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Putting together a collection of old car mags.

by Julian Edgar

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This article was first published in 2001.
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Most car enthusiasts buy paper magazines as well as browsing the web. And many of those same people then store away the car mags that they have bought. This is a great idea because a car magazine collection is a very useful tool - a collection of old magazines can be absolutely invaluable.

So how can a ten-year-old magazine - or, even better - a collection of a year's worth of ten-year-old mags be a fantastic resource?

Well, if you're buying a used car and have a test on the car when it was new, you'll not only know all of its vital specs, but also how it was regarded against the opposition when it was new. Quite often, the comparisons that are made in those articles can then lead you to other cars that fit your secondhand buying criteria. If you have the magazine that features the introduction of an important (especially locally built) car, you'll have access to a heap of interesting history on its origins and how it relates to the previous model. This is excellent, because a contemporary car magazine is not nearly as secondhand in its information as many books - and certainly many memories!

But how do you get together a car magazine collection if you've only been interested in cars for a few years? And which magazines are best to collect anyway? And, when you have a heap of 'em, how do you store and display them?

In this story I'll concentrate on Australian magazines and prices, but with obvious cultural changes, the information is relevant everywhere.

Buying

You buy current magazines to find out the latest news and information, see what people are doing to their cars and what next year's models might look like. But older magazines aren't bought for these reasons - instead you want to find out what were the contemporary new car specs and performance, read what people were then thinking about marques and cars, and look at interviews with people who were once the movers and shakers in the industry.

This makes the most worthy for collection those magazines that concentrated on testing new cars.

But what about modified car mags? Many ten and twenty year old magazines now look quite irrelevant when you browse through them - strange fashions in modification that came and went over the space of a few years, odd 'in' jokes, and modification techniques that are often now quite out of date. Of course, if you have an older modified car you can see what others have done to it, but it's often hard to find those specific stories - even with a heap of old mags available.

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For these reasons I suggest that in Australia the most useful old magazines to buy can be pared down to two titles: Wheels and Modern Motor (later called just Motor). I am not alone in that suggestion, so in order to more easily find old copies, you might also want to add in Motor Manual (which in 1986 became Car Australia, finishing publication in 1994).

All three magazines date back a long way - long enough that if you're buying the first copies from the '50s, then you'll be interested in very old cars indeed! For the sort of cars featured in AutoSpeed, going back to the early '70s will be enough for most of us - just as well since the earlier issues are genuine collectors' items.

And that phrase - collectors' item - is one that you definitely want to avoid! Why? Because the cost of buying old magazines will skyrocket if the seller thinks that they are special...

Normally, you will pay around 30 cents per issue for old assorted magazines. For example, if you attend a garage sale and three-year-old copies of Motor are on sale at $1 each, that's pretty expensive. Some secondhand bookshops will list the mags at half new price - a whopping $3 or so for recent copies, but only 50 cents each for 1978 magazines. So watch the prices carefully - especially if you're buying ones whose condition isn't perfect.

And while it's good to pick up magazines as odds and ends in this way, to get a useful collection going, it makes more sense to buy a job-lot from someone getting rid of a whole bunch of them.

Parcels of car magazines come up quite often in classified ads, where people will dispose of a few boxes when moving house - or changing spouse! Sometimes these are really cheap; other times the seller has the most weirdly inflated idea of the worth of the mags. Either way, just work it out on a cost-per-mag basis when you're doing your bargaining. And make no mistake - most magazine prices can be negotiated down a long way. Old and common magazines are always very much a buyers' market (something to think of if you reckon that they're an investment you'll later be able to sell at a huge profit!).

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On the other hand, if you already have a heap of magazines and are just trying to buy specific ones to fill holes, you can expect to pay more. Someone with a box of "I think that they're mostly 1978 Modern Motor" will be down around the 30 cents per mag price, but a dealer who can fulfil your specific demand for a May, 1978 Wheels will ask and receive considerably more. These one-off hole-fillers can cost up to a few dollars each - sometimes higher. (In fact the May 1978 Wheels is the 25th Jubilee Edition, so that one will be more expensive again!)

So to get a complete collection of, say, Modern Motor from 1980 to 1990 will cost you quite a lot - perhaps a few hundred dollars. But to get a good variety of magazines from this decade - perhaps some Motor Manual, Modern Motor and Wheels - could cost you only $20. All three magazine titles invariably tested the same cars (the high profile cars, anyway), so you'll almost certainly still be able to find tests that you're interested in, even if you don't have a complete collection of the one title.

