Book Review: When Sex Was Safe

We like Unique & Limited. We also like Waft. Clear? Great. With that established, it should suffice to say that we think it would be awesome if two of our favorite automotive media companies got together and--

Oh good. Let's dive in then.

If you are already familiar with Unique & Limited's work, you might think this is simply a collection of images with the same stories that are readily available on their website. Well, yes--and no. Yes: the artworks within are the same iconic racing scenes we've seen before, but in the book they're given context...nuance... Drama and messiness. If VH1 wanted to do a reality show about racing, the Caracciolas and Nuvolaris would never lose their place in the cast. Aside from personal intrigues, special care is taken to paint the real background to these scenes: early-to-mid 20th-century Europe, and how its realities helped shape this still-new sport. Bart Lenaerts narrates and provides insight into the climate of GT and Formula racing at the time, giving the book a depth that doesn't even strive for in its descriptions.

The Weight of Nationalism

Most of the art and stories come from a time in Europe when racing was full of noble playboys and the sons of wealthy merchants. It was also the absolute height of European colonialism; when grands prix were held as far south as Tunisia and Tripoli to show off the wealth and might of the empires that occupied them. Coincidentally, the same pattern can be found in many other sports of the period: as political tensions among European nations rose, so did the demand for sanctioned international competition. Everyone wanted to prove that their country was the best at something. This is when we saw the birth of FIFA's World Cup, the rugby union Five Nations championship--hell, even chess  players started getting together to crown an official champion. Every year, European countries fought battles on track, field, court, and board game; interrupted only by the real wars they seemed to forget were always brewing.

In racing, this rise of nationalism and Nazi Germany took pride in country beyond harmless livery colors. The Third Reich's forced involvement in all aspects of life included motorsport. This looming presence changed racing from being a heroic, though stupidly careless endeavor, to something that had become dangerous away from the track as well. Although trouble with the Reich was only a possibility for anyone crazy enough to pilot a Silver arrow, it was a rewarding and attractive risk. The Silver Arrows utterly dominated their period, and pilots braved a tumultuous political climate to win glory behind the wheel of one. By beautifully illustrating these circumstances, Bart reminds us that racing is never just racing; and Unique & Limited's work isn't just pictures. Suddenly, the piece "Steeper, Faster, Stronger" is about more than larger-than-life machinery on a fantastical track. It now brings to mind the pressure of not blowing a big race in a German car, at a German track, under the watchful eye of Nazi Germany's Minister of Propaganda. Now, "Burn and Crash" isn't about the bravery shown by Manfred von Brauchitsch when he rejoined the race after his car caught fire: it's about a man who was given no choice but to do so.

The Good(?) Old Days

Most of the time periods covered in the book qualify as what some would call the "good old days". Some of the golden eras of motorsport. Was it, really? After all, behavior on the tarmac and in the pits was anything but golden. Do we absolutely need to be told stories of stolen wives, not-so-secret paramours, and the friendships they ruined? No. Can I imagine this book without these scandalous details? Absolutely not. Again, these details open the reader's eyes to another dimension of the art they accompany. Sometimes I wonder... if today's race cars weren't covered in sponsor logos and the invisible conduct contracts that come along with them, would the scandals sprinkled throughout WSWS not be right at home in today's tabloids?

Bart and Lies have compiled a dream collection of the stories and people behind the now-famous U&L artworks. They say a picture is worth a thousand words, but with this text as a companion, every triumph depicted is emphasized; every tragedy, punctuated. Throw in the behind-the-scenes insight for every collection from the U&L team, and we can say this book is definitely a leveled up bit of content. It has definitely found its place in my library, which is great; because I can't afford the full-sized prints anyway.




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