Car Writer Sam Smith on His New Book of Collected Automotive Storytelling

smithology by sam smith book
'Smithology': Sam Smith's Car-Addled StorytellingCar and Driver

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Sam Smith grew up in his dad's British car restoration shop and worked briefly as a mechanic at a garage servicing vintage Alfa Romeos and as a parts clerk at a Jaguar dealership, but he had dreams of lesser things: He wanted to be an automotive journalist. For 20 years, he's had the opportunity to do just that, writing for a broad range of publications including Esquire, Road & Track, Automobile Magazine, Wired, and the New York Times, and, of course, Car and Driver.

Now, a heaping passel of his favorite stories have been collated in a new compendium, Smithology: Thoughts, Travels, and Semi-Plausible Car Writings (Talahi Press, $12.99 Kindle/$29.00 paperback) , and we can say with confidence that it manages to be as charming and excitable as Smith himself. Unfortunately, the process of selecting, reviewing, and editing two decades of his prodigious output wasn't solely joyous.

"Building the thing was so bittersweet," Smith says of the book. "Like going back to a long relationship you had to break up, one where you love the other person but also loathe them for all they did to tear things down, and making a scrapbook of only how great it was."

The book is far more fun to read than that description would suggest, following Smith as he road trips in ridiculous vehicles to even more ridiculous locations; breaks down and has breakdowns; disinters vehicles and histories that underscore the motivations for their burial; meets his heroes, both human and mechanical; and finds deep inspiration in improbable assemblages of sheetmetal, cast aluminum, rubber, and iron oxide.

a man standing next to a race car
Smith at Indianapolis, shooting the NBC Sports TV show Proving Grounds, 2019.NBC Universal

"In so much of what I've tried to do, the cars are never the end point," he says. "It's always the story behind it, and the story behind that."

One of Smith's great strengths as a writer is his ability to locate genuine emotion in the inanimate. This is particularly true in his writing about vintage vehicles—and for Smith, the more hopeless, the better. In chapter after chapter, he finds piercing means to elucidate our intense affection for these impossible, frustrating, unreliable heaps. In one story about a man's affection for a money pit of a Jaguar (is there any other kind?), Smith asks the owner why he doesn't just get a different car. The man says, simply, "Because I love this one. You've been in love, right?" As an enthusiast (and irrational fiscal sponsor) of oft-reviled vehicles, it made perfect sense.

"We're all drawn to these simple concepts and simple machines for really complex reasons," Smith says. "I love the fact that you can look at somebody's love for a car, or some engineer who struggled for years to solve a problem, and see something universal. And if you look at it that way, there's so many lessons in it. So we've learned that loving cars is not as simple as people think."

a car parked on a road
The White Rat in in oil-well country in the Texas panhandle, on the way to Monterey.Sam Smith

Nowhere is this clearer than in the book's final section, which follows Smith, through a series of stories, as he attempts to resuscitate a hopelessly rusted, white, 1972 BMW 2002tii. The 2002 has long been Smith's vehicular lodestar, having imprinted on it early—his parents drove one when he was born—and fallen for its charms and horrors, serially, since. He decides it is his mission to not let this pile die. With the help of a team of like-minded fiends, he fabricates a complex internal Franken-skeleton to replace its powdered frame, quasi-rebuilds its failing mechanical components with Rube Goldbergian inefficiency, and even provides it with an interior of sorts. He then sets out on various absurd, improbable, and inane adventures in the crapcan, which he nicknames Der Weiße Ratte, or, The White Rat.

<p><a href="" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:Shop Now;elm:context_link;itc:0;sec:content-canvas" class="link ">Shop Now</a></p><p>Smithology: Thoughts, Travels, and Semi-Plausible Car Writings, 2003 – 2023</p><p></p><p>$29.95</p>

When I ask Smith about the car, he becomes almost maudlin. "Writing those stories was kind of a good remembering, kind of a coming to grips with the stuff that mattered to me when I was younger—but I'd forgotten that it mattered, or maybe walked away from it a little, or just got too busy to pay attention to it as much," he says. "The project was unexpected and stupid and made no sense. And that reminded me of some things I had almost forgotten, which is why we do this in the first place."

Smithology is available as an e-book or paperback on Amazon or through your local bookseller.

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