The Challenges Of Automotive Journalism

Edward Niedermeyer
by Edward Niedermeyer
The following is a piece called “What We Wear” by Alex Law, reprinted from the Automobile Journalist Association of Canada’s November 27 “Mini Newsletter.”

Word that AJAC has actually launched a set of branded clothes struck me as quite meaningful, since the long history of the auto writing trade is to wear clothes with other people’s names.

It must be noted that Dave Booth, Jim Kenzie and I discussed a variation on this idea about a decade back, but it was limited to one of those jackets you see on people in a rock band. Our idea was to design a Car Guys World Tour jacket, with a map of the globe on the back. The first time you visited a particular city, you could sew a star on its location on the jacket in commemoration. Visit Moscow and put a star on its spot on the jacket, and so on. Ironically, we were traveling too much to make it happen.

But getting clothes from auto firms has been going on for as long as I’ve been in the business, a term which recently passed 30 years. According to a usually reliable source (Hi, Walt), the car companies only went to jackets, shirts and hats because in the 1960s the gift thing was getting out of hand. In the early days of auto journalism, the gifts would sometimes include appliances, such as fridges.

Now, somewhere in deepest Milton or in a four-star hotel in Xanadu or some such place, Jim Kenzie is reading this and wishing he could interrupt me to tell his story about the inexperienced Volvo PR man, but he can’t because I’m going to. This is only fair, as we have been stealing each other’s stories for years. Ask him to tell you about my worst experience with a copy editor. And for you Internet folks, a copy editor is someone who checks your story for errors before it appears.

Maybe 20 years back, Volvo brought a new guy into its European PR staff. He was smart and all those good things, but he did not know that the protocol there at the time was that you put the media agenda for the program on the gift in the hotel rooms. He realized his mistake the next morning, when a line of smiling hacks from all over Europe came down to check out with a TV under their arms.

The closest thing to a flap about gift clothes happened in Atlanta in the late 1980s. But you have to go back a year to North Carolina to appreciate the situation better, when GM had a program for its Buick-Olds-Cadillac division in the famous Greenbrier Hotel. At the time that immense, rambling structure was known purely as a golf destination, its secret life as a gigantic bunker for the U.S. government in the 1950s was as then unknown. Really. Bing it on the web. Anyway, we all got an ugly green Greenbrier Resort sweater when we checked in, and the PR people soon made it clear that they’d made no effort to guess our sizes. Take it back to the gift shop, they said, and get the size you want, or, you know, exchange it for something you liked better. My memory is that nearly all the sweaters went back in favour of something else.

So the next year, in a resort on Lake Lanier, Georgia, the BOC people cut to the chase and issued gift certificates for the gift shop or the pro shop at the golf course. Only you had to sign the gift certificates, and this struck a lot of people as a very bad thing, so no gifts were taken home. Ugly sweaters as currency is one thing, apparently, but a piece of paper with a dollar sign ($50 US) and your signature is something else.

BOC took note of this the next year and arranged for everyone to get a pair of Foot-Joys running shoes, with people on hand to measure your feet so the custom-fitted beauties would fit perfectly when they arrived at your home a few weeks later. They were great shoes, which I wore out on more press trips.

This chain of events got Jim and I to talking about gift clothes shortly thereafter, and he started to bemoan the fact that it was always jackets, shirts and hats, jackets, shirts and hats, jackets, shirts and hats, with a pair of gloves or shoes every now and then. This helped him keep his clothes’ budget low, he admitted, but he was trying to think of something that would relieve him of the need to buy pants, socks and underwear.

His idea was that the car companies across Canada should figure out how much they planned to spend on gift clothes every year and contribute that to a fund that would be apportioned to auto writers on an individual basis. That way, we would easily get enough to pay all of our clothing requirements, even though we would have order bespoke tailoring. After all, gift clothes always include the car company’s name or logo, so Jim figured that all of the shirts and jackets we had made would come with a Velcro patch on the chest, so that we could affix the appropriate logo depending upon whose program we were attending. When we wore the clothes away from a car event, Jim suggested, we should use a patch that advertised his band.

This seemed like an excellent idea to me, but I worried that it would be too hard for the car companies to agree on how it would work. My solution was simpler: we would find clothing items or other things that we really liked and tell the car companies about them for future use. Thus was the notion of The Graft Registry born.

Feel free to use the idea now, if you want. From what I hear, the shirts, jackets, hats and USB memory sticks are starting to build up.

Edward Niedermeyer
Edward Niedermeyer

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  • Obbop Obbop on Dec 09, 2009

    Jumps up, raises hand, flexes knees to display vertical repetitive motion while bellowing...... "I KNOW WHAT TO DO!!!!" Grab that mentioned jacket. No need for a world map. Bring back those smaller bumper and window stickers so common back in the 50s and 60s showing various destination/arrival spots...... attractions, cities and states, etc. Place said stickers upon one's jacket and display one's travels and maintain the "auto theme" by mimicking a 66 Buick bumper.

  • Ronman Ronman on Dec 10, 2009

    I love when they give little that is something worth collecting (i have quite a few but nothing near the world record), especially VW, they have some very good quality detailing on their little models. all i got from Porsche was 4 pencils and a hat... i heard some people on other Porsche trips got some Porsche design jackets... not that i was very upset, but i would like to have that cool jacket, and I'm not paying a few hundred bucks for it just because it has Porsche embroidered on the sleeve. But my favorite part of the press trips are the location in most cases. getting to drive some neat cars on some of the world's most amazing roads is something i take any-day over a fridge, TV, pencil or even a much needed new laptop... I for one am in the business for the cars and the driving and wanting to share the experience, the trips and drives are the core, the gifts are just something to give to the office staff (soon it will be the kids) as a souvenir when i get back...unless i need that particular object...of course I'm human after all

  • SaulTigh When I was young in the late 80's one of my friends had the "cool dad." You know the guy, first to buy a Betamax and a C-band satellite dish. Couple of stand up arcade games in the den. Bought my friend an Atari 2600 as soon as they came out. He had two of these crap heaps. One that only ran half the time and one for parts in the yard. My middle school brain though he was the most awesome dad ever, buying us pizza and letting us watch R rated movies recorded on free HBO weekend. At the time I though he was much better than my boring father.Now with adult hindsight, I now know he was "dad who should have taken better care of his family" and not had so many toys.
  • Dave Has to be Indy 500. Many more leaders and front passes than NASCAR, and Monaco is unwatchable with the inability to pass on that circuit.
  • Jeff How did the discussion get from an article about a 56 billion dollar pay package for Elon Musk to a proposal to charge a per mile tax on EVs in California or paying increase registration on vehicles to make up for lost gas tax revenue? I thought such a discussion would better fit Matt's Gas Wars series.
  • Master Baiter Both people who bought ID.4s will be interested in this post.
  • Urlik Not a single memorable thing happened in the big three races this weekend IMHO.