Want to write about cars? Love British magazines like Evo and Autocar? Jack Baruth at Speed:Sport:Life recently took a look inside the world of one of the most glamorous positions... in the world. Here's how you get in. —Ed.
Instead of becoming an automotive journalist, why not become an English automotive journalist? Trust me, it's a better gig. Not only will you instantly acquire the kind of cast-iron credibility that American autowriters will never so much as sniff, if you are lucky someone may even bring you back "across the pond" to run an American auto rag!
Naturally, you'll need a little help to make this dream become reality. I cannot help you fake the accent, and I cannot teach you to operate a stick-shift with your left hand, but I can show you how to write just like an English journo. It's easy! I've provided five tropes below to get you started. According to the nice people at tvtropes.org, tropes are "devices and conventions that a writer can reasonably rely on as being present in the audience members' minds and expectations." It's almost impossible to find a Brit-rag article that does not use one or more of these, so a solid command of this fab five is essential to your future career. Each trope is carefully described and a kind-of-fictional example is provided for your use. What are you waiting for? Get writing — by next week, you could be driving an Azure on the Mulsanne!
One: The (Vanden Plas) Princess And The Pea-Sized Upgrade
"In our previous road test, we shocked the world by declaring the Ferrari 630GTBX to be very possibly the worst car ever made. Across the moors of Brighton-on-Stokes, the 630GTBX was mind-numbingly dangerous and handled with the devastating indirection of a three-wheeled pastry cart. In this drive, however, we confirmed what we had suspected would be the case: that the addition of a 1mm fiber washer in the left front control arm completely addresses these uncertainties and turns a sow's ear into a true silk purse, flying down B-roads with the furious power of Apollo's sun-chariot and making gods of mortal men. Once the worst car sold in Britain, the 630GTBX-FibroWasher has become the very best."
You can blame this one squarely on LJK Setright, who complained that the redesigned nose on the 1995 Jaguar XJ6 completely destroyed its crosswind stability and thus rendered a "perfect motorway car" utterly useless. Setright's ability to "discover" major ramifications of minor changes was such a cast-iron credibility builder than no English autowriter can resist pretending to discover something similar from time to time. The game works like this: drive an early example of a car that everyone expects will be outstanding, and then completely trash it for a flaw so minor that nobody else can find it. This excites readers, generates controversy, and sells magazines.
Unfortunately, it also pisses manufacturers right the eff off, so one is required to promptly test a "revised" car and declare it to be spectacular, possessing qualities that only a very perceptive journalist can distinguish. The smaller the change, the better. After all, any American auto-moron can see the difference between a Mustang 4.6 and a Mustang 5.0, but it takes a true Brit to notice what the optional 5-mm wheel spacers on a Boxster S do for handling.
A frequent riff on this particular trope is The Smaller The Engine, The Sweeter The Juice, in which a writer drives three different versions of a car and pronounces that "although the 1.3-liter variant is dangerously slow compared to the 2.0 and 6.9 engines, the character of the engine is so much sweeter that it remains the must-have configuration."
Two: For There is in London All That Life Can Afford
"Although the Farbiobootay UK69 lapped our test track just slightly behind Lewis Hamilton's McLaren MP24, returned 76 miles per gallon during a thousand-mile test drive, and sells for the same price as a used Renault Twingo, it is slightly too zaftig for width restrictors, is subject to the C-charge, and it fails to catch the eye of Sloane Rangers. No wonder, then, that we gave it a zero-star rating at the back of the magazine."
Presumably the United Kingdom is not just London and a few suburbs, but one would never know it from reading the Britmags. Not only do they judge every car sold on its ability to crawl through London traffic, but as much as a third of each review is tirelessly given over to a half-baked analysis of how the driver of said car will be perceived by random pedestrians at St. John's Gate. BMWs are for "thrusty buggers", but an Infiniti will apparently cause onlookers to vomit on sight because it's a fake BMW. Range Rovers are "horribly offensive" and Citroen C2s are "irrepressibly po'-mouthed." Furthermore, every woman in London possesses the discriminatory powers of LJK Setright and will withhold sex from any man who is either so poor as to select the standard-equipment "dog-dish" wheels or so offensively thrusty as to purchase the top-spec "deep-dish" performance wheels. The reader who simply wishes to find out how a car will drive around his small town… is irrelevant to our city boys. These are less British magazines and more Londonian ones.
