How To Become The Ron Burgundy Of Auto Journalism

Roy Lanchester.
Illustration: Sam Woolley (GMG)
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I won’t lie–car journalists are lucky. And generally pretty spoiled. And sometimes insufferably entitled. So much so that Richard Porter, a Top Gear veteran and current script editor for The Grand Tour, has created a character who is the ultimate car reviewing hack, who is both hilarious and horrible.

Porter has been in the auto writing industry for years, and writing parody pieces on his website Sniff Petrol as Roy Lanchester, an older journalist with a drinking problem, racist tendencies, and a fuck-you attitude towards PR people. Roy’s funny from afar, but all too real as well.

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Roy’s missives have their fans both inside and outside the motoring journalism world, so Porter put together a biography of sorts for Roy. The book, How To Be A Motoring Journalist by Roy Lanchester, tells a tale of kid who had a pretty terrible upbringing, developed a deep lack of shame and went on to be a car writing hack. Roy’s stories talk of celebrity encounters, TV pilots, damaged trousers, boozing, crashing in to low walls, and how PR people do as he wishes. It’s hilarious and a bit tragic all at once. Lanchester is fiction, but his mishaps are all too real.

I met up with Porter, in true Lanchester style, at a London pub to discuss the book and some of the tales that inspired Roy himself.

“In the early days I just made it up, imagining ‘what’s the worst it could be?’ And then discovering that the truth was much worse,” Porter explained, “I’ll be honest, when I started doing Roy in 2002/2003 I’d been on one car launch and it was perfectly OK. But it was only later I discovered with glee that the truth is much worse than fiction. I’m still convinced that I should have made the Lanchester book much, much worse.”

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Roy Lanchester is... horrid. If you were to read his stuff you’d think he was a fiction that goes further than the truth ever could. But it seems he really isn’t: car journalists can be utter, utter shitlords.

“An actual PR [person] did tell me a story about how they once received a call in their hotel room from a journalist on a launch to say that the hairdryer in his room was broken…” That is a thing that happened.

Then there’s the entitlement issues. Porter recalled a time on a launch when a journalist, post BBQ dinner, nipped up to his room for an oddly long time before returning to the bar to join the rest of the attendees: “We asked ‘are you alright?’ And he went: ‘Not really. I feel like I’ve lost a pound and found a penny.’ A wonderful-old fashioned expression. ‘Really? What’s gone wrong?’ ‘Well, I went upstairs to my room, walked in, beautiful room, but there was a wedding dress on the bed. And I thought… that’s a bit unusual. It turns out they’d given me the keys to the bridal suite by mistake. So I went back downstairs, they gave me the key to my correct room and, well… it’s much smaller.’ He was moaning about the fact his own room is smaller than the bridal suite which had an actual fucking bride in it.”

Describing this to me, Porter became animated: “WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU? IT’S A FREE FUCKING ROOM. And being the seasoned blagger I’m amazed he didn’t think the wedding dress was a gift from the manufacturer and try to sell it on eBay. You’re moaning about a free room! And obviously, you’re going to get so tanked tonight you won’t care as long as there’s a bed you can piss yourself in. I mean what is wrong with you? YOU’RE COMPLAINING ABOUT FREE THINGS. YOU’RE ONLY HERE FOR THE FREENESS.”

I’ve witnessed some truly bizarre behavior on the car-reviewing circuit myself. Once, on a private jet back to London we were served a peppered steak on proper china with proper silverware. The chap next to me prodded his, let out a sigh and said “I don’t know whether to feel sorry for this steak or not…”

If a steak on a private plane with proper cutlery isn’t enough for him I don’t know what is. Behaviors like that are odd to witness. They make you wonder just how someone thought it would be OK to be irked by things not being to their inflated standards.

So if Roy Lanchester is an amalgamation of lots of awful people how did he get that way? Porter explained: “From childhood [Roy’s] incredibly self-centered, he doesn’t notice how tragic his life is. The lack of self awareness then leads you in one continuous line to complaining about the steak on a private airplane.

Roy, and those who have unwittingly contributed to his existence, grew up with newspapers and magazines. Deadlines were decided by print times not the immediacy of the internet. Car launches today are still incredible things – luxury everything, wanting for nothing, the works, but way back they were far different affairs.

There are tales of trips that lasted a week with journalists only seeing the car a few days in, extravagant items given to hacks simply for being there. In the book Lanchester recounts an amazing trip that ended with him keeping a test car for a bit after a launch, something that seems bizarre and unbelievable. It turns out that’s not far from the truth.

“I was told a story, which I sort of tried to put in to the book, in the 70's I think it was, a car company organized a cross-Europe drive in some cars that would end ultimately at the journalist’s house. And then the cars were not collected for many, many months. When one of the journalists, the unusually moral journalists, rang the car company and went ‘are you gonna come and get this car?’ They genuinely went ‘Well we thought it would be better if you had more time with it to fully get to know it. So you hang on to it for the time being.’ So these guys had these cars for, like, a year or so but not under the guise of a long term test. It basically was just a gift.”

Seeing as car companies want their products shown in the best possible light, launch events are shiny and slick. Porter continued: “The trouble is that it’s a very seductive world where everything is taken care of. And it’s quite a reductive world in as much that it reduces you to being a child as you abdicate responsibility for adult things if you’re not careful.” This much is true. Want a drink from the bar? It’s on the company, sir. Dinner is in X place at Y time with pre-drinks at A place at B time. Life is organized and carefree. It’s fantastic, but some can forget that they’re there to cover a story on behalf of their audience, not just because they’re great and a manufacturer’s PR team wants to spend a lovely couple of days away looking after them.

Roy Lanchester is a deeply unpleasant person. When he’s not damaging cars and avoiding responsibility for it, he’s damaging clothing (trousers, mostly), binge drinking, vomiting on things/people, and being rude. All the while he thinks he’s God’s gift to the written word. In fairness, his writing’s not objectively bad. His exploits are both laugh out loud funny, and so ludicrous you’d not believe someone could be so awful. But Porter dropped this terrifying nugget of reality:

“Someone went ‘he’s not awful enough, he’s just not bad enough.’”

If you want to read more about Roy’s misadventures, head to Amazon and buy a physical copy of the book or download a Kindle version. It’s well worth it.

I’ll also take this opportunity to point out that not every car hack is like Roy. The majority are courteous, polite, don’t vomit on PR people, and (probably) don’t damage that many pairs of trousers day to day. Some of us just like doing the best job we can with a minimum of fuss.

As Roy demonstrates, though, some seemingly don’t.