Permanence Amidst The Vales and Dales

How are the papery ones doing? I had a look at the Audit Bureau of Circulation’s  nice website to examine the state of the UK car magazine market.

The UK periodical industry owns and runs the ABC as a means to provide an independent (from one publisher) source of data on readership. That is then used to justify ad rates on the basis of the circulation of the journals seeking to sell space. The ABC describes itself as follows: “We deliver industry-agreed standards for media brand measurement across print, digital and events. We also verify data, processes and good practice to industry-agreed standards”.

Much of the information provided by ABC is by subscription. The basic data is accessible if you check their search tool, however. Here are the results:

BBC Top Gear 112,822: July to December 2016

Classic & Sports Car 63,000: January to December 2016

What car? 56,177: January to December 2016

Car Magazine: 47,567: January to December 2016

Evo 43,119: January to December 2016

Classic Cars 34,716: January to December 2016

Business Car 18,954: February to April 2017.

Octane magazine isn’t listed at the ABC. Another source says it shifts 38,428 copies monthly.

1993 Oldsmobile Cutlass Ciera: source

Unsurprisingly, BBC Top Gear stands above the rest as it gets a huge boost from the television programme of the same name. Perhaps you have seen it a few times. More surprisingly, Car magazine is languishing somewhere above Classic Cars in the circulation wars. What Car outsells it by almost 10,000 copies a month. I recall that in its heyday Car sold about 90,000 copies a month.

That makes the magazine now rather dependent on advertising which in turn makes it unwilling to maul the hands that feed it. The same might be true of Evo though they do have a mix of classic and new cars which Car lacks. If they are critical of the 1956 Ferrari 234 LGBT Lusso then I doubt there will be any consequences for their advertising contracts.


The weekly Autocropley sells 30,672 (January to December 2016) which would put it at about 120,000 copies a month. AutoExpress fares better, shifting 43,468 copies a week. I have never bought that one as it’s far too pulpy and the writing is boilerplate material most of the time whereas Autocropley has a better stable of writers.

Two things stand out for me. One is that in the age of instant news a car magazine is plainly not really about news (Jason Barlow spotted that first). News spews freely from every iPhone and Android in the land. Yes, news is a start but how it is presented and analysed is where a journal can make its mark. Another USP is in stylish photography and good graphic design. As is well documented here, I’ve given up buying car magazines because the writing is no longer worth paying for and because the graphic design is unseemly for the most part.

The publishers seem to think that if they can’t attract readers with a lot of graphic busy-ness then even more graphic busy-ness is the way forward. If you look at the style of magazines from the 80s onwards you can see how pleasant a calm layout can be. That leaves room for good photography and decent text. Ancillary to this is the imagery: for reasons I have yet to identify with certainty but which I have talked about already, the combination of digital photography and print quality has rendered the photos synthetic and hard to read. On-screen images are much easier to digest.

1993 Nissan Sentra: source

The second thing to stand out is that BBC’s Top Gear is something of a monster. The high circulation is supported by the programme’s screen presence. In turn the editors can hire the best writers (but doesn’t exactly let them write with much originality). The last time I checked a lot of TG’s staff were formerly at Car magazine from where I remember their entertaining prose.

I am very far from being a free market ideologue (well left of centre describes me) yet I do wonder if there is something skewed about the UK licence payer supporting what is actually a commercial endeavour at the expense of the rest of the sector. Thinking out loud, it would be fairer if the BBC didn’t get involved in print media. It’s not as if TG cleaves tightly to the mantra of entertaining, informing and educating by being a bit more high-minded than the other magazines.

I would not be upset if TG disappeared, freeing the journalists to circulate elsewhere and for the other magazines to have a bit of a better chance. Presumably one of the current crop of magazines might go under, having lost some of its sales to TG. Does that makes sense, that the license fee indirectly undermines the business case of a magazine that is not so lucky to have a massive television audience?

