The changing times of the true Car Geek.

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)

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22 responses to “The changing times of the true Car Geek.”

  1. Owl Avatar

    I empathize with every single word of that….and recall how a trip to Italy and a copy of Gente Motori introduced me to the Seat 133. Even though I didn’t understand a word of it the numbers said all the geek needed to know

  2. Rover 1 Avatar
    Rover 1

    You are completely correct. The very latest and the very oldest information is a lot easier to get than the just out of date information from a short while ago. I think that this may change, over time, as internet information becomes a little more ubiquitous. One day, ALL information will be online. The trick then will be to make sure that it’s free and that someone hasn’t hidden it behind a pay wall.
    Speaking as someone who used to literally spend a small fortune on car magazines I think this is a great.
    Being in faraway from everything NZ, was, back then, for once, a good thing. We got ALL the English language US, Australian, Japanese, Italian, British, South African, and of course NZ auto magazines and I took to getting the airmail editions of Car, Autocar, and Motor, (a slight cost saving when those last two merged). Of course twenty plus years ago the world car market wasn’t nearly as homogenous as it is today. US cars weren’t just LHD versions of the cars we got here. They were wildly different, as were the S African and Australian markets and Japan was a little universe to itself- and in some respects still is. But JDM used exports now spanning the world have lifted a little of that. We’ve had them here since the great neo-liberal experiment began in the early eighties, at about the same time Japanese manufacturers started achieving European chassis dynamics with better than American reliablity. It was good to see in reality what I’d seen in Car Graphic. .
    And having access in those pre ‘instant access’ news days meant that having the airmail editions helped me make some money on new model names from our local vanity number plates seller. I was able to buy the new model names before anyone else and then onsell them at a profit when the news was wider known. Audi changing it’s model names from just numbers to paper sizes made me enough money to offset the years of $120 per week magazine buying. ‘MGF’ appearing instead of ‘MGD’ or ‘MGE’ as expected made quite an earner as well. Being a car geek was quite profitable.
    Another good source of information in written form is from second hand bookshops and libraries clearing their stack storage. I just got 25 editions of ‘Janes Aircraft’ from 1974 to 1999 for $5.00 total.
    These are ‘Observers’ books on steroids-and I got 15 mixed editions of the ‘Observers books of Automobiles’ for the same price.

    1. nanoop Avatar

      Great idea with those vanity plates! Illegal here, but still a cool idea.

    2. Rust-MyEnemy Avatar

      Janes books, e.g. the big ones, are a real favourite of mine. I have a few Janes’ Fighting Ships, High-speed marine craft and World Railways volumes that I’ve come by, but the kind of Stock Clearance that you mention never shows on my radar.
      Not only that but anybody here in the UK who owns such a collection believes they’re sitting on a goldmine. I’ve been in many secondhand bookshops in out-of-the-way backwater villages, and frequently find such books priced at a level where they will never, ever be sold.
      Likewise, I visited a charity shop today and the early ’90s Lego Technic computerised Control Centre was on display. It said “Rare and complete. These sell on eBay for £129. You can buy this for £75”. That’s fine, but depends entirely on either a wealthy Vintage LEGO enthusiast or a risk-happy speculator venturing into the shop.
      My approach is to never, ever walk past a charity book shop without giving it a cursory look around. For every 10,000 cookbooks and every 1,000 Clarkson books, there might be something worthwhile and well-priced.

      1. theskitter Avatar

        And then there’s ebay alerts.
        I had to turn mine off because I was affecting the global market for old Far Side Off-The-Wall calendars by buying everything that was <$25 shipped.

  3. mseoul Avatar

    Kindred spirit for sure, but you win! Great article!
    When did it all change? When a hot hatch could see off any “sports car” in the MGB or even Big Healey genre? Knowledge all became more compartmentalized for sure, I agree, but easier than ever to reach.

