Fast Friends book review: heil the heroes of the car industry

Published: 30 April 2020

► From Karl Ludvigsen, historian, journalist, designer, PR... 
► ... and author
► A revealing insight into the history of the car industry

Stick a pin in the map where you think the centre of the motoring universe is located. You might well plump for somewhere in England. Bunch of F1 teams, plus JLR and Aston Martin over that way, Lotus the other way, Bentley up a bit, Rolls down a bit, Mini just over there, not to mention the ghosts of Ford and Vauxhall’s vast UK production operations. And so on. You could certainly argue the case. It would, however, be nonsense.

Because the centre of the automotive universe is Stuttgart. Always was, always will be. However much happens in Detroit or Paris, Gothenburg or Wuhan, Silicon Valley, Tokyo or Modena, the sheer significance of what was invented, developed and built by Daimler and Porsche has shaped everything that’s ever mattered in the history of cars.

The best books for car enthusiasts

This thought comes into sharp focus reading the latest book from the prolific automotive historian Karl Ludvigsen, Fast Friends. I say historian, but that’s just one of the many strings to his bow. Journalist, editor and author he certainly is, but he’s also been a car industry insider. Born in Kalamazoo, Michigan, he studied engineering and industrial design, and worked as a car designer, PR man and corporate affairs executive before turning to the typewriter.

This book leans heavily on the people he worked with and met during his years in the industry. An awful lot of the most important ones are German. And many of them are Porsche/Piech family members. Their significance is very convincingly argued. Again and again those names come up, and not just in connection with obvious products like the Porsche 911 and VW Beetle, and various NSUs and Audis, but also very strongly in relation to the resurrection of the German industry as a whole after the war.

There are also many unrelated Germans profiled here. Werner Breitschwerdt, for instance, the forgotten Mercedes boss of the mid ’80s, turns out to be particularly fascinating. Ludvigsen renews his acquaintance with Breitschwerdt at a very opportune time, in 2007, in that sweet spot where the real story can finally be told. The events he’s talking about are far enough in the past for him to feel able to spill the beans, but recent enough to still be fascinating and relevant. So we get some sharp insights into various partnerships that should have happened but didn’t, and others that did happen but shouldn’t have. Such frank talk about the process and personalities involved is all too rare.

It's not just Germans. Bob Lutz is quite a hero, John DeLorean gets a sympathetic hearing, and you doff your cap to Giorgetto Giugiaro: the Golf, Passat and Scirocco designed in three month – THREE MONTHS – and swiftly followed by the Audi 80, Fiat Panda and Uno, Lancia Delta… 

Some of the portraits feel a bit too short; you’re certainly left wanting more of Ludvigsen’s take on the Agnelli dynasty. Others are a revelation: Carlo Abarth, for instance, should be a legend. And I think it’s fair to say that Ludvigsen has more to say that’s original and arresting about engineers, executives and designers than about racing drivers, where he seems a bit star struck. Which is rather charming, but the real value of Fast Friends is in making clear to an Anglophone audience where the industry’s beating heart is truly located, like it or not.

Karl Ludvigsen’s Fast Friends is published by Delius Klasing

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By Colin Overland

CAR's managing editor: wordsmith, critic, purveyor of fine captions