But let's say that you do manage to get together a year set of Car Australia for 1989. How do you then store them so that they can still be used?

Display and Storage

The easiest way of storing old car mags is to stick them on the shelf. Lying flat with their spines outermost, they'll be safe, kept flat and fade little. Trouble is, that approach also makes them hard to access and prone to damage when you do. And the last is a pretty important thing to keep in mind. Some years the production quality of these magazines was lousy - Car Australia around 1986 and 1987 develop crinkled covers very easily (and even the pages inside crinkle sometimes), while Modern Motor in the wonderful mid-Eighties years easily have their covers ripped and torn off. Of course, the older mags from the Sixties and Seventies easily tear and dog-ear - after all, they're getting on in years.

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Vertical cardboard magazine boxes are cheap and convenient. They also stand upright, which has an up-side and a down-side. The good aspect is that they take up little shelf space, but the downside is that unless the box is just nicely full, over time the magazines develop a lean and eventually distort their lower halves. So if you use magazine boxes, use a sorting system that keeps enough mags in each box that they're nicely squeezed together with the box completely full - and not as shown here. However, with full boxes you've then gotta be careful that you don't tear the covers when you're pulling out individual mags - it's very easy to do.

Libraries avoid these problems by binding the magazines. This is a process that turns the magazines into something that looks like a book - six or twelve editions hand-sewn with a curved spine and hard covers. It makes for a very durable, top looking result - but again there are some downsides. Firstly, cost. It will set you back about $30 to have six recent car magazines (eg the thicker Wheels and Motor of the last five or so years) bound, while thinner older magazines can have a full year's worth of issues bound for about that same price. However, once they're bound you won't be able to extract a single magazine, nor lay the magazine cover completely flat (as you would if you wanted to scan it, for example.) But this remains probably the most professional way of preserving a magazine collection.

Then there are magazine binders. These look like large 3-ring folders but instead of the rings, the magazines are held in place by thin wires that stretch parallel with the spine of the folder. Basically, you pop out a wire, slid it through the centre of the magazine (eg along the staple line) then clip the wire back into place. This process is repeated for each magazine. You can get general-purpose magazine binders for about $18 each - but again they have disadvantages. Firstly, if you are talking about a thick magazine, a year's worth won't fit in one binder. Most binders are only about 50mm thick, and 12 months of many car magazines form a package often thicker than that. You then require two binders for a single year - which sure adds up in cost fast. I've also seen the retaining wires rust over years, which puts nice stains all over each mag in your collection...

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Probably the best solution is to use things called Magi-Clips. These are available from large stationery outlets (or search under 'Magi-Clip' on the web) and cost about $1 each. Consisting of a long, narrow piece of plastic, the clip has a slot at one side and a normal folder hole-punch pattern at the other. This allows the magazine to be opened, half of it slid through the slot and then the magazine closed again, the plastic piece sandwiched in the middle. The magazine is then placed in a normal 3- or 4-ringed folder, being held in place by the Magi-Clip. The magazines can be viewed while still being clipped into place, the mag can be easily removed if that's required, and the magazines are held flat. If you use a thick D-ring folder that has one panel hinged to allow better access, it's best to store the folder flat, as the contents are then better supported.

Sorting

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At the minimum, organise the mags into years - otherwise you'll spend more time digging through the piles to find the right mag than you will reading them!

For the Eighties and much of the Nineties, Modern Motor listed at the back of the magazine its performance results and the month and year in which the cars were tested - this can be a useful index. Note that new car tests were carried out by the three major magazine usually with a few months of each other - the car that you find tested in November, 1992 Wheels will normally be able to be found tested in the October, November or December issues of the other magazines.

Other mags at different times ran road test indices in their new car pricing guide - or in the worst case, you can simply scan the contents pages of the year that the car was released. More general reading is just a case of picking it up and browsing thru!

Conclusion

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In this article I haven't even begun to explore the wonderful content that is available in these older magazines, but if you ever own anything other than brand new cars, you're absolutely certain to be fascinated by what was then said about the car that you drive - and probably your next car as well!

And it's also very interesting seeing how over the years magazine writing and photography styles - and content priorities - have changed, and not always for the better. If you like reading detailed, well-written yarns, some of the 'drive' stories from these magazines in the Seventies and Eighties are stunning....

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