40 Years an Enthusiast
The older you get, the less individual birthdays have much impact. 33 feels a lot like 32, etc. But there are a few that are unavoidable landmarks that you just can’t help but pause and think about a bit. As I just turned 40 last week (arguably the most talked about/dwelled upon birthday of your adult life), it’s nearly impossible to not have some instances of reflection.
Now, of course none of us remember everything. I will say that my memory goes back pretty far, with a clear picture of being age 4. So that’s 36 years of life replaying through my head and literally every single moment of that time I have had a love affair with cars.
While my wonderful wife does not share this affection (or affliction?) she completely understands that I have a bad case of what we all know as the disease. Being among the best and most thoughtful gift givers on the planet, for a small portion of my birthday surprise she got me something extra special: Three different car magazines - Motor Trend, Car and Driver and Sportscar - all issues from April of 1981. The paper and ink in these three magazines are older than I am by approximately a few weeks. It’s extremely cool.
I was so excited to have a reminder of how things used to be. Where we came from in automotive journalism and how far we’ve come. It started out as you would imagine.
When I first looked at the covers I giggled. The early 80s was among the worst era for the automobile and very little of what the covers previewed argued that opinion. When a Saab Turbo, Porsche 924 Turbo and Cobra have to be crammed in to make way for HALF of the cover to show off GM’s J-Car platform (yes the one that birthed the Cimmaron), you know priorities are a bit out of whack. In fact two of those three magazines featured that new J-platform on their covers.
This initially seemed to be a portal into a whole different world as I had hoped. However, as I read the articles they seemed… Exactly the same as they are now. Sure the cars were slow, boxy and unimpressive by today’s standards. A modern v6 Camry would’ve been just about the most powerful and fastest vehicle on sale in North America 40 years ago by a large margin. But the way they wrote about them was SO similar it kind of shocked me.
The stories unfold similarly. They talk about the same things. They even use the charts at the end of the review that are clearly similar to those used today. The photography is far better now, and much of the old magazines are in Black & White to save printing costs but largely there isn’t THAT much difference in terms of actual content. Even the letters to the editor segment has the same mix of rants and raves that read like they were written yesterday.
So Initial reactions were a bit shocking. But I suppose it makes sense. Cars have gotten BETTER but they haven’t gotten very DIFFERENT. They still talk about ride, handling, comfort, power, acceleration, refinement, space, etc. The numbers have gotten vastly more impressive but the car as a whole has been fine tuned more so than it has evolved.
But as I thumbed through the magazine a second time, something far more unique caught my eye. The advertisements were absolutely bonkers. THIS ended up being the time capsule entertainment I was hoping for in the first take.
There were obvious things that were old school and funny. The clothing, the hairstyles and the endless barrage of alcohol and tobacco ads that are scarce these days were the low hanging fruit. That’s to be expected. But it was the CAR related ads that really blew my mind.
Right off the bat, the first thing you notice is the copy. They were FILLED with words. I had forgotten about this. Sure there’d be a photo of a car, but I can see the art director making it smaller and smaller to make way for the novella of content they crammed into the live area of the page. Endless facts, statistics and mechanical engineering explanations that are nearly extinct from today's promotional materials litter the page.
These days it can be difficult to find a technical stat/number/feature you’re looking for if it isn’t HP/TQ claims or 0-60. In some of these ads, they’re talking about suspension geometry, claimed residual value over time, head/valve design, tire construction design and more. It’s extremely cool and feels truly like another era. I mean, most of this stuff is ‘back of the brochure’ stuff, not taking up valuable real estate in a full page 4-color ad.
I have spent a good portion of my career in marketing and advertising so this is of particular interest to me. In truth, when I started out working at an ad agency nearly 20 years ago the scene was just starting to shift away from details, stats and explanations and more towards a huge image, a logo and an understated headline. The internet existed then of course, but was not the powerhouse go-to for EVERYTHING that it is now.
I think the internet is the main cause for this dramatic shift. It is the worst enemy of printed media and even when print survives in current issues of these magazines, there is just no point in trying to overexplain ANYTHING on the page when the ultimate goal is just to grab attention with allure and send them to the website where all can and will be explained if that’s what the audience is looking for.
But back then, the goal was far more ambitious. These ads needed to get people who were reading a magazine into the dealership. This was their main point of contact and allure - they had to entice, inform and ‘drive’ the reader into making a purchase. At least, getting them ready to make one that is. The single page ad needed to catch attention, entice the audience, inform (and cross-compare in many situations) and keep their interest long enough to drive them to winning them over. It’s absolutely a herculean ask for a single sheet of paper to accomplish. But that was the norm back then.
I’m not sure what I prefer. Of course the flashy photography of modern magazines is far more pleasing to look at and the cars are vastly more exciting than peak-oil crisis era 3-box machines but the appreciator of engineering in me really longs for an era where cars were simple enough to actually explain things to their audience. Maybe I need to revisit this into a mid-90’s deep dive for the true sweet spot of automotive journalism.
I went into this with the initial thought of laughing at the old styles, dated designs and all the other time-capsule details. Believe me, there was a lot of this. I mainly wanted to see how automotive journalism had changed. Truth is, it really hasn’t. Instead the takeaway is just another example of the internet changing every single thing that existed prior to it’s takeover of our information pipeline.
Either way, it’s a nostalgic birthday present that was VERY well thought out, well bought and something that makes me SO happy to have as a crown jewel trio in my rather large car magazine collection. How did somebody who couldn’t care less about car culture buy me the best car present in recent memory?
I dunno, but she’s apparently into middle-aged guys so she’s a keeper.
I write and I know things. I am also the resident motorcycle expert at Everyday Driver - check out the Cycle Report - www.thecyclereport.com - on our YouTube channel. The views and opinions expressed here are my own and may not align with the founders of Everyday Driver.