Motoring: Boomin' and bustin'. Or how to flog a car mag

Whatever happened to the motoring magazine, the original blokes' lifestyle publication? Niche marketing, that's what.

THERE IS no delicate way to put this - are you an "enthusiast of boomin' and cruisin'"? Do you belong to a clique who believe Gordon Murray is a minor deity? Or is "Sideways Steve" Sutcliffe more your man?

Car magazines were men's lifestyle magazines before we had them. The lifestyle was monotheistic, blokey, knowing and never involved TV poppets getting their kit off amid arty lighting. Car magazines were first with product previews, heavy on road tests, technical explanations of Perbury transmissions, Grand Prix race reports - good, solid, specialist stuff. Next week, there was always an in-depth analysis of the Morris Marina Estate.

Car magazine changed everything. Car didn't cosy up to the automotive industry, but carried scoop shots of prototype cars and long features centring on driving a Porsche Turbo flat-out across Germany, inevitably written by a no-nonsense Australian called Mel or Gav. The magazine was tough, passionate and oddly sexy. Its rivals noticed. Car became the market leader. In its 1999 incarnation Car has dispensed with Aussies, replaced erudite maverick LJK Setright - who has gone on to spar with Brian Sewell on Radio 4 - with Alexei Sayle and is outsold by something called Max Power.

Nowadays, fresh car information arrives first from television, from newspapers, from cable or satellite or Internet. So even weekly car magazines deal in old news as company car culture has commodified the mid-market saloon. No longer does a potential purchaser mither over his Car or Autocar in a haze of specification data. The car comes with the job. Vectra or Mondeo? Who cares - a perk's a perk.

In response, the automotive magazine market has stratified. In Britain there are more than 100 automotive publications on sale, which the Audit Bureau of Circulations breaks down into eight key sub-species: classics, 4x4, sporting, trucks, performance, general plus buying and selling along with, inevitably, caravanning.

Narrowcasting predominates. The writing was on the wall for EMAP's Performance Car in those months when it was outsold by Performance Ford. PC did exactly what it said on the tin, eulogising speedy stuff from Fiat to Ferrari, Proton to Porsche. PF simply explained to the Dagenham faithful how to make Fords go faster. A decade ago PC was the first magazine to give serious exposure to a sharply funny columnist named Jeremy Clarkson. Clarkson went multimedia, Performance Car went downmarket and closed.

Most of the Performance Car staff reappeared on the newest contender, evo, founded by farmer, Maserati owner and PC loyalist Harry Metcalfe. Before evo (a magazine to which I contribute), car magazine launches had been big budget failures. In the Nineties, the general motoring title Complete Car bombed, and EMAP's CarWeek never found an enduring audience.

"At face value, it's impossible to launch a car magazine in Britain today," says evo's Allan Pattison. "You have to be a total genius to spot the niche. Then you have to find a team to write it, know what the audience wants and, crucially, have the contacts to make it happen."

Evo - named after the Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution series, dream machine of streetwise car cultists - has celebrated its first birthday, with an editorial stance which is Performance Car for grown-ups. Sales are steady, profits undisclosed, but vital signs are good.

There's no boomin' and cruisin' in evo. That's the province of Max Power, which celebrates the bass-bins and blacked-out windows soundtracking suburban Friday nights. In a world where the Fiesta XR2i remains a status item, Max Power has an average monthly sale of 176,000, shadowing Top Gear Magazine's market-leading circulation of 182,500.

Top Gear Magazine was supposed to capitalise on the mass-market enthusiasm shown for the BBC2 programme, which pulled an audience of 5m. If only 10 per cent of viewers could be bothered to troll down to WH Smith's, suggested the business plan, Top Gear Magazine would set new sales records for a car title. It never happened. All that subtle BBC cross-promotion in the spare minutes before 9pm on a Thursday night simply proved there's only a limited number of car enthusiasts who buy car magazines.

"Any car magazine with a circulation today of more than 100,000 is doing good business," says evo's Pattison. His title has a way to go, but the biggest threat to car magazines comes from mainstream publishing houses who believe there must be a massive untapped market for automotive reading because 28m cars clog British roads. There isn't. (If popularity of a domestic appliance guaranteed a captive readership, Performance Kettle would be a media sensation.)

To prosper, car magazines continually refine their focus and invent heroes. Steve Sutcliffe is Autocar's tame driving ace, responsible for all those cover shots of expensive engineering wreathed in clouds of tyre smoke. His readers adore him. In the latest Car, Gordon Murray, Formula 1 World Championship-winning race car designer-turned-columnist criticises the "occasional ignorance of car magazines" and "ignorant motoring journalists". That's fine. But what does Gordon Murray know about boomin' and cruisin'?

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