Author: richard herriott

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

29 thoughts on “Permanence Amidst The Vales and Dales”

  1. Top Gear is a monster, but it is also about entertainment first and foremost, cars second. And I bet att least half the viewers of the show and half the readers of the magazine aren’t “car guys” in the traditional sense, they are in it for the lulz. It’s a false assumption to believe the other mags would sell more if the TG mag didn’t exist, my assumption is that demographic don’t usually buy magazines at all, but may be tempted by the Top Gear logo standing in line at the grocery store. If usual car mags sell about 35-60k copies, that means Top Gear has about sixty thousand extra customers on top of that every month that otherwise wouldn’t even look at a magazine. Quite genius, in a way.

    1. How about my assumption being half-right: a large number of TG readers are car enthusiasts and by Hoovering up those sales the magazine dampens demand for the others. It also skews the content of the others inasmuch as they try to compete with TG.

    2. Sure, fans of the show bought the magazine, but not just them. Non-enthusiast folk too bought the magazine – firstly because it was an entertaining digression from a boring train journey to Doncaster on a bitter Tuesday afternoon in February, but secondly because some were in the market for a car and trusted the TG brand to offer a definitive (if hardly impartial) verdict. After all, if the three unwise men liked it, it must be good – right?

  2. You make a good point about sales figures and reliance on advertising. It is all about balance of power – and Car is a minnow compared to the companies that make the products it reviews. It cannot afford to bite the hand that feeds it.

    If people give up paying for journalism, how can we expect the quality to improve? More mainstream news sites have scaled back investigative journalism and long-lead stories in favour of opinionated click bait, which enrages readers but gets views.

    Car magazine has plain lost a lot of its old loyal readership but it still publishes some of the best writing about cars. You’ve got to take the rough with the smooth.

    1. Car used to bite the hand that fed it. Often quite hard. They would then gleefully name and shame the car companies who pulled their advertising in pique. Most would quickly get over themselves after a period of reflection and reverse their decision. Car built its reputation from editorial bravery. The likes of Blain, Fraser and Nichols were prepared to ruffle feathers and hold the industry’s feet to the fire. Even under Steve Cropley and Gavin Green, Car maintained its somewhat anarchic stance, while still growing circulation.

      Of course, times are not what they were, but we didn’t arrive here in a time machine. The shift happened gradually and yes, the likes of Top Gear didn’t help – in that it shifted the conversational centre of gravity towards entertainment and the championship of the joke. Seriousness was for the birds. It’s a terrible legacy they’ve sown.

      Now, the industry does what it likes, unchallenged. The current generation of motor scribblers, most of whom appear to have little understanding of what they write about, simply hold their iphones aloft and nod, like dogs being shown card tricks. The magazine business has become just another component of the Car company’s PR machine.

      There are still some journalists doing good work, even one or two who can craft a sentence. Most of those however are freelancers, living a precarious existence scrounging the next gig. The staffers (for the most part) write the worst kind of boilerplate cliché-ridden twaddle. That isn’t strictly their fault. They work to a brief after all. Nevertheless, I couldn’t tell you the last time I bought myself a motor magazine.

      The business is in freefall and (in my view) it’s largely their own fault.

    2. Eóin I do think you are being a little harsh. Journalism is going through a revolution as big as the invention of the daily newspaper… those who work within the industry are adapting to a rapidly changing environment.

      In the old days, a journalist might annoy a car manufacturer so much that they were not invited to the next new car launch or indeed the advertising was pulled… but in some sense the manufacturers needed the ‘motoring press’ onside, and so a rapprochement was always likely.

      Nowadays a car manufacturer can just buy off a couple of You Tubers and get much more coverage.

      For proof of how irrelevant the specialist press is nowadays, consider the rise of SUVs… generally disdained by ‘proper’ car journalists, yet their rise is unstoppable. Car magazine now promotes the Audi Q5 as an ideal family car, which makes me cross, but I understand the pressures they face.

