The total print run for each issue of Autocar is heavier than two Land Rover Defenders
We take you behind the scenes in the production process of Autocar
Provenance is one of those curious human obsessions that we’re pre-programmed to value. Take wristwatches, for example. Digital ones provide all the functionality you need, yet they are orders of magnitude less expensive than analogue and hand-made ones. Should the latter hail from Switzerland, go ahead and add another zero to its value.
Much like Swiss watchmakers, we at Autocar are rather proud of our heritage, this being the world’s oldest motoring title. But while our focus has stayed the same since 1895, the process of creating the actual magazine has changed a lot.
Filling more than 70 pages in five days is a tall task, but it all begins with the stories. Some, like long-awaited new-model unveilings or drives, will be pencilled into the calendar well ahead of time. Some we have to squeeze in at short notice on the day we go to press. Regardless, each story is written according to a brief from the relevant section editor. Through a back-and-forth with the writer, they will commission the necessary word counts, a rough idea of the imagery involved and a deadline for its submission.
Each brings a wildly different workload, so it’s crucial that everything is filed on time. Take a first drive of a car: it could be as simple a task as an afternoon drive around the British countryside, but it can also mean multiple days of travelling, time at the wheel and then a full photoshoot before the writer can begin to tap away at their computer. Time needed to accommodate the grand-scale tasks simply can’t be wasted on more trivial jobs.
Once the writer has found a quiet place and readied their ramblings, the production team is primed to turn them into the glossy final product.
This starts with picture editor Ben Summerell-Youde, who gathers the appropriate visuals for the story, comprising either photography shot in-house by Max Edleston, Jack Harrison or John Bradshaw, or images provided by a picture library or the relevant press office.
Other stories might require Summerell-Youde to look into his crystal ball and envision the future of the industry. His talent with a digital sketchpad means he can illustrate new cars in great detail long before we lay eyes on them.
He explains: “News editor Felix Page will give me a simple brief: the next-generation Audi A6, for example. I’ll look at recent concept cars and the brand’s new design language and then look at the current car for proportions. That’s the simplest way. On the other hand, when there’s something much more futuristic, such as our 8 November scoop on the Toyota Celica revival, I’ll consider that shape again and draw it from scratch. I’ll do an outline and some vague shapes of grilles, filling it in as I go. That takes a lot longer, whereas a new A6 I can do practically blindfolded.”
He adds that the homogeneity of modern cars – particularly those from Germany – can make this task much simpler. “It’s just Russian doll stuff, really,” he jokes. The end result, known as a rendering, is often remarkably close to the production car, with recent wins including the Dacia Duster, Lotus Emeya and Volvo EX30.
This kicks off the next phase of the design work. Art editor Sarah Özgül, junior designer Tara Tuohy and group art editor Stephen Hopkins (‘Hoppo’, to anyone who’s ever met him) begin developing page layouts, making judgement calls on the images provided by Summerell-Youde and the structure of the story.
Özgül notes that everything quickly “evolves” from this point on, by way of a cyclical discussion between herself, Summerell-Youde, the relevant section editor and managing editor Sami Shah.
Pointing to a feature she is currently designing, Özgül explains: “I’ve got the copy on a Word document and I know it’s supposed to be four pages. I didn’t have any pictures earlier, so I asked Ben to find some. Today, I’ve come back to it after a think about the design and reckon it would work better as a two-page spread. So I’ve had a discussion with Sami, who’s then had the change approved by the section editor.
“As I’m laying it out, I’m discussing pictures with Ben while I’m reading the story and getting a feel for how it should look on page.”
The back and forth between editorial and production is essential to ensuring we’re all working in concert, under the pressure of the ticking clock – and that ticking has hardly ever felt more imposing than it does now.
When you consider the number of pages that go into every issue and the time available to produce them, on average we have a little over half an hour to devote to each page in order to hit our weekly deadlines. That’s under ideal circumstances, but like any operation, things like IT issues, transport disruption or a global pandemic (not even that was enough to knock us off our stride) can throw a wrench in the works – and on top of that there are the boundless efforts required to feed content to the Autocar website (see below).
It’s Shah’s job to bring order to the chaos, dictating the firing order of magazine pages and seeing them over the finish line.
“We’ve done it long enough together to know how much time each task takes and whether we are behind or ahead of schedule,” says Shah. He explains that the magazine pages are sent to the printers digitally in various sections, each with a different deadline on press day at the end of the week, the last of which containing news stories that are inevitably subject to eleventh-hour changes.
