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« Are You Seeing True Colors? | Main | Elsewhere »

October 14, 2005

Sports Car Magazines: Great Writing or Solid Info?

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Once upon a time long, long ago -- around the mid-Sixties, actually -- automobile-buff magazines were just as niche-entrenched as they are today.

Except, like alliances between countries, magazine brands have shifted niches as circumstances dictated.

Historical Sketch

The title of this posting mentions the sports car magazine niche or category. Here's a quick post-WWII history of that category based on my sometimes-faulty memory. Another short, personal view can be found here.

So far as I know, the mass-circulation car-buff magazine entered the periodical scene in the form of Robert E. Petersen's Motor Trend which appeared in 1949, about a year after his first publication, Hot Rod. Whereas Hot Rod was a niche-within-a-niche magazine, Motor Trend dealt with all kinds of cars; the main focus was American passenger cars, but hot rods, sports cars, classic cars and the European car scene were not ignored.

The first important sports car magazine was Road & Track, started in 1947 but not regularly published until 1949. Editorial operations moved from New York to California in 1948. Motor Trend has always been based in California.

When Road & Track finally proved viable, rivals appeared. The most important and longest-term rival was Car and Driver (originally titled Sports Cars Illustrated), launched in 1955 from New York City, but moved to Ann Arbor, Michigan in 1977.

Over time, Road & Track, Car and Driver and Motor Trend have departed their roots and converged in terms of subject-matter. Each covers the American automobile industry, imported cars, sports cars, sport-utility and other sub-types. They also keep an eye on the world automobile scene. I should add that this convergence is not total; each magazine retains some of its original niche flavoring.

In the places of Road & Track and Car and Driver, other sports car magazines have appeared, but these tend to deal with racing or the fortunes of a single car maker such as Porsche, and not the sports car spectrum.

Identities Circa 1965

In the mid-1960s Road & Track (R&T) and Car and Driver (C/D) had distinctly different persona. Back then, this was my take:

I was a R&T guy. I started buying it in 1956 and a few years later became a subscriber. (Until 1990. I'm too fond of the first five years' worth of issues to part with them, but I suppose I ought to try to sell most of the later ones -- you see, I kept every one except for one a cousin borrowed and never returned.)

Around 1965 R&T was elitist and Californian. Elitist because it mostly dealt with cars from Europe, American autos being seen as mostly inferior. And California has been the prime car-nut What's Happenin' zone for decades: it was particularly trend-setting during the 60s. This gave R&T a certain caché, an exotic blend of snobbery and laid-back California-ism along with a kind of British car magazine attitude of diffidence (because British car magazine test reports showing lots of statistics served as a model for R&T). You might wonder how the West Midlands could possibly mix with Newport Beach or Malibu, but somehow it did.

R&T's strong suit was its road testing of new cars. They were a model of accuracy in their day (or so I believed) and a source of mild amusement thanks to certain stock phrases that were used in the reports ("the gearshift lever falls readily to hand"). R&T, being based in Newport Beach, was handy to plenty of varied roads for subjective evaluation of driving characteristics and to other facilities such as test tracks for quantitative performance measurement.

C/D was edited in the heart of Manhattan, far from any road a sports car driver would seek for driving pleasure and excitement. For this reason, I used to wonder how complete their tests were. Yes, they took cars to a Connecticut sports car track for testing and could use the trips to-and-from for subjective evaluation. But I felt that the R&T testers had more of an opportunity to live with the test cars and I thought that southern California offered more variety in driving conditions than downstate New York and western Connecticut or northern New Jersey did.

A more tangible difference was that C/D's editor/publisher David E. Davis, Jr. stressed Good Writing. As a matter of fact, in C/D's 50th anniversary issue (July, 2005, p.131), Davis asserted the following:

Most car magazines in those days [when he took over in December, 1962] were put out by enthusiasts who saw the job as an opportunity to test drive cars and get free entry to races. I vowed to replace the semi-pros with real editors and real writers...

We'd tell them [the readers] where we'd been, what we'd driven, and how we felt about the automobile as a symbol of our national restlessness, our endless search for new experiences, and our need to enjoy ourselves. We gave the magazine a skeptical New York edge. We took chances. Our approach worked.

I now wonder if this stress on writing was a market niche strategy ploy. The fact that editorial offices were far from sports car country was a real handicap. I can't say that C/D tests were less well-conducted than R&T tests in those days, but that was my impression based on what I saw in the two magazines. So if Davis himself agreed with these points, then he had to find ways to make C/D distinct. Layout and typography represented one means of setting C/D apart, and writing was another. I might be wrong, but I have a dim recollection of 1960s C/D thumping its chest about how good its writing was.

And I remember thinking along this line: Here's a bunch of guys in midtown Manhattan bragging up what great writers they are when they have to go 25 miles or more to seriously drive what they're writing about. This is not real. I'll stick with R&T.

Content vs. Style

The nub of what I just wrote is the old question of content versus style. In reality, R&T wasn't pure content and C/D wasn't totally style. Each magazine had decent amounts of solid material and ways of conveying that material to the reader. But at the time, I felt that R&T was stronger content-wise (and not flashy) and that C/D was more stylish, but possibly not top-drawer in its content. And I'm generally inclined to favor content over style.

How do you pick favorites among magazines or other media covering the same subject? Do you favor stylish ones or do you prefer lots of solid info even if it's presented in a more pedestrian manner?

