Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Fixing Road & Track: Two Handfuls of Paper and a Quarter-mile Trap

Remember a few years back when Car and Driver lost its way? In short, the executive editor with the unpronounceable name fell asleep at a Ferrari press event and awoke mid-startled-snore. It was a short, semi-public vignette which effectively summed up his several indifferent years running the magazine. All fixed, thanks a new crew which embraces the original snark and chutzpah of The Man, road test fabricator and unrecognized poet David E. Davis Jr.

Road & Track has a different story. Born an enthusiast book just as sports cars and muscle cars were making the roads interesting, this magazine has always reached for the wine & cheese crowd to Car and Driver’s on-again-off-again babes, beer, and flatulence fans and Motor Trend’s thirteen year old boys who just want to know when they’re going to release the flying car.

For decades we could count on R&T to elevate underpowered, over-priced EuroDandy sedans far above over-powered, reasonably-priced Joe Six-pack pieces from The Land of Big Gulps (the latter of which, in fairness, were at times junk). Despite the appearance of literary geniuses like Henry Manny III and Early Peter Egan, R&T has through the years battled C/D pretty much like a repressed librarian casting disapproving glances at Bruce Willis while he marks his loaner pages with chewed gum.

Then The Great Media Consolidation found both magazines with a common owner.

(Cue Sound Effect: We Know How this Ends).

For a few years, an issue of Road & Track was like an issue of Car and Driver: Same car tests, minor plot twists, but at least with the classic R&T data summary at the end of the book. Even the April Fools issue showed up once a year.

Then everything got all shook up. Most of the west coast staff at R&T got the boot so that the magazine could cheaply regroup in Michigan. Former C/D tech editor Larry Webster, who was best known in the Hogback Road days for auto-crossing Miatas and worshiping BMWs, took the R&T helm. Not a bad move on its face: a car guy instead of some corporate Dockers drone who just looks good on TV. But with this move apparently came an obliquely-cloaked mandate to tick-off the subscriber base at R&T and shuffle everybody over to C/D. You know: Kill Pontiac. They'll buy Buicks and Chevys instead.

First, the road test data summary (a.k.a. the only thing R&T had going for it by then) went, though it reappears in the magazine at random times, sort of like Anti-Skid Deactivated warning lights in modern VWs. Then, entire issues were purged of comparison tests and new car reviews in favor of tributes to venerable cars turning 50. Next, entire issues were purged. Say hello to Jan/Feb and other consolidations as needed.

Nowadays you get a magazine of the same thickness on fewer occasions at the same price, and of course, you’re not certain why. Gone are the elegant draftsman’s drawings and road test data panels that were OCD before OCD was cool. In their place is what is possibly a page-bound playground of Everything Larry Likes surrounded by a mix of excellent and meh editorials ... but thankfully none of the Get a Bigger Dick ads the people who make jealous jokes about flashy cars and small penises use as ammunition (I'm talkin' ta you, C/D).

This is a swell legacy for Larry: he really is a car guy, and really has paid his dues. None of it bodes well for the survival of R&T, however. The mag’s recent skeleton crew move from its west coast home to within please-clean-out-your-desk-and-see-Human-Resources distance of Car and Driver HQ in Ann Arbor suggests Larry’s Playground may get about the same run as Pee Wee’s Playhouse.

And now that Motor Trend has successfully melded the practical wit and enthusiasm of Jonny Lieberman with the articulate track genius Randy Pobst, The Big Three U.S. Car Magazines1 are looking more like GM, Ford, and Chrysler in the 80s: Two clear survivors and one runt that will be shunted around for decades and become many things ... if it doesn’t die by its own management first.

Yet Chrysler’s decades in the wilderness, while painful to watch, gave us 25k Jeep Wranglers with 50k Mercedes engines in them. The Viper. Hemi-powered tribute bands. Maybe some reliable “Italian” cars. Recall that Audi spent most of the first century of automobiles consolidating and trading-out companies and mission statements in this way, but look what’s come rocketing out of the 21st-century woods in a four-wheel drift rocking laser eyes.2

Since the wine and cheese of Bimmers and Porsches compete with the craft beer and small bites of Ring-ripping Cadillacs and Corvettes nowadays, there really is no place for the snooty Euro-pure patter of yesteryear’s Road & Track, anyway.

Here’s a secret hiding in plain sight on an internet blog: Some readers enjoy poring over tons of data against all that subjective whining about wheel gaps and pinch-y cup holders, but only during certain specific and confined moments of solitude. These are highly holy moments like those between lust and babies, but longer. Grunty, earthy, reflective, and spiritual stints where real car guys seek automotive data during what Webster's once referred to as "data dumps" before Mrs. Webster's made him stop.

Data panels from real road tests. Road Test summaries.

Please put them back on the easily-folded and left-hand-able skin of dead trees, R&T, or get off the pot.

I am the Car Czar, and I’m here to help.

1Road & Track circulation has fallen nearly even with Automobile circulation, so "The Big Three" is a moving target.

2Yes, there was Big Incest going on while Audi was out in the woods, but that’s a story for the Keen Grasp of the Obvious blog we promise to never to write at a later date.