  4. outback_ute Avatar

    “Right now there’s not one single automotive fact that isn’t out there to be found somewhere.”
    Strongly disagree, but you have touched on the”blindspot”; looking back. And you just have to go obscure enough, which is not necessarily that obscure, for information to be unavailable. Unless someone has taken the time to digitise or otherwise upload information pre-1995 (to use an arbitrary cutoff point) it can easily be missing from the WWW.
    As an example a little while ago I did some research into the auto industry in Melbourne, but there are many things I have not been able to find, admittedly without having spent days on Google. Eg, where were the Studebakers assembled in Tottenham in 1960 before transferring to West Heidelberg. Where was the Harrisfield site where Rootes were planning to build a factory in the 1960s. Chances are some of the old timers in the clubs may know.
    Build number breakdowns of many Australian car models are hard to come by in many cases; unless it is one of the old Falcon GTs or similar you are likely out of luck. Often paperwork was destroyed well before the internet came into being, such as when Chrysler Australia was sold in 1981.
    A lot of this stuff was not reported in newspapers, which can be a good source of information on what happened a hundred years ago. For example I learned the address of the Martin and King body works in Malvern from seeing one of their build plates on a car.

    1. Rover 1 Avatar
      Rover 1

      I’m still trying to get more information on the Rover P8, a model that was completely developed and ready for production, with the production tooling completed, before the car was cancelled at the behest of Sir William Lyons of Jaguar. Rover never recovered from the blow to it’s engineering resources and finances. Given the late stage of cancellation there should be much more information around than I’ve found. These pictures are pretty much it. Too new for the book histories, too old for the internet. The sole surviving prototype has been badly damaged in storage. Lyons might have been right, the car reportedly was more refined, faster and more economical, and had a better ride and handling than the then new XJ6. Had it gone ahead, here would have been no need for the pretty but flawed, deliberately cheapened SD1.

      1. tonyola Avatar

        Try this:
        The article suggests that a poor crash test might have helped kill the P8. By the way, the AROnline site is really great. Endlessly fascinating – a person could easily spend a really long time exploring it.

        1. dukeisduke Avatar

          Seeing how homely it was, the cancellation was a mercy killing.

          1. Rover 1 Avatar
            Rover 1

            In 1971 it would have looked fairly advanced. No chrome, low nose, high tail, it would have been out before the W116 Merc and most other cars with hidden bumpers.Volvos still had huge shelves front and rear as did most cars for the US market.

        2. Rover 1 Avatar
          Rover 1

          My research seems to reveal that the crash test ‘failure’ was a ‘post facto’ explanation to assuage guilty feelings on the Jaguar side. My comments are in the comments section of the article your link connects to on the excellent AROnline site.
          Specifically, after I was able to discuss the P8 with David Bache, the designer before he died. He pointed out that the other car designed by Rover at the same time, the Range Rover had no problems in crash testingfor years after it’s release, and neither did the P6 and P6B. The main change to the P6B, the V8 version of the P6, was a widening of the space between the front ‘chassis’ rails in order to let the wider V8 engine take the same path, rearwards and down, in a crash as the narrower four cylinder engine. How could a company with as much experience in safety crash engineering as Rover make such a mistake with the P8?
          Yes, I know, David Bache was a not an engineer, he was a ‘stylist’, but he did know all the engineers involved and the work they did.
          He told me that a lot of work by many people went into justifying the hasty cancellation after it happened, due to the absolute waste of the company’s resources that went into this car when it didn’t make production. His explanation for these crash photos was that they were from an earlier stage, and that in those pre computer designing days, the crash tests were used much more to finalise final production welding schedules and material thicknesses than they were later, when more design analysis was possible on computer. The same process had been used on the XJ6 which fared badly in early tests in much the same way as it’s MK2/S-Type predessesors
          The irony was that Jaguar could never make enough XJ6s to meet demand, and the P8 would have not have cannibilised sales, it would have grown the market. Don’t forget that the European big car opposition was really only from Mercedes Benze’s W108, Audi were still not making big cars apart from the NSU RO80, and BMW had only just introduced the E3. And Britain wasn’t part of the EEC and the big Rover P5 still sold well with the big Farina Austins and Wolseleys just ending production and not yet replaced by the awful Austin 3-Litre.
          Rover never really recovered.

