Paul Guinness recalls his early days writing about cars for the ’80s female car market…
When you’ve been involved in this motoring journalism malarkey for as long as I have, you tend to accumulate an impressive (or depressing, depending on your of view) amount of… well, let’s just call it ‘stuff’. Old press packs, brochures, press photographs and books are allowed to take up valuable space around the home, with each and every item falling into the ‘It Might Be Useful One Day’ category. And then there are the magazines…
Ah yes, the magazines. I began collecting car magazines long before I joined the industry. But what started out as a hobby was transformed into a professional addiction from the day I landed my first journalism job, joining the staff of the long since defunct Sports Car Monthly in 1986. The following year, however, was when things got even more interesting for me.
I was reminded of this whilst going through some old boxes a few weeks ago, rediscovering a hoard of women’s magazines from 1987. And at this point you’re probably wondering why I not only bought countless copies of magazines aimed at a female readership thirty years ago, but also why I still have them all these years later. The answer is more logical than you might assume.
Back in 1987, I reckoned there were various opportunities within motoring journalism that weren’t being fulfilled. I’d had plenty of features published in magazines aimed at car enthusiasts (ever since my first article in Street Machine, five years earlier), but I liked the idea of presenting motoring features to an audience that perhaps wasn’t already hooked on cars. And with the late ’80s seeing plenty of activity in the women’s magazine market, maybe there was an opportunity there?
I duly went out and bought just about every women’s magazine available at the time that I felt might be suitable. I can’t remember the expression on the newsagent’s face as I dropped more than twenty titles on the counter, but he must have thought me rather odd. Anyway, I wrote off to the editor of each (this was a world without emails, of course) and kept my fingers crossed that one of them might take the bait. A subsequent phone call from Gruner & Jahr (the publisher of Prima magazine) explained that the company was launching a brand new weekly title that could be just the right outlet for a motoring page.
That title turned out to be Best magazine, aimed at a younger audience than its long-established rivals (Woman’s Own, Woman’s Realm, Woman… you get the idea). And it got off to a flying start, with weekly sales averaging around 750,000 copies – or more than a million in a peak week. Not surprisingly, Britain’s car manufacturers and importers soon got to hear that the latest best-selling weekly magazine for women had its own motoring editor, which meant huge potential for them in terms of mass-market publicity.
For a 22-year-old wanting to make a name in motoring journalism, it didn’t get much better than this. I had my own weekly page in a national title that was selling in huge numbers, and for which the publisher was paying handsomely. I look back at the page rate agreed exactly thirty years ago and still find it amazing that it’s roughly six times more than some magazines (admittedly of the ‘niche’ variety) manage to pay in 2017. But those were heady days for magazine publishing, and I couldn’t believe my luck at the time.
It also meant that I got to drive a rich and diverse array of cars, with a different make and model being dropped off outside my parents’ house each week. I obviously had to bear in mind the readership that Best was aimed at when I was booking cars; but whoever said that a weekly motoring page in a women’s magazine had to focus on tiny hatchbacks? This was the ’80s, with more working women in high-profile jobs choosing their own cars with their own money. No longer could the motor industry patronise women and assume that it was ‘hubby’ who made all the motoring decisions. The world was changing…
That’s why, in amongst the usual Peugeot 205s, Ford Fiestas and Fiat Unos that I had on test during my three years at Best, I was also treated to the latest Bertone X1/9, the long-running Alfa Romeo Spider, the brilliantly innovative new Land Rover Discovery and the uniquely utilitarian Citroen 2CV. At one point I was even let loose in a Porsche 911 Carrera 4 for a week, such were the changing perceptions about female car buyers.
That weekly motoring page offered plenty of variety, with the inevitable road test being complemented by a ‘Living with…’ feature, news on the latest products, ‘How To’ tips and a focus on prices and finance. But the road tests were inevitably the highlight for me, giving me the kind of access to the latest models that would otherwise have been impossible at such a young age.
I’ve been lucky over the years, having always earned a living from motoring journalism; and I count myself even luckier that over the last two decades my work has been focused around my passion for all things classic. It’s therefore ironic that many of the cars I so enjoyed driving and writing about when they were new are the very same models that I often end up writing about as fully fledged classics thirty years later. (And many of them have aged rather better than me, it has to be said.)
In the 21st century, it perhaps seems odd to talk about car features aimed specifically at women readers. The whole concept sounds rather old-fashioned, or perhaps even patronising, but thirty years ago a full page of motoring in one of Britain’s best-selling women’s weeklies was revolutionary stuff.
Anyway, I’ve still got plenty of copies of Best to remind me of those times. So… if anyone fancies reading my verdict on the latest Renault 5, do let me know.