Motoring journalists actually lead a lonely and dangerous life, claims Cyril Klopper.
Idon’t want to boast, but motoring journalism is probably at the apex of the journalistic profession. Even if I have to say so myself. Not everyone can drive a brand new car every week and then write 600 words about it. Each week you also have to re-learn on which side of the steering wheel the indicator stalk is. Does the test vehicle use petrol or diesel? You have to keep your head in the game on a level that smug news journalists never get to experience. Investigative journalists might contend that motoring writers’ contribution to the knowledge of civilization is unimportant, but can Jacques Pauw tell the difference between hydraulic and electric power steering? I don’t think so. War photographers will whine and say that no one ever shoots at motoring journalists, but motoring journalists – or moto journos – have to stay calm and collected during a dinner with Toyota’s top dogs where you’re confronted by a dozen pieces of cutlery, the purpose of which totally escapes you. SURE, WE MIGHT LOOK like oddballs: Predominantly middle-aged men who can converse about little else than cars and motorsport. You can also spot us from miles away: We usually glob together in an airport’s arrivals hall, each of us hauling a clothing bag courtesy of BMW, a golf shirt with a chequered flag and the words Simola Hillclimb printed on the pocket, and a fancy Land Rover jacket – the most expensive item of clothing in our cupboard. But spare a thought for people like us who despite our best efforts will never win a Pulitzer Prize. The only moto journo to achieve this was Dan Neil of The Wall Street Journal’s motoring supplement. His name is still whispered in revered tones over cups of coffee in office kitchens. Few motoring writers possess the confidence to write a novel, and according to book reviewers we certainly aren’t destined for J.M. Coetzee-levels of fame. To top it all, we’re competitive with each other. The person with the most Voyager miles gets to choose what colour car he wants to drive at a vehicle launch. Vehicle launches aren’t easy. A year or so ago I attended the launch of a luxury German SUV in Mozambique. I could take along a partner and chose my wife so that I could once and for all prove to her that I actually work hard and that my job isn’t a paid holiday. We had to share a vehicle with another couple: the editor of a well-known lifestyle publication and his wife. Somewhere on a sandy trail north of Ponta do Ouro, Mrs Editor suddenly developed an urgent need to go to the loo. The nearest filling station was hours away and she absolutely refused to use a long-drop in a nearby settlement. We stopped behind a dune next to a lake. It was a sweltering, humid day and we didn’t want to switch off the engine since we desperately needed the air con, plus we were slightly concerned about the hippos bobbing in the nearby lake. She shuffled to the back of the vehicle with her hands clutching at her dress. In her haste for some privacy she brushed past the proximity sensors and activated the rear-view camera. Inside the vehicle a loud “beep” drew our attention to the large touch screen on the dashboard. On the screen were two pale white moons, each pocked with meteorite craters. The motoring journalist in me made a mental note to remember to mention the excellent picture quality. The editor coolly placed his hand over the screen to protect his wife’s dignity while the sensors loudly continued to warn us of an impending crash. Only then did the penny drop. It was deafly quiet in the car. Not even Mrs Editor’s relieved sigh as she climbed back in could cut through the awkwardness. MOTO JOURNOS TYPICALLY attend launches without their spouses (it’s at these that we have it tough – or so we tell our significant others). You pick a driving partner from the group of journos who flew in with you. It’s usually someone you know well and who you can rely upon to take the wheel if you’re feeling poorly after having enjoyed a bit too much of the free booze the night before. But often it’s a new face: A young guy or girl who dutifully jots down every word the PR person says.
With the roof at half-mast I crept across a busy intersection while fellow motorists hooted at me and flipped the bird.
It’s amusing to chat to these newbies and to brag about how many countries, provinces, race tracks and hotels you’ve visited. You suggest, whether they want your guidance or not, on which aspect of the vehicle they should focus. Certain seasoned veterans enjoy scaring the newbies. And sometimes the newbies scare you, as my colleague Kyle Kock discovered when a young journalist drove into a river with Kyle in the passenger seat. They had to swim ashore, and the Italian manufacturer’s bosses were none too pleased. But I’ve already said too much. Moto journos have a saying: “What happens at a launch stays at a launch”. In terms of test vehicles, we have it even tougher. Like the time a French car manufacturer had a convertible dropped off at my office. I immediately took it for a spin through town. When I stopped at a traffic light I noticed a car full of young ladies next to me. They checked my car out from top to bottom and batted their eyes at me. I used the opportunity to impress them even more by lowering the roof. With the push of a button the roof popped up, to the delight of my attractive audience. Halfway through the process, however, the roof got stuck and refused to budge. I repeatedly pushed the button but the little French car stubbornly refused to obey me. The ladies were howling with laughter as the traffic light turned green. With the roof at half-mast I crept across a busy intersection while fellow motorists hooted at me and flipped the bird. EVERY TIME I BRING a test vehicle home, my neighbour peers through the cracks of the curtain of her living room window. If it’s a super-expensive Mercedes-Benz GLS she surely asks her husband if the guy who moved in next door is a bank robber or a drug dealer because how else can he afford to drive a different car every week. If there’s a Datsun Go in my driveway, they probably whisper: “Ag shame, he probably didn’t sell enough tik last week”. The handful of people who do know that I’m a motoring journalist sometimes ask me what the best vehicle is. My answer always disappoints, because it’s never what they want to hear. Now do you see what a lonely and dangerous life a moto journo leads? We do have a little bit of authority though, especially if you’re a member of the South African Guild of Motoring Journalists. A colleague once exceeded the speed limit in an American muscle car. When a traffic cop pulled him over, he flashed his membership card and declared confidently that the guild has special permission to exceed the speed limit. The speed cop actually believed him and my colleague could drive away breathing a sigh of relief. Why would anyone want to be a motoring journalist if there are easier jobs in journalism – jobs like war correspondent, for example? It’s totally for the love of cars. You can take everything before and after this statement with a pinch of salt but never doubt our devotion to our trade. Of course, the free tank of fuel that comes with every test vehicle and the enjoyment derived from driving around in someone else’s car aren’t bad either.