- Image: Mazda

A Few Things I've learned after reading retro car reviews

It's more political than you might think

For my University thesis, I had to research and prepare a 10,000-word project centring around a question of my choice.

I titled my dissertation, 'How has the language and presentation of motoring journalism changed with the movement of the British car industry?' It received a mediocre grade, but in my head, I thought it was a winner. It took a year to put together and the research along the way was beyond interesting.

As the question involved many hours of content analysis, I had to dig through a tonne of old road tests from the likes of Autocar, CAR magazine and watch hours of documentaries and visual road tests by Thames-TV. In regard to British motoring journalism from the 60s and 70s, there was a lot to talk about - and this article covers what I found in short.

Japanese cars weren't initially welcomed...

Image: Daihatsu

Image: Daihatsu

Pictured above is the little Daihatsu Compagno; it was the first Japanese car available in the British marketplace in 1965 and despite having a plethora of equipment as standard, Autocar didn't praise it for what it was.

Instead, they were confident enough to say that the Japanese had no chance against the 'mighty' British industry. This attitude certainly would've held some weight at the time since foreign cars made up for 8% of total registrations in 1960 and only later on did the British journalists embarrass themselves.

A 1966 review of the Toyota Corona even had a paragraph where it stated several things in which the Japanese could learn from the 'established' Europeans. It's clear that the early Japanese cars were seen as little niches in the late sixties and that nobody had any idea how popular they would become.

Of course, some of the reviews were objective and praised the build quality and value of Japanese cars such as the Honda N360 and Mazda 1500, but most kept their confidence in the 'norm' such as Fords and Triumphs.

British cars were (mostly) treated with praise... and extreme detail

Image: Rover

Image: Rover

One significant thing I've learned is that British journalists really loved cars from their industry. A research paper I came across theorised that journalists love reviewing things from their country for two reasons:

1. Because they're more comfortable with said product and are likely to withhold a lot of knowledge and experience about it.

2. Because praise for a product of that country's nationality displays their industrial power in a very visual way.

Especially for Britain at the time, our car industry was enormous. Therefore it would've been likely that British consumers would know more about them than their foreign competitors. Things would change throughout the 1970s as foreign car registrations grew from 15% in 1972 to 50% in 1980.

But open up CAR magazine's review on the Rover P6 3500 from 1968, and there is an entire section dedicated to how Rover developed the Buick-derived V8 engine and made it fit in the P6. That lasted for five whole pages and this would never be seen in reviews of foreign cars.

Despite the practice of objectivity and journalists' commitment for it, British cars were favoured more than others once upon a time and you can tell!

Image: Ford Motor Company.

Image: Ford Motor Company.

In comparison tests, journalists always made a good attempt to favour the British car over the foreign competitors. The Ford Consul for instance was favoured over the Datsun 240K GT in a CAR twin test because it appeared less 'ostentatious', despite the Japanese car performing just as good, if not better than the blue oval.

It was almost as if Britain was in a battle with the foreign manufacturers to assert dominance in the market sector. The language became quite patriotic and in Thames-TV's test of the Triumph Dolomite Sprint, it was presented as pleasing that it managed to outclass Germany's BMW and Italy's Lancia and Alfa Romeo.

Objectivity swept in as the foreigners were winning

Image: BMW

Image: BMW

British Leyland began to crumble by the latter half of the 1970s and foreign cars were more popular than ever. After Britain joined the common market which obliterated the issue of import purchase tax, Volkswagen took advantage of this with the Golf and similarly did BMW with the 3-Series.

With British car quality now becoming a joke rather than something to be proud of, it was clear to the motoring press that it would make more sense to look at every car, no matter where it came from, objectively.

You begin to notice this in road tests in the 1970s and even the 80s where prejudices and political remarks are gone! Instead, readers were given consumer journalism which focuses on the facts and stats rather than displaying a country's industrial (or lack thereof) power.

