Shifting Gears

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Class of ’66 | “If my parents hadn’t attempted to make me go into business,” says Ed McDonough SW’66, “I probably would not have rebelled and gone into social work.” And chances are, he would have pursued his real passion—cars—from the get-go.

Now, having recently retired from his day job as a lecturer in social work at University College Northampton in England, McDonough has been able to give himself up to the more glamorous avocation of “historic motorsports,” as he puts it. His books include Sharknose: Ferrari 156 (published in 2001), Vanwall: Green for Glory (2003), and a just-completed book about Alfa Romeo Grand Prix cars from 1938 to 1951.

In order to master his subject matter, he does have to get behind the wheel from time to time, so we ask him for a lyrical, passionate thought or two about the joys of driving these babies.

“I have to restrain myself from waxing too lyrical,” he responds in an e-mail, “but … a 950 horsepower CanAm Lola sports car on the winding desert track at Buttonwillow, California … the 1967 Lotus 49 that Jim Clark drove which won its first race and changed Grand Prix racing for good … six or seven cars which were raced by the Mexican Rodriguez brothers in the ’50s and ’60s … a Type 51 Bugatti found chopped up in a scrap yard and put back together …” Not to mention the 1951 World Championship-winning Grand Prix Alfa Romeo. “Only one exists in private hands, and I drove this $10 million car last September. It is at the top of the favorite list.”

After 23 years in a university, an academic approach to sports-car writing comes easily to McDonough, who says that “taking a strong research line” has been helpful in a field where the writing is “often loose.”

The transition from academic social work to driving and writing about sexy sports cars does seem a bit unusual, we suggest.

“It wasn’t so much a transition as an evolution,” McDonough responds, “and writing about motoring and motor-racing history was as much about people as about machines. I have been fortunate in having been able to interview and involve some fascinating characters in articles and books.”

And the fact that he had become somewhat disillusioned with social work made the change of gears a little easier on his transmission.

“I am one of the lucky ones, and I worry about my former colleagues who will be worn down by the time they finish,” he says. “It’s difficult to stop myself from saying, ‘Change your life and do something new.’ The old Penn SW set of wisdoms about risk has always been in my repertoire.”—S.H

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