Our Two Cents: Now, about that first vehicle you reviewed
This episode of Our Two Cents takes a more personal, behind-the-scenes look at our respective careers. We are a pretty diverse group, including the ways we got our “foot in the door” of the auto-writing business. I asked everyone to dig deep this time, with hot takes you’d never read in the finished reviews.
More to the point, I asked everyone to talk about the first car they reviewed.
1996 Pontiac Grand Am
Larry Webster, our senior vice president of editorial, had the honor of performing his first road test in a 1996 Pontiac Grand Am. He suggested it might be because nobody else at Car and Driver wanted the privilege. No matter, here’s the experience in his own words:
I took it from Ann Arbor to visit an old girlfriend in Canton, Ohio, then to Cleveland where I crashed at my friend’s empty apartment. I struggled to write 400 words on a new piece of tech: a laptop computer. That was a pretty horrible weekend as the woman blew me off, and I knew what I pounded out was such garbage that I’d surely be fired soon after handing it in.
Rover Mini S John Cooper Works
Hagerty UK editor James Mills started his career at Auto Express in the early 1990s. He got his hands on something special: an iconic motor for the English automobile industry. Anything that John Cooper Works touches seemingly turns to gold, and James wants you to know that the shop’s vehicles are “probably a lot more fun to be around than me, nowadays!”
So here’s how it went down:
Around 1993-ish, when I was the Auto Express Office Tea Boy, I spent most of my time requesting press packs over the fax machine, filing photo transparencies, parking the editors’ cars, or cleaning cars on shoots. But then I was dispatched to do my first review.
Actually, it wasn’t THE first. That’s because the road-test editor forgot to line up one of the weekly reviews: He gave me 30 minutes to drive a car around central London, get back to my desk and write the “Autofile” review before the production editor screamed at him. But that’s another story for another day …
So off I went to a little place called Ferring, near Worthing on the south coast. It’s the kind of place old people retire to, to die. But Ferring is also home to John Cooper Garages Ltd. And they’d reintroduced a kit for the modern Rover Mini 1.3i – the 1.3i S John Cooper Works.
I then had that car to myself for a whole week. I wouldn’t let anyone near the keys because I damned well knew they wouldn’t let me have it back. The thing was hilarious. And needless to say, as a youth, I had no concept of how close to death I must have been at the entry to every corner I hurled it into at full throttle, amazed at how the thing could stick if you display the commitment of, well, an idiotic young driver.
Many years later, I got another go in another “old” John Cooper Works Mini. I rolled it onto the driver’s door at an airfield, during a Hot-Hatch Mega-Test [TM]. Mike Cooper, John’s son, swore down the phone at me, saying that in all his years he’d never known anyone roll a Mini. Well, I guess they just weren’t ̶b̶e̶i̶n̶g̶ ̶s̶t̶u̶p̶i̶d̶ trying hard enough!
1990 Cadillac Allanté
Joe DeMatio, our Senior Manager of Content, probably beat us all for having the coolest first vehicle for a road test. Here’s his story:
I was a newly minted junior staffer at Automobile Magazine with limited access to test cars, but on a particular winter weeknight when a big snow storm was blowing in, I was asked to take the Cadillac roadster home for safekeeping. That’s because I only lived a few blocks away from the office. But instead of driving it home and parking it, I picked up my pal Al and we drove it all over the city of Ann Arbor. Snow be damned, we showed it off to any friends and family we could find.
2014 Ford Fiesta ST
Branded content writer Matthew Fink tested the 2014 Ford Fiesta ST when the hot hatch first came out. But the test didn’t go exactly as planned:
Ford gave a handful of visiting journalists Fiesta STs with with no license plates or any paperwork at all. We did have a map to follow a 30-mile test loop, meaning that a fleet of brightly colored STs piloted by journalists went ripping through Hell, Michigan, at a pace well north of the speed limit. (Shocking, I know!)
I was the last car in the fleet. When I entered Hell, I was immediately pulled over and accused of going over 100 mph, because the folks in town said all the other cars were doing so. (I wasn’t, I swear!) The police didn’t let me go for over 20 minutes, because I had no proof this was a test car from Ford.
Then the other journalist that Ford paired with me thought he had a better driving route than Ford’s event staff had outlined: We quickly got lost thanks to him. After three hours, Ford called asking for its car back and wasn’t thrilled with us when we finally returned … well after everyone else left.
Ford did tell me I was the first person to ever be pulled over in a Fiesta ST, so there’s that.
2008 Chevrolet Uplander
David Zenlea, our managing editor of Insider, decided he was going to get a job in the automotive journalism scene by going to a Chevy dealer and test driving … well, we all gotta start somewhere:
When I was in college, I wrote a mock review to try and get a job at a car magazine. Since I had no standing (and also no money!) the only car I could get a dealer to let me drive was a Chevrolet Uplander. I wrote at the time: “The 2008 Chevrolet Uplander carries on General Motors’ two decades’ old tradition of not caring about the minivan segment.” I think that still tracks.
The Gran Tourismo 3 College Application
Managing Editor Stefan Lombard followed the same path as David but avoided the dealership entirely:
In 2003, as the writing sample portion of my application to grad school, I used Gran Turismo 3 to concoct a virtual comparo with a Nissan 300ZX, a Toyota Supra Turbo, and a Mazda RX-7. The premise was a fake announcement from Toyota that it was pulling the plug on the Supra, so I was gathering the cars for one last hurrah.
I called it “Setting Sons.” I “pushed all three to their limits” over the course of several days, taking advantage of the game’s cool camera features in order to build a fake magazine story. It worked, because I got in. Or so I thought, as I’ve since learned that everybody gets in, so I probably could have gotten away with a haiku instead. This was way more fun, though!
