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Road & Track: The End of An Era

Back in the heyday of print-media, Road & Track was the venerable authority on automobiles. In the 1980’s when I was a salivating teen obsessed with cars, Road & Track was the defacto go-to source for road tests, racing results, and spy photos of new models. Back then, I had the trifecta of car magazine subscriptions: Car and Driver, Road & Track, and in 1986, added the then-new publication Automobile. On the pages of Turtle Garage I have even done retrospectives of old issues of Road & Track, looking back in history at advertisements, road tests, race results, and photographs from the 70’s and 80’s.

Michael Sheehan’s Ferraris-Online has been around for decades and maintains a loyal following. Michael has written countless Ferrari related columns for the Ferrari Market Letter, Cavallino, Sports Car Market, and Forza. I first wrote to Michael back in 2008 when I had a question about an article he had written for Sports Car Market. In a recent Ferraris-Online post, Michael provides his perspective on the demise of the once-invincible Road & Track print magazine.

What follows is Michael’s account of the history of Road & Track as well as a perspective on the publication’s inability to adapt to the New Order of the digital age. The article below is posted with permission from Ferraris-Online.

Road & Track: The end of an era and the error of the end—January 17th 2019

On Tuesday Kim Wolfkill, the current editor of Road&Track, mentioned in an email to Stan Mott, one of the two creators of the R&T Cyclops (Robert Cumberford is the other) “…that Hearst is closing the Ann Arbor office and moving operations to New York City. The print magazine will now be run by the digital team. We’ll complete the current issue and then we’re all done at the end of the month.” Former R&T editor, John Dinkel, learned of this because he has been in correspondence with Stan regarding an until now secret effort by the Cyclops Faithful to attempt to set a world land speed record at Bonneville next August. But that’s another story for another day.

Hearst’s New York office, which now handles the digital edition, would be the last remnants of the Road&Track Dynasty. For those under 40 reading this, it’s just another lumbering dinosaur put out to pasture. To those over 50 reading this, it’s the sad end of our automotive era and the end of what was once the auto enthusiast’s bible.

A Brief History:

Road and Track, as it was then known, was founded in 1947 in Hempstead, Long Island, by two friends, Wilfred H. Brehaut, Jr. and Joseph S. Fennessy. They published only six times from 1947 to 1949. By 1952 contributor and editor John Bond had become the owner of the magazine, which was moved to Southern California. By the late 1960s Road&Track was a cash cow and so John Bond built their damn-the-costs, ocean view, flagship building in Newport Beach. For those into publishing trivia, the “&” in the title was introduced by then Editor Terry Galanoy in 1955 for better newsstand recognition.

Thanks to a focus on introductions and road tests on then-rarely-seen European exotics from Aston Martin, Bristol, Ferrari and Maserati and on far-away European races such as the Targa Florio, Le Mans and Formula One, R&T found a hard-core cultish following of then 20 “ish” baby boomers. Irreverent writers such as Henry N. Manney III and Peter Egan plus road tests of the Goodyear Blimp or a San Francisco cable car or Stan Mott and Robert’s 1957 to 1992 articles on the Cyclops added the right level of flippancy. Readers accepted a three month lead time to read about unobtanium dream cars such as the 365 GTB/4 Daytona introduced at the 1969 Paris auto show; or the Ferrari 512M versus Porsche 917 battles at Le Mans; or the Lamborghini Miura S high speed test in the Nevada desert. Even better were the back page classified ads which offered no lack of 50s and 60s Ferraris and other exotics at prices that now seem mind-numbingly cheap.

A move to the epicenter:

In 1973 I moved my shop from Santa Ana to Costa Mesa so that I could be closer to R&T, as they were then the automotive nucleus of southern California around which dozens of specialty automotive shops opened and flourished. Since we were only a few blocks from R&T we had a ritual of driving the latest and wildest exotic in our inventory, from 330 P3/4 s/n 0854 to a Tyrell 007 F1 car s/n 074 in one side of their parking lot, around their building, out the other side and then back to our shop. We often helped R&T get the latest cars for testing, from the first Lancia 037 Rally car in the country to a then-new, bright orange McLaren F1.

