I bought a car mag today, two of them in fact but I only intended to buy one. It’s Wednesday and that means that it’s Autocar day. I was in town this morning for a meeting and went into WHSmith, avoiding eye contact with the Big Issue seller who was standing in the shelter of the doorway out of the rain. I always feel that I should be buying a copy if all I want is something to read with my coffee in the morning. Instead, I’ll buy another car magazine or worse, carry around an old one. So, I ducked past the poor sod trying not to get wet in the pissing rain which was keeping most of his passing trade away.
I picked my copy of Autocar off the shelf and headed to the till to pay. My eye was drawn to the cover of another magazine which had a picture of the new McLaren MP4 12C and Nick Mason’s F1 GTR on the cover. I’m a big McLaren fan so I reached for it before I registered that it was the new issue of octane. octane is just about my least favourite magazine. It’s better than Practical Caravan but not much and it’s down to the former editor. It’s not his writing which is clean and competent; it’s his attitude. The journalists I enjoy reading the most drive the cars we can’t and try to include us in the experience. Robert Coucher drives the cars we can’t and seems to revel in the exclusiveness of the situation.
There are other things I don’t like about octane. The column on watches written by Nick Foulkes is particularly precious and unpleasant. I don’t like to think about the rare exotics I like being investments and yet they made a special feature about an index they keep of the values of certain marques at auction. What finished things for me was their sponsorship of Salon Prive at the Hurlingham Club. I bought a few more editions because I thought I could just miss out the bits I didn’t like or which particularly annoyed me. I still enjoyed the rest of the magazine. The other writers are excellent as are the photographers and the layout and design. In the end, the things which annoyed me about it overpowered the things which didn’t and I decided I didn’t need to be spending so much on something which was getting on my tits. I could just buy the Daily Mail if that’s what I wanted.
This morning’s discovery of the McLaren story put me into a quandary. In the end, the draw of the story was too strong and I bought the magazine. I haven’t read it yet. I haven’t even opened it. I checked in Smith’s that the story hadn’t been written by Robert Coucher. The magazine is still in the bag. I’ll read the story in bed tonight and hope that I don’t get too annoyed by the rest of it.
I’m afraid so. It’s only taken me three weeks to complete Word Press’ famous five minute installation. That’s because I’m an idiot and that will probably be a recurring theme for this blog. So, where to start?
I’ve been reading the motoring press since I was about twelve years old. That’s more than thirty years now. I’ve read either Motor or Autocar nearly every week since the late 70’s. To tell the truth, I prefered Motor. The writing was livelier and it just seemed less dull. The covers were always better and more interesting. Autocar just seemed stuffier and cheaper at the same time, like a retired army captain living in a room in boarding house with his memories, his photograph albums and too much furniture. It’s much improved, of course. Successive editors have made it better and better. Wednesdays are not really Wednesdays unless I’ve bought my copy. I occasionally buy Auto Express. It’s all right but I don’t like the layout and design and I have no real interest in the consumer advocacy work they do.
The monthlies are where things get interesting. CAR is the journal of record. It always has been for me. They’ve had the writers I most admire. I loved LJK Setright and Phil Llewellyn and Russell Bulgin and ‘Steady’ Barker. That was the classic line-up of columnists at the front of the magazine. It’s where I first read the expression ‘muttering rotter.’ It might have been in something Steve Cropley wrote, or maybe it one of the others. I don’t remember who, but the expression stuck with me. So did the photography and the layout. It was all the class of the field. I remember a collection of CAR photography which I kept for years until one day it fell apart in spite of the quality of its binding. I’d pored over every picture so much.
I remember Street Machine which I bought each month with my pocket money while I was at school. I had a kit car phase which went on for years. I bought Kit Car Magazine and read stories about building cars every month. Now I can’t for the life of me remember why. I suppose I liked the idea of taking an old rot box and making a shiny red sports car out it. (It was always red, wasn’t it?)
I like Top Gear. It’s entertainment. It’s not really about the cars any more but it’s silly in a good way. It’s pretty much everything that the likes of evo isn’t. evo is fetishistic. It’s also the only magazine I currently subscribe to. I was going to cancel my subscription but then Chris Harris started writing for them and he wrote the best article I’ve ever read in any car magazine ever. It was the first drive feature in Autocar about the mark 1 Focus RS and it was so full of the enthusiasm and exuberance I would have been feeling had I been there.
That’s what marks out the best motoring journalism. It’s about putting us there in the car and telling us what it’s like. There are cars like rare classics which I’ll never be able to drive but the journalists at Classic & Sportscar and octane can put me there.
I’d like to write for the motoring press but I’m now too old to start a new career at the bottom of the heap. I have my wife and stepson and cats and chickens and mortgage. I have a company car and a twenty year career selling books behind me and I can’t afford to be an intern. I can blog about the things I read. If I get enough readers, I might be able to persuade come press officers to let me have a go from time to time but that’s not why I’m writing this blog. I’m trying to convey some of the enthusiasm I feel about these inanimate chunks of metal even if I’ll never be as good at it as the guys I’ve been reading all these years.