I could go on forever (I did 10,000 words on this after all), but those are some of the major observations I came across when digging through the archives of British motoring journalism.

I hope you enjoyed reading!

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Comments (39)

  • Car reviews in the US were the same way, except we harshly criticized foreign cars in the ‘70s. Car manufacturers were making whole documentaries on how foreign cars were bad, and the public ate them up as they rushed to buy a Chevy Vega over a VW Beetle. Well, we know how that turned out for them.

      6 days ago
  • Read how car reviews were in the olden days! @tribe

      6 days ago
  • Variations in individualistic writing is worth writing about, and you’ve presented a subject that individuals write about that gives individuals freedom.

    I think you’ve got some good material for a book, particularly if you can spot the nature and causes of how it came to be that the British motoring industry was highly diverse and competitive in the early 1920s , was homogenised in the ‘60s and ‘70s and then diversified from the ‘80s onwards .

    I started thinking a few days ago that that the great diversity and geographical isolation of car manufacturing in Britain in the 1920s immediately followed the Spanish flu outbreak .

    Were shed tinkerers heading for the hills to escape the plague ?

    Britain’s individual motorised transport was being built individualistically in a great number of small sheds .

    Look at it another way : what if covid had arrived in the 1970s when the giant British Leyland factories with their many thousands of workers were working in not exactly social distanced circumstances ?

    Law of unintended consequences ?

    The, ahem , disassembling of British Leyland may have possibly reduced the likelihood of diseases spreading ?

    As the Led Zep lyrics go, “ oh, it makes you wonder “

    What if covid ( a ) results in a recession that forces individuals to think more individualistically ?


    ( b )

    What if the geographical isolation of covid results in a renaissance of home built British roadsters , sports cars and Grand Tourers ?

    I can’t help but see a similar and completely understandable individual emotional reaction to covid, almost on the centenary of the Spanish Flu; that is a desire to work alone on a small car.

    Imagine what the individual car designs of the next few years will look like ?

    The right to individual self determinism, thus exercised .

    Or as Brian Johnston from AC DC waxed : “ back in black “

      6 days ago
    • A book would be a lengthy thing to work on, but it's a solid idea. Thank you!

        5 days ago
    • Not isolated enough for Rolls Royce to have a factory in the USA or for a Bavarian motor works (I forget the name) to take a liking to the Austin 7...

        5 days ago
  • It still is the case with German car journalism, the chauvinism is hardly bearable. It is no wonder the "Auto Bild" magazine is referred to as "Audi Bild",

    I think the German journalists are responsible for "The big Three" (In this case, Audi, BMW and Mercedes Benz) being instated as the "Premium" automobiles.

    I remember an article in the early zeroes which stated maybe only Saab (9-5) and Volvo (V70) could match the great trio of A6, 5 series and E-class. Of course they couldn't, because as safe and well built the Swedish steel was, it was still no match to the German rulers of the Autobahn.

    It's no different today, the German product will always be seen as superior by their own kind.

      5 days ago
    • I'm SURE the journalists had something to do with it, but I think their ads also helped build up the "German Engineering" as being superior

        3 days ago
  • If you've signed up to the Intercooler app then Mel Nichols article on the rise of car magazine in the 70's and 80's is interesting reading in this context. Part of national bias almost certainly came from the advertising spend the British manufacturers would put into the magazines which was no doubt considerably more than the Japanese were spending at the time. Also something that is less talked about today, is that foreign manufactured cars were subject to considerable import duties in the sixties. Today's reviews often remark that the little Alfa GTV cost as much as an E Type in the sixties but don't mention that the reason was the huge (and reciprocal) duties placed on foreign cars. In the UK an Aston Martin DB6 was a little more than half the price of a Ferrari 275, but in Italy the pricing was reversed all down to duties. If a like for like car costs a lot more then it is immediately at a disadvantage in a magazine review.

      6 days ago