Blog : Happy 40th birthday, What Car?

Carole Nash Classic Insurance Specialists

Keith Adams

What Car November 1973

Last week, the November 2013 issue of What Car? hit the newsstands and that represented a bit of a landmark in magazine history. You see, that cover date marks the 40th anniversary of the first issue, which went on sale way back in October 1973.  And, my goodness, haven’t things changed since then.

Not least in the automotive world –  as you can see, the main cover story is a group test of mid-sized family cars, three of which were built by companies that no longer exist – the Austin Maxi, Hillman Hunter and Morris Marina. The other two, the Cortina and Victor, are 1973’s Mondeo and Insignia, both of which have been upstaged on the marketplace by their once-much more exclusive German rivals. However, back then, we were still essentially a nation of car buyers which bought British, even if sometimes we’d come to regret our actions.

As for the magazine side of things – I’d say that the technology underpinning them and the end product has transformed even more than the cars they’re reporting on. Can you imagine what was involved in hammering together the first issue of What Car? back then? There was no PC to lay-out your page and all that data in the back needed to be collated manually and laid-out out on a page master for the printer. Editing involved manipulating these unweidly pieces of metal, character by character – a truly impressive feat by anyone’s standards. That first issue must have taken months to put together.

All that work by launch editor Richard Feast and his team was worth it, though, for when What Car? hit the newsstands, just as the new car market collapsed in the wake of the Energy Crisis, it was nothing short of a revolution. We’d seen group tests before, both in Motor magazine and Motoring Which, but What Car? used these as its backbone content and aimed them not so much at the enthusiast crowd, but at people who actually went out and bought and used the cars.

As well as that, the back half of the mag was devoted to new price and specification data as well as a fairly comprehensive value guide for cars up to eight years old (below). At the time, that kind of information simply wasn’t available elsewhere – that saved punters an awful lot of shoe leather.

1973 price guide makes fascinating reading today.
1973 price guide makes fascinating reading today.

In a tough market, What Car? sold healthily on the newsstands throughout the 1970s and helped Haymarket grow considerably in the process, picking up Autocar and then Motor (to merge them both) along the way during the 1980s.

Of course, when I started reading What Car? back in the dying days of the 1970s, this was a million miles away from my mind. As a geeky kid, who just loved cars and had no real access to hard information about them (this was pre-Top Gear and pre-the Internet), the magazine was a revelation. My first copy was given to me by my junior school form tutor, sensing I was into cars in a very big way – and, from that moment on, I was hooked; I had found my new Bible (no more learning specs from Top Trumps cards). I thank him for setting me on the path that leads me to where I am now.

The first issue I got my tiny mitts on was dated October 1979 and, within days of receiving it, I’d pretty much memorised every word of it, price and specification details and all. I loved the fact that compared with the weeklies, such as Autocar and the now-defunct Motor (which he also let me have), the paper quality and design were a notch above while the much more lavish use of colour was a genuine treat.

Within weeks, I picked up a paper round, so I could buy my own magazines. My collection grew and grew over the years, with Car joining What Car? Autocar and Motor as my shop-saves from October 1980 (just in time for the launch of the Metro). Funnily enough, even today, I gauge much of my life through what was going on in the car world, as reported by the mag.

I maintained my monthly fix of What Car? well into the 2000s (and still have every copy). It might seem odd for a petrolhead like me to be buying the magazine religiously, given it was such a consumer-focused title, but it proved the ideal framework with which to base my car knowledge upon, when combined with the more esoteric content in the other three. After all, it’s always good to know which mid-sized hatchback has the largest boot, or what the engine capacity and 0-60mph times were of the latest supermins.

The magazine itself has evolved beyond recognition over the years, enjoying enormous growth througout the 1980s, when the focus shifted from pure road testing to consumer champion. The consistency was lovely over the years, too, and perfect-bound, they stack so nicely on my bookshelves.

April was always Car of The Year time (the first I remember was the Renault 20, followed by Peugeot 305 and Vauxhall Astra), while November’s – published ahead of the British Motor Show – was the market review issue (and they were generally as thick as telephone directories). And always with the new car data, and used car pricing in the back, to form a solid bedrock.

The 1970s issues I now treasure are slim, feature some truly grim photography (which I like) and are lacking in depth (in retrospect), while the 1980s ones reflect the rising wealth of the readership and advertisers, with ever escallating page counts. There have been some interesting experiments along the way, such as van data tables and news; or the brief period in 1988-1989, when it tried to become an enthusiast mag. There was a VHS giveaway to mark the launch of the Mondeo in 1993; and one issue in the early 1980s even included a tape head cleaner to coincide with a big ICE market review. And since 1990ish, the covers have been clean, studio shot, with the cars on a white background. You always knew what you were getting with What Car?

