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Cars and Death--The Novels of Iowa's Henry Gregor Felsen

(this story by Jim Morton was published in 2010 at

by Jim Morton

Seventh and eighth grade: The junior high school years, when kids are not quite teenagers, but are too old to pretend to be children. They are often referred to as the forgotten years. Maybe this is why nobody ever talks about the novels of Henry Gregor Felsen. For it is during these two years that most adolescents of the fifties and sixties discovered the joys of Felsen’s fiction.

By the first year of high school, the books are forgotten; secreted away in the dusty recesses of our collective unconscious. Forever doomed to inhabit that mistiest of twilight worlds: The junior high school library.To any eleven year old boy who had the luck to check out one of Felsen’s books, they were the best.

Photo image Jalopy Journal

Felsen wrote about cars; about building cars, about racing and, almost always, about dying in cars.He started writing his hot-rod novels in 1950. At the time, American concern over teenage automobile deaths was increasing rapidly. Every magazine of the time contained an article on the problem. P.T.A. groups held special meetings to discuss what could be done to stop the carnage. Previous efforts to teach kids the dangers of driving too fast were deemed ineffectual. There was a new attitude: shock some sense into their little brains. Show them the dangers of unsafe driving. Drivers’ education films became frighteningly graphic.

FPG/Getty Images

Pamphlets handed out in classes went into the gory details of aftermath of an accident.Riding in on this movement came Henry Gregor Felsen, but Felsen took it one step further. He knew parental preaching would make little impact on the kids. The only way to communicate with them was on their own terms. He chose his audience carefully: teenage males who loved cars. These, he knew, were the ones responsible for most of the accidents.The first of his auto novels, Hot Rod, is still the best.

Hot Rod follows the adventures of Bud Crayne, a small town hot-rodder who learns the value of safe driving, but only after two friends have died gory deaths on the highway.Felsen knew he could not get away with the levels of violence portrayed in highway safety films like Signal -30-, or Wheels of Tragedy, but he does his forensic best. For example, in this scene, taken from Hot Rod:

The crushed pile of twisted metal that had once been My-Son-Ralph’s Chevy was on its back in the ditch, its wheels up like paws of a dead dog. Two of the wheels were smashed, and two were turning slowly. Something that looked like a limp, ripped-open bag of laundry hung halfway out of a rear window. That was Marge.

The motor of Ralph’s car had been driven back through the frame of the car, and its weight had made a fatal spear of the steering column. Somewhere in the mashed tangle of metal, wood and torn upholstery was Ralph. And deeper yet in the pile of mangled steel, wedged in between jagged sheet steel on one side, and red hot metal on the other, was what had been the shapely black head and dainty face of LaVerne.
Walt’s car had spun around after being hit, and had rolled over and along the highway. It had left a trail of shattered glass, metal, and dark, motionless shapes that had been broken open like paper bags before they rolled to a stop. These were what had been Walt’s laughing passengers. Pinned inside his wrecked car, beyond knowing that battery acid ran in his eyes, lay Walt Thomas. Somehow the lower half of his body had been twisted completely around, and hung by a shred of skin.

To an eleven year old boy, this was heady stuff. Finding a scene like this in a school library book was like discovering the Holy Grail in your backyard. It was overwhelming.

Henry Gregor Felsen

Felsen followed Hot Rod with Street Rod, a less violent book that ends rather abruptly when the main character plunges to his death in a river during a drag race. Other books would follow: Crash Club, Rag Top, Boy Gets Car (AKA Road Rocket ). The books are all so similar that, after reading one or two, they tend to blur into one another. The plots are interchangeable. Invariably, a young man buys a car, fixes it up, and either loses his life, or learns his lesson. The lesson was usually to drive safely, although as Felsen got older, he seems to have despaired of trying to teach kids to be careful.

The lesson in Boy Gets Car is: don’t buy a car at all. Perhaps this is because in 1960, when he wrote Boy Gets Car, his son had just turned 16—legal driving age. A few years later, Felsen dropped any pretense of entertainment with My Son, the Teen-age Driver, a typical parental screed on the responsibilities of safe driving. Oddly, the book is dedicated to “my son, who is now the 20-year-old racing driver.” Hardly a teenager!

Felsen writes in a terse, easy-to-read style used by many pulp writers. It is a style popular with western and detective fiction writers, because the prose is never allowed to interfere with the action. Nonetheless, Felsen has his poetic (albeit twisted) moments:

In the hushed confusion of the mass burial it seemed to Bud that Marge’s coffin got lost in the shuffle. The strange thought came to him that the others were being buried on purpose, and that Marge, who would do anything to be taken along with the crowd, was just following along to be one of them.

His books move quickly, except when describing the automobiles. Then Felsen slows the pace to take in, with fetishistic precision, every detail of the machines:

The dual chrome exhaust pipes gave the first hint as to what might be found under the dull red hood. The motor had been taken from a wrecked Mercury, rebored, equipped with a three-carburetor manifold, double springing ignition, re-ground ¾-race camshaft, high compression head, and a score of other refinements and improvements devoted to speed and power.

The books proved so popular in the 1950s and early 1960s that many of them were reprinted numerous times with different covers.

Expectedly, when girls are introduced to these stories, they always play second fiddle to the cars. They are merely plot devices in Felsen’s books. The real love interests are the cars.Perhaps it is this lack of sexuality that has kept his books from being appreciated by a larger audience. The boy-girl relationships in his books are too intimate for anyone under eleven and not intimate enough for anyone over twelve, making them perfect reading material for the junior high school set.

Unfortunately, his books are becoming harder and harder to find on school library shelves. His style and descriptions harken back to the fifties. Modern teens find his books out-of-date, preferring the pessimistic culture clashing of S.E. Hinton over Felsen’s automobile morality plays. His books appear to be doomed to obscurity and it’s too bad. Felsen captured the mood, the feel and the tempo of American adolescence during the fifties better than any other writer. His novels may seem naïve to us now, but those were naïve times. Felsen was the fifties. For that reason alone, his books are worth remembering.


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