    2. nanoop Avatar

      Some things just never made it off the production floor into the manufacturer’s archive, and archives are hardly digitized and “openly open”.
      Even Porsche, who employs passionate archive people like Landenberger (I’m not joking here) and opens the doors at least for history endeavors, won’t be able to answer certain questions. Often enough they can answer a “how many”, but rarely a “why did they change it” or “who’s that guy in the corner of the frame?”.

  5. theskitter Avatar

    The rule hasn’t changed.
    You still have to read everything.
    And I don’t think the internet has resulted in more information.
    More availability, but more repetition.
    And you still have to synthesize and remember enough to know what to Google if you want a complete understanding.

    1. outback_ute Avatar

      Definitely more repetition, even beyond the blind plagiarism of Wikipedia.
      Thank goodness for sites like Ate Up With Motor! Aaron does an amazing job.

  6. Maymar Avatar

    I think one thing that the internet has a harder time accounting for, factually, are very specific aberrations, either deliberate or accidental variances in production that might not show up on a spec sheet. Maybe you’re only supposed to get the fancy wheels on the GT, but nearing the end of production, they throw it on a few LXs to run out inventory. Maybe there was a mid-year change that the spec sheet written six months earlier doesn’t mention. One case that’s actually documented was that run of Enterprise Impalas that were spec’d without side airbags at ERAC’s request (which they forgot to mention upon remarketing the vehicles).
    But yes, there’s a long way to go before anything that existed pre-internet is fully documented, especially the more mundane.

  7. ptschett Avatar

    One downside of the Internet age: whatever Wikipedia says is often taken to be the truth, even when it’s wrong.

  8. CraigSu Avatar

    Growing up in the Sixties my brother and I used to play a game where we would strive to identify as many cars as possible by their headlight and taillight configurations. Of course, the game was played at night from the tiny storage compartment behind the rear seats in our Volkswagen Beetle where my brother and I preferred to ride. Cars are so homogeneous to me now I find it difficult to distinguish them by this method.

    1. ptschett Avatar

      Me and my dad played that same game when I was growing up, usually to pass the time on family trips on the interstate but more so during the day. Extra ‘points’ for being correct first on tough calls like whether the oncoming ’88-’98 GM truck was a Chevy or a GMC, a pickup with a topper or a Suburban.

    2. Sjalabais Avatar

      The advent of LED lights has changed that again, I guess? It will be an issue to cram yourself into a Beetle like that though…

  9. Sjalabais Avatar

    Congrats for a true “the times have changed”-rant! You’re not wrong, but imho we’re all in a better place now – and whatever info you’d want to shine with, you’d still need to remember it. That’s, honestly, become more of a challenge, with the constant attack on our senses and almost every bit of information we have once received now being retrievable on a handheld device.
    I grew up on the wrong side of the iron curtain, sort of making it easier to learn about “all the cars” – because there were so few. Even a Wartburg came across as nice enough to ask for a photo:
    My massive collection of car papers, over ten years of some weekly bought issues, but mostly acquired based on the “contains a Volvo”-principle, was worth nothing to anyone when I moved across borders and couldn’t take it with me. I had to give it away, yet it wouldn’t be worth less to me today than it was back then. Nostalgia and the realization that I can’t be bothered by the automakers arms race of “electrify everything”, doors included, make papers concerning a period of more honesty and outright engineering skills more interesting, too. There’s no true desire in me to get any of the new cars available today to my driveway, but a 40 year old Volvo or GAZ can still make the little boy in me clap in excitement. That’s also better shared online, where it’s easy to find a place to feel at home at.