This article first appeared in Car and Driver in September 2011 and is reproduced by kind permission of the publisher, Hearst Communications, Inc.
School of Engine Knocks: A university in England churns out the next generation of automotive journalists.
For those who love cars, a career in automotive journalism promises access to the latest and greatest vehicles on the market, the opportunity to meet the people who design and engineer them, and heaping mounds of chilled shrimp. Who wouldn’t want to be a car journalist? Not surprisingly, we’re often asked, “How do I get your job?”
Of course, we’re professionally bound to point out that the reality can be considerably less glamorous. There are long hours, endless weeks of suitcase living, and the occasional night spent in a drafty castle.
Ah, who are we kidding? It’s great. And enough people see the appeal of a life spent writing about cars that a school in England actually offers a degree in the subject. Since 2004, Coventry University has offered a one-year M.A. program in automotive journalism, with about 40 students—including seven in the current crop—having taken the course. Intrigued by the prospect of a room full of wannabe Clarksons and Altermans [Guys, let’s up Duff’s rate—EA], we decided to attend a class to find out more.
Uncomfortable chairs, the aroma of floor polish, and graffiti carved into desks by generations of bored students—the college classroom hasn’t changed much in the 15 years since I last had to pay attention to a projection screen. But this lesson isn’t like any of the dozens I snoozed through. Today’s subject is the magazine production process, complete with an elaborate flowchart.
The man at the front of the class is Andrew Noakes, who combines the careers of car writer and lead lecturer. Chatting before the students arrive, he’s friendly and personable, but once installed behind the lectern, he projects a professorial vibe. “What’s copy tasting?” he asks the class. “Come on, somebody must remember.” I avoid eye contact, not wanting to be called upon to admit that, despite my decade at the blunt end of motoring journalism, I don’t know.
The students seem brighter and more focused than I remember myself being in college. We’ve got six from this year’s class here this morning—the seventh is on assignment—and all are conscious, don’t appear hungover, and are sitting upright and taking notes. But then, they are paying a considerable sum to be here. Tuition fees for the one-year program cost students from the EU about $7900; others pay $15,700. On top of that, you’d have to budget at least another $10,000 for living expenses.
For their investment, the students get educated on the way the industry works, media law, and how to spot the honeyed lies auto-company public-relations agents will tell them. They also get practical experience by putting together their own automotive magazine and, thanks to close connections with a U.K. publisher, several weeks of experience working on various titles. The course’s co-founder, Steve Cropley, is editor-in-chief of Autocar magazine and takes a close interest. According to Noakes, more than half of the former students are now working on car-related magazines or websites.
Talking after the lesson, it’s clear the students are confident. Do they think the course is worth the time and money?
“Absolutely,” says Jonathan Tan, who has come from Singapore to attend. “It’s a hugely competitive industry, and you have to stand out. This gives us the edge over lots of other aspiring journalists.”
“I know my writing has improved immeasurably since I’ve been here,” says James Richardson, a former historian, “and I was always told I was quite a good writer.”
“All of us want to do something with cars,” says Tim Kendall, who spent six years as a corporate lawyer before deciding to follow his dream. “We’d do whatever it takes to get into the automotive industry.”
They’re bright, cocky, and enthusiastic and probably even cheaper than I am, too. Damn.
Warm-up engine fault is an irritation in Ally's Jaguar XJS
Like a maturing cask of Talisker, the 21 year old XJS has had to weather the elements of a highland winter, waiting for the day it can roll again. The garage in which it is normally parked is packed full of building materials so, for the first time in over ten years, it has spent the wet and wild months out in the open.
In the summer months of 2014 it served as my daily driver and had a minor engine tweak in August to resolve an oil leak. Its last outing was a 2000 mile round trip to Birmingham in November for the Classic Car Show, where it was pressed into service, giving passenger rides for charity.
The 4.0 litre straight six is running smoother than ever, with the exception of a curious little fault which even a Jaguar dealership, in Coventry, couldn’t diagnose.
The journey down to Birmingham and back was an effortless waft, once the engine anomaly had gone through its little ritual
About ten minutes into every journey there is a subtle dip in performance – enough to cut the engine if the car is idling – lasting for about two or three seconds. This slight hesitation is followed by a noticeable kick as performance returns to normal and the Engine Management warning light illuminates.
From that point on, the Jag runs beautifully. Even the journey down to Birmingham and back was an effortless waft, once the engine anomaly had gone through its little ritual. A small strip of black insulation tape on the dashboard hides the bright orange warning light which remains illuminated until the engine is turned off.
Something tells me the fault lies with the automatic ‘choke’ system but, these days, no one can do anything without the right diagnostic equipment.
I had hoped 2015 would be all about the paintwork as some scuffs and paint chips – on the car when I bought it – are due some attention. But this engine fault might prove to be more troublesome and, to me, is more important.
At 62,300 miles, the XJS is still in fine fettle but I suspect it’ll not get as much use in 2015 as I’d like. Hopefully, I’ll find some indoor storage for it by the end of the year as the all-steel grand tourer will not take kindly to another highland winter.
