A Peek Behind the Curtain…
As far back as I can remember, I wanted to write for car magazines. Heck, I think I started flipping through my dad’s Car & Driver and Road & Track magazines when I was still potty training! As I got older I’d find myself taking beauty shots of the family cars, studying the specs, and even putting pen to paper from time to time. I’d go to car dealerships to get brochures about cars I liked but as a 12 year-old expat kid in Hong Kong was not likely to purchase – under the auspices of them being “for my dad.” Suffice it to say: I was addicted from a young age, and it’s only gotten worse.
Fast forward some 30-odd years and there I was, nurturing a career in non-profit management, and playing with cars in my free time. The year was 2003, my wife and I had been married for about 9 years, and we had our first child. Life was good, but my car habit had grown. Unlike normal people, with some reasonable income I developed a habit of buying older cars, driving them for a while, fixing them up, and then selling them on to the next caretaker. I think at that point we’d had maybe about 15 cars since we got married, and we were a running joke with our families: “what are you driving this week?” “Any new cars?” “How can you change cars like you change clothes?” and, well, you get the idea.
A new magazine had come on the scene the year before – an English magazine focused on Mercedes-Benz cars. As a Mercedes fan myself, I’d always thought someone should start a Mercedes magazine aside from the standard fare club publications so I signed-up right away. After a few months, a very U.S.-centric story idea occurred to me, so I sent an email off to the editor to suggest it, along with some mudgitation about a recent article. To my surprise, I hit a double: first, they published my ramblings as their star letter of the month (and sent me a very nice model of a historic Mercedes race car); and second the editor wrote back essentially saying that the article idea was a good one, but that he didn’t have anyone on the ground in the States to write it – so I was welcome to give it a go.
Fortunately, several years earlier through my day job I’d met a remarkable and versatile photographer by the name of Kaveh Sardari. I knew him as an accomplished political, corporate, and wedding photographer, but asked if he’d be interested in doing a car shoot. One for adventure, he jumped at the opportunity. Through internet forums I amassed a group of four 1980s-vintage Mercedes diesels (including my own 1984 300D) and organized my first professional automotive photo shoot. In the meantime, I pulled-together my collection of books, brochures, period articles, and technical information to put words to paper. I had a word count and a deadline, and met both with precision. Of course in those days digital photography was still pretty basic, so we shot slides that had to be processed and reviewed. I took the best of them and my article, packaged them in a FedEx envelope, sent them off to the editor in England, and waited. And waited. And waited.
Frankly, it wasn’t really that long, but it sure felt like it. After a few weeks I got a little impatient and called the editor to ask whether the article was that bad. “Oh, right, sorry, didn’t I tell you? It’s running next month.” And so it began.
Now it’s important to note that this is not what I do for a living. I looked long and hard at it for many years, but at the end of the day I had three fundamental issues: 1) the pay is not great and is going down. The rise of the internet and drop-off of print advertisers mean that for freelance writers competition is stiffer and pay is lower. There are lots of folks who make a living at it, but it takes a lot of drive and a lot of hustle. 2) I like it as a hobby. Cars are my enjoyment. I didn’t want them to become my work. They are my escape and distraction from the realities of life. 3) My day job supports my car habit. Of course, as with all things your mileage may vary.
Don’t get me wrong: as a hobby this does require work – research, time commitment, flexibility, people skills, and passion. Tell me that you can’t tell the difference when you read something by someone who is passionate about the subject versus someone who is doing it for a paycheck. You can! Enthusiasm has to come through, or your reader will move on. So will your editor.
But again, there is plenty of fun to be had. Every automotive journalist has their own experience, but among my personal favorites:
- Driving the Nurburgring in a W211 Mercedes E550 and nearly taking out the entire editorial team of the magazine
- Photographing a $1M 300SL Roadster in the rain
- 5 solid days of Porsches in SoCal on the 50th anniversary of the 911
- Lapping the historic Goodwood Speedway in a variety of late model toys
- The obligatory top-speed run on the autobahn in a Porsche 997 Carrera
- Burning the tires off a formerly celebrity-owned Mercedes/Renntech E60 with the blessing of the Mercedes-Benz Classic Center
- Cruising the streets of upscale northern New Jersey in a 1937 540K Spezial Roadster
…just to name a few.
Another example – and my most recent: Just this past weekend I traveled to Westchester County, New York to visit Philip Richter’s Turtle Garage. This collection is all about “cars and motorcycles with stories” – and it delivers. Pulling-up to the farm-based garage looked a little like that old poster that most Car Geeks around my age will remember all to well: “Justification for Higher Education” – a collection of 80s-vintage exotic and luxury cars in a multi-bay garage. Turtle Garage even contains two (arguably three) of the cars on the poster. Clearly our generation is coming into its own in the car collector hobby, and we’re buying-up the cars that whetted our appetites as hormonal teenagers.
So here’s how the day went:
- Drove 5 hours Friday night in trusty Toyota Tundra – a pickup is a great car shoot vehicle – arrived around midnight.
