Automotive Criticism in an Automotive Culture – Parts I and II
By Alex Ricciuti
Automotive criticism (Part I): More than just a business
I am an automotive journalist. I cover the industry for a living. When I mention this to people they immediately assume that I am some sort of car enthusiast or expert. If they ask me for advice on what kind of car to buy, I am happy to oblige, though I usually just say, “Buy a Toyota and you will be happy. Or at least you will not be on a bus one day cursing me while your car is in the shop. “
Here’s the distinction: I do not adore cars so much as I like to drive. Driving is relaxing for me. A nice roll across the Swiss countryside, where I live, helps jump-start my creativity as much of my writing begins while I’m behind the wheel. Music always accompanies me on these journeys – Miles Davis, Mogwai, or whatever best reflects and suffuses the mood I am in.
What I do like is a car that is well-engineered and fun to drive. I like the way the better Peugeots handle and I like a car that is stylish and practical and that drives outside of its class. That’s what I like about European marques, you don’t have to go to a luxury brand to get a great driving experience.
And this is why I like new cars. Pretty, shiny new vehicles fresh from the manufacturer and into press fleets with only a few thousand kilometers on the odometer at most. Cars engineered with all the advances made over the last hundred years or so that make them lighter, safer and more nimble on the road than anything in years past. Many of the people I meet who are enthusiasts of one degree or another often start to talk to me about classic cars – 1968 Mustangs or ‘61 Ferraris and hope that I have something insightful to add. I don’t. Show me a classic car and all I’ll say is,”No airbags? Deathtrap.”
I also happen to believe that there is something unique about the car industry. There is some glamour to it. Not as much as the entertainment or fashion business but it carries more desirability weight than say, working in IT or being one of those pathetic suppliers the car makers enjoy jerking around like the office cad with the frumpy girl in accounting who’s hooked on him.
Cars very much define the cultures we live in. The car makers know this, which is why they try so hard to make that one, perfect, I-gotta-have-it car. That the Ford F-150 is the biggest selling vehicle in the US says something about American culture and that the VW Golf serves as its counterpart in Europe also speaks to how people live here. Perhaps no other industry, including Hollywood, defines our modern, industrialized, and now post-industrialized, technology driven societies as much as the automobile industry does. The automobile symbolizes the fulfillment of the capitalist promise – it is our freedom and mobility. A car is iconic. It is this cultural aspect that fascinates me most.
Automotive Criticism (Part II): My two favorite car critics
I was once talking to a GM spokesperson when I casually brought up the name Jeremy Clarkson. I didn’t mean to, it just happened to come out when I mentioned something I had seen on Top Gear. I must have sent his blood pressure soaring as a crossroads pattern of veins began to emerge on his forehead and his face turned flush with rage. I found myself thinking where would I be able to find the nearest defribilator. I was lucky this man was under 50 lest I be charged with involuntary manslaughter for provoking a stroke.
He spouted contemptuously about Clarkson. That Clarkson just hates Vauxhall and automatically dismisses and mocks any car they put on the market. He did have a point. Clarkson can be, and usually is, vicious towards cars he doesn’t like and he hardly ever tries to be objective. Even if a car has its good qualities, he’ll just nominally mention them and then move on to trash it anyway.
For those of you who don’t know him, Clarkson is the automotive critic for the the Times (The Times of London, as it is called elsewhere) and hosts a widely popular BBC show called Top Gear that is shown around the world on various BBC channels.
Now, I have to make a distinction here between the Clarkson on TV and the writer for the Times. The guy on TV can be more than a little obnoxious and you have to have a sensibility for a particular brand of British humor to understand him. He wears tight blue jeans like your still-trying-to-be young uncle, needs a haircut and looks particularly shabby for a man his age. Clarkson has also appeared on a BBC show called Grumpy Old Men, which actually explains everything.
But, for me, not being properly groomed for TV is not one of the things I would criticize about Clarkson. If he were on American television, by now he’d have to have had more plastic surgery than Joan Rivers just to keep his job. And he’d have to tone down his act. Basically, he would have to reinvent himself as Ryan Seacrest to keep working. So, I admire him and the BBC for letting him be who is he is, all critics be damned. Still, there are many Brits who think of him as a colossal jerk and he does do his part to encourage them.
What I am critical of Clarkson for, both the writer and the Top Gear host, is how he engages in outdated national stereotypes whilst reviewing cars. In fact, there’s a whole page on the Times‘ website which features a list of reviews based on his thoughts about the countries that build the model. You can see it here.
For Clarkson, French cars are always flashy but awful, German cars reflect Germans – sensible, reserved, etc. Engaging in these stereotypical notions is unfair to both the countries and their automakers, and in the year 2007 it’s really time to move past them. Maybe the underlying ant-Americanism (Clarkson can really rag on those big, clunky American imports) and Euro-skepticism sells in the UK but Top Gear has an international audience and it would be an improvement if he dropped it.
What I really respect about Clarkson is the writer you see in the Times. One cannot deny his humor, talent for language and the authenticity of his voice. It defines the notions of trade craft and professionalism. This guy can write. Most of his reviews begin with a few hundred words on whatever theme or topics have come to mind. The first half of his articles are not car reviews at all but ruminations on life. He then picks up a theme and transitions into the car review and whether it really fits or not doesn’t matter because his writing is so strong.
Click here to check out Clarkson’s work.
But the one critic I do enjoy reading most, without reservations, is another writer whose whirling prose and apt metaphors never seem forced or ring false. That would be Dan Neil of the LA Times.
Neil has the talent of Clarkson but with a quainter, reserved style. As an American, he lacks the brashness of Clarkson’s sardonic humor. He’s more good-natured but I don’t think GM would agree. They once pulled half their ads off the LA Times because of him and were forced back because of complaints by local dealers dependent on the ad spending.
(Note to GM: If you don’t want negative reviews, don’t make bad cars. You made some really bad cars for many years, as your own most-candid executive Bob Lutz will readily admit. If it soured both critics and consumers alike, maybe even to the point where they wouldn’t give you credit when you built a decent car, it’s of your own doing.)
I was once talking to James Cobb, editor of the NY Times automobile section where Neil worked for many years, and he remarked how Neil had honed his skills while working there. He was taking credit but credit the NY Times, or any paper that gives a writer a chance to evolve, deserves. No matter how much raw talent you have, you don’t just wake up one morning and start writing like Dan Neil. Neil has the distinction of being the first and only automotive writer to win a Pulitzer Prize for criticism. That is an exceptional achievement. To write so well on what is essentially consumer advice that it overwhelms judges measuring your work up against theater and art criticism for literary merits considerable praise. You have to be pretty spectacular to get that kind of attention.
Neil is probably more telegenic than Clarkson, judging by the video reviews posted on the LA Times Highway 1 section. It would be great to see a North American version of a show like Top Gear that is as much about punned metaphors as it is about a passion for driving. I’d love to see Neil host such a show – just as long as he doesn’t wear tight jeans.
Alex Ricciuti is a freelance writer and automotive journalist based in Zurich, Switzerland. He writes frequently for Automotive News Europe.
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