Anecdotes from a motoring journalist – I have been fortunate enough to visit many interesting places, and to see and drive cars that would not ordinarily be possible in other occupations. Not only has this been a great pleasure and a privilege for me, but having been born and grown up in distant South Africa, I have witnessed the world of motoring and motorsport in the ‘bottomist’ country on the tip of the African continent.
Motorsport started, at an international level at least, in my hometown, East London, which is on the east coast of SA. It was a sleepy coastal city with a beautiful, national championship golf course, good schools, and a world-class race track – what more could you want!! Quite why motor racing became so popular there I can’t tell you, but most of the top British and European drivers would participate in SA in the ‘Sunshine Tour’ which gave them some time in warmer climes during the British winter. This influx of top professional drivers was a great bonus to the locals who welcomed them with open arms, and the winners were…the spectators and motorsport.
I can recall watching an international sports car race at our circuit one day with my father, probably in the late 1960s, and David Piper’s Ferrari caught fire just before the final hairpin that led onto the main straight. The fire engine was despatched immediately, but it had to follow the direction of the race which meant it had to complete almost a full lap before it reached the stricken Ferrari. By this time, Piper told me years later, the car had been reduced to lump of melted fibreglass.
My interest in motor cars and motorsport had commenced basically at a very early age, as my father would draw me pictures of the Formula 1 cars of the day when I was only a little child. We always listened to the Grand Prix on the radio. In fact, we could hear the Grand Prix from our house, as the sound would carry right across town. It was quite a few years later that I got into motoring journalism, after many unhappy years in accounting, when a friend asked me to write a feature for his new classic car magazine. So I did, then I wrote another, and before long I was writing for several other SA motoring titles. Then in 1997 I started my own magazine, Autosport & Classics, which focussed on classic motoring and historic motorsport in SA. We had a lot of fun putting this quarterly magazine together.
Some readers might remember the name of a popular and well-known SA driver, Doug Serrurier. Doug was a very creative and inventive engineer/driver. And in a press conference at the start of one race in SA, Jack Brabham told the assembled journalists that they had a new suspension on their new car that year. He then said that if you looked closely, you would find the same modification on Doug Serrurier’s car at the next race meeting, which brought raucous laughter from all present. Doug was definitely a hands-on engineer/driver and he became well-known for his LDS cars. Here, he was able to bring all of his ingenuity to play in building some of the most promising local race cars. I interviewed Doug at his home south of Johannesburg in 1997 and we had a very enjoyable chat. When our interview was finished I got up to leave and Doug disappeared out of the back door, so his wife saw me out and she told me that Doug had never sat still for that long ever before. I was honoured! As I walked to my car I passed their garage and there Doug, now 77 years of age, was already hard at work, fettling the suspension on a Cobra for export.
But with the uncertain political situation and internal turmoil in SA, we decided to immigrate to the UK in ’99. My first job in the UK was as the editor for one of the first online motor magazines, for one of the largest insurance companies in the UK. This brought me into contact with the motor manufacturers here in the UK, and through their sponsorship of the British GT Championships and the British F3 Championships, I got to attend all the races. When the dotcom bubble burst and a whole lot of us were made redundant, I found myself freelancing again. But importantly, I had made good contacts in both the motoring and motorsport world in the UK.
A couple of years later I approached Haynes Publishing with a book idea, and they said ‘sure, come and have a chat’. So I paid them a visit and suggested a few ideas, and the response at first was rather lukewarm, until I mentioned the Porsche Carrera idea. The editor’s eyes lit up and I had my first book commission in the bag. What this book and the ones that followed did for me, was to open a whole new bunch of doors and introduce me to racing drivers, car designers, engineers and so many interesting people that I never dreamt I would ever meet. To date I have written twelve books on sports and racing cars including seven on Porsche, three on Ferrari, and one each on the E-type Jaguar and the AC Cobra. There are many more book ideas that I have up my sleeve to be written in the future, so I look forward to meeting many more, great people.
The world of publishing has changed so much in the last decade, for both magazines and books. Electronic publishing and the Internet has made eBooks a reality, and authors today are able to publish their own books…of course this was not possible a little more than a decade ago. As a result of digital photography, magazine editors prefer journalists to be able to offer a ‘complete package’ consisting of words and photos, as this saves the cost of hiring two people. Mobile phones too have ushered in a whole new range of possibilities, and now everyone who has a mobile thinks they are a photographer. This has meant that the fulltime journalist has had to reinvent himself/herself, and so new opportunities need to be explored in this ever-changing world.
Digital journalism is here to stay, it is just that the platforms on which our features and photos will be published is constantly evolving. Social media, once thought of as only for those who had nothing to do all day, has become so important to journalism, marketing and self-promotion. Many people feel awkward about the prospect of self-promotion, myself included, but you will ignore it at your peril. Those who embrace change will survive in this fast-changing environment, but it means a life of constantly learning new software, new platforms, new styles of writing. One thing is for certain, the future will be different.
In recent times I have found myself giving several talks to local car clubs where I am able to share some of my experiences on different continents and the members are able to purchase my books afterwards. My next talk will be for the Aberystwyth and District MG OC at the ‘Naturally Scrumptious deli & coffee bar’ in Aberaeron on Sunday, 16 October 2016, at 12noon. Come and join us!
Written by: Glen Smale
Photos by: Virtual Motorpix/Glen Smale