Blog : Happy Birthday, CAR Magazine…

…or the ’80s: an era of optimism through CAR

Keith Adams

I know it could be argued that, if I were wearing my Octane hat, I’d be promoting a rival product by doing so, but I have to say that the 50th Anniversary of CAR magazine is a hugely significant event in my life. I’ve rambled on before on these pages how I’ve been reading car magazines since I was eight years old, but my motoring passion became an obsession sometime towards the end of 1980 when I picked up my first CAR magazine. See the difference? There are many car magazines but, back in the dawn of Thatcher’s decade, when technology was new and exciting, there was but one CAR magazine.

After that fateful day, when I bought a copy with my own pocket money, the way I viewed the car industry was changed overnight. There’s a huge number of fans of ‘old’ CAR magazine around these parts – so I don’t need to revisit the cult of personality that surrounded the regulars that graced its glossy pages. We all had our favourites – and there are so many classy writers to choose from: LJKS, Bishop, Bremner, Cropley, Green, Llewellyn, Bulgin et al.

I think my favourites were Llewllyn and Bremner – the former for his effortlessly entertaining road trips; the latter because his enthusiasm for great cars (and dismay for rubbish ones) was – and remains – so utterly infectious.

However, now the magazine’s in its 50th year and rightly celebrating its past achievements on a timely microsite, CAR is helping a new generation of fans appreciate just how much the world has changed with in its lifetime. For us Brit car fans, leafing through the archive of cover images on there makes you realise just how we’ve receded from the central automotive agenda. Yes, we make lots of cars here, but no longer are the brilliant cars that roll off the many lines in the UK the talking point of mainstream car journalism.

Back in the 1980s, British car stories sold magazines. Lots of them… Rather like the banks today, the British general public felt it needed to know what was happening with British Leyland – it seemed that CAR magazine had the inside view of what was going on  and revelled in both analysing the then current situation and telling us what was coming for the future.

And that was the exciting bit…

I probably spent more time reading CAR’s BL coverage than any other aspect of it – including the supercar drives – and loved it all. I guess, like everyone else, I cared deeply about the fate of the home team – and willed it on to success. From the Metro scoop ‘drive’ of October 1980 (clearly bagged on an advertising shoot on the lead-up to its memorable launch), to the triumphant coverage of the Rover 200 in 1989, it seemed like BL and, latterly Rover, was on a course for success.

We, of course, know the outcome and how Rover unravelled dreadfully quickly between the mid-1990s and mid-’00s but, up to that point, it looked like we really could do it.

I don’t know about you lot – but the excitement of opening a new issue, only to see a grainy scoop shot of next year’s exciting new car remains something that’s unmatched in the magazines to this day. For people of a certain age, seeing the distance blurred Maestros (with van lights), the AR6 development hack and the R8 prototype running elaborate cladding were what made this a magical time for us Brit car enthusiasts – and, of course, we have CAR magazine in the UK to thank for that.

Many happy returns – and here’s to the next 50 years!


Keith Adams


  1. feeling my age now Keith looking at some of those covers, might still have a couple kicking about
    never really bothered with the columns until james may appeared (wonder what happened to him)
    but always always first stop was the scoops and the artists impressions of new motors
    been a long long time since i bought car tho

  2. A great magazine in its day, no doubt. Even as a toddler I used to trawl through the pictures of my brother’s copy at a time when my mind was incapable of absorbing its actual content.

    At present though it is a shadow of its former self and lives on the past glories that we remember it for. It is no longer the magazine one reads for the definitive verdict and most of its writers are either barely average or glorified tabloid journalists. It sunk to a new low for me personally in 2007 when they claimed to have scooped the new E92 M3 and it was nothing more than merely a couple of images of a photoshopped 335i. By this point they also had Piers Morgan as a columnist if I recall…

  3. As a Dutch fan of everything BL/AR/Rover/MGR, I very much share Keith’s fond memories of picking up the latest copy of Car Magazine (which was both expensive and hard to find in the Netherlands). However, must ad that eventually their everlasting “happy and glorious”-stories on the future of Rover c.s. eventually wore e bit thin when you compared them with the actual situation developing towards what we now know was to be a very unfortunate ending. But the exitement over new scoops en stories remained (and still does today!), even though Car is indeed reduced to no more than a shadow of its former self.

  4. More of lads mag now. Great in its day though. I get bored reading road tests now anything with a Audi or BMW always comes out on top

  5. I remember the Maestro anticipating editions well. Just weeks before the car went on sale, CAR magazine still predicted it would have Hydragas suspension and a gearbox in the sump! It was always rather inaccurate in its reporting, but fantastically written. Now its just inaccurate in its reporting.

