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.
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.