Smithology: Night flights of fancy, hard truths of industry, external circumstances

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Until a few weeks ago, I’d maintained a habit of reading books in bed. Every night, just before lights-out, a few pages or maybe several chapters. Same as I’ve done since childhood. Then that practice ground to a halt. I began diving into my phone instead. Exhausted at the end of the day, unable to focus on a page.

Blame the trade winds, maybe, or the season. The holidays are often a weird time, and this is a weird year, and many of my standard Sam Off-Hours Habits have been on pause since March anyway, so I didn’t sweat it. Or the fact that my bedside table currently holds a small pile of books frozen mid-read: The Complete Novels of Sherlock Holmes, Frank Herbert’s Dune, Tom Sharpe’s Riotous Assembly. Plus a copy of Griff Borgeson’s excellent Miller: Cars and Biography, on Indy-500 mad colonel Harry Miller, though that’s not so much a book in progress as a permanent resident, because I am a broken human of recurring flavors and toppings and have thus been rereading Miller on and off since high school. (Ballsy engineering and lush black-and-white pictures of crankcases! The heart wants what it wants.)

Those illuminating works now sit there, every night, unilluminated, while I drop my head on a pillow and go screen-blind. Absent the attention span for books, I tend to fall into journalism and internet research—Wikipedia rabbit holes and google diversions on cars and motorcycles, airplanes, ships, instruments, anything mechanical. Stuff that calms me for reasons I can’t explain.

You know that place where you’re reading but your mind is still stuck on wander? A week ago, lying in bed and buried in some digital history of the B-58 Hustler, I got to thinking about the car business, again. How it can all seem awfully obvious to those in it and not at all obvious to those outside.

Not a new idea, but it stuck in a craw. I put the phone down and stared at the ceiling for a bit, then got up from bed and typed out a zillion notes. Words were bouncing my head and needed out.

Below, those notes. Call it food for thought, or maybe just a primer on the state of car things, if you’ve been away for a bit.

Slap thoughts into the comments, if you’ve got. As always, I’m curious what you think.

**

Max Verstappen Formula 1 practice action
Mark Thompson/Getty Images

Modern motorsport is more boring than most people admit and basically irrelevant to the modern car. Shame, right? For decades, the sport demanded innovation, and that innovation trickled into road cars. Race cars became faster, and road cars grew more resolved and capable. Professional racing pulled enormous crowds, and even amateur events packed stands.

Then, a sunset. The two fields diverged. Motorsport became less immediately entertaining for a number of reasons, which helped it become less popular. Emissions and safety legislation produced road cars of perpetually increasing complexity. Sanctioning bodies retreated into their own spines, afraid of losing ground and unwilling to endure a radical break with the past for the promise of a more vital future.

Maybe we’ll fix this. As a club racer and insufferable motorsport nerd, I want that some fierce kind of bad. The astonishing thing, however, is how the industry doesn’t seem to want to do anything about it. Most people in the sport seem happy to either preserve the withering status quo on grounds of tradition or band-aid the situation until they cash out and retire.

If anyone ever figures out how to revamp this stuff in a way that will make an ordinary person give a rat’s southparts again, the world will beat a path to their door.

**

Along the same lines: The car business has a strong tendency to obsess over the past. This is both a strength and a weakness. Curiosity is the most important quality in any creative endeavor. Optimism is probably is the second-most important. In nearly 20 years of journalism, talking to everyone from world-champion drivers to scientists and engineers, the smartest people I have met have had two things in common:

One, they refuse to stop learning. Almost pathologically so.

Two, they manage to marry a healthy respect for—and knowledge of!—history with a deep desire to question established answers.

Short version: Study the past and its lessons, but stay rooted in forward motion. The moment you become convinced that yesterday was better than the future could be, you have officially given up.

One of my favorite quotes comes from the late road racer and journalist Denise McCluggage: “Change is the only constant. Hanging on is the only sin.”