  6. Started reading it with the Dec 78 edition (front cover story was the soon-to-be Porsche 928) and I still have that copy and all for the next two years. It stood out at the time because it was written with a style none of its competitors could get anywhere near, totally different to anything else at the time. You needed a PhD in mechanical engineering to read LJKS’s pieces, and a lot of the time I never understood what he was saying.

    Looking back at those early editions, it’s amazing how wrong they were with most of their predictions, but it was worth it for the thrill of seeing the Hans Lehman scoop shots of up-coming (or never-coming) models

  7. @Big H

    I have found that too with motoring publications. They are merely a PR wire for german manufacturers. Of course, we also have to factor in who is spending what on advertising in these mags…..

    (AE recently called a 1 series ‘classy’ and ‘understated’ when it inevitably won a group test against a golf and a V40. Seriously?)

  8. I grew up loving CAR too – and I still have every copy I ever bought with my own money (pocket money when I began in 1974). Just recently I’ve been re-reading some of them and have even bought a few earlier ones from the early 1970s. They are nowhere near as polished and perfect looking as modern magazines but that for me is part of the appeal. Each month, I looked forward to the next scoop and can remember now being fascinated when I saw in one month the ‘new Escort’ and others with photos of what became ADO71 and SD1. Reading ‘CAR’ you felt you’d been admitted to an exclusive naughty boys’ club and their cavalier attitude towards some of the advertisers was a refreshing change. However, even ‘Motocar’ as they contemptuously called the still separate ‘Autocar’ and ‘Motor’ weeklies were changing and becoming more ‘blokish’. For me, some of the interviews behind those covers you have shown were amongst the most enjoyable, and similarly got me hooked on BL history. Happy Birthday ‘CAR’ and up in Motoring Heaven, I am sure that George Bishop will be raising a good glass of a quality Chablis while Leonard Setright draws on one of his disgusting Russian cigarettes…

  9. I have to say I stopped reading car mags long ago due to the fact they are normally german obsessed. Having been an owner of a MK 1 Focus and driving Golfs and Astras for company business at the same time, the comments laid at the VW door that it was a superior product made me laugh. The VW’s petrol engines were so weasey in comparison, though the build quality was better on the VW than the Vauxhall’s, it was only comparable with the Focus and not miles better as portraid by motoring hacks. In fact we run Focus’ and Mondeo’s as company cars at my last job, and they were a lot more reliable than their German cousins (even the Rovers were). The only thing that was better was the diesels – the PD units pulled from any gear and went like stink compared to the old TDdi Ford unit, and the truck like Iszu unit found in the Astra.

  10. I remember the 1984 Rover 200 edition with the drawing of the XX on the cover – I remember borrowing a pound off a lovely girl at school (wonder whatever happened to Bethan Hankin?) to buy a copy from WH Smith in Mold….

    I used to pick up motoring weeklies every weekend in WHS, I just don’t bother any more as everyone has indicated – they are just adverts for BMW……and Audi

  11. Car magazine shape my career. My first copy was read long before my O levels were sat, from then on i was hooked. A levels, a degree in automotive engineering and a career in engine development for one of the UK leading consultances. I got to play with a diverse range of prototype cars from the little Daewoo matiz to the current Aston Martins.

    All because of Car. Thanks

  12. Spot on keith,my feelings are the same ,i remember the metro launch and the outstandig job car did with great colour pictures.They were always on ‘our’ side unlike the many leyland bashers.

  13. Car was a great magazine in it’s heyday. I bought my first copy in 1967 and I still have it and copies for the next 20 years or so in my loft!
    I switched to What Car in the early 90’s,and I also subscribe to Auto Express.
    I usually have a free read of Car in WH Smith but I would not buy it again.
    Yes the scoops, BL articles etc were great and I eagerly anticipated every issue and read them from cover to cover

  14. Car magazine is still by far the best on sale; what else is there really? Yes i get a bit fed up of endless 911 rtests and the daft annual Performance Car thing, but it still does interesting stuff even today.

    Best ever article? Across america in a Smart

  15. I remember all of the issues pictured. The Rover Pathfinder concept, a really good idea.
    The great Sir Graham Day who was the best company head since Lord Austin and Lord Nuffield.He put the company on course for recovery and gave new hope. If only they had allowed the Honda partnership to continue instead of selling it onto BMW. Rover would be alive today.

