To mark the 125th anniversary of Autocar magazine, we look back over all that’s happened in the world of motoring since we turned 100
Back in 1895, all of the cars in the UK wouldn’t have filled 10 metres of the M25. Few people had even seen a horseless carriage. But young Henry Sturmey, editor of a magazine devoted to the new craze of cycling, believed what he called autocars were going to be big, and he persuaded his printer William Iliffe to back his idea of a weekly called The Autocar.
The first issue appeared on 2 November. It cost 3d and boasted just 12 pages of dense print. The early circulation must have been tiny, but a year later, the red flag legislation, which forced every car to be preceded by a man on foot, was repealed. Suddenly the car took off, with manufacturers mushrooming everywhere.
The Autocar took off, too. Soon it had rivals, but it established itself as the leader, because its writers believed in, understood and loved cars from the start. And that has never changed.
Through the 1920s and 1930s, its circulation soared. In 1928, it invented the road test, with the first ever subject an Austin Seven. Couched in the polite language of the day, the format became a key part of each issue. Today the Autocar road test remains the most respected evaluation of any car, nervously awaited by manufacturers and eagerly scanned by prospective buyers.
Having risen to be the world’s best-selling car magazine, Autocar by the 1970s became, via various takeovers, part of an impersonal corporation that starved it of direction and investment. It slipped into predictability and failed to ward off younger, livelier competitors.
One of these was Haymarket, which in 1984 bought the publishing rights and restored Autocar to its rightful place as the essential weekly for anyone who wants to keep up with the world of the car. I was Haymarket’s managing director when we relaunched Autocar 26 years ago, and it was a stimulating battle to put it back on top. Now I approach it each week as a faithful reader, and to me it lives by three ingredients.
Authority remains its centre, because Autocar writers know the patch as well as or better than anyone else. That’s why you can find Autocar on the desks of industry heavy-hitters around the world and why they’re happy to talk to Autocar.
Next is judgement: the ability to distinguish what matters from what doesn’t; to look into the future intelligently; and to tell a good car from a car that’s no better than it should be. No title is worth reading if you don’t respect its judgement.
The third ingredient is energy. Those who work on Autocar have an excitement that can’t be simulated and are bursting to infect readers with it. It shows not only in the quality of the writing but also in its forthright yet relaxed style. It shows in brilliant photography, too, often shot to desperately tight deadlines.
Sturmey would be dumbfounded by the progress of the car since he bravely launched The Autocar. He would also be dumbfounded by how his arid little 12-pager has become the colourful weekly cornucopia of news, reviews, gossip, features, opinion and characters that none of us wants to do without. And he would know that he was right to persuade Iliffe to let the presses roll.
A century after he did so, Autocar produced a very special, 400-page centenary issue. Since then, the car industry has continued to change, but ever more rapidly. And the promised progress of the next 25 years is predicted massively to exceed what we’ve so far seen.
So for this 125th anniversary, Autocar has decided to focus on looking 25 years back, before thinking about the next 25 years to come.
The renewal years, 1995-2005
Our 400-page centenary issue featured scoop shots of the new Smart, labelling it “the first car of the 21st century”. Later our first road test would point out the Smart’s flaws as a driver’s car and problems with its stability, but you could get our early point. Soon after, we pronounced Alex Issigonis’s Mini our Car of the Century and said no one should be surprised – assuming they could live that long – if the little two-door were able to “do the double”.
BMW had just bought the Rover Group for £800 million, ending a co-operative deal with Honda, but the prospects seemed bright, especially since the MG F sports car was on the horizon, along with prospects for good cars such as the Rover 75 that emerged in 1997. We drove various 75 prototypes before launch and were highly impressed, but BMW quit that deal after five years, selling Land Rover to Ford and the rest to four shonky shareholders, the Phoenix Four, who formed MG Rover. We knew it couldn’t last, but it kept Longbridge open and some of the products, notably the small Rover saloons and the Peter Stevens-designed MG SVR, made great copy.
Two significant sports cars bobbed up by the end of the 1995: the Porsche Boxster and the Lotus Elise. We didn’t realise then how much of a role the former would play in the demise of marques such as TVR: why own a fragile and impractical car when you could have something that went as fast, drove better, started every time and safeguarded your investment? The Elise would hold Lotus together, selling better than planned and preserving the company through an unproductive Proton ownership until it was eventually acquired, along with Proton, by a new Chinese owner, Geely, with money to invest and a true global vision.
