Car magazines

Hitting its Stride – R&T’s Vintage Year

Let’s go back in time to 1988.  Why?  Just because I happened to read a couple of car magazines from that year (I promise to get back to the normal, more literate style of this blog in the next post, but today, we’re doing car mags again – here, here and here are the earlier installments of this series) and I wanted to keep my thoughts about them more or less all together before I forget what I was going to say.

It’s one of the prices of getting older, but aging also has its advantages.  I get to look at thirty-year-old magazines and judge them with a future perspective.

So, 1988.  I read The final pair of mags in my pile: Road & Track Exotic Cars: 7 and the regular monthly magazine from September 1988.

Road & Track Magazine September 1988

The first thing one notices is that the two mags appear to have been designed by two different graphics departments.  The monthly magazine feels very much a product of the eighties, while Exotic Cars looks forward to the nineties, a departure from the earlier installments in the series, which looked much more similar to the magazines.

The Exotic Cars series was one of Road & Track Specials, which explains the discrepancy, a series that was run by Thos L. Bryant, the man who later–as from January of 1989–became the editor of the regular magazine.

This one was, nostalgia aside, much better than the early installments of Exotic Cars.  The selection of cars was mature, the design was excellent, and the writing engaging.  It was a solid effort which was easier to read than its predecessors.

Road & Track Exotic Cars 7

The regular magazine looked a little dowdier, but that impression only lasts until you flip open the front cover.

Once you do that, you are transported to different world.  Not the world of 1988, though.  Road & Track in the late eighties bore little relationship to the universe of Gordon Gecko and the Coca-Cola Wardrobe (remember that piece of eighties awfulness?).  Instead, you’re almost transported to the Scottish moorlands somewhere around 1975.

This might not have been seen as a good thing in 1988, but it’s certainly wonderful reading these old pages today.  The words flow comfortably, and the reading never becomes a chore.  It’s a warm pleasure from cover to cover, like conversation with an old friend.  It was literally one of the most pleasurable reading experiences I’ve had in a long, long time.

Of course, in the eighties, warm and fuzzy was on its way out and, as I’ve mentioned, December 1988 was the last month under John Dinkel, the man who edited this issue.  The January 1989 issue had adopted the design of the specials and looked bang up to date.

The writing, however, was still essentially the same.  It would take a few years to iron out the quirkiness that made 1988 a vintage year.  Bryant was an excellent editor who brought the magazine upscale while keeping its personality alive.

So, for some time, we lived in the best of both worlds.  And I was luck enough to be thirteen in January of 1989…

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose most recent book is entitled Ice Station: Death.  You can check it out here.

Advertisements

Exotica Continued

Last week, we looked at the beginning of Road & Track‘s Exotic Car Specials.  As you’ve probably surmised from our long-running project to watch the 1001 films you must see before you die, in order, we don’t do things halfway here at Classically Educated.  So today, we continue the Exotic Cars series with numbers 3 and 4.

Road & Track Exotic Cars 3

Our main criticism of 1 and 2, read so close together was that the editors seemed to be severely limited in the menu of cars they could choose from, which caused some repetition.

This is also true, to a much lesser extent in volume 3, although it’s clear that the editors made a conscious effort to minimize the effect.  They began to add German tuner cars, which I suppose is reasonable, but also included a couple of sedans that, even though they were a Mercedes and a BMW, I’m not entirely convinced qualify as exotic.

A lot of what is good about this issue has more to do with the fact that they had two new Ferraris to discuss, which is always a boon to people putting together a magazine dealing with exotica, than to the efforts of the staff…

Nevertheless, a hat must be doffed to whoever decided to include the Morgan (probably Simanaitis) and especially to the lunatic who decided to road test a Lola race car modified for street use.

The result, though still not quite mature, showed signs of steering the series in the direction that I remembered from my youth.

 

Road & Track Exotic Cars 4

In volume 4, the process extends even further.  Despite the inexplicable fact that the Maserati Biturbo, a car that was later reviled by almost everyone (I like it, but I think I’m the only one) was included again, making it a perfect four-for-four in these magazines and the head-scratching decision to include a Ford Scorpio, this one is the best yet.

Even though they didn’t have any major launches, the editors managed to juggle the usual suspects, mixed in with tuners and obscurities like Marcos and TVR to create a well balanced issue that is the best of the lot so far.  Another good decision was to drop the Road Test section.

But beyond the critical discussion of what is good and bad about these magazines, the fact that, just after the fuel crisis of the late seventies, and in the midst of regulatory upheaval that was making cars worse each year instead of better, Road & Track had the balls to launch a magazine celebrating cars whose only purpose was to go fast, look good and be enjoyed is laudable.

And among todays rash of humorless responsibility where any display of excess or wealth is frowned upon, these magazines are a joyful reminder that life exists to be enjoyed.  These cars are an expression of that fact, and should be celebrated, even if only by reading magazines devoted to them more than thirty years ago.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine writer best known for his far future science fiction novel Siege.  You can check it out here.

Exotica!

On Wednesday, we looked back at the very first Road & Track magazine.  It was an interesting start to a publication that later became an icon in its field, and if I can find the second volume, I’ll be having a look at that, too.