  3. It’s an interesting hypothesis that TG has queered the pitch for the other titles – but then I had no idea that Car sold so few copies these days. It has definitely become more timid and tepid. Also true is the fact that there are a lot of former Car staff now writing for TG, although – a bit like Morecambe and Wise when then switched from the BBC to ITV – they seem to have left their best writing behind them. I bought a copy of TG to amuse me on a flight to Oslo last summer and I ended up with a headache – too much visual noise and too frenetic and incoherent in terms of writing; I have not bought another. The thing I miss is proper coverage of ordinary cars. The launch of a new Fiesta, Golf or Citroen should be a thing celebrated with details of the engineering, design, production engineering, etc., and instead we get ‘5 Things that Mean the New Fiesta isn’t Just a Facelift’. Boo-hiss!

    The thing is, when someone has a go at creating a magazine about everyday cars it very quickly seems to have to change tack and go more ‘supercar’ or die. This was the case with the relatively recent ‘Modern Classics’. It was started by Keith Adams of AROnline fame and proved instantly amusing and endearing by the way in which it covered ordinary cars from 80’s, 90’s and 00’s – i.e. from my memorable lifetime. It read as a genuine enthusiasts rag and enjoyably did not take anything that seriously. Keith has now gone from the Editor-ship, replaced by someone I have never heard of and can best be described as tiresomely blokey, and last month it featured … a bunch of V8 ‘classic’ Ferraris, just like every other classic maagazine.

    It’s depressing and I agree it will end in tears.

  4. Boring Boring CAR February arrived earlier this week and finding myself ice-bound, I spent a bit of time analysing it. Not the content, but the ratio of editorial to advertising.

    Advertising in CAR has gone into free-fall. Ten years ago the magazine was a 220 page behemoth, with advertisements taking up 25% of the space. Now, out of a total of 164 pages, only 21 are advertisements. The breakdown tells its own story:

    Finance, insurance and leasing: 6
    Wristwatches: 5
    Car parts, modifications, and accessories: 4
    Cars: 3
    Gambling: 1
    UK government propaganda: 1
    Other: 1

    Should the reader be interested, the cars are the Peugeot 3007, VAG T-Roc, and Hyundai’s scrappage offer. I don’t know why they bothered. CAR readers are only interested in supercars, track day specials, Beetles, BMW M cars and AMG Mercedes.

    I categorised one of the adverts as “other”. What are we to make of this?

    1. Robertas: I lost count when checking Octane’s number of ad pages, more than a hundred.
      It’s website is a link to a subscriptions offer.

  5. Robertas: those ad figures aren’t healthy. The last time I looked Car had at least four pages of double spreads between the cover and contents page. The back page was always a car ad too. I suppose they are selling ads on-line, if that is worth much. Does any pay attention to a blipvert stuck on the margins of a web page? YouTube often insists on a 4 second ad before you see the clip; again who pays attention? I presume Car is stuffed as a printed magazine. Maybe Bauer will learn that exclamation marks are not correlated with increased sales! Exclusive! New!

  6. I don’t think I would not miss Car Magazine if it disappeared. Its best days are truly behind it. Most of the decent writers it once had are now departed from this world.

    It is a stuffy and middle class publication with nothing really to offer anymore.

    1. This evening I checked Octane, Classic & Sportscar and Evo: chock full of ads and they weren’t only small ads and miscellany. Car magazine is very badly off in comparison.

  7. I’ve only recently found this website. No doubt you will be relieved to hear I’m greatly enjoying the grown-up writing and off-beat subjects. I’m old enough to remember Car magazine when it was intelligent and sometimes contrary in its views. I haven’t bought a copy in years – now it seems every month it’s just more fast BMW’s being fawned-over.

  8. Boring Boring CAR March has arrived.

    164 pages, of which 20 are advertising, broken down as follows:

    Cars: 6
    Domestic audio equipment: 2
    Wristwatches: 1.5
    Gambling: 1
    UK Government propaganda: 1
    Finance and Insurance: 5
    Car parts and modifications: 7
    Driving tuition: 1.5

    The cars are:

    Peugeot 5008
    Hyundai Kona
    Abarth 595 Trofeo
    MG Motor Company. A crappily assembled advertisement for finance deals which would shame a small-town used car dealer. It is on the back page. Last month Rolex wristwatches occupied the space.

