Reading Backwards

Life is lived forwards but understood backwards. Something similar applies to magazines.

2015 car magazine covers reversed

Sometime last week I picked up a copy of my usual car magazine. This is something of a futile exercise, a triumph of optimism over experience. I did as I always did and started leafing from the back pages to the front. For a long time some of the most interesting nuggets have lived in the back of magazines and as one moves forward past features one then gets to the dust and detritus at the top of the cereal box. In between one passes the meat of the sandwich, the long form-articles that are supposed to command our attention.
The next step of the process is to start from back of the features section and read the articles in order of interest. Lately (as in the last five years) it is seldom easy to choose which one is most deserving of my attention. They all seem equally uncompelling.  In the end I reverted to the long-term owner tests where automotive journalists seem to let their pose drop somewhat which can be refreshing. However, these days the long-term reviews feature quite a lot of cars that have little to appeal to me: performance vehicles with price tags equivalent to major pieces of surgical apparatus. Car writers do have flashy garages. No wonder they care little for the minutiae of ordinary motoring lives.

Car Magazine Feb 1985:
Car Magazine Feb 1985:

My process of reading the magazine forwards has been brought to a halt by the fact that the process is failing at the middle stage. I don’t really want to read these articles. They aren’t what I would write myself and don’t include material that I can either agree or disagree with. This is astonishing in a small way. How much does it cost to send a motoring writer on a 900 mile tour in a car that does 20 miles per gallon? I assume they don’t sleep in the cars but get to eat a meal and stay in a hotel. That’s two sets of both, if a photographer is involved. Imagine spending all that money and having little to generate scintillating prose.

Why not start at the front of a magazine? It’s partly because magazines have lost a clear start page. The first four or six pages are generally taken up with adverts on double-spreads. If you are reading this, Mr Magazine Editor, what evidence do you have anyone is reading these pages? I certainly don’t. The next page might be 200 words from the editor which in all magazines is guaranteed never to contain any worthwhile content. It is as if the process of organising the month’s content has drained the editor of opinion. Nobody reads that.

After a little verbiage comes the contents pages, ruined by a graphic designer who forgot form sometimes might follow function. I don’t read that as it’s quicker to leaf through the magazine than to let my eye take its ADHD path around the collection of numbered tiles of varying sizes that constitute the deconstructivist approach to graphic design. Like the architects, the graphic designers hate their work material and can only destroy it. Doors? Let them be sideways. Layout? Let it fall where it may.

And on the news section, made redundant in my case that I know the news already. By the time the repro data has been sent to HJ Swinford Colour Offset Ltd, Darlington, the news is ancient history.

All of this then means I put the magazine aside. It’s under the sink in the downstairs toilet. The magazine needs a rethink. And anything to do with watches must be expunged.

Author: richard herriott

I like anchovies. I dislike post-war town planning.

21 thoughts on “Reading Backwards”

  1. So, it’s not just me, then. To be completely accurate, I will tend to read the “Driven”/ “First Drive”/ “New Cars Test” section for the new launch reviews, then the LTT. As you say, the range of cars being tested seems so limited. I really miss the sense of occasion and in-depth background to development and engineering of a new, ordinary car. So, for example, the new Astra is a really significant car for the UK and European markets, and I feel like I know next to nothing about it (hence a previous comment of mine asking, somewhat rhetorically, on what platform it had been developed?). When I was researching the Triumph Acclaim, a very ordinary car indeed to many, the level of journalistic research, comment, insight, engineering review (including production and manufacturing) from the time was extraordinary and really got one interested in the car itself. Car magazine, and even the weeklies of that era (80s, 90s) was intrinsically entertaining because of the depth and detail in those key articles – now those same core articles are clearly written for entertainment first and subject interest second.

  2. I’ve completely given up on reading magazines on new cars. SV sums up quite well what are the reasons for it. As an addition, the German motoring press is extremely biased towards their own industry, and even the Swiss magazines are not much better. An honourable exception to this is the Austrian “Autorevue”, which I occasionally buy when I’m in the country. Spirited writing about everyday cars can still be found there.

    Other than that, I enjoy reading old cars’ magazines and getting my info on modern stuff from uninfluential blogs and other web sources.

