports cars on the street were about their blare, or to the ears of the enthusiast, music. Tom McCahill, writing in 1954 on a book dedication page about his late dog Joe, reminisced that “anyone who came to my house in a sports car was always welcome, especially if it had a deep exhaust roar. Extra nice Detroit owners were tolerated.” [viii]It was said that Triumph TR2s equipped with an original Burgess silencer “barked.”[ix]In his widely read The Red Car,Don Sanford, waxed eloquently that “There is no music on earth like the song of high-tuned engines, rising and falling in the near distance, belligerently screaming the wild fierce defiant challenge of one fast car to another.”[x]
Journalist Ken Purdy echoed similar sentiments about track sounds in a conversation with Stirling Moss in 1963:
The straight is the place to listen…. A few weeks ago I was listening to a race in France on the radio, and the cars were going past the microphone, and I said to somebody who was with me: ‘That Ferrari is in F-sharp’ – and of course I was told it was an absurd idea, I was out of my mind. And a coupe of weeks later Anthony Hopkins, the composer… was on B.B.C. and he was talking about the musical sound cars make in passing a given point. They’re all quite different. Of course they have to be wound right out, the faster the engine is turning, the better; and there’s that up and down as they come and go past a point, you know, the Doppler Effect. Of course you hear none of it, driving.[xi]
Doing history often gets personal for me, and the story that follows is a prime example of why I chose the topics I pursue. For some time, I have been interested in the history of sports cars in the U.S., particularly during the 1950s when sports car sales and SCCA participation took off. How did in the space of a decade were there a half a million sports cars on American roads and 20,000 “embryonic racers,” when you could count them on your hands before WWII?[xii]On the surface, it was the result of rising middle class expectations and ambitions, a response to the ungainly Detroit “dinosaur in the driveway.” And as a teenager during the mid-1960s I got caught up in it, as I purchased a 1959 MGA after graduating from high school. But perhaps even more significantly, at age 12 I acquired the Riverside Records LP “Vintage Sports Car in Stereo.” On one side the record featured the sounds of a number of vintage cars I had never heard of before: a Frazer-Nash; Type 51 Bugatti; E.R.A.; P3 Alfa Romero; Alta; V16 Maserati. On the flip side a vintage race was narrated by the famous David Scott-Moncrieff. I played that record over and over again, much to the anguish of my parents who thought I had gone over some sort of an adolescent cliff. But as I have discovered from recent conversations, many others joined me in this obsession with the sounds of exotic motor cars.
Today sounds are often a part of cars & coffee and weekly cruise-in events. A Saturday in October is devoted to sounds at the Porsche Museum in Stuttgart. However during 1950s and 1960s (and today if you have the LPs) thunderous but also harmonic engine sounds could be heard in your home as well as on the track and street.
The Riverside Records story is worth telling, for it links 1950s jazz sounds with the concurrent burgeoning interest in sports cars. The Riverside label began in 1952 with the partnership of two Columbia graduates, Bill Grauer, Jr. and Orrin Keepnews. Seeing an opportunity to approach major record firms with a proposal to counter what was then seen as the release of “pirate” recordings of performances dating back to the 1920s and 30s, between 1952 and 1962 Grauer and Keepnews transformed the once-obscure Riverside Records into a major jazz label. Initially Grauer convinced RCA Victor to re-issue 78s from the 1920s and 30s in LP format. However, he then shifted focus to the contemporary music of Thelonious Monk, Randy Weston, Bill Evans, Sonny Rollins and Cannonball Adderly. Additionally, the partners established themselves by writing a definitive book on the history of jazz in the U.S, published by Crown in 1956 and reissued in 1971. In the midst of this artistic and business success, Grauer, like many upper middle class men of the day, also became a sports car enthusiast.
In a 1961 interview in his New York City office that featured a large photo of Bill behind the wheel of a 1937 Mercedes-Benz, he recounted how in “1956, just for fun, we recorded sounds of sports-car races down at Sebring, Florida (I’m a racing nut, you know). We decided to release it and then the roof fell in. It began to sell like crazy.”[xiii]Thus this experiment into the commercial recording of sports car sounds It began with RLP 5001 -- "Sounds of Sebring: The 1956 Florida International Twelve-Hour Grand Prix of Endurance." Grauer recalled "At Sebring, everybody has problems and for the most part all this worry and fuss is just for the fun of it. And because it's for the fun of it, Sebring is a terribly wonderfully exciting spectacle."
