The Write Stuff

Car magazines.

Voltaire once wrote, “Judge a man by the questions he asks, not his answers,” and that’s not a bad way to evaluate the worth of a motor magazine. Does it tell you what it wants you to hear or thinks is expected, or does it challenge, entertain, inform, intrigue, question and surprise through original thought, deep understanding and captivating prose?

Of late I’ve become a little disillusioned with motor magazines and the quality of content and writing, and perhaps this is directly proportional to the increasing number on the market. Yet this was not always so. For as long as I can remember car journals have played an integral part in my life, providing considerable pleasure.

The first magazine I discovered was The Autocar, and at the age of nine, when other kids were reading The Beano, I invested my paper round earnings in a subscription. My next-door neighbour took its great rival, The Motor, and we used to swap, but I preferred my choice as the photographs seemed better. Oh, the shallowness of youth.

When, against the odds, I passed the exams necessary to enter the hallowed portals of the four hundred year old Darlington Queen Elizabeth Grammar School, new horizons opened, and not just academically. At the heart of the historic building was a wood-panelled library containing thousands of dusty books, oil paintings, a large open fireplace and tables at which to sit and browse literature.

On one of the tables worthy periodicals were carefully arranged, and among the Economist, the Spectator and Punch was a magazine with a green and white striped cover containing a photograph of the 1960 RAC Rally-winning Saab 96 of Erik Carlsson and Stuart Turner.

As if pornography, I felt slightly guilty flicking through this wondrous find in preference to the more learned works proffered, but for me this was a seminal moment. My only previous exposure to motor sport writing was from the pen of Peter Garnier, The Autocar’s Sports Editor.

Now, in closely-packed text that put content firmly before presentation, Motor Sport was all about competition motoring, written by mysterious figures identified only by their initials, the most prominent being WB (editor Bill Boddy) and DSJ (Continental Correspondent Denis Jenkinson). They were not the most stylish of writers, but boy did they have interesting things to say, and from that moment I wanted to be, not a racing driver, but a motoring writer. However, my careers master thought differently, so my life proceeded in a totally different direction.

My first term at university was a bitterly cold one, an icy wind blowing straight off the Urals along the full length of Edinburgh’s Princes Street. I was in a foreign country and homesick. The natives spoke strangely, pubs closed at ten, and one’s religion was apparently of some significance.

Then one morning, while taking shelter from flying shards of glass masquerading as sleet in Edinburgh newsagent John Menzies, I spied a red-headed newspaper with a Hillman Imp sliding through a forest featured on the front page. The driver was Colin Malkin, the rally the Aer Lingus Bristowe, and the publication Motoring News, and for many years thereafter Thursday would be MN day.

At the time, rallying was my passion, and the paper covered the sport in some depth. It also sponsored Britain’s premier road rally championship, and I was captivated by weekly reports of rallies from around the country, illustrated by photographs of moderately sporting versions of popular cars racing through the night along narrow lanes behind batteries of lights, crew members huddled behind wheel and map.

When student life made way for gainful employment I at last had the wherewithal to buy other magazines and explore new avenues of motoring writing. The first was Small Car and Mini Owner incorporating Sporting Driver, later to become known simply as Car. Edited by a succession of free-thinking antipodean journalists unfettered by the hereto British motor magazine convention of cosying up to the manufacturers of frequently indifferent cars, Doug Blain, Mel Nichols, Ian Frazer, Steve Cropley and Gavin Green brought a new style of forthright, independent, literate and original writing to artistically designed pages.

Scoops, group tests and motoring adventures were introduced to an unsuspecting yet receptive readership, as was the elegant and eccentric prose of such contributors as Laurence Pomeroy and the inimitable LJK Setright. With long flowing beard, monocle and cane, Leonard Setright had the persona of an Edwardian gentleman crossed with an Old Testament prophet, and was not unknown to lapse into Hebrew when eulogising about a favourite Bristol.

Also on the team were Henry Manney III, a wealthy and well connected Paris based American, the legendary Ronald ‘Steady’ Barker, liberated from The Autocar, anglophile German Georg Kacher, and the roguishly witty George Bishop. I couldn’t wait for each monthly edition to appear on the shelves.

Bound sets of car magazines on a bookshelf.

Then Car‘s quarterly spin-off Supercar Classics arrived, of which I still have a bound set. It only ran from 1983 until 1991, but contained top-drawer writing, imaginative content, and wonderful photography. It also recognised motoring people to be as interesting as cars and wrote accordingly.

Briefly I was diverted by American magazine Car and Driver, which appeared out of nowhere on a local market stall. I’m sure I was the only one in town to buy it, and the flat-capped stall holder was suitably taken aback when berated for its non-arrival one month. David E Davis was editor of the time, and contributors included Brock Yates, Jean Shepherd, Patrick Bedard, Sam Posey, Bruce McCall, Dick Smothers and P J O’Rourke.