In the 1970s and into the 1990s R&T featured columns and articles by former and current race car drivers from 1960s drivers Paul Frère, Innes Ireland and Formula One champion Phil Hill to 1970s drivers Brian Redman and Sam Posey to 1980s driver Bob Akin. All conveyed the essence of speed and brought their high speed runs down the Mulsanne straight, in the rain, at night, alive.

Ask not for whom the bell tolls:

In 1972 the Bonds sold R&T to CBS and in turn CBS sold R&T to Hachette Filipacchi Media in 1988. In the very early 1990s John Dinkel, then the Editor in Chief in charge of new products, worked with AOL (remember AOL) to put R&T online but his plans and pleas were a missed opportunity upon deaf ears. In 2011 Hearst Magazines bought R&T and in 2012 gathered the staff together to announce the magazine was moving to Ann Arbor, Michigan and none were invited along for the move.

The Road&Track building at 1499 Monrovia in Newport Beach sat empty before being sold to the city of Newport Beach who then sold the building to LA Lakers basketball star Kobe Bryant in 2014 for his business headquarters. Kobe then ran into zoning restrictions from the same city that had sold him the building and so the building continued to sit empty and derelict. The building was most recently sold to a local private school in need of expansion.

In the 1990s the print edition had 750,000 plus subscribers and sold 45% to 50% of retail-priced newsstand issues, making the newsstand issues the profit center. Today a one-year, 10 issue subscription to the print edition is a mere $12, which struggles to cover the printing and mailing costs and too many pages are filled with Tire Rack and Weathertech ads. Newsstand sales, once the profit center, are only 10% to 12% with the rest as land fill. Will the New York offices attempt to continue publishing the print edition? Perhaps, for a time, but that business model has failed. Killing a small forest for every issue is becoming politically incorrect and print is dead or dying.

As Howard Cohen wrote: Rather than bemoan the things that are no longer what they were, think how lucky we are to have lived in such interesting times, played with such fantastic and demanding cars and known such passionate, eccentric and accomplished people. We’ve crammed a lot into our lives and enjoyed almost the whole of an entire golden age!

Road&Track slowly died around the turn of the millennium, losing direction and relevance, failing to evolve in a fast changing world, overwhelmed by an endless stream of competing online columns. As former R&T editor John Dinkel wrote in an e-mail on Tuesday, 15 January: “I think Jim Morrison said it best…

This is the end
Beautiful friend
This is the end
My only friend, the end

In this case one door closes but another one closes behind it
”!

Thanks, in alphabetical order, to Ed Brown; Howard Cohen; John Dinkel; Paul Duchene; Tom Harbin; Alistair Henderson; Mike Matune; Bill Orth; Glen Smale; Thor Thorson; Giovanni Tomasetti and Bruce Trenery for their feedback.

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10 Responses to Road & Track: The End of An Era

  1. Serge March 18, 2019 at 12:40 pm #

    For me, as an avid Grand Prix racing fan, the best year of R&T was 1962. In each issue, a current GP car was analysed. For each car, there were 1/24 scale drawings to use as reference for model building, a full two-page colour photo of the car and, best of all, a fantastic cutaway drawing by James Allington. Ah yes, the good old days….

  2. Bob March 10, 2019 at 1:00 pm #

    I grew up on Car & Driver and Road & Track. Automobile was a bit pricey so I would sneak read it at the newsstand before getting chased away. It’s sad that the print medio did not understand, underestimated and missed the digitization band-wagon. But such is life and I will hold on to the memory of anticipating the days when the newsstand would have those magazines on the shelf!

  3. Leslie February 18, 2019 at 2:22 pm #

    An interesting perspective on a magazine I grew up with–I still think about that 1970 issue with the Ferrari Daytona on the cover and the Lotus Seven inside. I was 14 at the time and never tired of reading about exotic cars and exotic people–Henry Manney III, Rob Walker, Paul Frere. But I think there have been two developments that have hurt R&T: the car industry is not as interesting now and the magazine business generally is floundering. My first example would be the amount of space now given over in R&T and C&D to pickup trucks and lookalike SUVs, the majority of which are really not much fun to drive or have interesting stories associated with them. Interest in motorsports is on the decline generally but you can go online and watch the 24 Hours of Daytona anyway. With respect to magazines, you only have to see how thin most magazines have become compared to what they were in the 70s and 80s–not just R&T, but also Flying or Playboy and, alas, the vanished Gourmet. We have so many alternatives now to what the magazines offered then and I am not sure even a purely digital R&T will survive when there are so many specialist websites for free. i don’t like to read magazines online in .pdf versions compared to websites but I would be happy not to have to flip through all those WeatherTech ads!

