‘Car’, Car of the Year 1970

I recently purchased a reprint of Car’s Car of the Year 1970 feature (printed for publicity purposes for the UK distributor of a certain car company from the March 1971 issue by George Pulman and Sons Ltd Bletchley Bucks).  Almost (but not quite) as old as I am (what’s three years amongst friends?), it served to remind me what we are missing these days from motoring journalists.

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OK, so the cover rather gives the identity of the car and its manufacturer away, but I’m not here to write about either, honest!

First, I refuse to mention the main subject of the feature, the car which won this prestigious award in 1970, on the basis that we get complaints that the manufacturer of said winning car receives far too much coverage on this site. Second, it’s the quality of the journalism which has bewitched me, much as it was the featured car which captured my attention to said publication in the first place. Third, I’ve given up on Citroën these days in any case (damn!).

The first thing to note is that Car’s award came in a material form: Carl Olsen was commissioned to design and prepare the trophy for that year, which was 24 inches high (the whole feature is written in Imperial measures), of cast aluminium and mounted on a black acrylic base. Second, votes came from 21 (!) judges from around the world, and included Stirling Moss (who, it is noted, modestly forgot, “to mention that he was Britain’s finest driver of the ‘50s” in giving his own short pen-portrait), Franco Lini (ex-Ferrari team manager), and Alan Baker BSc, ACGI, CEng, FIMechE, former editor of Automotive Design Engineering.

The articles incorporated in this feature span a ‘xxxxxëx miscellany – facets of xxxxxëx history’ by Jon Winding-Sorensen, an interview with M. Raymond Ravenel, DG of xxxxxëx SA, as well as a Giant Test of the winning car by the staff of Car Magazine and a Technical appraisal of it by L. J. K. Setright (interestingly, when mentioned as one of the judges, he uses the less formal ‘Leonard Setright’).  The first of those pieces is a syntax of ‘the cars’, ‘the cast’, ‘associated marques’ and ‘miscellaneous’ facts about the manufacturer of that year’s winner and is a work of the art of research in itself.

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They don’t print them like this any more …

Focusing in on the Giant Test for a moment, the best word I can find to describe it is ‘dense’. It took me a great deal of concentration and attention to get through it in one reading. Photographs (in b&w of course, bar a glossy colour centrefold of the lovely winner) are few and grainy in resolution; I can’t tell whether this was done for artistic effect or just poor light and equipment (I’m no photographer, so would have no idea).

There are four A4 pages of solid script, flooded with technical detail.  There’s none of the boyish, sardonic humour so irritatingly over-played in modern car magazines. The stand-out paragraph for me takes up roughly 20% of one of those pages and covers the instrumentation. Here are some highlights:

“Instrumentation is uninhibited. The volt-meter and fuel gauge are straightforward enough, as is the double row of 10 symbol-marked warning lights …. (With 10 such lights a systems-check device would be a good idea though). … the speedometer is even stranger: a hidden drum rotates to show the speed as a number through a magnifying plastic lens. … As an attention-getting gimmick it works splendidly but as an instrument it is a disaster. … Tests we carried out show that at 80mph you cover around 120 feet while your eyes are performing this operation [looking down to take in the speedo reading] – 120 feet that is, when you are not seeing the road clearly. In this instance [xxxxxëx]’s first principles approach has regrettably misfired up eccentricity alley”.

Can you imagine what Car’s road testers of 1971 would have made of today’s infotainment system distractions?

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continued from page …

Setright’s subsequent technical review is one of his typically flamboyant, know-it-all, showpieces covering four and one half pages (employing that quaint habit of being ‘continued on page 9’, alongside one of the other articles on the back page), and includes some lovely period-piece cross sectional diagrams.  It starts by quoting Voltaire ‘the secret of art is to improve on nature.’ and duly heads off on a promenade through aerodynamics, body engineering, engine specification (including estimates of the power drain caused by the cooling fan), suspension (including tyres in some detail) and brakes. For instance, on the subject of the engine, he writes:

“It is a flat four, so it is very smooth running and remains vibrationally undetectable at all speeds up to those considerably beyond its placarded maximum. This free revving ability (it goes to 8000 rpm without any fuss, but is redlined at 6750) is due to the short stroke (only 59mm) which keeps the mean piston velocity at peak revs down to a friction-mitigating 2500ft/min. The bore is 74mm, making the vital statistics 1015cc swept volume, 0.8 to one stroke/ bore ratio, nine to one compression ratio, and 26.3sq in piston area. … In SAE testbed conditions the exhaust system may differ from the type on the car, and this probably shares with the cooling fan the responsibility for soaking up that missing 11.5bhp, as well as hauling the peak power down by a fairly substantial 250rpm.”

