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Story by Jack Baruth

Hey there, Mr. Average Car Enthusiast! Do you like watching Top Gear? Of course you do. I mean, what’s not to like? They have cool, super-sarcastic reviews of new cars, some on-track hooligan behavior, and wacky “comparisons” between Bugattis and scooters. Everybody loves TG. Well, I have some good news for you. There’s a magazine out there, and it’s, like a hundred times cooler than Jeremy Clarkson, Captain Slow, and The Guy Who Crashed the Jet Car could ever be. Their reviews are better, because most of the reviewers have a background in automotive engineering, wheel-to-wheel competition, or both. The writing’s funny yet informative. Instead of screwing around on an empty track somewhere, doing trivially easy stunts and “racing” against their own times, these guys build real racecars for real race sanctions, not to mention a series of outrageous engine-swapped project cars. They test tires under controlled conditions and report the results honestly. They’ve developed completely new methodologies for performance testing, making their results the most consistent and reliable in the history of automotive journalism. There’s even a considerable amount of authentic, documented civil-disobedience-mixed-with-raw-stupidity in each issue. Best of all – and this is what separates them from Grassroots Motorsports, the reading of which affects any genuinely literate man in much the same manner that the sound of nails scratching a chalkboard does an elementary-school teacher – they’ve recruited nearly every great writer in the industry to contribute monthly columns ranging from the aggressively erudite to the simply heartbreaking. Trust me, this is all good stuff.

The best part of all? It’s totally free. Are you ready to start reading? Sure you are. Here’ s how to get started: Go to your local library and ask for the microfiche department. Once you find said department, file a request for “Car and Driver, any year from 1970 to 1990.” Load the film into the microfiche machine… and if you’ve never read anything from the Golden Age Of Car And Driver, prepare to be amazed. Those of us who are over thirty-five know that Ozzy Osbourne wasn’t always a shambling, disconnected shell of a man picking up dog crap and mumbling incoherently through a series of humiliating interludes; the guy used to be the effing Prince Of Darkness, screaming his lyrics with violent passion, biting the heads off bats, rendering parent-teacher associations speechless with terror. By that same token, it’s hard for my younger readers to understand that C/D wasn’t always a complete joke of a publication, that it wasn’t always a mishmash of tossed-off sarcasm and WeatherTech advertisements, thinly disguised press releases and threadbare prose, incomprehensible comparo-test results and Ten Best lists sorted in order of perceived dashboard quality. It’s been years since I met a young person who took the magazine or its content seriously. Today, the kids are all watching Top Gear or reading EVO, slavishly imitating Clarkson’s sarcastic style or quoting Dickie Meaden’s fast-road observations verbatim, not understanding that the English stuff is mostly entertainment, not journalism.

Enough is enough. The announcement that Csaba Csere is walking away from the Editor-in-Chief position has brought C/D temporarily back into the Internet’s itinerant spotlight, and before the magazine disappears for good from the enthusiasts’ collective consciousness, I feel compelled to explain why it was once great, how it lost that greatness, and why its days are all but over.

Once upon a time, by which I mean the Seventies, there were three car magazines. Well, there were more than three, but there were only three that mattered. The string-back driving-glove crowd read Road & Track, which focused on dispassionate reviews of sports cars and competition results. R&T had credibility, but it was really targeted at the fellow who taught comparative literature and spent his weekends aimlessly wrenching on a Big Healey. The “man in the street” read Motor Trend, a magazine seemingly devoted to breathless reviews of such scintillating hardware as the Chevrolet Nova Concours and Mercury Monarch. MT was the Will Rogers of car magazines; they never reviewed a car they didn’t like. In an era where offering a 12/12,000 warranty was considered a bit “risky” (with good reason) and cars regularly fell apart during basic slalom testing, this level of continuous optimism required both a strong stomach and a powerful addiction to advertising money. Legend has it that the men who ran the magazine would select their “Car Of The Year” by relaxing every evening at Detroit’s famous London Chop House and waiting to see which manufacturer brought around the biggest bribe, an allegation not entirely disproved by their selection of the Plymouth Volare in 1976.