By mid-1996 we’d spotted the first Land Rover Freelander, a model that was to invent a global car class and lead it for half a dozen years, until SUVs universally caught on. We forget nowadays that MPVs – people-movers – were also much admired back then. “Once people fully understand the MPV concept, the estate car will die and be remembered as the bad idea it was,” declared Gordon Murray at the time. But you can’t buck the market, and the customer decided differently.
Much news sped under Autocar’s wheels. BMW promised its version of a Mini for 2000, revealing it a couple of years early. Soon after that the Metro (aka Rover 100) had to die following a disastrous one-star Euro NCAP safety rating. One amazing development, in hindsight, is how much like the original a new Mini still looks – many say the Frank Stephenson original is more handsome and modern than today’s editions.
Autocar meandered through the years doing good things one minute (the Sideways Challenge at Silverstone, years before drifting became a fully fledged sport) and occasional indifferent things (a ‘100 most beautiful cars’ competition that bored the readers who knew without being told that the Ferrari 250, Lamborghini Miura and Jaguar E-Type would be finalists). The Ford Focus RS was a stunner that reassured us about the future of fast Fords, and the Porsche Cayenne SUV arrived to show how Porsche would in future make its money. We produced a scoop sketch of the Rolls-Royce Phantom, signalling the beginning of a new era for the world-leading marque. Also during those years Aston Martin moved into the modern era with the DB9 and relocated to Gaydon, right next to Jaguar and Land Rover. Ford’s decision to stop own-brand UK car manufacturing in 2002 was a sign that the industry was changing, but it sought to balance things with a promise to make Dagenham its world headquarters for diesel engine production. At the time, that seemed like a decent outcome…
The challenge years, 2005-2015
MG Rover hit the buffers, having failed to do co-operative deals with various international companies as a means of offsetting its hundreds of millions of debt. It sold out to Nanjing Automotive, who reopened with a skeleton staff to make the MG TF, which we pronounced as okay, but soon sold the company on to SAIC. Peugeot, meanwhile, stopped making cars in the UK, moving 206 production to Slovakia. Then Ford broke up its Premier Automotive Group to concentrate, it said, on managing the Blue Oval. It sold Aston Martin to Middle East investors, and Jaguar and Land Rover to Tata, a giant Indian automotive and trading group. Then Volvo went to Geely. At first these moves seemed hugely risky for the British companies’ futures, but at Ratan Tata’s first-ever Geneva show press conference, he quietly observed that his group’s plan would be to free the talent within the company because it already had enough to succeed, which is exactly how things turned out. Tata paid £1.33 billion; JLR today, even with recent difficulties, could be worth 20 or 30 times that.
After much Autocar news attention, McLaren boosted the supercar industry with the launch of its weirdly named MP4-12C (later shortened to 12C), our extensive testing of which proved it to be a world-class car let down by some quality and infotainment glitches. But the company prospered, its success made clear by how much notice Ferrari took and how keen Maranello was first to avoid comparison tests with the McLaren and later to try and micro-manage how those tests were conducted. McLaren watched on with pride and amusement.
Past 2010 we had Jaguar’s fabulous C-X75 to look forward to (until the project was canned and the money diverted, ill-fatedly, to saloons), and Lotus’s then boss, Dany Bahar, chose the Paris show to reveal six new models that would make their debuts in the next couple of years. The plan was so far-fetched that our usual welcoming demeanour slipped, and our sceptisism proved justified.
The future arrives, 2015-present
n the past five years, Autocar’s main news topics have been about how cars will change, encouraged by the likelihood of a ban on selling new internal-combustion cars at some ever-changing date in the foreseeable (2030 seems the current best guess). Clean air laws have, with wide media support, cut the sale of the diesel cars we were encouraged to buy back in 1995 (to reduce CO2 emissions). They have become deeply unwelcome in cities because of toxic emissions that, ironically, have been reduced practically to nothing by the latest technologies.
At the same time many companies have taken on targets that in 1995 would have seemed impossible – zero accidents (brought by connection between cars), zero emissions (brought by electrification of powertrains) and zero congestion (brought by car sharing and the promise of autonomous driving).
In our centenary issue 25 years ago I wrote a story with technical correspondent Keith Howard about the predicted car of 2045. In hindsight it proved naive but not entirely wide of the mark. True, we didn’t mention anything about autonomy, but our battery predictions weren’t bad (nothing about solid state, mind) and we had it right on mixed-material construction (with lots of aluminium), downsized turbo engines and multi-speed automatic transmissions. We also kiboshed fully active suspension systems in favour of continuing with steel for ordinary cars, and height-adjustable systems for heavy and expensive models. That stuff was all pretty much on the button. Comes of watching trends via a weekly magazine. I reckon we’ll keep doing it.