    1. Thank you both. It is true that part of the reason this site is here is because the magazines have degenerated. I didn´t know the German press was biased. I could say that the UK press is bi-polar and tends to alternate randomly between making the 3-series the car to end all cars and that Britain´s industry and its products are fabulous. I come from Ireland; you might think that would offer a chance of a variety of views. No, in Ireland it´s Germany all the way. There is not much point in offering anything out of the mainstream as the writers generally write off left-field cars because they are left-field. The poor old Vel Satis never stood chance. The Irish Times didn´t understand why one would want a 2.0 litre car of that weight (answer: it is a fine engine for driving streadily and will do everything required within the speed limits).
      About the articles: a car like the Astra used to ensure that all other material was cleared away so as to give full coverage. The Astra is still an important car an a huge effort has been made to help it keep its market position? Do the magazines care? No, because they live on a diet of Audi RS8s and Ferraris, it seems. I regret we can´t give these products the coverage they require but if w had more resources we would. I would certainly grant myelf a 5 day cross-continental trip to see how the car fared. Someone has to do this kind of thing if the chance arises.

  3. I used to be a voracious consumer of car magazines, subscribing to two (Car and Evo) and often browsing Auto Express too. A couple of years ago, widespread internet coverage and a malaise surrounding UK based magazine journalism combined to liberate me of both the time and inclination to renew my subs.

    After a few years of readership it became apparent that all the magazines were simply rehashing the same hackneyed tropes, with nary a fresh angle to be had. Honestly, if I never read another three way group test in which a Jaguar inexplicably emerges the victor (as per then I will be a happy man.

    Nowadays my entire readership is online. A half weekly check of Auto Express online gives me all the UK car news I need. As we have talked about on here before, Car and Driver has become my first port of call when I am in the mood for long form articles, or even just to read news about cars I will never be able to buy in a pithily written form. Car Online, I hardly bother with now and Evo Online, not at all.

    The decline in car related journalism (in the UK at least) is perhaps attributable to a number of factors. Firstly, magazine sales have been on a steady decline for years, bleeding creativity and risk taking from the trade. Online advertising has in no way filled this gap. Secondly, thanks to a precipitous decline in UK manufacturing prompted by Margaret Thatcher, very few writers have an engineering background, making any sort of technical insight not otherwise regurgitated from a press pack an unlikely prospect. Thirdly, we live in an age in which the nature and quality of cars is relatively uniform. Outlandish statements of character, unusual technical specifications or genuinely poorly built cars, all of which make fertile ground for automotive writing, are increasingly rare. Throw in the distortion provided by the Clarkson Effect (catchphrase: “POWERRRRRRRRR”) and it is little wonder that the car magazine industry has been set squarely on its backside.

    1. @chrisward1978: I admit to still subscribing to the same two publications, although I sometimes wonder to myself, “why?”. I feel it is Car that has deteriorated the most, definitely influenced by the commercial phenomenon which is/ was Top Gear Magazine; overall I’d sum it up by saying that it feels like it lacks editorial ambition. Evo has just become too obsessed with extreme performance cars that cost too much. Every now and again, one gets a more “mundane/ lower cost” leading/ feature article (usually, hot hatches), but that’s not the same as a regular balanced diet of reviewing the more accessible models in the same edition as something more exclusive.

      So, why? I guess I must be comforted by the habitual delivery of the things – I’m such a sad git that I’ll admit that there was a time when I’d still be genuinely excited in anticipation of the day when either – Car in particular – dropped through my letter-box. It’s possible that I’m living in hope for a resurrection in standards and quality too. Psychologists among this readership are probably spotting a pattern.

    2. SV. I know that feeling only too well. In the end, I decided it was just an odd sort of loyalty, and that Mr McNamara and his crew didn’t appreciate or deserve it. Now I’m never even tempted to buy it.

      Chris. Certainly a bit of actual in depth technical knowledge would improve much motoring journalism and, fair or not, I’ve no objection to putting the blame at Mrs T’s door. But also a lot of British culture was livened up in the 60s by the influx of bright and irreverent Australians. Small Car magazine was one of the beneficiaries. Either they’ve stopped coming, or Australians have lost their evangelical zeal.