Then there was Car and Driver. I’m not kidding when I suggest that you go read some old issues of the magazine, either in the aforementioned microfiche format or by digging up scanned issues on the Internet. If you really are a fan of “Top Gear” et al, then these old articles will hit you like a forty-ounce of St. Ides hits a sorority girl raised on Bud Light. These guys bent fenders, ran from the police, deliberately destroyed press vehicles, endangered the lives of decent citizens, turned Nissan Maximas into boats (inadvertently), and generally raised hell where no hell had been raised before. More importantly than all the jackassery, however, C/D set the standard in two absolutely critical areas: quality of writing and reliable performance measurement.

A series of outstanding editors, including Karl Ludvigsen and Stephan Wilkinson, paved the way for David E. Davis, Jr. to return for a second stint as Editor-In-Chief in 1976, thus beginning what I would consider to be the magazine’s Golden Age. “DED” was a decent writer himself, but more than that, he was a superlative editor, attracting and retaining some of the best talent to ever put pen to paper in the cause of automotive journalism. This was the era of Gordon Baxter and LJK Setright, the years of “Boss Wagon” project cars, of no-holds-barred comparison tests. It seems hard to believe now, but there was a time when magazines either failed to declared a winner in comparison tests (a practice which is still rather popular, actually) or avoided the subject of comparos altogether. Not C/D. You could rely that there would be a winner of every test, that the article would be written in an entertaining, informative manner, and that the performance numbers would be reliable.

And that’s where Patrick Bedard came in. I literally cannot overemphasize the difference that Bedard made to automotive journalism. We take it for granted now that magazines perform temperature-corrected, obsessively detailed tests, but we shouldn’t, because that was the work of Mr. Bedard. Magazines used to publish manufacturers’ top speed claims without comment; Bedard went out to the famous “Mrs. Orcutt’s Driveway” and found out what the cars could really do. As part of its mission to test every major new vehicle released every year, C/D built an unparalleled testing database which will never be equaled. As a writer, Bedard’s okay; I’d rank him well behind Setright, Jeanes, Baxter, Warren Weith, Davis, and a few other guys in my personal Hogback Road hierarchy but still well ahead of Swan and the rest of the current crew. As a driver, he was better than okay. I convinced my father to take me to the Indianapolis 500 for the sole purpose of seeing Bedard drive, and I was not-quite-rewarded by the sight of Patrick nearly killing himself in an accident best described as “terrifying to everyone in the zipcode”. If we have to rank all the C/D guys by driving talent, Swan probably sits on top, which explains why I found it moderately difficult to lap him a few times at Flat Rock last year, but Bedard was still a serious customer and I’d accept anything he wrote about the old “driving at the limit” business without much complaint.

All of the above is irrelevant, because it wasn’t as a writer or driver that Patrick Bedard changed the automotive world. Rather, it was as a perfectionist, someone who insisted on the verifiability, repeatability, and comparability of automotive testing, that he made such a massive impact. I wouldn’t even think of comparing Road & Track test results from 1978 and 2008, but you could do it with Bedard’s stuff, no problem. Bedard was so successful at creating a system to provide regularized, repeatable test data that he accidentally created a bit of a problem among auto enthusiasts nowadays. We expect Nurburgring times or “Top Gear” laps to be comparable from car to car because we implicitly trust that others hold themselves to the same standards as C/D, and we have trouble understanding why that isn’t the case. Forty years after PB joined the staff of the magazine, it continues to uphold the same peerless standards in performance testing. It’s a legacy for which every man or woman who loves cars should be grateful.