You’d never get anything the like of this in a motoring magazine of today.  To be fair, the average reader of said publications would probably not read it, given how unfamiliar we have all become with unbroken, solid columns of prose on a single page.

My overwhelming conclusion, and indeed recollection, is that reading Car, even in the much later mid-eighties’ editions, was much more of a literary and technical feast than it is today, taking many sittings and a digestif of reflection to consume properly. Moreover, I know I’ll want to read and re-read the articles in that feature, and take in more and different aspects at every sitting. This is probably why I still have dog-eared and falling to bits copies of Car dating back from 1983 which I still read, whereas this month’s copy is already in recycling.  I need say no more.

Author: S.V. Robinson

Life long interest in cars and the industry

15 thoughts on “‘Car’, Car of the Year 1970”

  1. Brilliant article. I also miss car and Car magazines from the 70’s and 80’s when they were a feast to read and always an education. Car magazines now and their associated websites and YouTube channels have just become channels for recycling manufacturers’ PR guff. More attention is paid now to how many cupholders there are (something I would never use) or the resolution of the reversing camera. Driving on the limit has become an excuse for being a hooligan rather than exploring the handling characteristics. Things that we rely on every day but aren’t very exciting to talk about get ignored such as the effectiveness of the headlamps or wipers.

    1. I am not disagreeing with your observations, but do you not think that the hooligan element you refer to is partly because modern cars have become so much more competent and magazines have failed to adapt?

      When I first learned to drive, it was more than possible that your car might ‘let go’ unexpectedly beneath you, due to surface variation or simple driver exuberance. It was, therefore, very useful for car reviews to tell you in depth what to expect when this did happen.

      Nowadays, almost every car on sale is comfortably within its limits at normal road speeds, and even if something untoward does happen there are electronics to help correct the situation.

      I detect more than a hint of bravado and exaggeration in modern day reviews – especially ‘first drives’, where the journalist expects you to believe that, having been flown to some glamorous location and allowed two hours in a car (often sharing it with someone else) on unfamiliar roads, they still managed to slide the car through turn after turn.

  2. Just as the car itself is a product that has reached the end of useful development and lis oaded with unnecessary nonsense as fake progress car magazines are going through a similar process.
    That’s a result of mutual dependencies between magazines and manufacturers. Magazines are publishing the same blurb as the marketing material, the only difference being that they get read because we pay for them as opposed to marketing flyers in my post box that are thrown away immediately. The question is: why do we pay money for non-information that we can get at no cost by a simple trip to the dealers?
    I gave up reading car magazines about ten years ago because they didn’t tell me anything I couldn’t find out in marketing flyers and because I didn’t like the general shift in focus where infotainment systems become the most important feature of a car.

  3. Devouring the new issue of CAR Magazine was a rite of passage growing up for me in the 1980s and early 1990s. I used to have a real sense of anticipation and excitement awaiting each new issue. It’s hard to image now.

    For me it started with the October 1985 issue, which I bought because there was a piece on the Ford Eltec concept car (who remembers that?) that I was interested in. It also contained a review of the just-facelifted Citroën CX and a piece about gyrocopters ! I used to love that the magazine wasn’t just about cars. The November ’85 issue proudly proclaimed that it was the biggest ever and it really did take a long time to read it all. In those days it genuinely felt like you were reading something special as this post describes. Who remembers the wonderful Bob Freeman technical illustrations that used to lavish the pages?

    I think I bought CAR for about ten years, eventually stopping because it had lost its way and because they were taking up too much room in my parent’s house, as I was loathe to get rid of any issue. The current incarnation is unrecognisable to me as the same magazine, but everything changes.

    1. I started reading Car in 1990 and buying in 1993. I stopped in March. It went off the boil around 2002-2003. As someone else wrote above it was an education. Just just don’t get that today. The economics of testing militate against independent reviews if the articles are to have fancy backdrops. I reckon a European drive story must cost at least a grand in expenses. If the manufacturer pays fuel, food and lodging it’s hard for the magazine to say much that is critical. Hence magazines’ sales spiral down because fewer and fewer attach any weight to their views.

    2. I’d forgotten about the Ford Eltec – thank you for reminding me; I’ll look it up. Also, the technical illustrations – yes – I can still stare at them for many minutes on end.

      I began reading Car regularly around 1980. I still buy it and Top Gear out of nostalgia, and in the hope that they’ll get better.

      Part of the problem, I suspect, is that the writers’ qualifications and life experiences are more limited than they were in the past. I agree, I suppose, that many readers probably wouldn’t be prepared to read something long and detailed, although I wish someone would test this out. Another frustration of mine is the focus on performance cars – it’s just monotonous.

