The Milkshake Done Got Drank Already

cacaddy

I bought the issue of Collectible Automotible that you see about off eBay because I was alerted to the fact that it contained a piece on the 1971-1976 Cadillac full-sizers. Those cars are near and dear to my heart because, as all my MOST DEVOTED fans know, I once drove a ’76 Fleetwood Talisman across the country. (If you’re just getting here, the review of the car itself is here and the story of the trip is on two parts, Carless In Nashville and Fried Chicken At The Crossroads.)

Collectible Automobile is probably the highest-quality auto rag out there. They do the research, the writing is almost always of a consistent, workmanlike quality, and the photography/art is in service of that writing, not the tyrannical master of it. But if you read it nowadays, you’ll sense a growing desperation between the lines — and their problem will eventually affect the rest of us.

The best way to sum it up is like this: Automotive history is like oil. It took a long time to make, there’s a fixed amount of it, and all the easy stuff’s already been used. Consider, if you will, the nice people at the aforementioned magazine. They’ve been in business since 1984. Here are some of the cars they covered in their early years:

  • 1962 1/2 – 1966 Mustang
  • 1949 Olds Rocket V8
  • 1970-1974 Dodge Challenger
  • Continental Mark II
  • Chrysler Turbine Car
  • 1955-1957 Ford Thunderbird

After twenty years of publication, they were covering:

  • 1971-1978 Mercury Capri
  • 1954-1960 Dodge Trucks
  • 1967-1971 Ford Thunderbird
  • 1937-1939 Chevrolet
  • 1970 Full Sized Chevrolet

The newest issue covers

  • 1955 Corvette and Thunderbird
  • 1964-1967 Pontiac Mid-Sizers
  • Gene Bordinat Profile

The sharp-eyed reader will notice that at least some of the current issue covers ground that’s already been covered. In other words, CA is starting to redo articles. To recycle them. Because they’re running out of fresh material. Because they are consuming automotive history faster than it’s being made. They’re in the same unenviable position in which the editors of the various World War II magazines find themselves. The first couple years are easy: you write about the ’57 Chevy and the Battle of the Bulge and Pearl Harbor. Then you write about the ’63 Chevy and the rescue of Mussolini. Before you know it, you’re doing retrospectives of the Celebrity Eurosport and detail pieces on Polish troop movements during 1938. Eventually, there will be nothing left.

And Collectible Automobile is just one publication in a field that has swelled exponentially since the Internet became universally available. There used to be about twenty magazines with an automotive focus, only a few of them mainstream enough to be on every bookstand. Today there are hundreds of “major” websites. At every press event, I meet people from websites of which I’ve never heard and they profess to have never heard of TTAC or Jalopnik or even Road&Track. All of these sites need articles, they all need content. There’s only a certain amount of news and new-car testing to do, so they all want retrospective articles.

Whatever you could imagine writing about, it’s been done. The easy stuff’s gone so now they’re fracking, using hydraulic pressure to break out history where it didn’t exist before. The W124 500E has now been written about more times than the hanging chad. Every douchebag who fancies himself a restorer of aircooled Porsches has received a panegyric from the second-tier WordPress blogs. The British magazines are doing nostalgia pieces that are so recent they’re being written by the people who were around for the actual history, because they’re still employed by the same outlet. “I remember that day I was invited to the launch of the Veyron.” Well, of course you remember it, it was only eight years ago.

The hunger to write about something, anything, besides the last new-car launch has resulted in the utter trampling of previously cherished bits of automobile culture. Aren’t you totally fucking sick of the Nurburgring, the T-shirts, the merch, the records, the spy shots, the drama, the impending closure and inevitable rescue? Haven’t you heard enough about: the 2002tii, the Volvo 240, the Sultan of Brunei’s cars, Yenko Camaros, James Hunt? Do you have E30 fatigue, Miata soreness?

It might be okay if these articles were written with original research, the way the obscure stuff in CA is, but instead they all rely on the same old Internet-available articles, the Wikipedia article, the reprinted magazine tests. It’s just reheated cafeteria food. Stale and old and unsatisfying.

But it could be worse. Imagine working for Vintage Guitar. Those guys have pretty much run out of vintage things about which to write. The Golden Era of guitars lasted from about 1952 to about 1964 and it’s been analyzed and interviewed and done to death. Most of VG nowadays is reviews of new equipment and conversations with collectors and the various C-list musicians who weren’t worth interviewing as long as there were B-list musicians available.

The past is like land: they’re just not making any more of it. Or if they are, they aren’t making it very quickly. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to try to write up a nostalgia piece to sell to R&T. I’m thinking the Magnum SRT-8. Who remembers those? Ancient history, man.

17 Replies to “The Milkshake Done Got Drank Already”

  1. Larry Tebo "VWLarry"

    I have nothing to add, Jack, other than your piece covers the entire subject like a tent, and that my melancholy over being someone with something to say, via the printed word, about automobiles and their history during this time of information overload/overlap sometimes nearly overwhelms me. In another time, I’m confident that I might have found a place in the community of automotive scribblers, but that ain’t a’gonna happen now. It’s all sold-out, standing-room-only, no help wanted. You’re lucky to have found your own voice, and it’s a good one.

