How to review motorcars for a (largely) non-motoring audience
There was a time, states Iain Robertson, when you would spot half a dozen shelves packed with motor-related titles, every time you visited your local newsagent, or grocery store, but those days are over and the parameters have altered significantly.
Having gravitated into writing car test reports, from having majored in the motorsport scene, around 39 years ago, I was conscious from the outset that I needed to develop something akin to a reputation. Like a sardine swimming with big name sharks, I realised that, apart from exercising good language skills, my only means to gain recognition (an important aspect) was by striking out in a fresh direction.
As I am not a technical writer, from the outset I recognised that ‘telling a story’ was going to be the best way to grab the reader’s attention. Working on the basis that many people are surprisingly well-informed, even about motorcars, mentioning capacities, dimensions and other specific figures could be bamboozling. As a fan of history and with a personal knowledge base that was extensive and expanded by reading an endless array of motoring books, I developed a formula and creating a personal (recognisable) and personable style became a priority.
One of my favourite motoring writers from school days was Leonard J K Setright. An amazing character, with his handlebar moustache and Musketeer hair and beard, he wrote so illuminatingly about some of the most mundane, or niche subjects. Yet, every time I read his pronouncements, I became captivated and it was not just in his use of language. In later years, I discovered that he was a self-taught engineer, who loved all Hondas and Bristol (a gentleman’s motorcar).
Another ‘hero’ of mine was Jeff Daniels. He was an aeronautical engineer by trade but a fan of cars of most types. His technical writings were only bearable because of his remarkable talent to explain even the most advanced technology in terms that were understandable by the majority. I continue to refer to some of his works for support. In both cases, despite my fascination, I knew that I could not ‘borrow’ their stylings.
Pop groups become successful because they create and, then, work a formula. My writing formula evolved in a similar style, albeit working hard to avoid visible, or perhaps that should be legible, repetition. This formula works regardless of the length of story and is a bit like indulging in a decent restaurant meal.
Title – All stories need a title and, these days, with SEOs to be concerned about, the title must be catchy and informative to ensure that it escalates service providers’ lists, while also grabbing the reader’s attention.
Standfirst – The ‘opening gambit’; a single sentence of around three-lines in length that provides a summary and a tease of what is about to be read that also contains the important ‘by-line’, i.e. who wrote it?
Story, 1st third – This is where the writer can talk about the history of the subject matter, while also providing some opinion, because readers love to be challenged.
Story, 2nd third – This is where to get into the meat of the subject. It can be technology-centred, or style-orientated; there are numerous directions to go, sometimes dependent on what is happening in the wider world. It must be informative, sometimes referential and always well-researched.
Story, 3rd third – More meat but with some detail facts and figures, the technology applied and also the driving impression and some other personal angles.
Conclusion – This is the brief sum-up, mirroring the ‘Standfirst’ in length, which might include price details and a final pearl just to tantalise.
To appreciate the subject matter, a deep dive is often required. Firstly, I never read other people’s reports, because I do not want their views to colour my own. With each new car, I go through a ‘test procedure’, which follows another pattern:
Exterior – Perusing every detail of the vehicle’s design, I take both longer and close-up views, followed by taking appropriate photographs. The undersides and oily bits of most vehicles are seldom the most fascinating, unless they too have been purpose designed, or styled, but I check them all just in case.
Interior – As a two metres tall person, ease of accommodation is very important to me, so I check out access points, boot space and levels of adjustability for the perfect, safe driving position. Switchgear and controls are all vital elements and locating and operating some of them can be challenging. Yet, the amount of stowage space in the cabin can follow suit. Equipment levels are noted at this stage.
The drive – Not wishing to draw attention, I usually creep away from my start venue and wait until I reach the open road before sampling available performance. Many car launch exercises make use of product enhancing drive routes, some of which need to be taken with a pinch of salt. From my Lincolnshire home, I have a precise, 50-miles, mixed road route that I use repeatedly. When I return from an intentionally frugal run, I top-up the fuel tank to obtain an MPG figure. I repeat the run at much higher speeds to provide handling, dynamic balance and other performance criteria.
Living aspects – For the rest of a typical a single week-long test duration, I live with the car as though it were mine, carrying out trips and other motoring duties, usually for around 500-miles.
The write-up – Armed with a spec. sheet, price information and, with any good fortune, a comprehensive Press Pack provided by the manufacturer, I start writing the report, according to the precise needs of my editor (usually just story length).
Just to bolster the story, additional information may prove to be useful. Drawing from a broad resource pool, I can get into politics, economics, road safety, driver education, tyre technology, cleaning, music, travel, fashion, TV soaps, movie references and numerous other topical areas, some of which may be governed by current affairs.
Bear in mind that the economic ‘crash’ of 2008 probably had the greatest impact on the UK motoring scene, in that sometimes-runaway vehicle launch budgets were snipped curtly. The number of motoring editorial outlets has reduced to an all-time low, with many newspapers reliant on agency supplied, rather than original material. Perhaps most damaging has been the gradual disappearance of traditional Press and Public Relations, most of it having been subsumed by marketing departments that have never understood the value of good PR. Employing failed journalists in PR roles is also a major retrograde step.
As much as possible, I endeavour to provide third-party references and try not to use ‘I, me, or my’ in the stories, unless unavoidable! In some ways, it seems dreadful to break down the motoring writer’s life in such a summarised way but, as a means to demonstrate some aspects of a (reputed) art form, I hope it all helps!