      I recall that Top Gear magazine was very different when it started – almost like a wacky version of What Car? – complete with its own cartoon strip – very fresh. It’s an odd mag, now – what is said isn’t new, and I don’t know why I should pay attention to the writers’ views – who are they?

      @Dave – I think / hope that vehicle development has a long way to go, yet.

    3. This mirrors my appreciation for CAR magazine during the 80’s and early 90’s. I started by buying the June 85 issue and continued with almost every issue until around 1993. For me, 1986 was the pinnacle year for this publication. I always enjoyed Georg Kacher’s stories and reviews and ‘Newcomers’ was always the first that I’d read each month. The quality of writing, glossy heavyweight cover and photography throughout were really what made the difference when compared with other monthly motoring magazines.

  4. I remember buying this issue, and the issue from a year earlier where the Fiat 128 won the award. At one point I had a nice collection of Car from 1969 to about 1975, but it’s gone with the wind now. The motor mags of that era were worth the money you paid, both for information and entertainment. My neighborhood bookstore carried a nice selection of the English mags – Car, Motor Sport, The Autocar – and I enjoyed them all. Oh, the remembrance of things past…

  5. Placing the shoe upon the other foot for a moment, one of the difficulties a writer of automotive prose must face nowadays is the dull uniformity, indeed conformity of cars. As manufacturers have gradually coalesced around a set of fairly mundane technical specifications (even sharing platforms between both models and marques) and homogenous styling, the delight of contrast has steadily bled away. I for one miss the days when a Citroen BX could go head to head with a Ford Sierra and a Honda Accord, with all three offering remarkably different prospects.

    I also mourn the death of original writing concerning the experience of driving. I don’t think I was alone in wanting to feel how a particular car ebbed and flowed with a road, vicariously experiencing the feedback through the wheel, the heft of the controls and the snicketty-snack of the gears, purely through the writer’s prose. Marrying this kind of experiential writing with knowledgeable technical dissections would create riveting reads for all audiences.

    1. I can remember articles where one really felt that you’d know what to expect if one drove the same car as was described. Even if the cars are less distinctive today, a good writer can make something of the object. As I said before, the current crop lack a broader hinterland of experience to add richness and metaphor. Whether this is because they know less or not allowed use such references I can’t say.

    2. I think this is why today’s crop of writers broadly fall into the more experiential, cars-as-a-universal-background trope. It gives them something to write about in a literary way.

      The other default is sneering. Personally I do not want to have the writer’s predjudices served to me on a silver platter, unless that person is Clarkson, in which case he gets a pass as he invented the genre. And even he, a man who increasingly looks like his own bloated, distended corpse, can occasionally summon up some beautiful prose about cars when he feels so moved. Indeed, his glowing write up of the Fiesta 3-pot was one of the primary draws to me buying the car.

  6. This brings back memories of purchasing this issue from a park side kiosk in the suburb’s of Athens when first issued and I believe its still stored away in the garage somewhere.
    I always had a high regard for Car magazine and the writers, something that no longer applies ether due to my advancing years or their inability to convey the info that was once so eloquently dished out by journalists who seemed to understand all aspects of the cars they tested.
    The GS was rich with engineering in a price bracket of boring basic cars and this issue was full of detail with cut-a- way diagrams and plenty of photos of a significant car which is probably why I saved it these forty seven years.

  7. An excellent, if dispiriting article. Proper CAR is another thing from my formative years now lost to us, much like Saab, and Mercedes-Benz, when it really was “engineered like no other car”.

    Jon Winding-Sørensen’s ‘Citroën Syntax’ is something I treasure to this day, although there’s some bum info contained therein. There’s the UA mattter, and his use of the term “pompe funebre”, when the word he was searching for was “corbillard”. He’s still with us, aged about 76 or 77, seems a splendid fellow, and must have been something of a prodigy in 1971.

  8. I still have boxes of Car magazines from the 70s and 80s in my cellar. Can’t bear to throw them out. Like others here, I stopped purchasing the magazine years ago when it became annoying (like those Q&A articles that are simply lazy writing). Green, Cropley, Barker, Setright…these were all consummate storytellers. And not to ignore Mel Nichols. He wrote a piece on the Ferrari Daytona in the early 80s (maybe) when it was simply an expensive used car, and it’s hard to imagine someone so perfectly capturing the visceral thrill of driving that car close to the limit. I need to dig it up now…I hope the reality is as good as the memory. But nothing like Car of that era exists today.

  9. I hadn’t bought any car magazine in ages but I recently came across a magazine called 5054. It’s called after the numbers that were on the wings of the first spitfire that flew. It has a good mix of old and new and has a focus on aircraft and engineering as well as cars. Well worth checking out.

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