      One last point. I thought it was spelled “PWOAARRRRRRRRR”. We do have editorial standards you know?

    3. It´s only a matter of time before I stop buying Car. The shell is there but the spirit is not. It´s like a dementia sufferer: the body hangs around long after the mind is gone. I need to come to terms with the subject´s demise and move on. I have actually bought the magazine for two years without reading it very much. And I recorded Sylvester McCoy´s last season as Doctor Who and never watched it. Well, I watched it about three years later, one afternoon and realised it was rubbish. Delta and the Bannermen was the last episode I looked at. Pure drivel.
      My point is that I am demonstrating the same behavious with Car as with Doctor Who. It has become an empty ritual.

  4. Often, when i read a new car magazine, i am disappointed by the few technical knowledge of their authors and the superficial way of testing a car. Sometimes i can´t help suspecting the author haven´t driven the car a single mile….

    And do not underestimate the influence of the german motorpress – the big car magazines have bought car magazines in nearly every european country – and i do not think, their foreign car magazines are totally free in their judgements about cars (and especially german cars from the Volkswagen group).

    So i am focussing more and more on roadtests of the past. When cars are not rolling computers and authors are not only able to understand the technical background of a car, they were often able to explain it and to point out the special character of the car.

    I have found this treasure chest full of full of british roadtests of the last century – i love to read such stuff.

    1. Like you I have been mining the huge mass of material made available by eBay. I regularly go and re-read the magazines from the 70s and 80s. They are almost of literary quality. The fact you can get almost any month and any magazine is astonishing. It turns car writing into one huge “now”. Before eBay you had to buy what you could on the assumption it was gone and not coming back.

  5. Hmm. I haven’t seen MotorSport for decades — it isn’t on many newsstands in the US, so the occasional impulse purchase hasn’t happened since I left New York City — but remember its letters section fondly. In ’75 when I was contemplating getting a used Elan there was a readers’ discussion of the cars’ merits that went on for three months. The consensus — wonderful when they’ll go, a few don’t disintegrate continuously but the typical owner spends more time under his car than in it — convinced me that I shouldn’t get one.

    Where have the readers who wrote such letters to the editor and the editors who published them gone?

    I occasionally see Road & Track, Car & Driver and Motor Trend in doctors’ offices. Richard described them as they now are very well.

    1. To answer your last question, the user/owner forums have sucked the life out of readers´ letters. A decade ago they were the first thing I read in Car. Now they consist of filling such “Just got the latest edition of Car. Loved the McLaren LMPJ-120C-LM roadtest. Great stuff”. People don´t feel the need to write 130 words on some detailed subject and share it in those forums. They do it here. Think of the little debate on fuel economy we have had here. I think if I was running a print magazine I´d dispense with a regular readers´ letters page and ask readers to write 800 words instead and include some photos.

    2. Fred. When I stopped subscribing to Car, I started subscribing to Motor Sport. the standard of journalism in MS is good enough for me to find it interesting – even though I don’t even watch F1 on TV. It went through a bad period a while back, even changing its cover colour from the classic green for a period, but it’s on form again – It’s not perfect – there is a Swiss Watch review section (which is not even as good as the one that ran in Car) – but it’s written by people who are knowledgeable and enthusiastic. And there still seem to be a sprinkling of those old-school readers there too.

  6. Once you start chasing circulation, you have to acknowledge that quite a lot of your readership has only a low-key interest in your subject. Traditionally (though thankfully less so now) most men felt that they should have at least a rudimentary knowledge of football and cars in order not to appear odd. I don’t know about football (I mean I really don’t know) but with cars that meant you risked having odd conversations with people who, really, knew next to nothing – why bother? But, because they rely on these people for circulation, car magazines have to make it all reasonably superficial, lest they scare them off.

    The only problem with old car magazines is, when you’ve been reading them as long as I have two things happen. One, is the awful shock when cars you seem to think have only just gone out of production are heralded as ‘classics’. Two is that you start noticing the cycle. I don’t know how often the say at the offices of (the generally excellent) Classic & Sportscar ‘time for an MGB six-pager I think”, but it’s maybe every three years or so, with six for the Lotus 7.