Royal Enfield INT650
Editor Kyle Smith chose a different path into the business, reviewing a motorcycle for Hagerty instead of the usual cowering catering to people with access to automobiles:
Being a relative rookie, my first review is only a few years old. The Royal Enfield INT650 has aged fairly well considering 2020 was less than three years ago. That bike was a delight around town but I was amazed how quickly it became uncomfortable once you tried to ride on a highway for more than 15–20 minutes.
The retro look and bang-for-the-buck had me seriously considering one for months before I came back to earth and decided to buy another old crappy Honda instead. Still not sure that was the right choice.
2014 Mazda3 Hatchback
Executive editor Eric Weiner brings us back to a conventional path for budding automotive journalists. But let’s not confuse convention with ease, as it’s not all sugar plums and candy canes when you get the keys to a 2014 Mazda3 S Touring hatchback for your first review:
The Mazda was a Four Seasons (long-term test) car at Automobile Magazine, assigned to me because everyone else already had a long-termer they were writing about. But I wasn’t allowed to actually drive it for a couple of months, so I was just collating notes from others, going up to their desk with a notepad and writing feedback, wearing pleated khakis that I thought at the time were very professional.
Finally, a road test editor threw me the keys and just said “go somewhere.” I figured I better go big or go home, so I drove from Ann Arbor to Iowa City (450 miles) to spend two nights with college friends. The car had this absurd head-up display with a glass pane that flipped up and looked like a Star Fox accessory. But it made me feel like I was in a spaceship. In Iowa I loaded up the rear hatch with furniture and art I found at a consignment shop in Iowa City.
On the long drive back to Michigan, with that hatch full of old junk nobody wanted, it felt like my life was starting. I felt like maybe I wouldn’t have to wait tables again.
1990 Sport Coupe Comparo
Editor-at-large Aaron Robinson probably tops us all for a wild and crazy way into the business, as he made quite the perfect cake from some quality raw ingredients:
In college I was a member of the Automotive Industry Club, which was mostly business school students hoping to someday get to the C-suite of some automaker. For what it’s worth, our leader went on to become a mega-dealer before cashing his chips to run unsuccessfully for the Senate. Anyway, our leader was a gopher for Automobile and knew how to secure press cars, so he assembled a gaggle of five cars with the intention of conducting a comparison test to determine which was best for the graduating senior.
We got the cars and hooned all over the Car and Driver test roads out by Hell, Michigan, for a day, then voted. I wasn’t part of the jury as I was only a junior, but I did call the Detroit Free Press and got them to agree to take a story on the, ahem, test. My friend and I sat down to a typewriter at the offices of said Automobile Mag and over the course of several hours banged out the short infill below. I believe the Freep even paid us, or the club, something for it. After that we were able to get press vehicles—and especially Hondas and Acuras—no problem and I spent my senior year bagging press vehicles, including the new Acura NSX, for reviews in the U of M business school newspaper, The Monroe Street Journal.
2006 Lincoln Mark LT
My story? It’s less about the experience, more about the selfish need to blow off steam. Back in the mid-2000s I was grad student dreading my future career path. A good Corporate America career it shall be, but was I gonna love being a technology project manager? Definitely not:
I was hoping the pay and travel would be adequate to placate my need to be in the car business as a career. Short of working at a dealership, I saw no other route but writing about cars on the Internet. Mind you, this was before YouTube and TikTok made video journalism a thing. I was still upset when I stewed on the memory of being asked to leave Blue Oval News, as I thought its maverick style was perfect for my content. I mean, I’d never make it in a “real” automotive publication. Riiiiiight?
Luckily, one afternoon in my school’s computer lab netted me the website that published my first review. It was shockingly easy: I blocked off a few hours during spring break to hop in my Mark VIII to visit a friend at the local Lincoln dealer. We shot the breeze, and then he gave me the keys to anything on the lot. Of course I chose the hellaciously badge-engineered Mark LT pickup, as it had the best story to tell. There was a lot of give-and-take with my editor Robert Farago, but the end result was begrudging respect for the truck and an endless amount of joy in being a freelance journalist.
I could make this “project manager by day, auto scribe by night” shtick work. Doing so gave purpose in my actions, and a much needed confidence boost. Even better, I finally found joy in my life. Believe me when I say it: Reviewing the 2006 Lincoln Mark LT truly saved my life.
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This story should have taken another path.
Cars you reviewed back then that you see much differently today.
How often have we seen cars get awards that turn out to be a major lemon a few years later. Motor Trend Car of the Year has suffered this fate more than one. actually many times.
Also how many underdogs that have been panned at the initial review only to be the cars that while not perfect are still the ones on the road 20 years later.
Cars like the Chevy Barretta were panned but they were on the road forever. In fact I still see a few here in the rust belt and they have not made one near 30 years yet I can find a Accord of the same era.
I have often used a high school parking lot to judge how well cars hold up and affordable they remain. They are normally filled with cars that are cheap to fix and reliable. No most were never perfect but they kept running.
I today have many old magazines and read these reviews and now with hind sight can say this story would be much different today.
It could have, but because of your feedback, the next episode of Our Two Cents will ask that very question! Thanks hyperv6!
Disagree on the Beretta. The survivors you see are not likely the result of great engineering/assembly/durability; more likely the application of irrationally fastidious care, by someone looking to keep their first or last new car forever. If they were /really/ any good, there should be more than a handful left, considering how many were spit out in their time.
Admittedly it’s statistically possible that there may have been some standout specimens of any given disposable mass-market commodity car. (monkeys:typewriters, etc.)
I’m occasionally jealous of Kyle – and today it’s a nagging wish to have been him for the Enfield INT650 test. I’ve never ridden one, but I love the look of the picture, and right now I have a serious case of Royal ENVYfield!