  16. @ 14 Mike Bushell
    I agree to a point. Car magazine now though is a shadow of it’s former self. Honest John and the like are the new way at finding out what cars are good or bad.
    I still like in depth technical articals. One of the classic car magazine’s does a good indepth articals on various engines. I like those a lot

  17. I used to get free copies of all the magazines when i started working for Mintex Brakes in West Yorkshire, they were (before being sold to a European company ) the biggest and best manufacturer of brakes and discs. I worked in the marketing team and so of course we had every possible magazine delivered – including CAR. They were great times because the images were often real, intriguing and manufacturers were not so savvy or driven by purely computer design back then so they actually did drive around in proper mules. Also those were the days before CGI or photoshop so the magazines didn’t just make whatever they liked up! I recall vividly the days when the factory would have prototype Rovers and the like driving around our site, testing new braking technology all plugged into massive pre-laptop laptop’s! happy days, it was also a time when the Fiat 126BIS was still in the new car listings and for some weird reason as a 16 year old, I desperately wanted on for just £3226…..

  18. My GBU memories and other juicy bits: Austin for the 80s (90 year old might like them too). Soporific. Costa not much. Homespun chassis. Body fits like a cheap wig. Just enough for Terry and June. Mediocrity + 10%. How Toyota ruined the MR2. Setright decides. Reliable…..just like your washing machine. Bremner’s Dogs series. The Cavalier treatment (horrendous long term test with a bearded Goodwin). Edinburgh on a monkey. the crap car challenge……was it a misspent youth? (started in 84 at the age of 9) Nahhhhh…..

  19. Yep, i used to like seeing those spy scoop photos, which then let your imagination run wild as to what the final product would look like. often you were pleasantly surprised and sometimes disappointed – just the same these days I suppose.

  20. I religiously bought Car every month from around ’83 to ’91, and I also used to get given free copies of older editions. Car taught me most of what I know about cars today, and also introduced me to some of the people behind the cars, especially the likes of Ital Design, Pininfarina, the much derided Chris Bangle, and or course Roy Axe. The journalism was top notch – I especially used to enjoy the late Russell Bulgin’s column, which always made me chuckle, and also Richard Bremner’s memories of working for BL before journalism beckoned. Goodwin always seemed to represent the ‘ordinary’ motorist, and always seemed a bit down at heel, whilst Goerg Kacher always drove the cars manufactured by ‘zee Germans’. LJKS introduced me to the wonders of Citroen (the real ones, not the modern day cheap substitutes), and Bristol, although he always seemed to be waxing lyrical about the virtues of the Honda Prelude……sadly, when I moved out of home I threw all of my Car mags away, and consoled myself to finding out about new tin on the web. A very poor experience with the Autocar website (some of the posters to the forums are complete A-holes – talk about cyber-bullying!) has led to me to largely ignore the motoring press – I get most of my car info from this excellent (and still very friendly) website!

  21. @ 21 – Mondeos and Focus’s are more reliable than German cars? I’ve driven 2 Mondeos from 1994 – today, and they have been very reliable and required few repairs, usually at low cost. So in my experience (compared to a Golf driven by Mrs Paul from Essex) much more reliable than German. (Genk is in Belgium)

  22. The September 1981 issue with the finalised LM10 design (the Maestro) was the first issue of “Car” I ever bought. I am enjoying the 50th anniversary retrospective they are doing now on their website – brings back memories of my teenage years and I have to agree with everyone here – the writing was miles better then and I always admired “Car” for being brutally honest. I had the copy with the Rover 800 launch as well – they did a comprehensive feature on it, and their first drive impression of the car was headlined “Bland Rover”. Would anyone try that today?

  23. I too developed my enthusiasm for the UK motor industry on Car Magazine. I bought my first copy revealing a scoop of the Chevette, as a school boy back in 1975 and then looking forward to and buying and reading cover to cover every copy until I think the late 1990s when I suddenly realised the journalists were now younger than me and the articles becoming a little tedious. The best journalists had sadly died or otherwise moved on. I’ve kept many of the mags and very occasionally open one up in the loft and have a quick read. I happen to have just one in this room, from Feb 1992 with a great test between an Integrale, a 911, and an Elan by Richard Bremner, a superb story by Phil Llewellyn on the last Phantom VI to be built, plus other good articles, comments, tests, interviews with industry heads and specialists and news from around the world along with a scoop of the Rover ‘Pathfinder’.
    Now I’ve no interest in latest German models and am happy to stick to ARonline, long may you live and continue to promot our home industry and brands!

  24. The best motoring magazine bar none,excellent writers,but i miss Ljk setright and Russell Bulgin cruelly taken from his family at a young age by cancer.