- Alarm at 5:00am Saturday morning. Sleep button. Alarm at 5:10am. Sleep button. Finally awake at 5:20am. Get gas, coffee, and a very dry gas station muffin for breakfast.
- On location at 6:30am. Best light is early morning.
- Drooled over car collection for a few minutes, chatted with owner about the morning, started pictures.
- Polo ponies happened to be exercising in the adjacent field at the same time. So much about a photo shoot is luck – and this one delivered in spades. It looked like a Ralph Lauren advertisement, and the horse trainers were terrific sports. So was the bulldog that knocked the photographer over.
- Pictures for about an hour. Every angle, with owner, without owner, lights on, lights off. Move it back three feet. Turn the steering wheel. No, turn it back. You’re in the reflection! Can we get the horses back? And so on.
- Meanwhile, talk to owner about the car, about cars, about life, WAIT – I should be taking notes. Get notebook. Ask redundant questions. Talk to Dean Laumbach, the “car whisperer” who found the car about his perspective. B.S. about cars we like and totally lose focus.
- Look through pictures in the camera, good stuff. What next?
- B.S. cars some more. Forget that we’re not done yet. Drool on collection some more. Do you like the 928GTS? I’ve always loved those…. Refocus.
- Time for motion shots. Pile in the truck, me driving and photographer in the bed. Establish hand signals with the subject car because I forgot to bring walkie-talkies.
- Drive slowly on the main roads so as not to lose photographer out the back. Wait, he’s standing up. WHY IS HE STANDING UP?
- Find side roads with good scenery and less traffic. We’ll lead first – try and stay off the brake so it doesn’t reflect. Speed up. SLOW DOWN. Stop here. Wait. Go again. Can we do that road again? Let’s do it again. One more time. No really, just once more.
- Find a good area to stop and get drive-by shots. OK – go that way, turn around and come back, then turn around and come back again. We’ll give you a thumbs-up when we’ve got enough. 2 passes. 5 passes. 10 passes. OH! I found the shot! 18 passes… I lost count.
- Back down that pretty road again. We’ll follow this time. 3 hours in at this point.
- Pulling back onto the farm. This is gorgeous! We need to shoot here! Get the truck out of my shot! Bring me the ladder! Never mind, I don’t want it. OK, we’ve got what we need.
- Back to the garage. More detail shots of the car. Every single bit that’s interesting. EVERY.SINGLE.BIT. 4 hours…..
- Meanwhile drool over collection one more time….
- Some more owner shots. Now get all of us together. I think we’re done…4.5 hours in.
- 5 hours to drive home. Then entertain my sister in-law and her kids for the remainder of the evening.
- Back to work on Monday.
And this was an easy one. As you can see, it can be repetitive and tiring, but it’s an absolute blast at the same time. so a few pieces of advice for those who have an interest in automotive journalism or anything like this:
- Take initiative. My career started with an email. Be bold, but be smart about it. Think about what you have to offer that everyone else doesn’t
- Be professional. With your editor and with your subjects. In the car community, one collector often knows others. From this event I emerged with 2 contacts. That is future content. Be thinking forward.
- Get a good camera and learn how to use it. I love working with Kaveh, but he’s not always available and/or it’s not always practical to use him. Practice at local car shows or on your own car.
- Have someone else read your writing – especially early on. My sister – the self-proclaimed “editorial goddess” – did this for me for a long time. Accept criticism. Become better.
- Keep trying. Not everyone is going to connect with you or accept your content. If you can engage them, understand why.
- Use the internet. Both of us at TTS write professionally, but this is a great outlet to practice and to manage our own content. Websites and blogs are cheap and easy. You may just develop a following. We average about 200 folks a day. Imagine those folks in a room – and post frequently (do as I say, not as I do….). Content is king.
- Have fun.
This is some great feedback for those of us who are just toddlers when it comes to expertise in navigating the automotive journalism industry. Thanks for sharing it. I had to laugh when I the “Justification for Higher Education” poster – that adorned my wall as a teenager! Framed, even. Congratulations on your automotive successes – you’ve earned them.
Nice of you to say! It’s a tremendous amount of fun, but takes a lot of work even part time – and there’s always room to get better. I found three typos rereading this just now several hours after posting.. Good luck!
I remember your first Mercedes Enthusiast article on Mercedes diesels in American quite well, and I still have that October 2002 issue of the magazine on my bookshelf of car magazines. I am also an auto blogger local to the Washington, DC area, and I believe that you may be able to help me with some research on a rare classic Mercedes of the 1980s. I had the unusual luck of spotting a W126-based four door convertible by Caruna of Switzerland, in Baghdad, Iraq of all places, and I wrote about it on a blog earlier this year (http://www.curbsideclassic.com/curbside-classics-european/cc-global-mercedes-w126-s-class-four-door-convertible-by-caruna-long-lost-european-royalty/). Recently I became acquainted with the owner of an identical car in the United States, with a celebrity owner history, and we are trying to learn more about Caruna and the car itself. Your connections at Mercedes Enthusiast may be helpful. Please contact me by email (email@example.com) to discuss, if you do not mind.
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