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Sophisticated Side

11 December 2001

By David Rubie

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Years ago, consumed by a passion for motor vehicles, I would buy around half a dozen magazines a month, varying from new car-oriented titles to classic ones (mostly to read about old super cars). My house was covered in glossy paper piles. Under the bed, in the cupboards, in the garage and scattered around the house were magazines.

But besides being very expensive, hoarded magazines took up space and were making me nuts. The idea of keeping them was to have a decent reference set of impressions of cars if they came my way, but when tried to use this way, some of the titles came up very short indeed.

One particular month, the Italian-based, Australian-born journalist Peter Robinson had the same article in no less than three major country-centric publications: The UK based Car, Australian Wheels and the US Car and Driver. From memory it was the Porsche 993, but don't quote me as I had a recent clean out of magazines and no longer have much of a Wheels collection. (The cover price was within a couple of dollars of bigger, better written, better printed magazines on better quality paper.) From that month on, I cut back magazine subscriptions and purchases fairly radically.

There was usually enough coverage of Australian car releases in local mainstream press (like the newspaper) to make Wheels not worth purchasing. All their best articles came from overseas anyway (or so it seemed) with the only exception being Paul Cockburn, an advertising executive moonlighting as a journalist. His outsider, inside viewpoint and left field observations stood out in the worthless dreck that was mid-1990's Wheels - and his absence is telling.

A few other minor purchases fell by the wayside until I was down to Car, Classic and Sportscar and Car and Driver. The US based Car and Driver then dropped themselves from the roster when they failed to send a subscription reminder (not very good business practice!). After three months of not receiving the magazine, I realised I wasn't reading it much either. It is funny, and covers the US market much better than anybody else, but it's more satisfying as an occasional purchase.

Car dropped from being an essential purchase when the UK bias turned obnoxious with the smirkingly, self-satisfying "New Laddism" and "Cool Brittania". It seemed that half the articles were about which pair of crinkle-soled loafers you should be wearing while driving your new UK-built Ford, rather than whether the car in question was any good. When they started obsessively rolling 1 Pound coins down the panel gaps I lost interest altogether. Where was the passion? If I wanted to read about which car would be the most likely to hold its value and least likely to break down, I'd be reading consumer guides, not car magazines. I do buy Car every other month, and mostly enjoy it, but I don't remember them being this parochial ten years ago.

The only staple that's survived this bleak period for magazine publishers is Classic and Sportscar. Not just because they print a good calendar every year (although that issue is always looked forward to) but because the cars are never less than interesting and the writers have more variety to choose from, which allows them scope to veer from the basic facts and figures off into real impressions. They've obviously got a market they need to cater to (they do an article on the MGB once every six months, it seems), but they'll always make up for it by covering something either weird (rotary engined Citroen GS, wacky Edwardian steam stuff) or over-the-top fabulous (McLaren F1 vs Lamborghini Miura, Ferrari BB 512i and Porsche 959).

Which leads me to thinking that my adolescent fixation with motor vehicles is gradually fading - or at least changing radically. I find myself stuck in an era, specifically the mid 1980's, from which point on I became increasingly disinterested in the release of new cars.

Perhaps what is killing it is the realisation that the buying, selling and owning of cars isn't quite as romantic as you think as an adolescent male. Everybody wants to think about burning rubber down a deserted, twisty road with the top down and a leggy, half-frightened young lovely smiling excitedly in the passenger seat. It's an image that's been selling cars since they were invented.

Nobody really wants to think about what happens afterwards.

There haven't been many advertising campaigns based around your mechanic handing you another depressing bill, or what happens when you have an accident. The costs of owning a car, brightly pushed as some unfeasibly low lease repayment, always seem to forget to mention fuel, insurance, maintenance, tyres, ball-joints and the hundreds of other little parts that wear out, fall off or self-destruct in the lifetime of any car. One thing Classic and Sportscar does is run a regular set of columns which detail what fell off the magazine contributors' cars in the last month - it's always interesting to read that a Lotus Elan is as fragile as their reputation and that another Alfa Spider on the other side of the world is almost as buggered as your own.

I was rather surprised to get an F1 Racing magazine bundled with this month's fix of old crocks and their crotchety, bearded owners. The edition in question was a holdover from January 2001, just before the Australian Grand Prix and published during F1's holiday season. This is not a magazine I would normally buy, or even take much of a second glance at, but it was free so I sat down for a bit of a read.

My first impression was that it was a bit of a photographer's magazine. Handily printed at the bottom of a lot of the photos are techy bits of information about shutter speeds, film, camera bodies and other stuff that is unusable on your average Instamatic. The photos are good though, as they should be from a bunch of hairy professional Belgians and Swiss that do nothing but mooch at the corporate advertising tit and obsess about lighting and camera angles. You'd think that they money they save on food they could spend on shampoo, but long, greasy locks are apparently mandatory if you want to be a photographer.

The information to be gleaned from the articles in F1 Racing is, well, a little short. For all the tech detail they print about the photos, there is so little about the cars that you'd be forgiven for thinking the magazine should be renamed "Nikon F5, on Fuji Velvia film with a bit of F1 racing". Not one mention of horsepower, G forces, fuel pressure, valve opening times or the microprocessor specification in the electronic black boxes.

Nothing.

After reading F1 Racing, I felt a whole bunch dumber about F1 racing, but now know exactly which brand of shoes (Adidas Superstar II), watch (Rolex, of course) and sunglasses I should be wearing (Oakley, if you had to ask). Throw in a fatuous article attempting to relate an F1 car to a jet fighter, a couple of throwaway articles written by the drivers themselves and another few pages of gratuitous product placement and you have what is perhaps the worst magazine I've read this century. It's not going in a pile in the shed, it's headed for the recycling bin, as the paper is a fraction too slick for the bathroom duty I originally had in mind. The idea of besmearing Jensen Button's smirking gob is rather delicious, though....

What I did find surprising was a distinct lack of pictures of scantily clad Eurotrash babes. No bleach-blonde flag holding, no "bend forward luvvy and show us your affection" shots. I semi-expected a Sports Illustrated kind of girlie shoot half way through the pages, but no. This was immensely disappointing, as if you're not writing about cars you might as well show some flesh to cheer me up. I don't need exotic close-ups of manky "old-skool" trainers or impossibly expensive watches. I certainly don't need an interview of Jensen Button done by Damon Hill, in which Damon talks largely about himself. Come to think of it, they're both featuring scratchy looking beards in the photos, so the recycling bin is definitely where this magazine will end its life.

All this magazine subscription culling and old-car reading has left me with a 15-year gap in knowledge. New cars appear on the road in front of me and I'm startled, reduced to having to peer at the badges to work out who the manufacturer is. Previously, a fraction of a second glance at the taillight would have had two pages of information bubbling up inside the old brain case.

I'm not sure whether to find it disturbing or liberating.

I'm going to settle on 'liberating', as it's going to be so exciting when I see a funky new car on the road I might buy a magazine to read about it. As for the influence of F1 Racing, I am thinking of doing a nice photospread / product placement story featuring Casio watches, Dunlop Volley trainers and Haynes mighty t-shirts if anybody is interested.

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