Strange contrasts, and some great racing, at the Chinese GP
Shanghai Despite being a Formula One fanatic for as long as I can remember, I have never actually got around to going to see a race. So I arrive in China, just three hours travelling away from the Shanghai Circuit; I think “Why not?”.
The cab ride from ZUMC to Hangzhou train station was, let’s say ‘eventful’; driving on the pavement, weaving through seemingly impossibly tight gaps, taking a sharp left turn across three lanes of moving traffic; it was a mixture between a roller coaster and some sort of religious experience. Thankfully we arrived at Hangzhou station (mostly) unscathed, sweating profusely and thanking our lucky stars that we arrived safely.
We set off on the Bullet Train towards Shanghai, reaching speeds of around 220 mph (352 km/h), faster than any of the Formula One drivers would manage that day. Taking a cab from Shanghai to the circuit, Sean and I arrived at one of the entrances to this enormous complex and attempted to find a ticket office. A long time, several offers of various dubious goods and what seemed like many miles later, we located what was presumably the sole ticket office. Yes, one office for a Grand Prix with a capacity of at least 100,000. By this time we were thirsty, our feet were sore and we were desperately in need of a nice sit down so we discovered our seats and settled down to watch the race.
The noise, oh the noise it was awe inspiring; even when taking the cars slowly to the grid the engines screamed, the gear changes banged; everything reverberating around the enormous concrete arena in which we were seated. The race started, Sebastian Vettel immediately lost two places to the British drivers from McLaren, we screamed, we roared and the race was on. As the pack expanded, the gaps between the all encompassing noise lessened until there was no gap in between the screaming engines and the seemingly exploding gear changes and the visceral noise was ceaseless.
It was a fascinating race, we were watching from the main overtaking spot and we saw some spine-tingling action, many daring overtakes and an awful lot of close racing ensued. At one point Vitaly Petrov tried to overtake two cars at the same time, in doing so, he locked both his front brakes and slid straight on, immediately losing the two places he had won so daringly but the action was well appreciated by the crowd.
It was not only racecraft that made this such an interesting race to watch but also the tactical battles between the two main protagonists, McLaren and Red Bull meant that the race was tense and full of intrigue as well. Eventually, the three stop strategy of the McLarens prevailed against the two stopping Red Bulls (although Mark Webber did exceptionally well to climb from 18th on the grid to finish third.
And so, a Brit won the first ever Grand Prix I have been to see and it just happened to be in China, a country of juxtapositions: high-tech buildings being constructed using bamboo scaffolding, expensive electronics being transported by overloaded scooter; the way this country combines and contrasts the old and new is wonderful and also a little frightening. I have mentioned in a previous post on this blog that the scale of this country is simply overwhelming and this adventure was no exception. It does not look a long way to Shanghai from Hangzhou but it is still a three hour journey encompassing taxi, train and metro to make our way to and from the circuit.
It was a visceral experience, full of noise, excitement and action. Who said Formula 1 was boring?
Our reporter's visit to a Chinese Bentley dealer does not go well
A trip to Hangzhou seemed the ideal opportunity to do some research into Chinese automotive culture, particularly with regards to foreign marques. As it turns out the language barrier was the least of my problems.
China is the fourth biggest market for Bentley – a fact that seems odd in the world’s largest communist country. What was that about some of the animals being more equal than others? An interview was arranged with the Hangzhou showroom sales manager, to find out the secret behind Bentley’s rapid growth in the People’s Republic.
Things turned sour as soon as I walked through the door. The staff who had been all sweetness and light on the phone, turned into sour faced “computer says no” types as soon as they realised I wasn’t there to buy a car. The manager was apparently no longer available, the two cars on display were swiftly locked and my photographer almost assaulted for trying to take pictures.
It seems dealerships in China need to see the colour of your money before they will even be civil with you. Journalists seeking information are not viewed as potential sources of free PR, but nuisances to be treated with suspicion. Even parting with “I’ve been asked to leave classier places than this” lost its edge when relayed through a translator.
Qualifying at Shanghai allowed an access all areas day of Chinese hospitality and F1 interviews.
Strolling down the Shanghai paddock on a sun kissed day of qualifying may sound like bliss, but in reality it really isn’t. It’s much, much better than that.
As we arrive in the BMW Sauber HQ, food, biscuits and drinks are thrown at us with as much pace as an F1 car on the home straight. Naturally with more than a week of Chinese food under our slimming belts, chocolate is a sight for sore eyes and satisfied nicotine-like cravings.
Being at the back of the pit lane, qualifying was watched from a television; hearing the cars tearing around, but watching them on a small screen is quite a surreal experience, if a little frustrating.
With qualifying finished and Vettel firmly on poll, a canter around the paddock is now in order to track down some VIPs. First though, we’re treated to a tour of the Sauber team garage by our host Sven Schäfer.
Looking down the paddock, a pack of hungry journalists and snappers suggests that the drivers are due to make an appearance, so we we’re sure to get in on the action. Although unable to speak to them directly, their very presence proved an awe inspiring experience, reflected by the haze of camera flashes and admiring glances.
As we slowly leave through electronic barriers manned by Chinese guards, a final glance back to the paddock is in order. Luckily for us, this wasn’t to be our last visit.