The best motoring books: great reads in 2020

Published: 30 April 2020

► 2020's best car books
► From all areas of car culture
► And great for next year, too

You don't need us to tell you that the latest Autocourse edition is out now, or that Damon Hill and Jenson Button's autobiographies are both 'well worth reading and would be well suited anyone with even a passing interest in cars.'

What about the hundreds of other car-related books that have been published? Most are of niche interest at best, but there are some real gems lurking in Amazon's further-flung warehouses. Here are our current favourites – just in time for father's day. 

Keep reading for a list of the best reads for petrolheads in 2020.

Road Trip - A Practical Manual

It’s a good book, mixing practical advice with inspiration, all conveyed in an agreeably chatty, conversational tone. Breslin has done many of these trips himself, although he’s careful to make clear that he’s essentially a holidaymaker, not some knife-between-the-teeth semi-feral Bear Grylls character.

Again and again, he says something to the effect of ‘aw shucks, if I can do it, anyone can’. The fact that some of his journeys were done in a £300 Polo (that glorious Mk2 three-door estate) rather than a Land Cruiser adds weight to his claim. He’s also refreshingly un-sniffy about airport hire cars – sometimes they are by far the best option.

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A race with Love and Death

Rihard Williams has written wonderful books vividly telling the stories of Enzo Ferrari, Damon Hill and Ayrton Senna. But this latest one tops them all for drama, insight and casting fresh light on old events.

"A Race with Love and Death" is the tale of Richard Seaman, Britain's first great Grand Prix driver, as the subtitle calls him, who famously won the 1938 German GP in one of the Hitler-backed Mercedes Silver Arrows, and died in a crash in 1939.

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John Fitzpatrick Group C Porsches: the definitive history

New hypercar rules mean endurance racing is about to get very interesting, but for many the the golden age of Le Mans came with the Group C regulations. The '80s were a time of ground-effect cars, numerous works and privateer teams and plentiful sponsorship cash – and it also gave us some of the most iconic racing Porsches of all time.

Mark Cole’s epic book charts the Group C era through the lens of the John Fitzpatrick team, a privateer outfit synonymous with the 956 and 962. In the 364-page hardback, you’ll find a detailed record of the team’s successes and failures in numerous racing series, and hear about the performance of its drivers – from Thierry Boutsen to Derek Warwick.

 

 

My Greatest Defeat

By Will Buxton

The first book by F1 journalist Will Buxton, My Greatest Defeat is a collection of interviews with 20 world-class race and rally drivers, including greats such as Mario Andretti, Sebastien Loeb and Sir Jackie Stewart. As the title suggests, it focuses not on their greatest race wins but their toughest moments – not only within the sport but in their overall lives.

The late Niki Lauda, for instance, talks about the time his airline suffered a fatal plane crash, and how he fought to exonerate his pilots from blame; Ari Vatanen talks candidly about recovering from the mental trauma he suffered while recuperating from appalling injuries suffered in a crash; Mika Hakkinen talks philosophically about how much of one’s self you must sacrifice to single-mindedly dedicate yourself to winning in top-level sport.

The premise may seem maudlin but the book is both thought-provoking and inspiring. It shows the sport’s heroes are not only human and fallible but also deep-thinking, rounded characters, upholding the author’s premise that ‘in racing as in life, our greatest moments can be born of our greatest defeat.’

 

How to build a car

By Adrian Newey
Published by Harper Collins

One of the most successful, pioneering F1 car designers ever, Adrian Newey has become a household name – despite not being a driver. Over his 35 year career, he’s designed championship-winning cars for Williams, McLaren and Red Bull – and work with the likes of Senna, Hakkinen and Vettel. This is his autobiography; but rather than a straightforward narrative, it focuses on key cars in his career. A must-read for F1 fans and more technically minded car enthusiasts, too.


Overlanders' Handbook 

By Chris Scott
Published by Trailblazer

If everyone who owned a wilderness-ready 4x4 headed off into the wilderness, there would be no wilderness, because it would be nose-to-tail with previously pristine Defenders and Land Cruisers. Never going to happen. But there's a tiny percentage of drivers who really do use their cars for exploring off the beaten track. This updated and expanded second edition of Chris Scott's adventurers' bible is aimed chiefly at them. But it's also a wonderful read for the rest of us too.

It's down to the detail. Scott is all about the detail – worrying and checking and prodding until he figures out the best route from Timbuktu to Tripoli, or the optimal method for carrying spare fuel without stinking up your drinking water, or the right order for packing your documents.

What's that got to do with you and me going for a blast up the B660 in our Golfs? Everything. Because Scott's curiosity is infectious, and you find yourself wondering about how your car works, how it could be modified, how you could make better use of it. Seriously, you'll see your car, and the roads it travels, through fresh eyes after dipping into this. (And you'll start hankering after a Land Cruiser.)