But things are changing rapidly – What Car? is a huge brand in its own right – as well as the magazine, there’s a massive website that’s built around it and one which stands up in its own right as a bible for new and used car buyers – just as the magazine has done since 1973. Will it end up supplanting the printed mag?

We’ll have to wait and see – but don’t bet against it, especially when you add up the numbers: around 70,000 monthly ciculation of the magazine, according to ABC, against however many million page impressions on the website. If that scenario did play out, as it recently did for Auto Trader, it would be a sad moment, for me at least, as an important part of my car enthusiast life would be left behind.

As a bit of an aside, and a nice piece of squaring the circle, two important career breaks were handed to me by What Car? Editors – my first piece in Autocar (and my first proper magazine article anywhere) was accepted by Steve Fowler, while my first paid commission for that same mag came via Chas Hallett. These came at a time when I could only dream of professionally writing about cars – and earning a living from it. Talk about karma…

Sadly, What Car? isn’t celebrating its big four-oh in the mag, which is a real shame – I hope that, for those who enjoyed it over the years, this modest blog goes some way towards addressing that.

Happy birthday…

Keith Adams

Keith Adams

Editor and creator AROnline at AROnline
Created www.austin-rover.co.uk in 2001 and built it up to become the world's foremost reference source for all things BMC, Leyland and Rover Group, before renaming it AROnline in 2007.

Is the Editor of the Parkers website and price guide, formerly editor of Classic Car Weekly, and launch editor/creator of Modern Classics magazine. Has contributed to various motoring titles including Octane, Practical Classics, Evo, Honest John, CAR magazine, Autocar, Pistonheads, Diesel Car, Practical Performance Car, Performance French Car, Car Mechanics, Jaguar World Monthly, MG Enthusiast, Modern MINI, Practical Classics, Fifth Gear Website, Radio 4, and the the Motoring Independent...

Likes 'conditionally challenged' motors and taking them on unfeasible adventures all across Europe.
Keith Adams

33 Comments

  1. Launching the November 2013 issue in September…?
    I have always found it strange why publications such as What Car always state the month of a magazine as being at least the one after it appears on the shelves and is read.

  2. Today it should be called What (Company) Car – The magazine seems obsessed with CO2 outputs and business leasing rates. It seems to assume every reader is a company car driver or fleet manager. Driving dynamics or performance are given scant regard. Also, if you see a group test with a BMW on the front cover you dont need to waste time reading it to know that the BMW wins!

  3. I have so been on the same journey with What Car through the decades! My first issue was the November 1976 one, timed to coincide with the Motor Show, and as you say as thick as a phone book. Seem to think the SD1 and Alfetta won their group comparisons, with the Rover being described a world beater whose only disadvantage was they couldn’t make them fast enough. It was never an enthusiast magazine in the way that Car or Autocar are, more the sort of mag your dad would buy when he was thinking of trading in the Hillman Hunter. But for enthusiasts, it offered a pretty rational appraisal of what was on the market, and you could spend days looking through that data section. Still can, in fact!

  4. My first issue was April 1980 & last time I commented on this, Keith posted the front page on whatever group said comment was on.

    Sadly the back half of the magazine no longer has new price and specification data in as much detail, not to mention the value guide for used cars which, IIRC, is no longer in there.

  5. Oddly enough, Car was my magazine of choice in my youth of the late 70’s & early 80’s. But the articles I liked best were those surrounding the humdrum cars; the 1984 Untouchables issue comparing things like the 2CV & Lada are my favourites.

    But looking at the old mags still in my collection, it’s the issues of What Car? that are the most battered as they were read the most over the years. Thanks Keith, now you’ve started something where it looks like I’ll be hunting down some extra copies on Ebay!

    Happy 40th What Car?!

  6. 40 years eh. When did Car Magazine come out, as the 2 represent the 2 ways you can produce a car magazine?

    What Car is the magazine you buy to get sensible facts, and rational reasons to buy one car rather than its rivals.

    Car Magazine was much more of an enthusiasts magazine, artistic photos, long, flowery articles with relatively few tables of facts.

    It would be interesting how significant What Car’s success was in the fortunes of Haymarket and Michael Heseltine…

  7. I used to read it religously in the late 1980s and into the 1990s. How I wish I had kept all those old copies as they were always bang up to date when it came to publishing changes in manufacturers’ price lists and the cost of important factory-fit optional extras. They could certainly teach the Parker’s Guide a thing or two about using accurate figures!