  25. LOVED CAR-Magazine. Really, really loved it. When I look to my right, while typing this, I see two bookcases almost completely stacked with them (from September 1962 up to December 2006). And, also all issues of Supercar Classics, for me the best classic car magazine ever.
    I even had a subscription from 2000 till December 2006, but then it was -to me- already past its prime. It had become a life-style accessory instead of a Mag.
    But those tests from end of the ’70’s, ’80’s and up to somewhere around 1995/96: WOW! They were the very very best. What was it’s appeal? It was a blokish mag, some guys having a good time driving nice (or sometimes plain awful) cars and making a good mag while at it. Just to think of “The Good, The Bad & The Ugly” makes me smile. The columns of George Bishop were charmingly written, the prose of LJKS somewhat to highbrow for me (but I do love Bristols now!) and I was curious what Richard Bremner had bought himself this time (anayone remember the Simca 1100 Ti?). They made a great mag, because they had fun and did not take themeselves too seriously. And then of course the big bearded man Colin Goodwin and his adventures with old American cars. Lest not forget Mel Nichols driving stories, especially “Convoy”, in which he drives three Lamborghinis from the factory through the Continent to the UK, is etched in my mind forever. And than there were the pictures. Utterly amazing to behold. Not to fill up the blanks, but really nice pics. Artwork if you like.
    Now I found that same love for cars and having a good time
    Somewehere during the ’90’s it went wrong: they started to take themselves seriously.
    And now? Sometimes I flip through the mag in a bookstore and just shrug. And than I go home happily to wait for my new copy of … EVO. This mag reminds me of CAR-magazine in its good days. Just some guys who love to drive fast, good handling cars and have a good time while doing so, making the best mag around!

  26. Let’s be honest was LJKS really any better than his opposite numbers?

    Mel Nichols is the forgotten hero.

  27. Like so many people here I loved CAR when I was growing up in the 70s and 80s. But a few years ago I cancelled my subscription as it seemed to become self-indulgent and boring. Just as CAR went downhill I found that Autocar started to get better and better…

  28. I, too, bought CAR magazine from the 1960’s until 2005 and still have them on my shelves in my office. Since then I have bought one copy. I agree that everything about this magazine (and others) has gone downhill. The quality just isn’t there. The humour has gone. The expertise is failing to shine through. Poor grammar and spelling errors have crept in, too. From buying 10 mags a month, I probably buy 10 a year now.

  29. I used to love CAR, went off it when they went off Rover.
    E.g., how could they describe the 800 as bland?
    I got hold of an 825i manual in 1986 (C327AAC, IIRC), and gave it full beans in 2nd, then stepped off the throttle on a suitably wide roundabout. No lift-off oversteer whatsoever. Great go, great handling, great styling, great interior – it wasn’t an SD1, but that could just have been a good thing!

  30. @21 They are not german cars. The MK 3 mondeo was built in Belgium while the MK1 Focus was built in Germany (though spit and your in Belgium) and Valencia. They were designed at both Dunton and Cologne by a multi national team that including french, german, british, american, australian and japanese designers.

  31. A brilliant read in the late 1970s and right through the 80’s. Great camera work too and the April fool of the Opera (?)…brilliant

    Sadly in decline for many years and I have gone from a subscriber to barely ever buying a copy in recent years.

  32. My first ever CAR was the August 1990 edition and I was hooked as a 12 year old. Like Brad, I stopped buying it in 2005 and instead started to collect backwards, i.e. from 1990 to 1977. Today only the Autocar comes close to being a good car read in the style of CAR.

  33. @28 Andrew Elphick
    Thanks for that pdf link, a very interesting read.
    Any Australians and in particular Tasmanians on here and over a certain age will probably find it very interesting indeed.
    I didn’t know he came from Cooee.
    Unnecessary I know but I can’t help adding that I was brought up nearby and my father still has an automotive workshop there.

  34. Great to read the Mel Nichols article – he was editor when I first picked up Car in 1978. He makes the point that Car was great to read, almost irrespective of the subject, because the quality of the writing was so good. How many of us have replaced Car with AROnline I wonder?

  35. Car Magazine was THE best magazine on the news stands in the 80s and 90s. I still have dozens of mint copies from this era. Then Top Gear magazine arrived with its crap banility. Far from failing, TG appealed to older Max Power readers. Car magazine seems to have copied this ‘edgy’ reporting and is much the worse for it. I bought it last weekend – the first time in years – and wished I hadn’t.

  36. good memories working for car magazine as a receptionist in the early 80’s and still have a few old copies on the book shelf x

  37. Great magazine then, and still has its moments today. But all new car magazines seem to be unimpressive these days, with the classic titles seemingly now doing the running.

    I did love its honest handling of Harold Musgrove in the launch issue of the 800. That was simply excellent.

  38. CAR magazine scooped the Ford Sierra back in the October 1979 issue!
    The October 1982 issue headline is still one of best:

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