The most unusual sound recording's A side began with interviews of drivers, a prelude to the listener experiencing "sounds at rest:" a 3 liter Maserati; 3.5 liter Ferrari; a Lotus; and finally a Porsche Spyder. Driver interviews connected us to ghosts from the past: Stirling Moss;Jean Behra and Carlos Medniteguy;Pochirio Rubirosa;Peter Collins;Bill Spear; Juan Manuel Fangio; John Gordon Bennett;Reg Parnell;Marquis de Portago; and finally Luigi Musso.The flip side included hour-by-hour reports of the 12-hour race.
Who do you think would care about all of this? But this was not a one-off exercise, for over the next seven years many other vinyl discs of racing sounds and exotic cars would follow, and amuse a generation of sports car enthusiasts. A label with a reputation for jazz recording left a legacy for the automotive historian to explore.An advertisement in the December 1956 Sports Cars Illustrated touted the “Sounds of Sebring” album this way:
For the first time ever: a superb high quality 12 inch long playing record of all the sounds that make up America’s greatest sports car race. Over 60 minutes of interviews with the world’s greatest drivers…Fangio, Moss, Collins, Behra, Hill, Musso, Menditeguy, Bennett, Rubirosa, Portago, Parnell. The sounds of Ferraris, Maseratis, Jags, Aston Martins, Porsche, Corvettes, Lotus, etc. warming up, revving, roaring at speed, coming out of corners flat out. The fabulous Le Mans start, pit activity, the fantastic sounds of Fangio shifting up and down as he makes the five mile circuit, and dozens of other remarkable on the-spot sounds which are so exciting to the driver and spectator alike.[xiv]
Other releases that followed the “Sounds of Sebring” included the chronicling of the Sebring races between 1957 and 1962. These records not only were a reflection of the burgeoning interest in sports car racing, but they also played a significant role in making it happen. Certainly, the course at Sebring was nothing special.[xv]Robert Daley argued that “There is much mysterious about the Sebring promotion. In every possible way, the site is ridiculous, the circuit unexciting (the Twelve Hours qualifies as one of the dullest events of the year), and the “success“ of the race inexplicable.”[xvi]
Additionally to recording car and race sounds, drivers were featured on numerous LPs. In 1957, for example, titles included “The Marquis de Portago: The Story of Racing’s Most Colorful Driver – a Memorial Tribute;” “Phil Hill: Around the Racing Circuit with a Great American Driver;” “Carroll Shelby: The Career of a Great American Racing Driver;” and “Stirling Moss: A Portrait of Britain’s Great Racing Driver, Told in his Own Words.” These recordings then serve as primary source material not only of the races and the engine sounds – distinct of brand and vintage, a sort of original language speaking to us – but also of the best drivers of the day, speaking in their own words. But we can’t neglect the focus on sounds.
The theme here, then is engine noise: exhaust, valve, camshaft. The variation on the theme are endless. As long as men design and build engines, there'll be enthusiasts trying to make them perform better. When they blow up, they'll simply build engines that won't blow up. The automobile is unique in the history of civilization. It has provided man with effortless transportation -- freed him, as it were, from the bounds of his physical limitations. And to the men who own and run these cars, it is given, more than to most men, to create as well as to savor the magic bouquet of speed.[xvii]
Another aspect of the Riverside Records sports car series is also worth mentioning. Namely, the record jackets are often works of art in their own right. The work of Bill’s wife, Jane Grauer, the covers are at times stunning representations of cars, engines, wire wheels, race scenes and Bugatti grills.
For a short time in 1956 Riverside had competition from another distinguished recording studio, Folkways Records. Folkways released a 12-inch vinyl disk and an accompanying brochure about the Watkins Glen Grand Prix race, with “on one side of the resulting record you go to tech inspection and meet the Grand Prix winner, while on the other side brings you the ear splitting and soul shaking music of the race.” The Folkways production was the result of Henry Mandler and Robert Strome using state-of-the-art high fidelity equipment, including an Ampex 400 tape recorder, Capps, Electrovoice and Shure microphones, and over 400 feet of power cords and audio cables.[xviii]A second competitor to Riverside proved to be Grand Prix Records of Burbank, California. In 1959 this firm released six 45 RPM disks of the 1957 Le Mans race; Grand Prix of Europe, 1958; Grand Prix of Monaco, 1957; British Empire Trophy Race; British Grand Prix of Silverstone, 1958, RAC British Grand Prix 1955 at Aintree and 1956 at Silverstone; and the 1958 Mercedes at Oulton Park.[xix]Unlike the Riverside and Folkways recordings, however, the later have proved to be far more elusive to collectors.
