COL­UMN

Motoring jour­nal­ists ac­tu­ally lead a lonely and dan­ger­ous life, claims Cyril Klop­per.

Go! Camp & Drive - - Contents -

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.

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