    Reply
    • Jack Post author

      My readers would be well advised to click Larry’s link…

      vwlarry.blogspot.com

      Particularly the stuff about Miller.

      Reply
  2. Jon

    I have felt that way for years, and I used to subscribe to many magazines. I have been dropping my subscriptions when I re-read a new hash of old material. I love the past, and like you mentioned, most of the common interest stuff has been beat to death.
    The auto manufacturers cannot even come up with a pleasing design for a new car without rehashing the old styles.
    It seems like all of the publisher and manufacturers are in a rut. The current society seems to live off a warped version of the past. Where is this future we were promised.? I could go on and on, but it would be to no purpose. Society needs to wake up and move forward. The future does not look very good for mankind the way things are going. It seems like the so called civilization we have been bragging about is collapsing before our eyes.

    Reply
  3. Tomko

    Collectible Automobile is my favourite. Mature, consistent, insightful and sometimes a little WASP stuffy in a classy kind of way.

    It’s always been pricey on the newsstand and collectible in its own right.

    Their future though, is in recycling past Cheap Wheels and Future Collectibles articles into full blown and researched stories.

    There’s still gold in those hills!

    Reply
  4. arbuckle

    I sort of disagree.

    I bet Aaron Severson could write up something nice about a Celebrity Eurosport but it is a lot easier to go the Jalopnik route by posting some pictures of a ’69 Charger doing burnouts and the commenter post My Little Pony GIFs in response. The Gawker way probably gets more unique clicks too.

    The other issue is a lack of a moving timeline for some publications. In 1984 the oldest Mustang or GTO was around 20 years old. However, what are the odds that Collectible Automobile will do a writeup about a ’91 Explorer or a ’93 LHS in the next decade?

    Reply
    • CGHill

      I didn’t want to mention this in front of Jack, but I recall a Michael Karesh piece for TTAC that contained a passage weirdly reminiscent of a specific My Little Pony fanfic. It wasn’t intentional, of course, but just the same it set off a period of Protracted Bemusement.

      Reply
      • Jack Post author

        The only thing that makes me think MK could never be a brony is that he’s too awkward for it, if you can believe that.

        Reply
  5. Hogie roll

    Cars I don’t care to read about again or see in a rag:
    First gen camaro
    All mustangs
    Tri 5 Chevys
    32 fords
    Dodge chargers

    Stuff I kinda like but are still over done:
    Chevelles
    Chevy 2s
    Ford falcons

    I’ve been following the offshore power boat world and the number and quality of new and restored boats is extremely limited. Not enough cool new stuff to satisfy my desire to read about them.

    Reply
  6. Matt K

    For the record, CA did their article on the Celebrity Eurosport fairly early on, in 1994 IIRC. I have four copies!

    Reply
  7. Ronnie Schreiber

    I’m the guy who won’t take photos of perfectly restored Isettas anymore, let alone ’57 Chevys and ’69 Camaros. Maybe I’ve been lucky or just have an oddball sense of interests but so far I haven’t had to write the same old same old topics.

    Jack is correct about the use of available content on the internet. That’s how I do most of my writing, supplemented with the occasional trip to the National Automotive History Collection downtown. The key is not relying on just one source and then managing to weave it all together into a coherent story that flows. Almost invariably when I check multiple sources I either clear up some confusion in my mind about the actual narrative or I find out that a source isn’t completely reliable. There’s a lot of bullshit out there.

    As for photos, it was Michael Lamm who told me that illustrations are integral to the text, perhaps that’s why they’re called illustrations, they shed light on the topic. People can see what you’re talking about and also captions are a great way to insert facts that might not fit in the flow of the article.

    Reply
  8. bmac

    If things get desperate enough, somebody’s going to end up doing a nostalgia piece on a Hyundai Pony.

    Oh wait.

    Reply
  9. Pat

    Maybe someone can start publishing a magazine that’s just all old Setright columns from Car. I’d read that, rehash or not.

    Reply
    • Jack Post author

      I don’t know why he never published a retrospective. He certainly did quite a few books, some of which (like his R107 SL book) are almost press brochures.

      Reply
  10. Narcoossee

    Actually, “the past” is being made at the same rate it always has been: One day every 24 hours. I believe a better comparison would be to that of harvesting trees from a forest: The trees are being felled faster than they’re being replaced.

    Reply
  11. Chaparral

    The past is a finite and diminishing resource.

    The present is limited by a one-model-cycle-at-a-time timespan.

    So that leaves the future, as far off as you want to see it.

    Jim Hall does not talk frequently about the Chaparral 2E, the 2J, the 2K, because he doesn’t want to. Dan Gurney talks about Alligators and Deltawings. The cars they came up with in the past are considered interesting because when they were new they were what they thought the future would like.

    What do you think the future will like – not “be like”? What would you change about it if you could?

    Reply
    • Jack Post author

      I think the problem is that, for gasoline-powered auto enthusiasts anyway, the future feels like a lowered-expectations version of 1973. That’s probably not correct, but it’s the shadow that hangs over all of us.

      Reply

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