 

white bmw 2002 miniature on bookcase shelf
Sam Smith

You ever notice that most car books … stink? This is ignoring subgenre—history, fiction, art appreciation, biography, whatever. Car books are often poorly written, sloppily edited, designed like a high-school newsletter. Even the good ones often lack a relationship with story or clarity. And yet we buy them anyway, and will continue to buy them, because we love the subject matter.

That dearth of quality generally stems from a lack of money. Car-book margins are razor-thin. Most titles draw tiny audiences, and profit sometimes gets thrown out the window in the struggle of simply getting a tome to market. This is true regardless of sticker price or intended audience. I know a few talented automotive authors, rare writers who do quality work. Most of these people write on something like a pro-bono basis—they feel the work needs to be done, so they do it in their off-hours, for next to nothing. (An award-winning Porsche historian once told me that the long process of writing and researching his last book netted around five cents per hour. He didn’t regret the effort, he said, but he did regret doing the math.)

Short version: If you like good work, support it. The last ten years have played host to a grand decline in publishing, and cars are no exception.

**

On a related note: People frequently ask me how to get a job as a writer. These asks come mostly via direct message on Twitter or Instagram, but also by email or in person, at car shows or races. One guy even asked me, once, as I walked out of the bathroom at Laguna Seca and tripped over an untied shoelace. (Funny how no one ever asks about writer salaries. Nobody wants to hear, “You will spend much of your early life broke, but imagine the joy of an un-dangled participle!”)

The answer, of course, is to read and write. Without prejudice, always and forever. Consume the type of work that you want to create, but also—and this is far more important—consume literally everything else, for inspiration and barometer. Pitch your work endlessly to anyone that you can find in your desired business, and do not be offended when they say No Thank You. Ask those people what you can do better. Work relentlessly to improve, then keep going.

As with anything worth doing, the keeping-going is the hard part.

Used car dealership sales lot baloons
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

The thing you think you want isn’t guaranteed to make you happy. Sounds obvious, right? And yet, it’s difficult to act on, especially when you’re buying a car. Cars are deeply emotional devices; studies have long shown that most people buy vehicles on emotion, not logic. Need and want are too often separate.

Some of the best advice I ever got came from a motorcycle friend many years ago: Decide what you want to buy, he said, and then work backward from the problem you want or need to solve, to see if the purchase actually solves it. Figure out the job—even if that task is something as simple as emotional delivery—and then choose the machine that best fits your case. Gorgeous and rarely driven garage art? Long-distance mile-eater? Slinky weekend canyon carver? Don’t lean too much on brain or heart. Acknowledge each voice equally.

Do this wrong, you end up selling a car or motorcycle or guitar every six months. Long-term satisfaction with your choices will seem impossible. Do it right, however, and machines will stick around for ages. You’ll come to love them like family.

Over the past 15 years, I’ve applied this philosophy to the buying of cars, motorcycles, guitars, race cars, computers, furniture, even kitchen appliances. The emotional payoff is rarely immediate, but it always comes. The key is remembering that emotion lives longest in the result of a choice, not in the choice itself.

Nissan Proto Z interior manual shifter
Nissan

Speaking of logic, the manual gearbox is dying. I don’t want to kill the clutch pedal. I love the clutch pedal with an extremely vocal majority of my heart. Left leg meets fun on a bun. But I am not most of America.

The traditional line between manual and automatic gearboxes is dead. The best new automatics have for years been more efficient and quicker-shifting than their manual counterparts. These days, you buy a manual because you like it. And a rapidly diminishing number of people make that choice every year. In 2019, just 1.1 percent of American new-car buyers opted for a manual transmission, down from 1.9 percent in 2015. (For perspective, the EV market now represents 1.9 percent of all new cars sold in America.) Since carmakers generally only build vehicles that sell, the fruit has grown thin on the vine.

Perhaps this is all new to you. If so, good news! You can do something about it! Bored behind the wheel? Like cars and want to feel more connected to the machine? Give the clutch a shot! It won’t be around forever. The more of these things we buy, the more incentive carmakers have to keep building them.

