As an (extremely) non professional writer, there’s always a bit of hesitation when it comes to calling out crap in legitimate automotive journalism. The medium may not be perfect, but I’ve got to respect the path which the individuals in it had to take to get to where they are. It’s not easy. For that one guy who reached the top and gets to experience the glamor of the job, 10 (100, 1000?) others are stuck either feeding the big sites with short stories/articles or suffering to make their own thing happen, painstakingly building up views, likes subscriptions or whatever else currency measure success on social media these days.
Even the most fortunate of automotive journalists have a tough job. Sure, hooning the hell out of a brand new performance ride is sweet, but how do you convey your particular, personal experience to a wide audience? How do you make it interesting without resorting to decrepit cliches and blatant style rip offs? How do you deal with crap from the manufacturers (cause you really need them to let you burrow a car again…)? How much freedom do you actually have inside your medium/publication to say what you wanna say? Again, it’s not all fun and games, there’s a very challenging, very serious side to the profession.
However, what I don’t quite get is how most automotive journalism got to suffering from two debilitating, infuriating conditions: the apparent need to denigrate every single thing you drive and the severe “knowitallism”. Don’t get me wrong, neither of these are a new trends, but lately it’s just unbearable, especially on mediums like Youtube channels. Most reviews I open from popular channels only manage to play for a couple of minutes before I slam the little red button and walk away pissed off. When performing a test it’s your job to point out what’s wrong, obviously no argument there, but this jaded, unimpressed, superior tone a lot of automotive journalists (formally trained or experience accredited) take right off the bat is just unbearable.
Elitism in car journalism/reviewing does make one thing abundantly clear: who’s in it for the passion, for the gusto that comes along with being a genuine car guy/girl and who’s in the game for the publicity and hoonage perks. But I’m bringing all this up not to point fingers for the sake of doing so (since nothing and no one is perfect; I could receive endless legitimate complains about this blog alone) but to share a genuinely positive experience from a non professional source that schools mainstream auto journalism in what it’s like to actually, properly report on a car. I’m talking about semi retired, professional funny man James Douglas Muir-Leno, or “Jay” as we all know him. I’ve been following Jay Leno’s Garage pretty much from the start and recently I’ve had the chance to go back and watch many of the episodes over and I’ve gotta say: it’s a legitimately pleasant experience because what the now legendary Mr. Leno does is what everyone who’s paid to do it should, but doesn’t: go beyond the figures, beyond the personal preconceptions (and preferences), keep an open mind and actually get to know the cars, presenting flaws and merits alike without feeling the need to sound too good for whatever it is you’re driving.
Now you may say to yourself, but Leno has almost 200 cars, he bought them so he has to like them. Well, it isn’t that linear. First, a cool thing you get on Leno’s Garage is something I love and which I call the “warts and all” approach: an often funny report on what’s wrong with a particular ride without humiliating the whole thing as a result because of it; appreciating the whole despite the particular flaws. An early Mustang is cool, but the ride is based on 60’s engineering and, as a result, it’s certainly not great. Would you hate the car because of that? Of course not. Second, lots of individuals and manufacturers feature their cars on Jay Leno’s garage and his approach is always the same: genuine interest, relevant questions, and honest joy on test driving and reviewing. You see, that’s being a car guy; not a fanboy, not an elitist, but a true at heart automotive aficionado. Not many of those around, sadly. A “car guy” (or gal) can appreciate something in every kind of ride; even if it’s not their favorite era or style or function, a person with this spirit can still value the design, the technology, the intent, the era…most people in the business just crap allover what’s not right up their alley and that’s a shame really. You don’t have to love everything, but it’s reductive and pointless to take that kind of attitude. In a way, I think it comes down to car culture.
Even renowned auto journalists have no clue what they’re dealing with at times simply because they don’t have the broad car culture needed to properly understand and contextualize what they have in hand. It’s the same kind of situation which lead Top Gear (true, not a factual show but employing accredited auto journalists by any measure) to make a case against American cars up until very, very recently before cancellation when everything American was crap even before turning the key and British cars were almost always, somehow, profoundly admirable despite many terrible features/flaws. The changing of that trend is something which I hope follows Clarkson, May and Hammond to whatever new car show they end up hosting together.
But getting back to the Burbank big dog, I’m not sure if Leno himself realizes how significant his contribution really is in this particular field. The Garage website and associated Youtube channel features all kinds of vehicles, and I truly mean all kinds: from the Mclaren P1, to steam powered cars, from 30’s Dusenbergs to brand new Porsches and every single thing in between, this guy’s approach is always the same: appreciation, interest, and a simple and honest, yet very interesting recount of driving experience, never ever forgetting the context of whatever car he’s driving. Modern car? Measured up to modern standards and within its weight class. Period car? Observed under the light of its era. Niche vehicle (muscle car, hot rod, lightweight European sports)? Framed within its culture, heritage and purpose. This is not easy because, again, you need to posses significant car culture to comprehend what you’re talking about and resist the urge to apply one weight and measure to everything you drive, getting lost in your own preferences, misconceptions and often, prejudices. This is what makes Leno’s reports extraordinarily enjoyable and relevant in so many ways, because he manages to avoid most of this, most of the time and even when personal preferences come through, they’re no derogatory to everything else.
If the painfully narcissistic, jaded (and ultimately useless) reports which seem to be all the rage these days are pissing you off, go spend your time watching something actually worthy of it. While the tragically hip reviewers wait for the 90’s to call asking for their attitude back, you’ll be entertained and learning a little bit about a whole lot.
(Image credit: Jay Leno’s Garage)
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