The man on the other end of the phone was the “Wheels” editor for the Smallville Citizen-Journal and he was furious. There was no Mythos RoadSquisher SUV in his driveway! His press car had not been delivered! Instead, there was an email at the top of his in-box explaining that the journalist who had been driving the Mythos the previous week had crashed it, along with an assurance that he would be rescheduled for the next available vehicle as soon as possible.
“You stupid bitch,” he screamed into the phone, “what the f— do you think I’m going to drive this week?” My friend, a pert young woman who works for one of the major press-car agencies, was flabbergasted.
“Sir, if you drive your own car for a few days, we will make sure to get you—” The volume on the other end went up another notch.
“I DON’T OWN A CAR, YOU IGNORANT STINKING C–T! GET ME A CAR NOW! TODAY! OR FIND ANOTHER JOB WHERE YOU CAN SUCK C–K ALL DAY LONG!”
“Sir, what can I do, the fleet is completely empty—”
“GET UP AND WALK YOUR DIRTY WHORE ASS TO THE AIRPORT RENTAL COUNTER AND GET ME A CAR! AND HAVE IT DELIVERED! IN THE NEXT TWO HOURS!” And that, my friends, is exactly what she did.
As I write the story of that exchange, I’m strongly tempted to tone it down a bit, to make it more believable. In this case, however, truth is stranger than fiction, and more upsetting. Here’s more truth: The average print journo or big-blog editor in this business either does not own a car, as is the case with our “Wheels” writer described above, or has a little 2,000-mile-per-year creampuff garaged somewhere for that rare week when there’s no free car in his driveway. This business is overflowing with… free cars.
Across the country, there are lots chock-full of the very latest automobiles, all pampered, polished to perfection, and then lovingly topped-up with fuel not more than five miles away from the home of the journalist to whom they are delivered. They are picked up a week later dirty, damaged, and often with so little fuel that a splash from a portable jug is required to get them to the nearest station. When the cars are repaired and detailed, the oddest things are found. I left a pair of sunglasses in a press loaner and called in a panic later that afternoon, only to be told, “Unless it’s a gun, drug paraphernalia, or actual drugs in a Baggie, we just FedEx it to your house.”
“What’s the worst thing you’ve found in a press car?” I inquired.
“Two used condoms and a loaded roach clip, all jammed together into the crease of the front passenger seat.”
Press loaners are the reason many people enter the business. Fifty-two new cars a year, each with a full tank and free insurance. The pattern is almost always the same. Journos wait at home for their first-ever loaner, chat-up the delivery people, blog orgasmically about how Mythos just seems to have the nicest roll-up windows in the business, and prepare for the end of the week by cleaning the car from top to tread before filling it with Shell Ultra 94. By the middle of their first year, they’re using 7-Series Bimmers to haul mulch and they’re spilling Starbucks into the center console. By the time they are “veterans” they are carpet-bombing Facebook and Twitter with outraged complaints about their free cars: “Came home tonight to find a Sienna. THANKS FOR NOTHING!” “This week’s presser is some shitty base Benz with poverty-spec wheels. Don’t look for me to valet-park this one LOLZ.”
As a child, I subscribed to Car Advertising and Breathless Reviews, which often would end a “Road Test” with something along the lines of, “For the whole time we had the 1979 Dodge Omni, it was always the last set of the keys pulled off the board in the evening.” That’s right! They had a free car for nearly everybody in the office! Maybe 10-15 people! A new car every week for each of them! A total of 40-60 cars? How many reviews did they publish in a given month? Four, at the most.
As the number of free-car-worthy outlets simply exploded in the past decade, so did the number of free cars. Everybody expects a car now, and many expect to have two every week. Last year, I sat in the back of an airport shuttle with a small-city print journo who bragged to me that not only had he not owned a car in a decade, his adult daughter had never owned a car. She simply drove the less desirable of the vehicles dropped off for the week. Some people get caught letting their kids drive Porsche Turbos and still get fifty-two free rides a year.
Where does TTAC stand on all this? Our august founder, Robert Farago, was extremely ambivalent towards press loaners. When he wanted to review a car, he rented one or test-drove one (or, when a TTAC writer did get a press car, he insisted on full disclosure, a tradition TTAC maintains). I personally receive between six and twelve press loaners a year, mostly from domestic automakers. Of those, some are trucks. I request trucks whenever possible, for the sole purpose of pulling my race car to NASA events. I write at least one article about every loaner I receive. When I can, I track them. (See here and here and elsewhere.) Most of the time, I pick up my press cars in Detroit, which means I drive 190 miles each way to get them, at my own expense. I do this because I feel diffident, at best, about having them delivered.
I’m also a bit ambivalent about the ethics of driving a subsidized vehicle and then reporting honestly on that vehicle. The alternative is limiting ourselves to bringing TTAC readers reviews of rental cars and wildly-extrapolated descriptions of five-mile dealer test drives, so for the foreseeable future we’ll continue to do our best to provide honest reviews of press loaners. In the end, you will determine what we should do. I would like to think that my history of personally owning “upscale” vehicles renders me a bit less susceptible to starry-eyed articles — a free 5-Series BMW seems like a much bigger deal if you don’t have a Phaeton or 911 in the garage — but truth be told, I’m simply pleased as punch when I head out to the fleet companies for a loaner.
If you think press-fleet cars are perhaps too cozy an arrangement between the watchers and the watched, wait until you hear about the levels beyond. We’re talking, of course, about the phenomenon of the “long-term loaner” — the massively-expensive vehicle simply gifted to a major magazine or blog for a year or more — but that’s not the top of the pyramid. Near the top of the pyramid we have the completely free car, given to a journalist permanently for no particular reason, and at the top of the pyramid there is the Holy Grail of automotive journalism, the direct glance into the sun, the Kwisatz Haderach: a brand-new sports car, fitted-out with everything you need to go SCCA or NASA racing, and simply given to you for the modest sum of one dollar. Stay tuned, and beware of tubby old newspaper journos in rented Camrys!