A new website wants to recreate the spirit of the greatest car magazines

Down deep, most car people are magazine people.
Even in the digital age, the majority of auto journalists now working revere a pre-digital time when Car & Driver, Road & Track, and Motor Trend created a world of motor-heady enthusiasm mixed with stylish writing.

Times change, however. Media has moved online decisively, and automotive journalism needs to adjust.

The Golden Age of print-auto writing may have faded, but the U.S. car market is better than it has been in a decade. That’s why Time Inc. just launched a new site, The Drive.

It’s a risky proposition and a big bet on new media by and old-media company. Previous digital ventures in the auto-journalism space have been scrappy: Jalopnik started out with a small group of oddball car guys and some modest support from Gawker Media. Autoblog was equally bloggy and small-time until it was bought by AOL, but even now, it retains its bloggy, obsessive spirit.

The Drive, by contrast, is launching this week with a roster of heavy hitters from the media and auto-writing world, including Lawrence Ulrich, who made his bones behind the wheel for the New York Times; and A.J. Baime, who wrote a great book about a legendary race, “Go Like Hell: Ford, Ferrari, and Their Battle for Speed and Glory at Le Mans.”

The site will also, in contemporary startup fashion, be occupying space in Brooklyn, far from the Time-Life citadel in Manhattan. There will reportedly be a garage, optimised for video production and seeking to create the kind of automotive content that appeals to a generation not raised on Motor Trend’s printed comparos but on Motor Trend’s YouTube channel — and re-runs of “Top Gear.”

New York state of mind

I dropped by Time-Life this week to chat with both The Drive’s editor, Mike Guy (formerly of Maxim, and on the phone from the Frankfurt Motor Show) and Matt Bean, SVP of Editorial Innovation at Time Inc. There were two big takeways.

First, The Drive is going to have a strong New York flavour. This is a micro-trend in the car business: the resurgence of New York as a place where people care about cars. Cadillac recently moved its sales and operations to New York and has be re-branding itself as a luxury car maker closely connected with New York in all its fashionable, gritty glory.

The Driver is aiming for something similar, defying the long-held belief that car publications need to be based in either Detroit or Southern California (the former for the industry, the latter for the weather and the roads).

This links The Drive with the Car & Driver on the 1960s and ’70s — they’re packaging what Car & Driver did during the heyday of writers and editors like Brock Yates and P.J. O’Rourke for a much younger audience.

Car & Driver was a very cool car magazine that was written by people who were under the sway of the New Journalism, which was headquartered in New York (Car & Driver decamped for Michigan in 1978 and no one has ever forgiven them). The Drive is designed to explore the New Journalism of now: dynamic digital storytelling.

Jalopnik tried to do something like this when it started out in the mid-2000s, blending snappy sentences with an compulsive desire to embrace the Internet’s meme-making machine. Jalopnik continues to feature very stylish and opinionated writers in the auto-blogosphere, but The Drive is pushing the revival of this type of car writing in a much better capitalised, less outsider-y direction.

Second, The Drive is going to stress a throwback affection for words.

Will it work? Well, The Drive does check some boxes. It has a feed for up-to-the-minute automotive news, and it also isn’t shying away from big, high-impact visual features. In digital car coverage it’s extremely important to show the cars. And the showing won’t be limited to photos. There will be video and lots of it.

Creative car writing

What’s interspersed with that is a slightly mixed bag at the moment. Ulrich’s review of the Cadillac ATS-V, a 464-horsepower sports coupe intended to steal share from BMW, is punchy and thrusty and authoritative, if not really groundbreaking.

But there is this line: “Once you’ve snuggled into the Caddy’s rib-sticking Recaro buckets, caressed the faux-suede steering wheel and toggled that shifter, you’re fresh out of interior talking points.”

Those are fun words to read, for sure.

Baime’s take on the new Ford Shelby GT350 Mustang is ripped from the track — Laguna Seca in California — but a tad workmanlike in execution.

“There are but a few perfect moments in life,” Baime writes. “All your senses become electrified, and you feel like you can see the world and where you fit into it with immaculate clarity. This moment is called ecstasy.”

Guy shows off some chops at the keyboard, with his investigation of the new Mazda MX-5 Miata.

“[T]he Mazda eagerly pursues its limits at speeds that don’t threaten your licence, life or limb,” he writes. “It’s a glider, not a fighter. As it does on track, where skilled owners routinely embarrass rookies in more powerful cars, the Mazda rewards those who can carry momentum through curves.”

Writer-large-Brett Burke deliveries some elegant comparisons, in response to a drive of the new Ferrari 488 GTB. “Flooring a Bugatti Veyron pulverizes your senses. Flooring a Lamborghini Aventador terrorizes them. Flooring the 488 releases a flood of endorphins, fight and flight.

And Max Prince’s post about wrecking his 1997 BMW contains this: “Just before winter, I had a drag-out argument with my then-girlfriend, mostly because she didn’t realise we were dating. On the drive home, I listened to Tom Waits and thought about buying a piano. Unrequited love is a bitch. So are dump trucks.”

Prince is a senior editor at The Drive, and that kind of prose mainlines what senior eds at Car & Driver routinely produced, lightly gonzo with a healthy dash of self-deprecation.

But the real tell that The Drive is spiritually connected to the car writing of the ’60s and ’70s comes from a standout feature from racing legend Mario Andretti about the tragic glory of his first Formula 1 World Championship in 1978 (he was the last American to pull this off), when he won the Italian Grand Prix at Monza, but lost his friend Ronnie Peterson to injuries sustained in a crash. The best car publications always reserve space to remind us that the men and women who race cars are miles above anyone who merely writes about cars. The Drive is no different.

Bucking a trend

The site is bucking at least one online-media trend, simply because it’s so big (its launching with dozens of stories, after being in stealth mode for months). This makes it a fully fledged play for a large audience, rather than an attempt to capture a niche readership, something that enthusiast sites like Hodinkee have done for watch nuts and that numerous men’s style blogs have done for classic menswear and heritage made-in-USA products.

Guy and Bean are optimistic that the readers will come and come in force. And at launch, they have certainly made good on giving those readers something to read.

It remains to be seen whether that aspect of The Drive will survive. Car & Driver was always my favourite of the so-called “buff books,” so I’m psyched to see its style reborn for a new generation that cares about cars but has moved well past magazines.

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