Lonely Planet's Epic Drives of the World

This, on the other hand, has virtually none of the nitty-gritty detail that makes Scott's book so compelling. This is 90 per cent coffee-table browsing material for dreamers who'll never do the big trip, and nicely done. After all, Route 66 will still be there next year, won't it?

Car books detailing

Automotive Detailing in Detail

By Dom Colbeck, Jon Steele and David McLean
Published by Crowood

If you'd told me that I'd enjoy reading a book about cleaning your car, I'd not hesitate to pour cold water on your foolish notion. But you'd be right and I'd be washing my mouth out with Simoniz, because this is fascinating.

No, really.

The authors – all hands-on practitioners – know WAY too much about different techniques for cleaning, restoring, buffing, preserving and pimping, but they manage to not get too dogmatic or uppity about it. The temptation to shout at idiots like me YOU'RE DOING IT WRONG has been heroically resisted, and instead they offer detailed suggestions for a variety of techniques for tackling any given aspect of maintenance. It pulls off the remarkable trick of making better results seem easily achievable.


Subaru Impreza Group A Rally Car Workshop Manual

This is one of Haynes's less hands-on manuals – essentially a nostalgic look back at the 1993-2008 Imprezas that, for a generation, defined rallying. It's very rich in detail – covering the drivers and the teams as well as the hardware.

Car books retro f1

F1 Retro 1980 

By Mark Hughes
Published by Motor Sport

If you've enjoyed Mark Hughes's magazine work over the years, you won't need persuading that this is worth every penny of 60 quid. It's a hefty yet always fascinating look back at the 1980 season. Whereas so much journalism and instant-book writing about F1 is done ultra-quickly, this has the benefit of nearly 40 years of hindsight. There are new interviews with champ Alan Jones and Patrick Head, who designed the winning Williams, plus a wealth of period photos. Every race, every car, every rivalry – it's all here, expertly analysed.

 

Ayrton Senna – The Last Night

In 1980 Ayrton Senna had yet to make the leap from karts to Formula Fords, but he would soon become a household name, one whose career was cut horribly short in 1994. In this collection of photos (published by Skira), photographer Ercole Colombo tells the story of Senna's career through 100 carefully chosen images. That's it – no more, no less – and it works a treat, in a melancholy kind of way.

Car books senna

The Mechanic

By Marc 'Elvis' Priestley
Published by Vintage

Before he worked as a Sky pitlane reporter, Marc Priestley was an F1 mechanic with McLaren. And he was there at a fascinating and sometimes turbulent time, so he has many stories to tell (a veil is drawn over one or two episodes, but on the whole it's refreshingly frank and candid).

The story of Priestley's own career isn't particularly thrilling – he was good at his job; he got promoted – but as a witness to the feuding between Hamilton and Alonso he's brilliant. He's also fascinating on the good-eggness of David Coulthard, the peculiarities of working for Ron Dennis and the weirdness of Spygate. It's just a pity about the boys-will-be-boys high jinks that he insists on sharing with us (another hire car bites the dust, another hotel-room TV meets the bottom of a swimming pool).

 

Urban Outlaw

By Magnus Walker
Published by Bantam

If you renounced fashion as long ago as I did, you might need a bit of help in figuring out who Magnus Walker is and why he's written an autobiography. Turns out this bearded, long-haired, heavily tattooed gent – born in Sheffield, and now in his fifties – is a fashion designer, although to the untrained eye his fortune seems to have been built on taking some perfectly decent clothes and messing them up. Which would, of course, make you worry for the Porsche 911s that he fiddles with as a hobby.

Except they're all really nice, as if he gets all the lairiness out of his system with the torn jeans and applies what is clearly a very keen eye to tweaking his Porsches.

Written in a no-nonsense manner, he makes it seem pretty easy to make a fortune and spend large chunks of it on cars. If only.

Car books VW

 

Faster, Higher, Farther

By Jack Ewing
Published by Bantam

Surely a book isn't the right medium for addressing an affair that's still ongoing, is it? And yet New York Times reporter Jack Ewing's book about the Dieselgate scandal works as an essential read for anyone who wants to understand how this happened. Various legal actions are still rumbling away, but none of that looks likely to undermine the relevance and accuracy of Ewing's incisive drilling into the culture of an ambitious, successful but also flawed company.

He keeps his focus pretty narrow, but scandals involving other prominent companies also make a little more sense when you understand the pressure to succeed in a high-stakes business, described very vividly here in terms that don't require a grasp of business jargon.

There's a follow-up book to be written before long, trying to make sense of the aspect Ewing couldn't have anticipated when he wrote this: just how well VW seems to be weathering the storm.

By CAR's road test team

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