Reporting cars and motoring has evolved from the worship of power and performance to a preoccupation with fuel efficiency, lower emissions and safety.
As far back as 1905, the Sydney Morning Herald carried a story by a ‘motoring correspondent’. Motoring journalism has been an almost exclusively male preserve, but there was one early exception: Myra Dempsey, who hosted sport and other sessions on commercial radio in Sydney and Bendigo in the 1930s.
With the emergence of Australia’s first locally made, mass-produced car—the Holden—in 1947, specialist motoring writers began to surface. K.G. Murray launched a monthly magazine, Wheels, in 1953, followed by Sports Car World four years later, while Modern Motor appeared from Consolidated Press Ltd in 1954.
Prominent Australian motoring journalists of the 1950s were Athol Yeomans and Peter Burden (both of Wheels), Jules Feldman (co-founder of Wheels and Modern Motor), Peter Antill (Sunday Telegraph) and Sturt Griffith (Sydney Morning Herald) in Sydney, and Bryan Hanrahan (Age) and Keith Windsor in Melbourne.
Welshman Pedr Davis began his freelance career with Wheels in 1953, and established a successful syndicated motoring section two years later. His road tests appeared in countless rural and suburban newspapers around Australia for 40 years, and he wrote more than 50 books.
Evan Green, a long-distance rally driver and best-selling author, wrote for the Sydney Morning Herald in the late 1950s, then moved to the Seven Network as a commentator on the annual race at Bathurst. In 1972, Green wrote a controversial front-page story for the Sun-Herald, highlighting the dangers of powerful road-and track cars such as the Ford Falcon GTHO. Like other motoring journalists, Green was lured into public relations—in his case, for Holden.
When Rupert Murdoch started the Australian in 1964, he appointed Mike Kable, who remained with the national broadsheet for decades, spreading his work further afield into the Sydney Daily Mirror before it closed.
Larger-than-life Bill Tuckey found his metier in magazines and then a stream of books on motor racing. In 1963, as editor of Wheels, Tuckey introduced the prestigious Car of the Year Award, still running today. He wasn’t afraid to criticise new models, at one stage being blackballed by General Motors. He also invented an alter ego, an irascible Anglophile called Romsey Quints.
Wheels’ editor, Peter Robinson, didn’t quite match Tuckey’s flamboyant writing style, but no one knew the industry and its people like he did. He was followed at Wheels by hard-nosed journalist Phil Scott, who moved on to set up the Sydney Morning Herald’s ‘Drive’ section in 1996.
Australian television’s most significant motoring presenter was Peter Wherrett, a writer, advanced driving school operator and sometime racing driver. His ABC series, Torque (1973–80), became a magnet for consumers and car buffs, followed by Marque, a unique ABC series on the history of the motor car.
Wherrett, David McKay, Evan Green and Peter Antill were all accomplished drivers who moved comfortably into evaluating cars after racing and rallying careers. However, legend has it that David Robertson was appointed Sydney Morning Herald motoring writer without possessing even a driver’s licence. Later the editor of Motor (formerly Modern Motor), he was always more accomplished at the keyboard than behind the wheel.
John Wright taught English at La Trobe University before writing about and collecting cars. Motor mechanic Barry Lake went on to found Chequered Flag (1974–89) before editing Motor, while David Berthon was an architect before entering motoring journalism with 2CH, 2GB and the Sydney Morning Herald. Motor sport commentator Will Hagon was a Leyland public relations officer before becoming Sunday Telegraph motoring editor and car expert at the ABC.
An Australian Centre for Independent Journalism analysis of motoring articles in 2010 found over 64 per cent of stories across all 10 newspapers were generated by public relations.
With the enormous popularity of the BBC Television series Top Gear in Australia as elsewhere, Top Gear Australia was aired on SBS in 2008–09 and Nine in 2010–11, although it did not prove as popular as the British original. In 2011, ABC Television broadcast a three-part series, Wide Open Road, a history of the car’s place in Australian society.
In recent times, the internet—with its many motoring websites—has brought a new immediacy, though in some cases it has given a voice to those who have little to commend them other than a brash enthusiasm. The motoring sections of major newspapers are inexorably migrating from print to online. CarsGuide (a joint venture between News Corp Australia and leading car dealership groups), Fairfax Media’s Drive, and web-only sites Carsales, CarPoint Australia, The Motor Report and CarAdvice are all attracting high reader traffic. Increasingly, members of the motoring media are also required to be video presenters.
As long as there is a car industry, there will be people wanting to write about cars.
REF: M. Nichols, ‘From Kentucky to Cooee to Clarkson—Literary and International Influences in Automotive Journalism’, http://www.cardiff.ac.uk/jomec/resources/mtm2011/Nichols_Mel.pdf.