Someone asked me an interesting question the other day. They wanted to know just what it’s like being a motoring journalist? I think they had it in their head that it was all private jets and fancy car launches in exciting, exotic destinations. While I’m sure that’s the case for some people, it’s not for me.
I’m what you’d call a niche motoring journalist. By that, I mean I focus on niche topics. It’s a side of this profession that people seldom explain in any degree of depth, so given I have my own digital soapbox in the form of this site, I thought I’d tell you all what it’s like and of course, how to get into it.
It’s a common misconception that you can only get into this line of work if you have the academic background to suit. Now, I’m sure having a qualification in journalism goes a long way, but that’s not a path I’ve ever walked. I’m completely self-taught. Before this, some ten years ago, I worked in the service department of a Skoda garage.
Before you go firing off your CV to all and sundry, it’s worth noting that if you’ve not got the qualification, you better be a damn good writer. I learned how to write almost by accident. I have always loved writing, and growing up with my own car magazines and the ones my father bought at my constant disposal, I had a lot of research material and more importantly, inspiration. Reading all that stuff for years gave me a sense of voice, tone and audience. Important things to be aware of. For example, I wouldn’t write a story about a modified Escort Cosworth the same way as I would, say, a story about a Morgan Plus 4.
You also need to know and embrace the fact you will always, ALWAYS be learning. I’ve been doing this for a decade, but I take no shame in Googling a word I might not have used before. It’s how you grow as a writer. Also, never, ever stop reading. The more you read, the more you’ll see how others construct their stories. And not just about cars, read anything at all. It’s all good to have in your head.
The most important thing about this job, however, is that you have to love writing. Not cars. Writing. Yes, have that automotive interest by all means, but make sure your love for the written word supersedes it. If not, you’ll just end up writing stale, dull copy. Neither you nor the reader wants that.
So how the hell did I get into it? In the most bizarre way you can imagine, actually. In my early twenties I realised that sitting behind the service desk at a Skoda garage was not fulfilling in any way, shape or form. I had always loved car magazines though, I wanted to be a part of that world. I had set up a blog and was enjoying my writing. But it wasn’t enough. So I applied for some work experience with Future Publishing in Bath. In the end, I did a week with Classic Ford and a week with now defunct Redline. It. Was. Brilliant. I got to see how a magazine worked, how it all came together from chaos into a fistful of glossy pages each month. If you want to get into this as a career, I strongly suggest this path.
From there, Classic Ford offered me paid freelance work, and that’s where it got interesting. I saw a van for sale on a forum. An Escort van in fact. Then I saw someone had made a rather surreal offer. Something like three squirrels, the dreams of a forlorn tea-towel and a hat. So I countered this offer with something even more surreal. This went on for a few days. The man I was bartering against? Ben Morley, the editor of Retro Ford magazine. He liked my forum posts, so asked me in to work on Retro Ford for a few days. I did, and was offered a full-time job. Madness!
The point of that story is to say that you only get anywhere in this line of work by interacting, or to use a horrible business term, networking. From that point on, I made sure I got a business card from everyone I met, and I made sure they got one of mine. I stayed in contact with people, I went to events, I embedded myself in that world. That’s what you need to do.
Since those early days I have worked on Retro Ford, I have been the Editor of Performance Ford, I’ve worked on a Morgan magazine, Max Power, GT Porsche, Retro Cars, more digital outlets than I can think of and I’ve also worked on an international WRC event for nine consecutive years. And that really is just a handful of examples. I’m not here to show you my CV.
And that’s not willy-waving. The point is that all those things came about because I networked and offered my services. That’s what you need to do. This job isn’t just about sitting at a desk and writing about the bore and stroke of a particular V12. Though I’ve done a fair bit of that, too.
And that brings me to best bit about this job: the adventures. If the thought of sitting in an office for the rest of your life fills you with dread, this is the job for you. I’m not going to list everything I’ve done, but lets just say there have been some epic road-trips, I’ve helped build some killer cars, I’ve stood in a room with 6 Porsche 918 Spiders, I’ve met Ari Vatanen, discussed the benefits of chrome trim with James May, I’ve driven an Anglia to Switzerland and back, I’ve been stuffed into the wall at the Nurburgring and I’ve drifted a Nissan Leaf. It’s been an incredible ride. If you want to experience life and have fun, you can’t go far wrong by being a motoring journalist.
To offset all that, there’s the work element. Yeah, I get to go out and have fun, but while I’m having that fun, I can’t be writing at the same time. That means I have to fit it in somewhere else, whether that’s on my laptop, in my car, in a race circuit’s car park, or at my own desk at home until the early hours. This is hard work, have no doubt. Okay, so it’s not particularly physical, but your brain has to be ‘on’ all the time. If it’s not, you’ll produce crap copy. It’s as simple as that.
Never, ever take it for granted, either. There are a lot of us doing this, and we’re all fighting for the work. If you want to be a motoring journalist you have to be tenacious, too. This isn’t a world for the meek, you simply won’t get anywhere. While I have done lots of exciting jobs, I’ve had to either work hard for them, or spend years cultivating the relationships that put me at the top of a client’s list of writers.
Do all that though, and you’ll have an incredible career. Like I said earlier, I’m a niche writer. I don’t do the new car stuff, you won’t see me in What Car? or Auto Express… yet. But even so, down here on the lower end of the motoring journalism scale, I’m having a riot. And you can, too. But as I said, like cars by all means, but more than anything, love writing.