During more recent times ex-Pink Floyd drummer Nick Mason and collaborator Mark Hales revisited the theme of sound and race cars with the 1998 publication of Into the Red,a book that included an accompanying CD. A number of the cars whose sounds were reproduced by Mason and Hales were also featured in the Riverside series.
Given the technical description of the pains taken to capture exhaust engine and track sounds in 1998, a renewed appreciation of Grauer’s pioneering efforts emerges. The powerful ignition magnetos in Mason’s race cars resulted in electric interference that hampered state of the art microphones. Despite the challenges, the Into the RedCD reproduces a music like no other.
Musician Mason has the ear, sensitivity and prose to capture the sounds of cars on the track at Silverstone that Riverside Records had captured at Oulton Park, in Yorkshire some 40 years before. Mason described the sounds emanating from a 1931 Alfa 8C 2300 as
It’s more of a boom than a rip. Push in the ignition key to switch on the electrics and illuminate the starter button. The electric motor whirrs the eight pistons past compression with barely a stutter and the Alfa gently comes alive, moaning and chuffing as a thousand pieces of metal bump and grind before bathing themselves in a fresh coating of lubricant. And then, as you wait to warm the oil, there’s more to be had by listening carefully, just as with any good piece of music. You can hear the boom become the bass, and now there’s a gentle wail from the supercharger, which swells as you rev up, disappears when you lift off. Just beneath that there’s another, more musical warble from the exhaust. Not the demented pigeon noise of a modern five-cylinder Audi, but a more orchestrated, subtler kind of rhythm, like a string bass shimmering in the background.[xx]
Music is often made by instruments – technologies not that dissimilar from machines including internal combustion engines. Those musical instruments or machines reflect the work of human beings who very creatively made power and awe out of the combustion of artifacts and those players or drivers that blow their stuff in unique ways.
Another example of Mason’s genius in articulating the musical tones of a race engine comes from a 1936 ERA at idle:
The ERA makes a noise like a bass saxophone and cello in duet. The strings are the tremendous whine of the supercharger that feeds the one and a half litre six cylinder engine and the sax is the rich, reedy, deep-throated, metallic sound of the exhaust…. A supercharged methanol-fueled exhaust note is deeper and richer than anything you will hear today…. It brings a smile to the lips.[xxi]
Rarely is one consumer technology worshipped alone. Art, jazz, and sports cars, along with watches and cameras, all came together during the 1950s and 1960s. Riverside Records, still recognized for its achievements in the arts, also left a legacy in automotive history. The sounds from an automobile reflect what is under the hood, and what the owner of that car values.
Discography – Riverside Records on Sports Cars, Racing, and Miscellaneous Motor Sports
Riverside 5000 series (12 inch LP)
· RLP 5001 - Sounds Of Sebring 1956
· RLP 5002 - Sports Cars In Hi-Fi
· RLP 5003 - Pit Stop
· RLP 5004 interview - Stirling Moss
· RLP 5005 interview - Phil Hill
· RLP 5006 interview - Carroll Shelby
· RLP 5007 interview - The Marquis De Portago
· RLP 5008/5009 - Sounds Of Sebring 1957
· RLP 5010 - Cuban Corners
· RLP 5011 - Sounds Of Sebring 1958
· RLP 5012 - Mercedes-Benz
· RLP 5013 - Vintage Sports Cars In Hi-Fi
· RLP 5014 - Sounds Of Sebring 1959
· RLP 5015 - Sports Cars At Sebring In Hi-Fi
· RLP 5016 - Grand Prix Of The U.S. Sebring 1959
· RLP 5017 - Grand Prix Cars In Action At Sebring
· RLP 5018 - Sounds Of Sebring 1960
· RLP 5019 Paul O'Shea - Sing A Song Of Sports Cars
· RLP 5020 - The Race Mercedes-Benz 1937-1955
· RLP 5021 - Grand Prix Of The U.S. 1960
· RLP 5022 - Farewell To A Formula
· RLP 5023 - Sounds Of Sebring 1961
· RLP 5024 - Sebring Corners
· RLP 5025/5026 - 75 Years Of Mercedes-Benz
· RLP 5027 - Sounds Of Sebring 1962
· RLP 5028 - Grand Prix Cars At Watkins Glen
Riverside 5500 series (12 inch LP)
· RLP 5501 - Bullring
· RLP 5502 - Hot Rods And Dragsters
· RLP 5503 - Hot Rods In Action
· RLP 5504 - On The Drag Strip
· RLP 5506 - Griff Borgeson Presents Bonneville 1960 - Sounds On The Salt Flats
· RLP 5509 - Hot Rod Heaven
· RLP 5515 - Hot Cars At Winternationals
· RLP 5516 V.S. - Super Stocks
· RLP 5517 - Rods 'N' Rails
· RLP 5518 - Hot Rods, Dragsters And Super Stocks
· RLP 5519 - Burning Slicks
· RLP 5520 - Hot Rods And Dragsters
· Discography from https://www.jazzdisco.org/riverside-records/catalog-5000-5500-5700-7000-box-set-series/album-index/
[i]Matthew DeBord, Return to Glory: The Story of Ford’s Revival and Victory at the Toughest Race in the World (New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2017), pp.216-7.