Three: The Eleventh Tenth
"Faster and faster we went, obliterating the French autoroute at well past 300 kmh before shifting into eighth gear for a WRC-paced assault on the Stelvio Pass. Man and machine hummed in sympathetic fury as road test editor Nigel Paddington four-wheel-drifted the recalcitrant Westfield S-Twelve at an angle of attack so extreme the Bridgestone logo was branded into the asphalt like a mark of Cain with the power of Christ himself…"
In real life, the United Kingdom is a land of low speeds, constant traffic-camera monitoring, and people towing full-sized campers with diesel Audi A4 wagons at well below the posted limit. But that never stops our fearless autojournos, who know secret roads (literally) beyond the pale and who are also nearly immune to police prosecution. And while nearly every Britrag has access to some candy-assed airfield test track that wouldn't be fit to hold a 24 Hours of LeMons race on this side of the pond, they almost always choose to do their handling impressions on winding roads. These balls-out adventures are described with such convincing earnestness that I expected to be utterly amazed by the driving skill of the famous English journalists with whom I shared a trackday some years ago. Imagine my surprise to see that their pace wouldn't exactly trouble novice American track-day drivers. From that day on, I dismissed all tales of triple-digit derring-do in CAR et al as being pure fantasy. (Note: Autocar's Steve Sutcliffe, Fifth Gear's Jason Plato, and Evo's Chris Harris are exempt from this rule because they are actually fantastic. —Ed.)
Four: The Ashtray's Full, Let's Sell This Lambo
"It was a sad day as I waved goodbye to COK4SAL, the 911 C4S Targa I've enjoyed driving around London these past five days. Although I had been on the waiting list for nearly two decades, the crushing effects of depreciation meant that I was required to sell the Porker only a week after taking delivery. Luckily, Brett Soames from Crowne Pagani at Stokesford-on-Trent called to let me know that my new ‘Paggers' had arrived. Look for our next long-term report to include all the details of my ownership of this car, which I anticipate could last as long as a month."
Buying a car in the UK is apparently utter hell. Every car has a waiting list, "main dealers" apply arbitrary markups, and used cars are somehow worth more than their factory-fresh counterparts. Furthermore, most new cars are apparently bought as company cars and then taxed on their CO2 emissions. It's flatly ridiculous, but not quite as ridiculous as the UK rags' habit of taking on "contributing writers" who are simply over-privileged morons. These pogues buy, sell, trade, crash, and molest their way through an endless series of difficult-to-obtain "motors." When they aren't busy having a Carrera GT completely disassembled and repainted a different color (true story), they're backing Murcielagos into lampposts and driving Minis head-first into monstrous potholes. Naturally, the "long-term tests" that come from these "punters" consist almost entirely of complaints about dealer service levels, occasionally interrupted by a breathless description of a lead-follow car-club trackday.
Five: Seventy-Six Dubious Cars, One Ridiculous Winner
"You have read, in the past 104 pages and eight feature articles, how we tirelessly winnowed the fleet of competitors for our latest comparison. After the eighth round of eliminations, we were left with just the Fiat Panda 100HP and the Nissan GT-R K-Spec YK750 with tuning by Bedford Performance of Bedford-on-Bedford. We promptly sent Lord Feffington and young Fredrick Darwins-Ffinch to the moors of Scotland for a head-to-head drive. As fate would have it, the roads were covered with ice and troubled by intermittent flocks of sheep, and no matter how Lord Feffingon boldly pressed the Nissan to its limits, the impudent Darwins-Ffinch nipped at his heels. Therefore, we have utter confidence in naming the Fiat Panda 100HP the ‘Mid-Engine Japanese Enthusiasts' Car Of The Year.'"
No Britrag would be complete without an outrageously comprehensive "true driver's car" test. This competition is not just open to every car currently on sale, but to obscure tuner variants of those cars, to say nothing of the magazine staff's personal vehicles, concept cars, and BTCC racers. It's virtually certain that the contest will be won by something absolutely unsuitable for said victory, and that the final decision will hinge on some imaginary-velocity B-road drive under bizarre conditions, a drive in which some car will demonstrate miraculous "road speed" beyond anything one might expect. The test may incorporate racetrack comparos, it may be held in Scotland, it may occur in Spain, it may be a parking-lot gymkhana, but the reader can rest assured that it will be different for each group of cars. Supercars will be tested on the Stelvio Pass, microcars will be tested in downtown London, and the final determination will occur on the Land's End boardwalk. There is only one thing about which the reader may be certain: The resulting article will be monstrous in size and mostly devoted to the logistical difficulties involved with each test.
So there you have it. Go forth and write a stonking back-road blast in a Citroen C3 Pluriel, an outrageous Chunnel crossing in a Skoda Superb, or just a long-term report on a diesel wagon you don't expect to have for more than a few weeks. The whole world of English motoring journalism is open to you. And when you find yourself living in a "flat" and dating runway models, don't forget who put you there, okay?
Jack Baruth is a writer for Speed:Sport:Life, a website devoted to the discussion and analysis of fast cars and motorsport. He does not live in Britain. Also, we quite fancy — yes, we said "fancy" — most of the magazines in question, however ridiculous they may be. Sometimes, escapism and pretty pictures are worth the price.