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|The History of Agent Provocateur Automotive Journalism|
|Written by Rich Truesdell|
|Monday, 06 July 2009 12:11|
In the age of Internet blogs, where bomb-throwing agent provocateurs predominate, it's fun to look back on automotive journalism's original bad boys, the editors at Car and Driver.
From about this time last year, when automotivetraveler.com started a concerted effort to build our "brand" and with it traffic to the site with the first of our exclusive spy photos, I've paid a lot of attention to what I believe are the "big automotive news blogs." These include AutoBlog, Jalopnik, CarDomain, LeftLaneNews, TheTruthAboutCars, AutoSpies, and more than a dozen more including my all-time favorite, Peter De Lorenzo's AutoExtremist. One of the things that almost all of these websites have in common is what I like to call the "bomb-throwing mentality" that gets its readers to post hundreds of comments on almost every topic under the sun.
While I would love to tap into some of that traffic, I must admit that it's just not my personal style. Call me old school, but kicking someone when they are down--as most have treated Chrysler over the last 12 months--just to get ill-informed readers to chime in is something that I'm not comfortable doing. About as close as you'll see AutomotiveTraveler going in this direction is when our own grenade thrower Jim Brennan posts a thought- and comment-provoking blog, such as his now infamous and widely circulated feature on the Top 10 reasons for Pontiac's death or his in-depth look at why certain Chrysler and GM dealers were selected to close as part of their on-going, government-financed restructuring efforts. Both features show Jim's developing journalistic instincts and we're proud to be his publisher of record, letting other websites republish his pieces in blogs around the world.
Even though I have tried, many times in vain, to translate magazine-style features to automotivetraveler.com, I have come to the realization that there are just some things that magazines will always do better than an online presentation. There are just some types of in-depth stories that are best served up on paper. And it's not just because a magazine is a more portable and friendly media to savor when it comes time to answer nature's call.
When it comes to automotive print publications assuming the mantle of the Automotive Agent Provocateur, no one has been at it longer and doing it better than Car and Driver. Two weeks ago, when antique automotive graphic hunting in Long Beach, I purchased almost two dozen Car and Driver back issues including two of the issues that were among their most incendiary; the March 1964 issue at the dawn of the age of the muscle car and August 1972 issue, published a scant year before the first OPEC Oil Embargo totally redefined the automotive industry as we know it, impacting the auto business to this very day.
You might ask, out of all the issues that Car and Driver has published since its inception in 1955 as Sports Cars Illustrated, why did I pick these two? If you look at the cover of each, it's easy to see why. The March 1964 cover featuring the Ferrari GTO race car leading the new Pontiac GTO certainly ranks as its most infamous. Helmed at the time by editor David E. Davis, who later went on to start Automobile magazine, Car and Driver allowed an obvious and later well-documented ringer to run, then went on to say "Ferrari never built enough GTOs to earn the name anyway--just to be on the safe side, Pontiac built a faster one." The statement that Ferrari never actually built enough GTOs to properly earn its homologation, to say that a GTO was faster was the comment that literally put the GTO on the map and with it, the entire muscle car era. I was 10 years old at the time and even then, I knew that the statement was controversial.
The second issue I look to, the August 1972 issue leads with its cover story "The Last Porsche Speedster Is...A Karmann Ghia" and had to be considered then editor Bob Brown's most incendiary cover blurb. And like the GTO story eight years earlier, it got tongues wagging, and not in a good way. For years Car and Driver had worshipped on the altar of Porsche so such a statement would be considered absolute blasphemy by the faithful. Reading this originally, at the summer I started driving, got me looking for a Karmann Ghia for my first car, but because of budgetary reasons I ended up settling for a 1965 AMC Rambler American 440H two-door hardtop. Over the next 36 years that might explain a lot of things better left to another column.
Getting back to this particular head-to-head. While the Porsche Speedster and the VW Karmann Ghia do share some attributes, such as an air-cooled flat four hanging out past the rear axle, similar acceleration standing quarter-mile times (19.7 seconds for the Karmann Ghia to a still lethargic 18.6 seconds for the Speedster), identical lateral acceleration numbers (0.73 G), and with the disc braked-equipped Karmann Ghia stopping from 70 MPH in 30 feet less (190-feet to 220-feet), that's where the similarities essentially end. Having driven many examples of both, I can tell you that while I enjoy the Karmann Ghia driving experience, it in no way compares with its cousin from Stuttgart.
Over the years I've shared many press events with Car and Driver's current editor Eddie Alterman, the last time at this year's North American International Automobile Show where we were both guests at a Ford social networking dinner. Eddie was appointed to the Car and Driver post less than a month after that dinner but I already knew that he had the inside track for the position. Already, with just three issues under his helm, Car and Driver is showing signs of regaining its former vitality. Eddie, who has real journalism chops in the magazine, newspaper, and online worlds, is just the right person at just the right time to turn things around. My only suggestion to him is simple; take some of those bound back issues home with you next weekend. Dig deep into that treasure trove of inspiration and translate that irreverence into both Car and Driver magazine as well as your companion website, recapture the spirit that made waiting each month for Car and Driver to arrive in my mailbox almost intolerable.