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Recommended Reading: Dragging and Driving

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In 1950, the novel Hot Rod, by Henry Gregor Felsen, showed young people that hopping up cars was cool, but racing them on public roads could be deadly. In the intervening years, beginning with Santa Ana in California, sanctioned tracks and formalized racing took hold and spread across the country. Then, in 1960, Tom MacPherson’s Dragging and Driving taught hope-to-be hot rodders everything they needed to know to make their first runs down the track.

Like Felsen’s series of action-packed novels, MacPherson’s book has a message about safe driving under all circumstances at its core; however, while the former employs engaging cautionary tales to accomplish its mission, the latter does so through a comprehensive how-to approach that undoubtedly kept and held its young readers’ attention.

Small and easy to carry, Dragging and Driving was nevertheless a comprehensive resource for beginning drivers on street and strip.  

Running to 191 pages, Dragging and Driving has 11 chapters, two appendices and an index, as well as illustrations and photographs, some provided by the major automakers, that all work to establish the book as a serious, credible and therefore “cool” authority. The author presents himself as someone who is “in the scene,” who really knows, and he ingratiates himself with his audience by addressing them as equals, even occasionally incorporating slang from the appendix on “Dragging Jargon.” We wonder how MacPherson’s readers would have reacted to him, an adult, using slang, especially had they known he had been born in England and was three times their age when he wrote this book?

Young readers couldn’t miss this photo of the powerful business end of a hot rod at the start of the book; it’s likely the author hoped that it and its young driver—ostensibly a member of the Creepers Car Club of New Jersey—would immediately lend credibility to a mutually respectful communication between adults and teens.

Nevertheless, in the age before a Google search would make looking up his biography possible, we can imagine young peopleespecially those without the benefit of a car clubavidly reading this text, as it covers in detail everything from buying their first car, to DIY customizing, to NHRA race classes, to emergency driving techniques and even first-aid. It is full of exceptionally pragmatic straight-shooting hot rodding wisdom like:

  • “If you know you can do more than the unskilled work, do it and save a little money. If you think you can do more on your own, don’t; take it to the mechanic and save a lot of money.”
  • “Beyond altering the head, the carburetor, and the exhaust system, what other gadgets you add to your engine depends upon how gullible you can get.”
  • [The competition racer] “…doesn’t fool himself or anyone else about ‘economy.’ Though he may ‘save’ on fuel he pays the price a hundred times over in the frequent alterations and adjustments to his power plant. He is buying more distance, speed, and power to the gallon and he’s convinced it’s worth the price.”
  • “Insurance companies will not pay more than the fair value of the original vehicle before customizing.”
  • [If you aren’t allowed to modify the car you drive] “There is fun and satisfaction in keeping an automobile looking as sleek and running as smoothly as the day it rolled out of the showroom.”

Not just a treatise on driving safety, Dragging and Driving actually provides novice-level hot rodders with useful instructions on topics like evaluating and buying a car and preparing an engine to have its heads milled for increased compression.   

This hot rod-related advice undoubtedly made it easier for young drivers to also listen to everyday driving lessons like:

  • [If your brakes go] “Try to shift your car into low gear. Pull over onto the shoulder if it is clear. If there is a guard rail, don’t hesitate to bump the nearest upright with the edge of your bumper, then the next, then the next, and so on. Enough guard rails will bring you to a stop.”
  • “No driver has yet had the roof of his car stolen while driving or a door whisked away by a playful breeze. So, take that protective left hand back in through the window and place it on the steering wheel.”
  • “More rubber and dispositions are burned by kidstuff drivers taking turns with squealing tires or brakes, or both.”

MacPherson provides an introduction to the then-new world of sanctioned drag racing by identifying and describing the kinds of cars that fall into the nine main NHRA divisions.  

And then there are the cold, hard-truth statements (which would never have had a chance of being listened to by his young readers had MacPherson not been so effective at treating them as equals and using real hot rodding knowledge to build a rapport with them) like…

  • “Nothing—no disease, no aggregation of household accidents, not even global war—will kill as many men under twenty-five as will gasoline buggy collisions.”
  • [Quoting a likely fictional police officer] “Necking while driving is almost as suicidal as driving drunk or playing wrinkle fender… I usually ignore the driver other than to check his license. Then I tell the chick what a mess a windshield can make out of her pretty face.”
  • “It may be true that had the occupants of the convertible not been wearing seat belts they might have been thrown clear of their overturned car. But statistics show that the most common cause of serious head injury is when people are thrown out of the car. Dragsters know this, and the official rules of the National Hot Rod Association say, in effect, that you wear a seat belt or you don’t race.”

This last example illustrates how MacPherson uses something readers respect (NHRA and drag racers) to make a powerful point about general automotive safety.

To illustrate how serious MacPherson was at wanting to provide a useful resource for young drivers, he included a section on first-aid and even went so far as to indicate that readers should affix tabs to each section to facilitate its use in an emergency. Of course, the fact that it’s included at all implicitly drives the point home that driving can be dangerous. 

Of course, as is the case with any historical text, its material can sometimes seem dated in light of modern knowledge, technology and social mores like…

  • [In the event of an impending head-on collision] “If you have passengers, yell at them to get down on the floor and hold their knees up toward their chests.”
  • “The average male pedestrian will either jump back at the sound of your horn, or freeze and let you avoid him. The average female will glare at you first then dance back and forth, not quite sure which way to go.”

And what mid-century book for young people about automobiles would be complete without optimistic drawings of future conveyances that look like they belong either in Speed Racer or The Jetsons? 

That said, as so many jet-age automotive books for young people are wont to do, Dragging and Driving makes some optimistic predictions about the future of mechanized transportation that haven’t come true, like the development and eventual dominance of “air sleds” (i.e. ground-effect vehicles). But MacPherson does get some innovations right, like…

  • “The ‘highway cruiser’ will probably be equipped with electronic and electromechanical devices that will either warn the driver about hazards or will slow down or turn the vehicle automatically.”
  • “‘Transaxles’ are now being manufactured and any year now they may be standard automobile equipment. By using transaxles, engineers will be able to build the transmission into or near the rear axle and thus reduce the hump down the center of the auto floor.”

Dragging and Driving is an interesting historical artifact, and for those enamored with the automobile in Fifties and Sixties America, worth picking up a copy, which can be had for between a penny and $58 depending on format, printing date and condition. We have no doubt that, like us, you’ll look up and realize that you have read the entire thing in one sitting.

For fun, we’ll share the glossary of “dragging jargon” below.

Also, Thomas George MacPherson, the book’s author, seems to have been an intriguing, but now little-known fellow who wrote two other books of automotive interest for young people: Great Racing Drivers (1962) and Keep Your Car Running: How To Be an Auto Genius (1976). All we have been able to discover about him is that he was born in England in 1915, emigrated to America in 1921 and served in the U.S. Army during World War II to the rank of second lieutenant. He was a member of the American Polar Society and was director of the Juvenile Division at G.P. Putnam’s Sons, which published Dragging and Driving. He also wrote for Scouting and Boy’s Life and was even published in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. Anyone know anything more about him? For instance, were cars more than a work assignment for him?