“The printers will give us a bit of leeway, but we can’t miss our print slot, so if we’re running more than a few minutes late, the phone will start ringing. That said, we don’t want to miss out on a big story, so a conversation with the editor will take place about the logistics of squeezing it in and a judgement call has to be made.”
In part for the sake of his own sanity, Shah plays a key role in the process of ironing out any errors. Along with chief sub-editor Kris Culmer and special contributors Peter McSean and Tim Dickson, it is his job to ensure each story nails the brief, reads well, is faithful to Autocar’s style guide, is legally sound and is factually accurate – there are rather a few facts and figures in each issue of Autocar – with the entire editorial team chipping in to fill any knowledge gaps. Picture captions and headlines are then added – some straight, some (we hope) witty.
Simultaneously, an external team finesses the images on each page. They ensure details such as road markings don’t clash with headlines or other page furniture, as well as colour-correcting and brightening or darkening images as required.
Thereafter, each story is sent to senior editors to be proofread. Shah says: “Every completed page is read at least three times: by the sub-editor who worked on it, by the editor who proofs it and finally by myself or Kris. Pages receive updates throughout the production cycle, so it’s important that the final version gets a close read, even though one eye will always be on the clock.”
Meanwhile, Özgül separately gives each page her blessing, checking the reprographic work and ensuring everything looks as it should.
At last, the pages are ready to be collated into a section of the magazine and in pdf form sent from our office in Twickenham to the printers, William Gibbons & Sons, in Wolverhampton.
As soon as the first batch lands, typically in the mid-afternoon on Friday, a team loads it onto printing plates. There are four plates on the top side of a double-sided spread, four at the bottom. Two print operators – one for the upper half of the page, the other for the lower section – double-check everything is in the correct colour format and has loaded correctly. If all is well, they press ‘start’ and pages begin flying literally hot off the press: first the glossy covers, then the middle section comprising first drives and the road test.
As pages come off the line, the operators check the colours align with those programmed into the press and for anything else untoward. This loop of printing and checking will be repeated tens of thousands of times for each chunk of the magazine over a weekend.
The material requirements for this are colossal: the paper used for the covers alone weighs about as much as an Ariel Atom. Throw in the five tonnes used for the middle sections and the total print run for each issue of Autocar becomes heavier than two Land Rover Defenders. Combine the more than a million copies produced annually and you get a greater mass than three Concordes: more than 280 tonnes.
Everything will be printed by Monday morning. Thereafter, a half-complete copy is taken to a senior manager who will double-check that all the folios (broad ‘spreads’ of paper) are printed correctly, in the right order.
Once they give the go-ahead, the magazine is painstakingly stitched together, the covers are attached and the final product is trimmed to size. Several copies – a few for every thousand prints – are pulled from the print run for quality control.
By 3pm each Monday, the finished print product you will see on shop shelves – or indeed coming through your letterbox – is ready.
The copies are thereafter split into two batches: one for retail sale and the other for subscribers. The former bucket is loaded onto pallets and readied for a 4am collection, destined for a Coventry distribution hub. Subscriber copies, on the other hand, are taken to Birmingham to be posted on the Monday afternoon. From that point on, the timely arrival of your latest issue is in the hands of Royal Mail…
It’s an extensive – and relentless – process. So the next time you peruse an issue of Autocar, spare a thought for the many people who worked tirelessly to (hopefully) bring a moment of joy to your week.
How the Autocar website comes together
The workflow of the website is somewhat different from that of the mag. The transition from idea to article can all come from one person and rather quickly, but in most cases it passes through a network of people.
News articles, the website’s bread and butter, will come from Felix Page and pass through me as digital editor for some search-engine optimisation, before possibly reaching another journalist and then going off to the sub-editors. Then it’s pumped out to our social media audiences.
Breaking stories develop quickly and can be published instantly after the subs are happy with it.
The mag and the website both need constant feeding, but in very different ways. Print is here today and gone tomorrow (unless you subscribe to the digital archive, of course!), whereas the articles that appear on the internet can live on forever.
Reviews, explainers, listicles – virtually anything other than news (but occasionally news too) needs to be kept current so we are offering the most up-to-date and factually accurate information out there.
These types of article come from multiple sources; car reviews will be written by the mag journalists but to a different brief. So the next time you’re envious of a writer driving a fancy car in a hot country, remember they have two different briefs, tight deadlines and emails to contend with if they don’t write either to the correct format.
Topical articles are more of a dark art. Features can be repurposed from the mag but what we run online is often more timely, immediate and drilled precisely into what people are searching for.