US car culture was very different to that of Europe, and so was the writing, an irreverent wise-cracking mixture of fun and fact which I absolutely loved. Despite the country’s wide open spaces, speed limits were draconian, resulting in an outraged Yates conceiving an unsanctioned coast-to-coast race from New York to Los Angeles to replicate a 53.5-hour journey undertaken by George ‘Cannonball’ Baker in 1933.

Known as the Cannonball Baker Sea to Shining Sea Memorial Trophy Dash, the inaugural trip was completed by Dan Gurney and Yates in under 36 hours aboard a Ferrari 365 GTB/4 Daytona. This stunt became the inspiration for such films as The Cannonball Run, Gumball Rally, and The Fast and the Furious, all of which completely missed the point Car and Driver was making: that responsible speed is not evil.

There were road tests of cars virtually unknown outside the States, and tales of illegal open highway drag racing on hot Detroit nights, where it wasn’t worth showing up in anything that couldn’t turn a sub-ten second quarter mile – pretty lively forty years ago. And then there were stories of the Good Ol’ Boys of NASCAR, and the tricks the likes of Smokey Yunick got up to, including the infamous 7/8 scale Chevrolet Chevelle and extra fuel secreted in roll cages.

The magazine’s writers didn’t take themselves too seriously either, maintaining lively banter with their equally sassy readership. This culminated in an annual race between writers and readers in standard cars at the Lime Rock circuit in Connecticut. Memorably, one race entry form included a request that Car and Driver acknowledge receipt immediately, “or I’ll send a beer-crazed wolverine over to your office to reason with you.”

Then there was the unforgettable Cars and Car Conversions, a more grass-roots blue-collar offering that struck a fine balance between technical talk, of which I had little understanding, and tests, adventures and features. These ranged from blokes in sheds building grasstrack Minis to international racing teams operating out of clinically clean workshops, and included a group of top road rally cars being tested in the dead of night on a Welsh mountain pass, and interviews with everyone from a club autotester to a Formula 1 star.

Russell Bulgin was perhaps Triple C‘s most notable and imaginative editor, whose lateral thinking brought future World Champion Ayrton Senna to a Welsh forest to drive a selection of rally cars before delivering his impressions. Bulgin’s premature death robbed us of one of our most entertaining, erudite, perceptive and versatile writers. He didn’t always get it right, but he was never dull, formulaic or repetitive. Where are his like now?

Which brings me to my dissatisfaction with what now passes for motoring journalism. On a recent visit to W H Smith I counted seventy-five motor magazines on sale. But here’s the rub: most were mere variations on a theme. Five Porsche periodicals broadly comparing the same models, seven devoted to classic cars that were full of fine photographs but little writing of substance, five majoring on 4x4s, four on the subject of car buying, three on diesels. I could go on.

However, not wishing to dismiss motor magazines out of hand, and still in possession of an appetite to read them, I now apply a simple test. If I can find three articles that interest me, I’ll probably hand over my hard-earned, yet still be prepared for eventual disappointment. My enemies are cliche, jargon, hyperbole and repetition. In other words, lazy writing by people who do not care enough. And when I read something I’m sure I’ve seen before, which turns out to be syndicated, I feel cheated.

And, as you asked, “it doesn’t get better”, “to die for”, “fast forward” and “scroll back” are just some of the hackneyed phases that offend me. I also tire of the obligatory shot of a test car coming out of a bend sideways. If it is really and absolutely necessary to demonstrate some lateral movement, and not merely an opportunity to demonstrate a journalist’s prowess at the helm, why not do it on entry with a view to exiting straight? Much safer and quicker.

Many thought the arrival of digital motor journalism would mark the death of the traditional motor magazine, but this has not been the case, just as films, television and the internet have not killed books. There is most certainly a place for online motoring journalism, offering the opportunity for a free and wide-ranging exchange of knowledge and views, with of course video footage. (I commend to you Motor Sport podcasts. The interviews are splendid.)

However, it can never be a replacement for the feel, smell and longevity of the written word on proper pages that can be handled, savoured, and perhaps even bound and treasured for years to come. One is not better than the other, just different.

Recently I discovered The Automobile, a periodical previously dismissed as being written by old farts for old farts about crusty old cars. I was wrong, and that is reassuring, as it offers hope for those of us desperate for quality journalism. Published by the aforementioned Douglas Blain of Car fame, it specialises in pre-1960 motor cars and the world they inhabited. Writers not widely known commit well-researched articles, unlikely to have been read elsewhere, to good quality paper.

Not all the content interests me, and much I fail to fully understand, but the three-article test is invariably passed, added to which there is an elegance and authority, the antithesis of the current trend to ‘dumb down’.

I therefore remain optimistic about the future of good motoring writing, and still get excited by the thump on the door mat when a fresh motor magazine comes in to land. Furthermore, there remain few greater pleasures than to curl up in front of the fire on a winter’s night, liquid refreshment to hand, and open that new arrival.