[ii]Karin Bijsterveld, Eefje Cleophas, Stefan Krebs and Gijs Mom, Sound and Safe: A History of Listening Behind the Wheel.Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014. Stefan Krebs, “’Sobbing, Whining, Rumbling’: Listening to Automobiles as Social Practice,” The Oxford Handbook of Sound Studies, 80-101. See also Michael Bull, “Automobility and the Power of Sound,” Theory, Culture & Society, 21(4/5), 243-259; Mimi Sheller, “Automotive Emotions: Feeling the Car,” Ibid., 221-242.
[iii]Sound and Safe, p.6; R. Murray Schafer, Our Sonic Environment and the Soundscape. The Tuning of the World(Rochester, Vermont: Destiny Books, 1977, 1994).
[v]Sound and Safe, p.13.
[vi]On Moser, see “Der Kampf des Automobilisten mit der Maschine” – Eine Skizze der Vermittlung der Autotechnik und des Fahrenlernens im 20. Jahrhundert, in L. Bluma, etal., eds, Technikvermittlung und Technik Popularisierung (Münster:Waxmann, 2004).
[vii]Robert Daley, The Cruel Sport (St. Paul, MN: Motorbooks, 2005). p.82.
[viii]Tom McCahill, The Modern Sports Car (New York: Prentice Hall, 1954), dedication page.
[ix]Graham Robson, The Triumph TRs: A Collector’s Guide (London: Motor Racing Publications, 1980), p. 18.
[x]Don Stanford, The Red Car(Catchogue, New York: Buccaneer Books, 1954), p. 214.
[xi]From Stirling Moss, Face to Face with Ken Purdy, All But My Life (New York: E.P. Dutton & Co., 1963), p. 78.
[xii]Robert Daley, Cars at Speed: The Grand Prix Circuit(Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott, 1961), p.263.
[xiii]On Grauer and Riverside Records, see “Sound Business,” Newsweek, 58 (September 4, 1961), 63; “Bill Grauer Jr. Obituary,” New York Times, December 17, 1963, 39; John S. Wilson, “Greats of Classic Jazz Ignite a Reissue,” New York Times, January 18, 1987, H25; Orrin Keepnews and Bill Grauer,A Pictorial History of Jazz: People and Places from New Orleans to Modern Jazz(New York: Crown Publishers, 1956).
[xiv]Sports Cars Illustrated(Here after SCI), October, 1956, 64. Other ads include SCI,January 1957, 47; SCI, May 1957, 55; SCI, June 1957, 11; SCIAugust, 1957, 3; SCI, September, 1958, 3; SCI, March 1959, 3. For a review of the Riverside LP “The Fastest 500,” Riverside RLP 5513, see Road & Track, 13(March 1963), 12.
[xv]On the history of Sebring, see Alec Ulmann, The Sebring Story (Philadelphia:Chilton,1969); On the use of WWII air field runways during the 1950s, see Jeremy R. Kinney, “Racing on Runways: The Strategic Air Command and Sports Car Racing in the 1950s,” ICON,19 (2013), 193-215.
[xvi]Daley, Cars at Speed, p.264.
[xvii]From the dust jacket of Riverside Records RLP 5002 [1957?]:
[xviii]Folkways FX 6140, “Sounds of the International Sports Car Grand Prix of Watkins Glen, NY,” p.5 of accompanying brochure.
[xix]“You Are There! With Grand Prix Sound Story Records,” SCI, June 1959, 71.
[xx]Nick Mason and Mark Hales, Into the Red: Twenty-One Classic Cars that Shaped a Century of Motor Sport (London: Virgin Books, 1998), p.30.
[xxi]Ibid., p. 44.