What a shame, then, that the magazine surrounding those test results has become utterly irrelevant. It’s been more than a decade since I’ve failed to predict the finishing order of a C/D comparison test by simply reading the cover of the magazine. Davis and Setright were iconoclasts of the highest order, but the modern editorial crew prefers the safe result and the mildly sarcastic quip to the idol-smashing that so delightfully characterized their predecessors. There are wheel-to-wheel racers among the current staff, some of them quite good, but the blood and thunder of competition is absent from their written output, replaced by a blasà preference for the Honda Accord and the BMW 3-Series. Twenty years ago, it was possible to determine who had written each review simply by each man’s (or woman’s) distinctive turn of phrase and particular bàtes noires, but that distinction has long since been replaced by a generic writing style which could come from anyone on the masthead. I suspect that this is the result of a directive from above, and I also suspect that frustration with dictates to enforce a McDonald’s-esque sameness on the prose was what led Davis to quit and found Automobile magazine back in the Eighties. When he left, much of the magic left with him. Car and Driver needed both Davis and Bedard, serving in the same dialetic relationship as Lennon and McCartney or Simon and Garfunkel. Automobile wasn’t as good as “DED”-era Car and Driver because it lacked hard data, and without the leavening literary influence of Davis, Bedard’s pragmatic, vaguely snarky writing style became the prototype for a generation of lesser imitators.

The past decade has seen C/D diminish into irrelevance. Now owned by the same faceless conglomerate which swallowed up Road & Track, its content has become lifeless and predictable. The advent of the Web-based blogsites like Jalopnik, Autoblog, and TTAC hasn’t helped; anything that appears on the pages of a print magazine is old news long before the presses run. A subscription to any of the Hachette Whatchacalledit magazines is virtually free nowadays, and it’s easy to see why when the stuff arrives at your door. Editorial content is down, advertising’s up, the photography is indifferent at best. It would seem that that electronic revolution has doomed traditional automotive media…

…but if that’s true, somebody forgot to tell the English. While the “Big Three” American auto mags dwindled, the Brits had a veritable explosion of big-format, ten-dollar magazines. Every month, tens of thousands of American readers go to their local bookstore and skip past the $3.95 local talent, preferring to pay twice or three times as much to read EVO, Car, Top Gear, or any number of special-interest magazines like Total 911, all conceived, written, and printed in the United Kingdom. These rags are even farther behind the times, often running four or five months in arrears of Jalopnik et al, but people snap ‘em up just the same. Why?

The English magazines are good, but they’re Fred Astaire to David E. Davis, Jr’s Ginger Rogers; everything they do, Car and Driver did backwards, in heels, and thirty years ago to boot. Brock Yates was running cars around Road Atlanta for C/D back when the English testers were in Pampers. Setright wrote for the English magazines as well, of course, but his most controversial material was found right next to Gordon Baxter’s Texas memories, not in the pages of CAR. I believe Marshall Mathers has something to say here:

Watchin all these cheap imitations get rich off ’em
and get dollars that shoulda been theirs like they switched wallets
And amidst all this Cris poppin’ and wristwatches
I had to sit back and just watch and just get nauseous

The creeping irrelevance of Car and Driver wasn’t something that had to happen. It happened because nobody knew how to keep rocking the boat… or if somebody did know, they didn’t care enough to do it.

This story doesn’t have an unalterable ending , you know. With the right vision and the courage to shove it through, a new Editor-in-Chief could put the magazine back on top again. Modern readers are fickle, but they’re also forgiving. It’s not too late for C/D to confidently assert leadership once more in the category it created, not too late for weak-sauce Stiggery to be supplanted by real American race drivers hauling authentic ass around real American roads, not too late for stupid English wisecracks to be blown away by solid Midwestern talent. Will it happen? I doubt it. The easy thing to do is to burn the magazine’s reputation down to the ground with five more years of Special Advertising Supplements, and I expect that’s what HFMSSADF or whatever they’re called will do.

Or they could do the following. It’s free advice, given freely. Shake it up. Put young hooligans in charge. Hire a Wes Grueninger or a Jonny Lieberman. Get somebody who loves cars in there, and back him up with top-quality drivers and photographers. Do something interesting. Change the format of the articles, shake up the comparison tests, set a press vehicle on fire, drive a Maxima into the Rio Grande, duck the cops, hit the weed while you’re clutchin’ your Glock. Do something. Give us a reason to come back. There was a time when the arrival of that magazine at the local library was the highlight of my month, and I know I wasn’t alone in that. It’s not too late to change things, and for some of us, it’s not too late for it to matter.

A final note: I’m indebted to Messenger Puppet for the header photo. Plenty of scans and interesting commentary on the glory days of C/D can be found by visiting the site.

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Jack Baruth

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