I started reading Road & Track as a teenager in 1989. That pretty much means that I have a complete run into the 2000’s, but that everything before 1988 was blank. So I’m filling in those blanks slowly. I have a few of the earliest ones, and also some 1988s.
I recently found a guy here in Argentina selling a large lot of mainly 1970s and 1980s R&Ts, so I bought them and have finally had the time to read through the missing 1988s (all except for the March issue, which I will have to track down…).
As I have said in earlier posts, 1988 was a vintage year for this magazine. Firing on all cylinders, hitting their stride, almost mature from a design point of view (that would come in 1989) and with subject matter that actually gave hope.
For non-auto enthusiasts, that last sentence needs a little clarification. In the 70s and early 80s, the automotive industry was reeling. Smog controls and safety crusades made the cars mechanically inferior to the ones in 1969 as well as more complicated to work on, uglier and generally less interesting tow write about. There was a fuel crisis in there, too, so regulators imposed a corporate average fuel economy. Ralph Nader’s biased and unfortunate Unsafe at Any Speed, published in 1966, was also a factor.
The speed limit was an imbecilic 55 miles an hour.
Many manufacturers closed or left the US market (R&T, being US-based, tended to concentrate on the American scene), AMC died, and even the surviving big three were in trouble. Economy car companies, particularly Japanese companies who didn’t have a reputation to uphold, did well. Layoffs abounded.
It was a grim time to be in the car business, even as a magazine.
But by 1988, the industry was recovering, and manufacturers, having gotten a grasp of emissions technology were actually building cars that people wanted to drive again. Horsepower numbers were rising, convertibles reappeared (Nader must have been distracted, probably off annoying some other industry) and it was a good time to be alive.
Road & Track reflected this. 1988 was a vivacious, optimistic year for the magazine, exuding confidence in the wake of the launches of the brash Ferrari Testarossa, the glorious GTO and F40 and the Porsche 959. Cars, it appeared, were exciting again.
Over the course of the year, this played out again and again. Performance cars were given the nod over family sedans. The first wave of the 4WD revolution in passenger cars was studied.
Life was good.
Good enough, in fact that their standout article of the year was among the ballsiest that I’ve ever seen from a car magazine. In an era when the specialist press was proudly displayed on every supermarket magazine rack and newsstand in the US, they openly re-analyzed the Audi unintended acceleration case and concluded that Sixty Minutes was wrong, sensationalist and journalistically compromised. While that is often true for Sixty Minutes, it is unusual for a car magazine to shout it out.
Even more unusual is that a magazine conclude that the operators (drivers) were to blame. While the public was out for corporate blood, having a major media outlet come out and say that the public itself is to blame, essentially because they don’t know how to drive correctly (which anyone who has driven in the US will be unsurprised by), and that the lawsuits should all be dismissed was an act of sheer integrity, not to mention courage.
Things like this are why R&T was the class of the automotive magazine field for decades, and why I still read back issues thirty years out of date.
Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and all around media opinionologist (he does read or watch the stuff he has opinions about, first, if that’s any consolation) whose latest book is Jungle Lab Terror. You can buy it here.