    1. Much as I love the DS I am sick, sick, sick of articles about it. The same goes for the sodding Mercedes W-123. And the Porsche 911.
      Yet if we go to another realm of blokes, the music press what do we find but Coldplay this, the Beatles that and David Bowie the other. REM. U2. The Who….the same names keep cropping up over and over. There are 1000s of cars one could write about but the main space is given to a very familiar top 50. We must do a top 50 here, mustn´t we? We can do it as a countdown, pehaps. Number one spot will go to the Porsche 911 and everyother place can be randomly assigned. I´ll do it now.

    2. I’ve noticed very similar things with classic car magazines as you two.
      I started collecting them quite a while ago. The oldest example I still have is from 1992, when I was barely out of school. It includes a nice article about the GS which just started to be a classic back then. (Nowadays it’s even too old for the “Youngtimer” magazine I often buy). But yes, after a while it’s starting to get repetitive. And the more knowledge I collect about the cars, the more upset I get with inaccuracy and superficiality.
      Now I often only buy the magazines if they write about a really odd car I don’t know anything about, or if they promise me personal stories and/or nice touring tips along with the old metal.

      Regarding top 50, I can only speak for German print. They consist of 3 old VW types with rear engine and 47 Mercedes models. Yes, they also include 911s a lot, and DSs are not uncommon. I they try “exotic”, it’s an Alfa Spider that has to figure.

  7. I am writing my Top 50 and have covered the first 10, from 50 to 40. So far I have not had one Mercedes or VW. The top spot is of course, reserved for the Porsche 911. It´s the other stuff that might be of interest. Warning: satire.

  8. I too derive an ever diminishing ration of satisfaction from reading car magazines.

    Content veers between articles which are more akin to advertorials and puerile prose that serves to highlight the fragile grip on real life that the journalists who write for these magazines have.

    I am also alienated by the cars tested, and the more they gush over the latest over-powered, over-styled and over-priced offering from a «specialist manufacturer of premium cars » the more I feel that the symbiosis between journalist and manufacturer has achieved coalescence.

    They truly deserve each other.

    The days of journalists of the calibre of Setright, Bulgin, Barker and Bolster are long gone, alas.

    Given that magazine circulation is diminishing, could it be that tastes are no longer influenced by the press anyway? That intelligent design rarely generates strong sales seems to suggest this.

    The failure of the Audi A2 was sad. I miss oddity’s such as the Honda Civic Shuttle 4×4 and the HRV « Joy Machine », a non-aggressive SUV. That the Ital Design Capsula never happened probably set car design back a few years. And what about the BMW i3?

    The road to hell is paved with good intentions.

    And what better car to arrive in than the BMW XM.

    1. Hello Rob, I agree with your views about the magazines. I still keep buying them, in the hope that there will be something interesting; there is, sometimes, to be fair. One of the things about the writers at Car was that I felt that I knew them a bit, through their writing. They took you in to their confidence, as it were.

      Interesting that you mention the Capsula – I don’t think it’s been covered on here, which is a shame. DTW has looked at other Italdesign models such as the Gabbiano, which I think would still work as a modern design, 40 years after its first unveiling.

    2. When I stopped feeling I was learning from car journalism I lost the will to pay for the paper. I don´t even pick Car off the newstand any more. Barlow the one-time Car editor was right that magazines ought to focus on what print can do best but he fluffed it. One can sell high quality prose because only those with some money and discernment will pay. Writing the same stuff as will appeal on-line is path to defeat.
      Still, we have DTW which is free at the point of use.

    3. Richard: I think your statement might be a little uncharitable as regards Mr. Barlow and his efforts to re-orientate Car during the mid-2000s. EMAP (their publisher at the time) after all, were anything but visionary in their approach. I very much doubt he was given the tools or the resources to do the job. Jason Barlow himself can write well, (and does in his current capacity) but as editor, I also get the sense he lacked staff writers in the Peterborough HQ of sufficient flair and talent.

      “Writing the same stuff as will appeal online is path to defeat”. That explains a few things…

    4. About Barlow´s reign of error: he was too much into hype, draining the UK´s hype reserve appreciably and his editor´s letters consisted of less-than-scintillating observations; he could have asked his existing writers to show some more imagination or even borrow from the examples of Car´s better days.

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