    Elsewhere in the comic, The Letter of the Month is an earnestly written effort from a (presumably grown) man who is “increasingly concerned” at the way the new turbocharged Ferraris sound, compared with those with “atmo” engines.

    Call me a heathen, or even a Philistine, but I briefly weighed the matter raised against the wickedness of the world and instantly raised it to Number One in my (profanity alert) personal chart of Things I Don’t Give A Fuck About.

    1. Robertas: well done for spotting and safely putting in quote marks the “increasing concern” about Ferrari engine sounds.
      Increasing concern is the language of the objective person about the truly serious. Applying it to an engine noise is bathetic.

      “The issue of exhaust sounds is one of mounting acuteness and greatly magnifying seriousness. I strenuously urge readers to make contact with their political representative and draw to their attention the critical nature of this matter so that it better may be addressed through the deployment of the appropriate policy instruments.”

  9. Apologies: Not for the profanity but the arithmetic. It should be 25 pages of adverts. Thet’s up 19% on last month.

    While on the matter of success stories, here’s that MG advert. They need all the help they can get.

    1. Intrigued by the MG ad’s incompetence, I went to their site.
      It was hard going, as the complete spec’s not there: but hey have just one engine, a 1.5 106bhp for the MG3 and the same but with a turbo (160-ish) for the SUV.

      You have to provide your own rear window sticker saying “My other car’s a Dacia”.

      Is it being run as a tax-loss device, as I can’t see them selling any?

  10. Vic, I salute your insatiable curiosity and indefatigability.

    For me “Zero Interest” pretty much sums it up.

  11. While I still read a couple car magazines a month, most of my reading is on line sites. I have a collection of 1950’s car magazines where the articles end in several text only pages. I can’t imagine a modern reader finishing the article. I enjoyed reading them as there was a lot of good info contained. I’m one of those old guys that still reads a couple of books a month.

    1. Hi: the old magazines are stuffed with information. Car
      magazine 1990-1997 primed me for an automotive design MA and also taught me the physics of driving. I fell off the reading wagon last year but I have abandoned my iPhone and am back with my nose in a book. If I buy another print magazine it’ll be a rare fluke. They can’t write well any more, with exceptions.

  12. This month’s – although it’s April in Peterborough – exercise in deconstruction:

    Boring Boring CAR April – 164 pages, 23 of which are adverts, comprising:

    Cleaning products: 1
    “Driving experiences”: 2
    Finance: 2
    Gambling: 1
    Insurance and warranties: 3.5
    Parts and accessories: 5
    Registration numbers: 1.5
    Tyres: 3 (Black Circles, Hankook, Toyo)
    Vehicles: 3 (Hyundai Kona, MG ZS)
    Wristwatches: 1 (Two half pages of used Rolex traders)

    There was a time when every car manufacturer staked their place, and suppliers of all manner of high-end products and services paid well for placement in CAR’s pages.

    Now it’s just parting oafs from their money…

  13. It’s already May on ‘Planet CAR’ – as they describe themselves. I don’t think it’s the same sphere as the one I inhabit.

    Without further ado, the numbers.

    164 pages, 25 of which are adverts, comprising:

    Cleaning Products: 1
    “Driving experiences”: 3
    Finance and Brokerage: 3.5
    Gambling: 1
    Insurance and warranties: 3
    Parts and accessories: 4
    Registration numbers: 1.5
    Tyres: 3 (Black Circles, Hankook, Toyo)
    Vehicles: 3 (Peugeot SUV “Event”, Seat Arona)
    Wristwatches: 2 (Chopard plus two half pages of used Rolex traders)

    There are no proper cars advertised this month. Those who remember happier times for CAR might be pleased at SEAT’s return to the back cover, but it’s uninformative, poorly composed, and seems to be aimed at morons, unless I’m missing some blindingly obvious reference from popular culture.

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