    I remember a former colleague of mine (Leo) leaving the newspaper group we both worked for in 2000, to go and work as a road-tester for What Car?. The first year or two were quite literally spent living out of a suitcase as he travelling from location to location trying out different models. I think he still works for the same title.

    Incidentally, this year also marks 25 years of Auto Express magazine; another magazine that was a consumer champion and who in those early days could be rather diplomatic when it came to summing up a car that was average at best.

  8. @2
    Company car self-choosers are probably the biggest section of the new car market, so it makes sense for What Car to aim for them, and certain taxes/Benefits in kind are tied to a car’s CO2 emissions so it’s quite important to know. BMW know this, and have basically engineered their range to meet the emissions standards as well as they can, meaning they make a lot of sense for company car buyers.

  9. The first car magazine I recall was a 1975 (April?) What Car? review of every car on sale. My Dad purchased it when he was in hospital when he first was diagnosed with epilepsy. He didn’t buy another car magazine in the next 3 years he was alive. I kept that issue until it fell apart many years later after being read and re-read and threw it away. I wonder what made him buy that magazine as when he was diagnosed as epilepitic he had his licence withdrawn and never drove again.
    I must see if I can find a copy on Ebay or at an autojumble at some time.

    I enjoyed What Car most from the mid ’80s to mid ’90s. I enjoyed the consumer aspect of the magazine plus the endless data appealled to me. On occasion, I still buy the odd copy but am frequently disappointed by it. I cannot put my finger on why but as an earlier contributer stated they do seem to focus tests to the company car buyer which is understandable. The reason for my disappointment may also be that back in the 80’s with no internet, you valued any magazine more, it was the only way to get an opinion, pictures and data of cars.. I still subscribe to a number of motoring titles and often find that I haven’t finished one copy when the next issue arrives. Which I find quite sad in a way.

    On a magazine photography subject, why do they find it so hard to take a decent picture from the driver’s forward perspective? That’s where I will be seated so that’s what I want to see.

  10. What intrigues me about What Car is that every issue it seems that whatever new model they are testing is always better than al its competitors, even thouse they test a couple of isssues back. It all seems a bit hysterical.

    I know its consumerist, but I always found it so boring. Most of us buy cars on an emotional level. If we didn’t, then Dacia’s would be everywhere and What Car doesn’t seem to understand that.

    The website never seems to work right when I use it either.

    Sorry to be a bit consumerist!

  11. I have to agree with Mike @11. I find What Car is a boring read aimed at the non-petrol head who’ll buy a few copies when they are changing their car.

    I tried to like it in the early days but Autocar, Motor and Car Magazine were always more interesting to me.

    The only time I read it now is in doctor/dentist waiting rooms, and each time it reminds me why I gave up on it several years ago. I’m not saying it isn’t a good mag, just that it caters for an audience that I’m not part of.

    I suppose the equivalent for me would be something like What HiFi which I’d buy once a decade when I’m looking for some new speakers.

  12. I am sure What Car and other similar mags won’t go the way of Auto Trader. Auto Trader had a different raison d’etre, and the internet eventually proved fatal.

    I can’t imagine reading What Car or Practical Classics on a laptop, and what will dentist waiting rooms do to keep people occupied?!

  13. What wonderful memories! I worked on issue 1 of What Car? and remember it so very well.
    It was conceived by Simon Tindall and Simon Taylor, the team they bought together proved to be a very talented group of people. Recently looking at issue one proved what a long way we have come. The warranty of a Bedford Beagle(Viva van /estate) then was 2 months!
    We produced the first issue during the three day week, a fuel crises and no electricity on some days. The office just of Oxford Street was on the 7th floor, bit of a climb and then work by candlelight! Almost Dickensian.
    I worked out the mag went on sale press day 1973, which was October 16th.
    And 40 years later I still work on What Car?

  14. How sad I still have most of the What Car magazines Keith has featured… Of which I need to get shot of (Have hundreds of them ….Any Takers?) My 1st that I bought was a huge multi test featuring the then new promising Austin Montego!

  15. I bought my first copy in December 1982 as it had a test between a Jaguar XJS HE, Mercedes 500 SEC and a BMW 635 CSi. The Merc won due to the perceived better quality and resale value, but the Jaguar came a very close second, and the BMW came third for having a less powerful and noisier engine. I’m sure the magazine cost about 80 pence.

  16. I purchased the first issue of What Car? at a classic car show trade stand this year.Prefer flicking through this and other old car magazines in my collection to the current crop of motoring magazines.I still find the articles by L J K Setright,Mel Nichols and company fascinating.The late 70s and early 80s were the real halcyon days for me.

