Is the Magic Gone?

by Rick Kopec (4/9/09)

The latest issue of Car and Driver, May ’09, arrived recently. I have been reading this magazine since the mid-1960s when I was a callow youth in high school. When I say “reading,” that’s exactly what I mean. I had a subscription (rare for a teen-age gearhead) and if I brought my copy to school and lent it to a cohort, they breezed through it in less time than it took to change classes. Mostly, they just looked at the pictures.

But I read it, cover to cover. Every month I read the editorial and the columns written by people I soon came to think of as friends: Brock Yates, Steve Smith, David E. Davis Jr., Gordon Jennings, Warren Weith, Jean Shepherd. It wasn’t long before I felt like I knew these guys. I began to recognize their writing styles. When I saw their bylines I felt like I was getting a letter from a friend. I read most of the car magazines because my uncle was a car guy. He always had the latest copy of Road & Track, Motor Trend, Sports Car Graphic and Car Life, which I saw a month late. But my Car and Driver was current. I even got it a few days before it hit the newsstand. I also read Hot Rod and Car Craft when they were brought to school by other gearheads, but I didn’t buy them because even though gasoline was 30¢ a gallon and movies cost a buck, I was only making $2.50 an hour. That kind of money only goes so far.

Car and Driver was my favorite, hands down. There was something about it that set it apart from all the other car mags. I didn’t know exactly what it was back then; today it would be described as “having an attitude. I read the letters to the editor and smiled at the clever responses from “–Ed.” On the whole, they were respectful but just edgy enough to let the writer know that he or she shouldn’t expect any kowtowing. It was obvious even to me, a high school kid, that the guys on the staff of this magazine were having fun—and getting paid for it. I sensed none of that in the world around me: teachers at school, family and neighbors, people I worked for and with at my part time job at the gas station. None of them seemed to be having fun at work. The two concepts were polar opposites. Everyone seemed to be grimly plodding along towards each payday and looking forward to the weekend, the odd day off, holiday or their annual summer vacation. Everything in between was just more of the same: a daily grind that squeezed you into the mold of a “good employee” and sapped your sense of humor and ability to have fun as long as you were on the clock. The two were mutually exclusive, so which was it: fun or work? You can’t have both. In fact, more than once I was told, “We’re not paying you to enjoy yourself.”

But that’s exactly what appeared to be happening at C and D. I imagined what it must have been like: a suite of offices in Manhattan, each one the inner sanctum of one of the staffers, or “editors” as they liked to call themselves. And there were all kinds: motorsports editor, technical editor, managing editor, senior editor, editor-at-large. I could visualize shelves overflowing with the kinds of automotive trinkets and memorabilia that the average schlub like myself was lucky to have one or two of. Mementos of trips to automotive factories, race shops, visits with famous people, weekends at race tracks. And, I kept telling myself, they got PAID to do this.

They had desks piled high with car magazines, books, press kits, news releases and glossy 8x10 photographs. When a new book was published they got it first. And for FREE. It was a review copy and sometimes the writer inscribed a personal note on the first page: “Jim: thanks for the idea to follow the Cobra team to LeMans. This would have been a much thinner book without it. Your pal, Fred.”

These guys got paid to play with cars. When they went to the races their “Press Credentials” were waiting for them. The special passes allowed them to go anywhere and everywhere inside the track while the rest of us peons were huddled, three deep, behind fences and without paddock passes which, to the true race fan, was a magical passport to the inner sanctum of racing. When members of the press walked past the fence we were crowded behind, our heads on swivels and tongues hanging out, they never made eye contact or even acknowledged our presence. It was if we were some lower form of life that had to be stepped over while they tried not to spill their drink.

We got up at the crack of dawn to get to the track by 8 a.m. and we had to park in a large field, miles away from the entrance, and slog along the edge of a dirt road, dust billowing around our heads. Automotive journalists like the staffers at C and D stayed at a local hotel (on their expense account), got up at 8 a.m. and drove past us on their way to the ”Press Parking” area inside the track. They always had a new car, a 442, a Mercury Cyclone or a big block Chevelle, on loan from the manufacturer so they could “test” it. They got free lunches catered by sponsors or manufacturers which were served under big tents… And there were trinkets and swag of all kinds: hats, calendars, posters, pens and key chains which they filled their pockets with without thinking. They rubbed elbows and yucked it up with the famous drivers that we were lucky to see from 50-feet away and only for the blink of an eye: Mark Donohue, Jackie Stewart, Jim Hall, Bruce McLaren, Dan Gurney. And they got PAID for this.