But in the meantime, I’m moving through a stack of Road & Track publications and came across the first two volumes in yet another innovation that they tried.  Namely, a Road & Track Special entitled Exotic Cars.

Now, most people wouldn’t have given these mags a second glance if they’d encountered them in a used bookstore, but I have a history with them.  Back when I was thirteen or so, and an avid R&T reader, I came across an edition of this special (I think it was number 8 in the series).  To my teenage eye, it was to the regular magazine what the Big Mac is to a regular McDonald’s cheeseburger (I was going to make an analogy involving the Moulin Rouge and today’s adult film industry but I stopped myself because I don’t want to give too much away about my teenage years…).

It was an object of pure desire, mainly because it held absolutely no news about economy cars or stuff your mother might drive.  It only held cars you lusted after, or utterly hated (continuing the Big Mac theme, those would be the pickles), gloriously photographed and described by people who, like yourself, couldn’t care less about the socially irresponsible message this kind of excess sent.  In your world, cars that went a bazillion miles an hour and cost a bazillion dollars were perfect, and why such a miserable vehicle as the Toyota Tercel existed was a mystery.

Long story short, I bought the magazines, and a bunch of others which I might discuss some other time.

Road & Track Exotic Cars 1

The first of these, released in 1983 was a very nice first effort and showed just how far R&T had come since its humble and unprofessional beginnings.  29 articles showcased 30 cars.  Sure, there were a few road tests culled from the pages of the magazine itself, but, for the most part, the articles were pure celebration of exotics with gorgeous color photography (most of the regular magazine was black and white in 1983).

I’d give this one near top marks for a first effort, and apparently the market responded well, because a second volume was soon to follow:

Road & Track Exotic Cars 2

This one landed on newsstands in 1984 and it was a mistake.  A beautifully produced and probably successful mistake, but a mistake.

The reason it’s an error was that, being released a year after the first, the editors had little time to dig for new veins of exotica.  Remember that, 35 years ago, you couldn’t go onto the internet to look up whether some little cottage industry in Denmark was building the vehicle you needed to beef up your magazine.  Also, coming out of the fuel crisis, there were fewer companies building amazing cars.

So there’s repetition… a lot of repetition. Of the 27 cars featured in articles or road tests from the main magazine, fully 14 were either tests of the same car as one that had been featured in Volume 1 or slight variations (perhaps a convertible version or a model-year upgrade) of the same.  Another couple were basically the same car with significant differences, so I didn’t count them.

To be fair, the editors seem to have realized this and created a segment about the carrozerias of the City of Turin, a nice little segment, but it wasn’t quite enough to mask the issue.  They also dug up a couple of new cars and some stuff they’d neglected the first time around… but the sense of “I’ve seen this before” was predominant.

Now, I read these in the space of three or fur days, which is not the way they’re meant to be read.  That year between editions should have been enough for people to forget what they’d read about where and make the content seem relatively fresh… but it didn’t hold up well over the years.

In spite of this, readers apparently enjoyed it and the series continued for several more years.  I’ll return to the subject soon.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose latest book is Ice Station: Death.  You can check it out here.

The Beginning of a Classic Magazine

Road and Track June 1947

Those of us over about thirty years old will remember a time when a lot of our information about hobbies and interests came from reading magazines.  Today, magazines still often give us information that we can’t get online, so imagine how much more we relied on them in the early days of the net or even in pre-internet days.

Those of us that like cars will likely accept that, until fairly recently, Road & Track was the magazine of choice for the most discerning enthusiasts.  On one hand it was had a high-class, globalized outlook with one eye on Europe and Japan, while on the other it also commented on the American auto industry in depth.  In this sense, it achieved the best overview of the world scene… and it was the 500 pound gorilla in the room regardless of whether you were American, European or, as in my case, from  South America.

Yes, magazines like Car & Driver in the US or any number of local mags in Europe might have had more readers in their respective countries… but no one did it better globally.

So it’s interesting to pick up the first ever issue of the publication and see where it started from.

It’s surprising to say the least.

In 1947, many publications were less sophisticated than they are today, but Road and Track’s first issue is…

Well, it’s terrible.  You could tell they put the thing together on a shoestring and grabbed whatever articles and pictures they could find.  A nationalistic technical article by the great Laurence Pomeroy kicks it off–impeccable credentials, but the article itself was useless–and then a hodgepodge of other things, including a race report of a very minor hillclimb, the description of a foreign car dealership and a few photos.

These last are interesting, especially as they include pics of the Wilmille production car, but the overall effect gives the impression that they knew the starved postwar audience would pay for any kind of content, and grabbed what they could get, published it and called it an issue.

Interestingly, the mix of street and race cars continued into the 21st century… and probably contributed enormously to the publication’s success… interesting to see that it came about almost by mistake.

BTW, if you’re interested in seeing it for yourself, these mags are still pretty reasonably priced on Ebay and similar, and the first few issues were reprinted in facsimile editions (keeping everything, including the original advertisements, which are wonderful windows into the time), which makes it even cheaper to study a piece of history.

I’ll be looking at a few more of these over the next couple of weeks, as I find it interesting.  Hope some of you will come along for the ride.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer.  His novel Outside deals with the possible ultimate consequences of the current transition from physical media to digital…  You can have a look here.