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.