Coda

Forty years later, what car mags do I read? I subscribe to Automobile, a publication founded by David E. Davis, Jr. in 1980. I'm tempted to drop my subscription because I don't like the present editor's product as well as I liked David E.'s; I keep reading it mostly for Robert Cumberford's styling column and critiques. I stopped reading Motor Trend back in the 60s. I tend to buy C/D at airport news stands when traveling, but not otherwise. I dropped R&T in 1990 because I didn't like the direction the editor was taking it and have ignored it ever since, though I ought to buy a copy now and then to see what they're up to.

Otherwise, I sometimes buy Car, a British magazine and l'Automobile from France to keep up with what's new in the Old World.

Later,

Donald

posted by Donald at October 14, 2005




Comments

My Dad subscribed to all 3 (R&T, C/D and MT) when I was growing up. I never had much time for MT - they were basically marketing whores. When I was a teenager, I loved the somewhat irreverent tone of C/D -Brock Yates, et. al. Nowadays, if I pick up any of them, It'll be R&T - and then usually only to see what Peter Egan has to say. I love his writing, which is usually only tangentially about cars.

Brings me back: My Dad was (is) a certified car nut. His dad was in the business (mechanic, owned dealerships, etc.) and even though he went the Academic route, my dad never lost the bug. Car dealerships in our state were closed on Sundays in those days, so almost every week after church we would drop by one of the dealerships to check what they had without being bothered (no matter what we had in the driveway, he always seemed to be looking for the next one). My Mom and sisters would sit in the car while Dad and I wandered around the lot. So imagine my surprise when I run into people who treat cars as just "things for getting from point a to point b", instead of as the sacred objects they are. I mean, come on: divine liturgy and automobiles: they naturally go together, don't they?

Posted by: Jimbo on October 14, 2005 10:00 PM



I started reading car magazines about the time I got my license, in 1973, and continued on and off for about a decade. To the extent I had a favorite, it was C/D, mainly on the strength of its writing, though R&T was a close second. Never really got into MT much. In any event, I've vry seldom looked at any of the magazines in the past 20 years or so, though recently I've started reading Autoblog.com

Posted by: Peter on October 14, 2005 10:16 PM



You don't consider Consumer Reports a car mag?

Posted by: David Sucher on October 14, 2005 10:55 PM



I read Car & Driver through the mid-'60s or so. I was a car buff before I was old enough to drive, and pretty much lost interest once I got a license, though that probably had more to do with the fact that I was off to boarding school (where none of us could drive) than it did with losing interst in cars. But as a kid of 10 or 13, I could identify all the cars on the road and even tell you a thing or two about them. I loved C&D and was never much taken by the other car mags. A long time ago, so I'm not entirely sure why. Maybe it was the NY-writerly vibe of the magazine, or some occasional touches of Euro-snootiness? I was pretty infatuated with a kid's fantasy of European sophistication at that age. I remember some beautiful grainy b&w photos of Jags ... Maybe the first time I registered "graininess" as a cool and desirable thing in a photograph. And oh so evocative of damp, chill, mood -- slashing through the early evening in your wonderful motoring machine ...

"The gearshift lever falls readily to hand ..." Phew, that kind of sentence used to thrill me. What did they mean? How could they know? I guess I pictured the guys writing about the cars for C&D as James Bond-esque characters in their own right.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on October 14, 2005 11:34 PM



Michael -
Reading your comment reminded me that the early-1980's general cessation of my interest in car magazines coincided fairly closely with my first car purchase. This transaction caused reality to intrude and made the car magazines - which then as now often feature costly vehicles out of the reach of most buyers - rather irrelevant. That wasn't the case during the first decade of my driving, when I drove a parent's car. It's not easy to articulate, but somehow when you're making payments on a very ordinary vehicle, one C/D or R&T would seldom test, it's hard to get excited from reading glowing descriptions and tests of totally unaffordable performance or luxury cars.
By the way, my first new car, purchased in December 1983, was a 1983 Chevrolet Cavalier with a total out-the-door price of (drumroll please) $7,000!

Posted by: Peter on October 15, 2005 09:42 AM



One of my first cars was (another drumroll) an AMC Gremlin. My mom actually won it in a contest, but she'd entered the contest in my name. So I got to consider the car mine. But: a Gremlin! The closest Americans ever came to manufacturing a Yugo. Its specialty was stalling in the rain. I can't tell you how many times I had to pull to the side, get out of the car in a downpour, and do my best to dry out the distributor.

Not a car Car & Driver or Motor Trend would have endorsed.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on October 15, 2005 10:49 AM



Jimbo -- Amen!!

David -- I don't worship at the Consumer Reports shrine.

In decades past, their annual auto issues gave me the impression that they really didn't much like cars -- and this on the days they could actually distinguish cars from refrigerators and toasters.

Possibly their attitude has changed slightly, but the damage has been done so far as I'm concerned. In any case, I'm one of those who buys a car for emotional reasons as well as rational ones.

I should add that their reliability data might be useful to me were I considering buying a used car.

Peter (2) -- Good point about the cars featured in articles and cars one actually can afford. I tend to treat those articles as entertainment. Or I avoid them: If a mag's cover screams "We Test Five Sedans That Crack the Six-Figure Barrier" or "Super-Special Speed Issue!" I'm likely avert my gaze to competing mags on the rack.

Allowing for inflation, that $7K car would be nicely into five figures if sold new today: we need to keep cost of living in mind when making price comparisons over a space of decades.

Michael (2) -- I extend you my deepest sympathy. I rode in a Gremlin once. Sitting in the front seat, I didn't really notice that the rear third of the car had gone missing. But still...

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on October 15, 2005 03:09 PM



True about the price of the Cavalier. $7,000 seems trivial today but at the time was a significant chunk of my annual income.

Posted by: Peter on October 15, 2005 06:27 PM






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