**

Inside Baseball But Possibly Also Useful Facts Department: Ninety-nine percent of the business of car media is now structured around either YouTube videos or short and airy internet stories aimed at the lowest common denominator. If you find yourself wondering why your favorite car site or magazine no longer publishes stories you really enjoy, it’s generally not because those stories aren’t worth doing. It’s because a similar story was executed once, a while ago, and that piece simply didn’t get enough traffic to justify the cost of publication.

That traffic/budget equation is often arbitrary. Its variables are generally named by people who value monthly metrics over the possession of a stable, long-term audience. More to the point, unless the site/magazine in question is owned by a small and/or private company, the math is rarely tied to long-tail qualities like brand image or long-term growth. Editorial managers are generally attempting to grow their brands year over year, which isn’t always practical or stable with a niche audience. (And make no mistake, car enthusiasm is a niche. At least compared to mainstream subjects like politics or the arts.)

With car media, the internet masses generally respond to broad tabloidism, and tabloidism produces both violent (if unstable) growth, so tabloidism is what we get. It’s an odd mentality—expecting a niche audience to behave like one larger and more general. But it’s why the more interesting work has vanished from storied older brands and larger outlets and now mostly lives with smaller, independently funded publications. (Or with the Red Bulls and Hoonigans of the world, which have their own unique revenue streams.)

Los Angeles Auto Show Floor 2019
LA Auto Show

A COLLECTION OF MODERATELY RELATED SHORT TRUTHS ABOUT THE CAR INDUSTRY THAT YOU SHOULD PROBABLY ALREADY KNOW*:

*But it’s totally okay if you didn’t.

– Sales numbers now show, without question, that most new-car buyers want a CUV. Not an SUV. Not a sports car. Not a sedan. In both Europe and America, people have voted, overwhelmingly and with their wallets, for tall, inefficient, heavy, dopey-looking un-trucks. The traditional passenger car isn’t dead, but it is now rare.

– Gas prices still compass the industry, and will continue to do so until EVs dominate the market. When fuel is cheap, manufacturers make and sell vehicles that consume a lot of the stuff. When fuel gets expensive, consumers pivot toward thrift, and carmakers follow. The business as a whole is very much capable of seeing past the now, but it’s also compassed by market whim and immediate results. This truism has been around for decades and yet somehow still manages to surprise people whenever fuel prices wiggle.

– Driving style has a lot more to do with observed fuel economy than most of what you think impacts fuel economy.

– Anything Elon Musk says should be taken with a healthy dose of salt.

– On a related note: There are no truly self-driving cars being sold today.

– Google’s people are probably further along on that problem than anyone else, in both test mileage and software development. But even the big G admits that the answer is still a long way out.

– The pickup truck is the new American luxury car. In terms of price, market placement, consumer appeal, how manufacturers view the product. No one in the business will argue this point.

– In America, charging infrastructure and practical vehicle range are the two greatest roadblocks to the widespread adoption of the electric car. Ownership cost is an extremely close third. These speed bumps will shrink, but not quickly. It helps to remember that it took decades for this country to build a workable infrastructure for the gasoline automobile. The EV problem is somewhat simpler, for a number of reasons, but critical mass will still take time.

Short version: The internal-combustion engine will probably be around a bit longer than most people think. Possibly longer than a lot of industry people might even want. Which isn’t bad or good, just reality. A truth, in other words, maybe less than obvious if you’re not buried in the business, but true nonetheless. The kind of thing that can keep you up, late at night, but probably shouldn’t.

 

Sam Smith is an editor-at-large with Hagerty. He came to the company after stints at Automobile, Car and Driver, and Road & Track, and he’s written for outlets as diverse as The New York Times and Esquire. He has been trying to read Dune for at least five years, but he keeps getting distracted by Millers.

Follow him on Twitter and Instagram: @thatsamsmith

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