  17. I have never really been a What car fan, I appreciate them as reference (and I’m surprised how many I have, even a few “sealed” Mondeo launch copies), as stated previously the revisionist attitude is laughable at times. However I will raise a glass to 40 years – here’s to the next 40!

  18. I remember buying that first edition in Oct ’73 from a newsagent in Mousehole, aged 14. I had just been sent away to school and felt very low. I read and reread it and kept it for years. I remember the cover as if it were yesterday, but unfortunately left it behind in a house move. Maybe it was the slightly sad association I had with it. Probably worth a bob or two now!
    I seem to remember that the result of that group test was that the Hunter was outdated, The Victor disappointing despite being the most modern, the Marina being rather below par in the suspension dept despite being the best looking, and the winner a toss up between the ever practical Maxi and ubiquitous Cortina.
    Still at school I remember buying my first Car magazine which scooped the Chevette, then the first new Vauxhall for some four years, so quite an exciting buy. I then bought Car monthly, for at least twenty years, looking forward to it every month. However, by then the articles, contributors, and cars began to fall off and to cap it all I realised I was now older than most of the journalists, so I called it a day and haven’t bought one since.

  19. I only ever bought one copy of What Car? back in the seventies. Back then it was an invaluable source of information on 0-60 times for resolving typical teenage male playground rows about that sort of stuff, but the rest of it was dull beyond believe and I don’t think I’ve even opened one in a newsagents in the last 30 years.

    Car magazine was different. I bought my first copy in the summer of 1978 and have been reading it ever since.

  20. To answer the first commenter’s point, all magazines have advanced month of publication on them to give them a longer potential shelf life or, really, to give the impression of being fresher than they really are once they have been on display for a few weeks.

  21. @ Derek Redffern (comment 14):

    I seem to recall your name. Did you not used to own a high mileage Alfa Romeo 164 3-litre V6 that was featured in the magazine, and also on THAT motoring programme?

  22. Paul H Comment 2
    Interesting your comment about BMW always coming first in group tests. I subscribe to Autocar, and sometimes think that it should be renamed BMW owners club magazine. They are obsessed with BMW, and to a lesser extent Volkswagen and Porsche.

  23. Lets not forget that Top Gear Magazine turns 20 this year. And that’s the mag for those who just love to see pics of cars & read about what Clarkson thinks about everything.

    Oh & there was another groundbreaking magazine that was also launched in 1973 & captured the hearts of car enthusiasts like no other & changed what we thought about older cars.

    HAPPY 40TH BITHDAY CLASSIC CARS MAGAZINE!!!

  24. Hello David 3500. That was me with Alfa 164.Am going to have a small get together of the original/current staff on October 18th, will post picture of then and now.

  25. As mentioned already, the data section was brilliant in the pre-internet world. The large 8-10 car group tests were also very good. Do they still do those? Haven’t bought a motoring magazine for years – the internet does everything they used to do, and is updated more quickly.

    Agree with comment #2 that today’s What Car is a dreary affair, placing far too much emphasis on CO2 emissions and running costs.

  26. I bought my first copy June 1978, and have got every copy since. Some editions are a bit too preoccupied with co2 and like, but then you get a good one the month after. Managed to find some of the older ones, and they take me back to simpler times as a child with his pencil and scrap pad, writing down cars and number plates……oh vinyl seats and chrome bumpers!!

  27. Along with the test of the three luxury coupes, there was a feature on buying a decent used car for £ 3000( in late 1982 you could only buy a Mini or a basic East European car for that kind of money). I do recall them rating the Maxi and Princess as excellent for families with luggage and due to an image problem, two year old ones could be bought for under three grand. Of course, no surprises, the Cortina won the family car section and the Escort won the small family section, with the runner up being a Datsun Sunny due to its reliability and value for money.

  28. I used to love What Car but I feel that now, apart from the content of the road tests it doesn’t really change from month to month. Maybe because most new cars nowadays are boring?
    I also get fed up on the occasions when the text states that they are testing the base model during a road test comparison, but are obviously using a fully specced car for the photos which is misleading and I wonder if the manufacturers have a hand in ‘persuading’ the magazine to do this.
    Car of the Year issues used to be ones I always bought as they used to have a much more detailed and extensive list showing most of the mainstream cars and their position in each class. Now they only seem to have the top 5 in each class.

  29. What Car is still informative and the website is good. However, the Volkswagen bias is tedious, there are equally good cars, the new Fiesta is just as good as a Polo to drive and as well made but cheaper to maintain, and it must really annoy them that the Fiat 500, something that looks good, is fun and well loved by its owners, outsells their beloved Polo, which is a tad dull in comparison.

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