As a kid, I used to love knowing more obscure facts about cars than anybody else. In primary school, and at the beginning of junior school (before testosterone took over and my school year descended into Lord Of The Flies, albeit a more violent version) my automotive leanings even got me off the hook for wearing glasses and being shit at sport. Knowing about cars was officially approved by the jock contingent.
I’ve kept my car geek persona intact ever since. I’ll stifle a snigger whenever I overhear an incorrect automotive statement from somebody clearly old enough to know better – perhaps I’ll inwardly shake my head and feel a little embarrassed on their behalf. Thing is, the only reason I know stuff is because I’ve cram-read automotive publications for the last thirty years. I suspect the majority of you chaps are the same. But here’s the thing. Back in the ’90s there was an actual challenge to it. You had to work for your knowledge.
Today’s new generation of car geeks have it way too easy – and it’s damn hard to stay ahead.
I first started recognizing cars by their wheels. Wheels were at my height, and I found the badges they bore fascinating. It was the 80s, after all – there were still plenty of intricate hubcap decorations doing the rounds and alloy wheels hadn’t yet become universal. It didn’t take long before I learnt what cars my favourite wheels belonged to.
Then I started to learn the names of the cars. I would learn the badges, engine sizes and trim levels by rote, simply because these details were all listed across the bootlid. I soon became able to associate different trim levels with wheel designs, chrome trim and the presence of tinted glass. By age six, I could tell a Cavalier GL from a CDi.
And then I discovered car brochures. Brochures came before magazines, because they were free. Every time Dad needed a genuine Motorcraft part for the Cortina, we’d come out of Westwood and Clark of Clacton with an armful of glossy literature. I remember vividly when Ford released a limited edition Orion GL Plus with electric front windows – which soon became a permanent feature in the regular GL. None of my schoolfriends knew this.
Magazines, of course, offered a far broader scope, and the first magazine I bought was Auto Express, chiefly because it only cost 40 pence (55 cents) at the time. My favourite magazine features tended to be reports from international motorshows, and those columns where correspondents would drive cars that belonged to overseas markets. Pretty soon, I began to learn about cars from other nations. I could recognise them by name. The cars that had previously been cloaked in mystery when I watched Cannonball Run or Smokey and the Bandit were suddenly identifiable.
Gathering information wasn’t at all easy. Living in small-town Britain, foreign car publications didn’t come easily to hand. Occasional family trips to London might yield a Motor Trend or Car and Driver if I was really lucky, and I would have read it from cover to cover many, many times in the first few days of ownership. I suspect that none of my friends had heard of the Ziff-Davis Publishing company, or knew that they had an office at One Park Avenue, New York.
As I drew towards the end of my secondary school sentence at the end of the ’90s, The Internet was beginning to catch hold. The computer rooms would open at lunchtime and after school, for ‘internet club’. For whatever reason, a bunch of guys ended up in a chatroom run by Healthychoice, but I’d head straight for overseas automotive websites, which would slowly load in HTML 1.0 – a handful of grainy GIF images crammed into a 720pi island in the centre of my 1,024pi CRT screen. As soon as I discovered the Japanese sites for Toyota and Nissan, I unlocked a whole new avalanche of fascinating cars, even if I couldn’t understand a damn word that was on the screen.
If I was six years old right now, the chances are I’d be given some kind of heavily locked-down tablet computer, and the whole of the SFW internet would be accessible through it. Right now there’s not one single automotive fact that isn’t out there to be found somewhere. Hell, there’s a slim chance that a kid has chanced upon something I’ve written and learnt something from it – a mildly disturbing thought.
Car Geek ™ has changed, though. The traditional ‘head full of historical facts’ version has become rather obsolete. Knowledge seems to be channeled into knowing the very latest developments in whatever scene is the hottest right now – those kids who have embraced the Stance movement probably know more about air-ride, stretched tyres, camber, tuck and how to achieve all of the above, than I could ever hope to. But this information is literally gushing out of the internet in an uncontrollable torrent. There’s no real challenge in finding it.
There’s no such thing as ‘obscure facts’ any more. At school, I would relish being asked “what’s your favourite car”, because I knew I’d be able to trump the obvious Lamborghini Countach or Ferrari Testarossa (or, among the enlightened, Porsche 959) by claiming “Vector AWX3”. Half the time people probably reckoned I was making stuff up, but no. I knew about this stuff because I had taken the trouble to learn it. Today, everybody knows everything. If some brand-new startup creates a supercar, rather than lurking in dusky obscurity it’ll be seized upon with an #OMGSupercar hashtag and become viral on Twitter within half an hour of being announced.
It’s no longer that there’s not enough information out there – today’s biggest challenge is keeping up with the sheer amount there is. Worst of all, I’m now old enough now that I have responsibilities that get in the way of my car reading time. I have nowhere near as many opportunities to sink under the cosy blanket of automotive education – I learn new stuff at a far slower rate than I ever used to, simply because I’m not as frequently exposed to it. Sure, my job has me covering everything that goes on in the UK car market, but the outside world barely gets a look in.
Back in the late 90s, when Gran Turismo first came out, kids around the world were suddenly exposed to JDM cars in a way they had never known before. Before long, kids who had never even seen a Toyota Supra or Skyline GT-R in the metal were spouting 2JZ-GTE and RB26DETT engine codes. Gran Turismo Made Learning Fun.
This has continued to this day. Not only is there more information out there, intstantly available, than the 21st-century car geek could ever fully digest, games consoles mean you can physically interact with it, too! There is absolutely no reason why a fifteen year-old shouldn’t know as much about cars as I do, simply by taking in all the information that they’re naturally exposed to.
I guess there’s one difference, though – the kids of today may have it easy when it comes to staying up to date with the global automotive scene – but do they bother looking back? Sure, there are some blue-chip classics that it must be made law that you know about, but how many kids will take the time to learn the intricacies of Ford’s 1980s trim level hierarchy?
It seems that you have to reach a certain age before you become interested in the past. I had no real choice in the matter. When I was growing up, information from the past was far easier to come by than anything bang-up-to-date. This is why I knew far more about the North American A5 Vigilante than I did about the McDonell Douglass F/A 18 Hornet – I had taken over my Dad’s Observer’s Aircraft book collection and that only ran from ’52 to ’69. This meant I had a big gap in my aeronautical knowledge until I was able to fill in the missing years with later installments of the series.
Today, knowing what’s going on at the cutting edge of automotive, or aviation development, has never been easier. All you have to do is pay attention when things are reported, and if you pay more attention than your peers, you’ll know more than them – and that’s very important. However, delving backwards to find out when the entry-level Ford Sierra received an FM radio for the first time is something that even The Internet may struggle to help you with unless you wade through dozens of argumentative forum posts.
Being a Car Geek has never been easier, and we should be grateful for this. But there’s far more thrill to be had in chasing the facts of yesteryear.
(All images are of random tat that has helped me in my quest for Geekdom)