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Travels, Travails and Testarossas

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

To mark the end of the year, here is a look at some of the more interesting automotive books of 1998:

British writer Lesley Hazleton, one of the few women automotive journalists, recounts a five-month journey “into the heart, soul, and wallet of the enduring American obsession with the car” in “Driving to Detroit: An Automotive Odyssey” (Free Press: $25; 306 pages).

Traveling thousands of miles in a new Ford Expedition, she observes crash tests in Dearborn, Mich., crushes a car in a Houston junkyard and tries working a shift on the assembly line at a Saturn plant in Spring Hill, Tenn. She visits an ultra-posh antique auto show in Pebble Beach, Calif., and attends a convention of garish customized cars in Houston.

Unlike many journalists, Hazleton likes Los Angeles, the center of American car culture: “Most of all, I love driving the freeways. Where others complain of jams and fumes, I am constantly amazed that the freeway system works so well.”

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The automobile may have become too pervasive for any one writer to discover the “soul” of America’s continuing love affair. But Hazleton’s lively prose makes her a singularly engaging companion on a journey through the U.S.

Hazleton finds car culture perversely intriguing; John Margolies celebrates it in “Fun Along the Road: American Tourist Attractions” (Bulfinch: $29.95; 128 pages). Margolies revels in the sheer tackiness of faded roadside attractions, including “mystery spots,” statues of Paul Bunyan, wildly unscientific dinosaurs, miniature towns, alligator farms and enough Santa’s Villages to depress an elf.

Many of these low-tech amusements have fallen into decay, relics of a time when Americans took to the roads without worrying that a stop would throw the whole vacation off schedule.

Some of these dubious monuments are still going strong, and the 4 1/2-story fiberglass muskellunge at the National Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame in Hayward, Wis., would certainly add some needed color to the drive up Interstate 5.

“Rebuilding the Indian: A Memoir,” by Fred Haefele (Riverhead: $24.95; 210 pages, illustrated). The author, a self-described 51-year-old tree surgeon and “ex-professor with an unsuccessful novel under my belt,” unexpectedly came in to $5,000 and decided to use it “to do something foolish.” He bought a “basket case"--a disassembled mess of parts--and set out to rebuild a 1941 Indian Chief motorcycle.

The project developed into an obsession that was part hobby and part therapy. From his home in Missoula, Mont., Haefele scoured the Northwest for the parts and craftsmen he needed to realize his dream. As his quest widened--and the cost rose from $5,000 to more than $17,000--the project brought him into contact with a loosely knit circle of friends that ranged from hard-bitten individualists to heavy-duty bikers one step short of certifiable.

As he chased down parts and consulted with professional restorers, Haefele came to grips with changes in his life and his troubled relationships with his children and father. With a novelist’s skill, he blends these disparate elements into a warm, entertaining yarn, but the reader can’t help wondering if some of those bikers remained friendly after reading his descriptions of them.

A similar fascination with old machinery runs through “Mullins Red Cap Utility Trailer: Handbook and History,” by Robert Parmelee (Milcap Publishing: $34.95; 184 pages, illustrated). In 1936-37, Mullins Co. of Ellsworth, Ohio, manufactured about 3,000 small steel trailers for automobiles without trunks. Simultaneously blocky and streamlined, the Red Cap trailer has an undeniable charm. But Parmelee, co-founder of the Mullins Owners Club, sometimes takes his interest in rediscovering and restoring these old trailers just a little too seriously.

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In contrast to the down-home look of “Red Cap,” “Ferrari 1947-1997: The Official Book (no writer credited; Rizzoli: $95; 408 pages) is as opulently elegant as the cars it describes. This lavish paean was produced by Ferrari, so the resolutely upbeat tone of the text is hardly surprising. The development of the firm’s engines and body styling are lovingly recounted in prose that’s laden with superlatives.

Much of the useful information is contained in the appendixes, which include lists of racing victories and photographs of all 164 Ferrari models. But anyone who would want this opulent volume isn’t going to worry about literary style, and it’s the ideal gift for the Ferrari fan who can’t quite afford a real Testarossa.

Highway 1 contributor Charles Solomon can be reached via e-mail at highway1@latimes.com.


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