Back when I was a motor-industry writer, there were times when I simply didn’t have the time to drive all the cars they’d send me. Now, I don’t have the time to drive anything at all — and that time is a form of wealth that I miss. I did know that I would be busy when I stepped into the editor’s office at Business Day. But, to be more honest, there was also a sense that I had to drop all that — to be serious. You can’t be a senior editor and write about cars, I told myself.
Well, to hell with that. I think that motoring journalism’s reputation is sometimes deserved. There are plenty of people (please, not “journalists”) on the car-launch circuit who are in it for the jolly, and social-media influencers who are happy to regurgitate whatever the car company tells them. I know this because for a while I worked in communications at a car company. It wasn’t that we didn’t expect and absorb in good faith criticism from serious reporters, but we also let the good times roll on Instagram and Twitter, and in the pages of the less serious publications.
A good, thoughtful car review is a wonderful thing. If there is value in reviews of architecture, books, music, and art, then why do people look down their noses at the idea of reviewing a car? The preponderance of car-launch grifters doesn’t help, but I think there is a more fundamental issue; specifically, that there is a misconception that books, music, and design are only artistic, and that motor manufacturing is only industrial. This is simplistic and wrong.
A great number of industries come together to make a book. Authors, editors, proofreaders, illustrators, printers, distributors, and booksellers all need to work together in a viciously competitive capitalist environment to bring you your latest read. Similar businesses create music and, especially, architecture.
And it is much the same with cars. You may look at any number of bland crossover SUV thingies that people insist on buying and ask yourself, “Where’s the art?” You would be right to do so in many cases, because there is none. But some cars are genuinely beautiful, and then, when you drive them, you realise that the clever people who built them took the time to really understand what emotions they wanted the driver to experience. They thought about how the driver would feel. Only then — and you have to admit, this is just brilliant — did they engineer the car to deliver something human and emotional.
That means a good car is a fiendishly clever amalgamation of clinical industrial processes, cost management, hellishly complex supply-chain management and then, real understanding of what makes us human, and of the value of beauty.
For a while I drove a BMW M140i. It’s a genuinely terrible car by many measures. There was no rear legroom at all, it was thirsty, the interior was low-rent and grim, and I have to say it wasn’t exactly pretty. But it was also one of the best cars I ever owned. There are technical reasons for this. It came with a creamy 3l, turbo-charged, six-cylinder motor up front linked to rear-wheel drive, a superb dual-clutch gearbox, and 50/50 weight distribution. The outcome wasn’t technical, though — it was sheer joy. I loved that car because it was fast and accurate and so very alive. It wanted my attention, it required my focus, and through the pitch-perfect driving position, communicative steering, and firm ride it never stopped talking to me. The communication went both ways. That was a car you could place on the road just so. It was deliciously drivable if you talked back. I really loved it.
The BMW M140i was science and art. So, to take a binary approach to motoring writing is to miss out on what can be both useful and entertaining. When a motoring writer steps out from the press-release wallpaper and really tells it like it is, it can be a thing to behold. Off the top of my head, British broadcaster Jeremy Clarkson’s evisceration of the Chrysler Sebring was brutal and fair. Motoring journalist Chris Harris’s video review dismantling the Mazda MX-5 was notable for challenging the established petrolhead mantra about that particular car. I should know — I’ve owned two.
Closer to home, Business Day’s motoring editor Denis Droppa is never frightened to call it like he sees it. I, too, have run into trouble over the past 18 years with various car companies for saying something they didn’t like, including BMW, Mahindra, Hyundai, Kia, Renault, Jaguar, Land Rover, and Ford. In each case there was some kind of a scuffle, but only one company in all those years of reviews — Ford — ever stopped me from driving their cars.
It is true that some car reviews are unreadable, dishonest junk designed to secure their invitation to the next snazzy launch. But some are absolute gold. As with movie, book, and music reviews, find a writer you trust and follow them.
To me, wealth is not only having the time and the space to do what you enjoy, to indulge in what you love, but also to not care what others might think. That’s why, later this year, I’m going to spend a little time returning to my old love of writing about cars from time to time. So sue me.
• Alexander Parker is editor-in-chief of Business Day, BusinessLive, and BDTV
• From the March edition of Wanted, 2023.