All this went through my mind the other day as I thumbed through my copy of Car and Driver, but it wasn’t the same magazine. The magic was gone. I didn’t recognize the names of any of the columnists or staffers. They were all strangers to me. In an economy move they had even fired Brock Yates—the one constant that had kept me subscribing all these years. Now I was just letting my subscription expire, despite a seemingly never-ending series of offers to renew, each at an increasingly more generous discount off of the cover price. I was watching an injured dinosaur, which had once towered over the rest of the jungle’s inhabitants, lay there and bleed out. The articles were no longer relevant to me. There was too much about manufacturers who were becoming green. The top-end sports and exotics they tested were as far away from any new car I was likely to purchase as an article about the Queen Mary would be to someone who was paddling a flat-bottom bass boat. The type was smaller, allowing them to get away with using less paper. It resulted in fewer pages, but also caused a lot of eye-squinching and headaches. There is no question about it—the good old days were gone.

I flipped past the road test of the 2010 Hyundai Genesis Coupe 3.8 titled “Oriental Drifter” (yeah, I want to read more about drifting). There was a comparison between a Mercedes S560 and a BMW 750Li titled, “Executive Sweets” (gosh, I can’t make up my mind there—let me flip a coin). And how about a story about the Nissan Cube van (which looks like it was carved out of a block of soap by a 10 year-old with a dull pen knife while he was sitting in the bed of a pickup traveling down a dirt road… at night). But I stopped at the article on the new Mustang off-the-shelf drag car, reputedly available at your nearby Ford dealer. I didn’t have to look too hard to see the shadow of the original 1965 GT350 R-Model. But I saw three other things, too.

Cobra JetI saw a manufacturer’s marketing department trying to increase interest (and hopefully, sales) by recreating the past and, in doing so, infusing the current product with excitement and enthusiasm. There must be a chapter very near the front of the marketing manual because this happens all of the time. They only built 50 of these drag Mustangs—not enough to have any visible affect on sales—but any special model like this has some rub-off on the rest of the product line. Will the building of a mere four dozen special model Mustangs result in increased sales of the Mustang GT? It’s hard to say but you’ll never know unless you try. It’s no coincidence that one of the photos in C and D’s coverage showed a ’68 ½ Mustang Cobra Jet drag car in the background.

The second thing that came flying out of that article at me was the fact that Ford was trying to use this car as an enticement to get young people to become interested in drag racing again. This has got to be a broad stroke concept, because with a price tag of $69,900 a-piece, let’s face it—not many of the young enthusiasts they are trying to seduce is likely to be able to afford one of these 10-second quarter-mile bullets. And even if they could, the entire 50-car production was sold out within three days. One big-time collector bought 10 of them. So much for getting the new blood involved in the sport. All these kids will be able to do is stand behind the fence and watch the rich guys go out and play. If anyone thinks that’s going to draw twenty-somethings into drag racing they’ve probably been spraying lacquer without adequate ventilation.

The third thought that popped into my head was the difficulty of planning a niche product like a drag racing Mustang a year or so in advance, and having absolutely no control of the circumstances that surround it when the project finally reaches fruition. For example, these Cobra Jet drag cars were completed and delivered just before Christmas, 2008. The article said that more could be made, in batches of 50 cars at a time, the following year or maybe every other year.

However, within a month or so the country’s economy was a basket case in what had become a near perfect storm: the stock market tanked and just like that, investments and 401K retirement funds lost half their value. The CEOs of the Big Three car makers, once thought of as Captains of Industry, appeared before the House Banking Committee rattling tin cups and asking for billions of dollars to keep their companies’ doors open. Banks stopped loaning money and the ripple effect caused weaker dealerships to begin closing their doors. At the same time the real estate market was in a tailspin as the mortgage default rate increased. Unemployment began climbing. And despite the Obama administration’s plan to throw trillions of dollars into the wind to stimulate a stagnant financial system (without considering the extreme burden this would place on future generations), a lot of people held onto their money, putting off major expenditures because they had lost confidence in the economy. The only answer politicians could come up with was to talk about raising taxes.

Imagine that it was your job, in the midst of all this, to sell a limited production, high performance drag race model. Chances are, if you still had a job, it would be working on something a lot less sexy. At the time Ford was unveiling their Cobra Jets, Dodge was announcing that they were going to build 100 “Drag Pak” Hemi or Magnum Wedge powered Challengers, and in a knee-jerk reaction, 77 year-old Don “Big Daddy” Garlits announced he would order the first one. Chevy had also been planning a 2010 Camaro drag car but it was an early victim to the budget slashers who were trying to save the company. It’s likely by now that any Dodge performance projects have also been flushed down the toilet. It’s just a matter of bad timing.

One final thought. Timing, as they say, is everything. With the present worldwide financial situation in mind, the timing of the 2005-2006 Ford GTs could not have been better. The cars were build and sold in a strong economy and it just could be that the 4037 Ford GTs will stand as the all-time high water mark for high performance, exotic cars produced by a major automobile manufacturer.

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