We carry out our own Giant Test: Car 1978 versus Car 2020.
‘What’s best’ arguments rage year on year. Be it a question of professional drivers, iterations of nunelfer, or which brand of cigarette used to be advertised, anything displaying sufficient longevity can be channelled into column inches. Today our unyielding gaze is on the rear view mirror that two issues of Car magazine provide.
For the princely sum of ten pence, the January 1978 issue was purchased at a pre-pandemic local village show. Atop a pile in an unkempt cardboard box of what turned out to be the sole vein of automotive lore (the remainder a house/home/cooking combination) the cover of a Lamborghini Countach surrounded by young boys had me reaching for a silver coin. Even the admirably reconditioned H-van selling coffee alongside waited its turn being viewed – two score years car journalism more heady than an espresso served from a vehicle probably as old.
Fast forward to September 2020. A non-scheduled fuel stop saw me stump up the courage to purchase the then current issue which is where we can begin our comparison.
The 1978 original cost 40 pence (equal to £2.34 in 2020). 2020 version – £4.99. Therein lay a world of difference.
The seventies issue, consisted of seventy pages of paper quality with similitudes to newsprint. Mel Nichols, an Australian who inspired other antipodean analysts over time was editor. The magazine (incorporating Small CAR and Q-Car) was published on the third week of every month by London based FF Publishing.
Twenty four and half pages were devoted to advertisements which included three full sides of locations for UK Peugeot dealers, to Triplex glass, Finnigan’s Waxoyl, Acoustikit silencing from Stockport and a small slip to return to Satra Motors Ltd, Surrey in order to “get a Lada in your life.”
Luckily in between such, the allocation of excellent writing was combined with more illustrations than monotone photographs, the only colour seen being both sides of covers front and rear, the outer rear carrying the ubiquitous government health warning, regarding the place where flavourful country lies. Different times.
Models written about consisted of Alfa Romeo’s Giulietta, Subaru’s saloon, the Lada Niva and three full pages (with photo overlay) of the cover star Countach S. The famous Giant Test saw the Alfasud 1300Ti take on the 1.3S Fiesta and Renault 5TS. A 1979 subscription is on offer for whoever guesses correctly the winning motor. Bizarrely and frustratingly split over different pages, more words than facts were given over to the Fiat 128 3P and Peugeot ZS, France winning on this occasion.
Other articles concerned the Volkswagen Miracle, how the UK needed to campaign for CB radio, a Tokyo motor show report (by Jon Winding-Sorensen) and as we’ll see more of momentarily, two pages dedicated to motorists and their horological interests.
Of course the writers were the true stars. Frontline was the opportunity for such as Leonard Setright, Ronald Barker, George Bishop, Ian Fraser and perennial Georg Kacher to sound off. Puppet caricatures, more illustrations and inch high photographs surrounded their now hallowed scribbles. Fine observations, inspired prose and a welcome lack of nonsense make this as good a read now as then. Well worth the expense.
158 glossy pages comprise the more modern version where even sections of typed opinions are white, as the darkly coloured pictures help convey drama. Only nineteen pages were devoted to essential products (no cigarettes – the outer rear now a Seat Leon) but three of these related to something its older version never mentioned – subscribing. This is where longtime owners, Bauer Media cast their net far and wide, with online, print or bundle options, making easy access to your monthly fixation of potted journalism, action shots and titbit information.
Rarely would a customer today nip to the newsagents for twenty Marlboro and the latest issue when he can download or have posted home news of the latest Range Rover, Defender or ideas about the Aston Martin DBX over a three hundred mile test, whilst vaping. Certain aspects remain. The Giant Test pitted a Cayman GTS against BMW’s M2 CS, a Lotus Evora and an Alpine A110S. Guess this victor and you could win a watch from page 28 – the photograph of the £795 Alsta Nautoscaph Superautomatic being surely larger than necessary. Cars and watches go together, guv’nor…
Other mainstays from days of yore included the pages by senior staff given over to personal pontificating. Once more surrounded by an illustration, nowadays larger, which allows for the author to use less words. Another bulwark being their envious links to the industry. The reader might dismiss what’s there but how else does one consider the opinions of Ford of Europe’s president Stuart Rowley on CO2 emissions against a vociferous campaigner? Or perhaps titter at the musings of Werner Tietz, head of Bentley engineering. His first car was a rebuilt (by himself) 2CV and he worked on Macan, Taycan and 992 generation 911 afore heading to Cheshire. Editor Ben Miller’s page and a bit interview announces the Bentayga’s wiring loom weighs 50Kgs. Handy for the pub based car quiz if nothing else.
Another old fashioned link now partnered with modern world were letters from the public arena. The older version was called Sir! whereas the modern take is called Opinion, with comments pithy or borderline offensive by the editor. We can safely bet against written correspondence landing on the Peterborough office doormat, although the flavoured content received from these keyboard jockeys endures. Naturally, styles of both the cars themselves and those paid to entertain us have altered. Today’s instant access to everything would bewilder the 1970s Car reader and contributor alike.
To the rear though we must attend, perhaps Car’s most (in) famous section: The Good, Bad and the Ugly. The 1978 issue became prone to industrial problems, forcing a sad absence. The 2020 broadcast subsumed to the title GBU with thumb width allegories to practically every single available model of car, including a five star (very few) rating. A one star rating alongside inchoate rants were foisted upon the Lexus CT, two stars given to the Kia Venga and MG ZS with those receiving close to the full works usually costing telephone numbers in price. No Lada’s were harmed in the making of this issue.
Adding top five featured aspects such as crossovers or luxury SUV’s and monthly leasing prices reveal the gulf of forty two years motoring.
Car as a magazine still exists, inasmuch as breathing is still natural. Car magazine as a force to be reckoned with will always remain in the hands of both purchaser and publisher, who continue to be as fickle as the seasons. Praise be we once had perfection, but that was a long, long time ago.