  4. Robert Kahrl January 29, 2019 at 7:33 pm #

    I too grew up with Road & Track in my mailbox. I didn’t subscribe to Car & Driver because I thought that it was a knock-off of R&T and didn’t add much to the data that R&T printed (other than blessing us with the Cannonball Baker Dash). I especially enjoyed Henry “Practice-was-the-usual-shambles” Manney. It seemed like a magazine for the few and the proud – those of us who drove underpowered and unreliable British sports cars. Sometimes I thought that R&T took everything too seriously, but now we have Sports Car Market and all is right with the world. I also enjoyed the ersatz “road tests” of such vehicles as an Abrams tank and a locomotive.
    Instead of C&D, I subscribed to Competition Press & Autoweek. Printed on newsprint, and converting to color during my time, it covered the big events long before R&T could get the same events into print, like the Cam-Am series. It did little events too, including everything that happened at Mid-Ohio, where I did much of my early spectating. In those days, for a modest amount of money, I could buy a pit pass and wander around the cars in the pits, so everything in these publications seemed so immediate. I walked right up to Mark Donohue’s 917 and took photos of the engine bay. How long ago that was! How privileged we were compared to the antiseptic and safety-crazed restrictions of today! Come to think of it, at Watkins Glen, I walked right up to Jody Schecter’s F1 car, and Graham Hill’s car and shot photos of the driver’s seats.
    After suspending my R&T subscription while raising kids, I took it up again when I bought a Ferrari (John Bond’s obsession). Recently I have enjoyed the opening pages with nice action photos. However, I now skip most of the road tests because I just cannot get interested in reading about SUV tests and small sedan tests and tests of cars that don’t ring my chime. Also, they have been running articles lately about somebody driving a car around the mountains or the desert for three days and describing how it feels to drive such-and-such a car. I don’t have any interest in reading about somebody else’s driving experience in a modern car — unless the car is peculiar to drive such as a Caterham or a Morgan.
    Today we are not so deprived. In addition to SCM, we have specialty magazines for the great Marques, and I get the Porsche magazine and four magazines devoted to Ferraris. Specializing is the key to publications. General interest magazines are doing poorly, but magazines for the aficionados are doing well. Plus we have great blogs like FerrariChat, immensely rewarding for the Tifosi such as myself. They are even splitting off a new LamboChat site.
    So I will cry a bit for the loss of R&T, but not very much. We are heavily entertained by current media outlets (such as yours!).

  5. stu aull January 29, 2019 at 1:33 pm #

    R&T fan since 70s. And their recent (last year?) re-jig of the print mag was beautiful.
    Phil – nice catch on this development! I have found no other source of info on the Demise. Yet.
    As noted, Hagerty mag is great, tho different. I guess a publishing Model that is supported by Insurance is the only way to survive the death of Print. Jeez.

  6. Philip Yasuhara January 29, 2019 at 12:52 pm #

    I have a garage full of past issues from the late 60s to the 80s when I ceased lusting after new automobile creations and turned my thoughts to motorcycles. This is a sad end of an era but . . .

  7. Mark mederski January 29, 2019 at 9:26 am #

    Tell us why you think the massive OCTANE magazine from England thrives while our US car mags whither. I have subscribed to the well edited OCTANE for about ten years. Gave up on our domestic mags awhile ago. And the HAGERTY INSURANCE magazine is entertaining and informing me as well.

    • Richard Backus January 29, 2019 at 11:42 am #

      Mark, I’ve heard that OCTANE is in trouble as well … but I’m with you; the domestic mags quit interesting me ages ago, and since then I’ve looked overseas for inspiration and intelligent information.

    • Philip Richter January 29, 2019 at 4:31 pm #

      Mark,
      I think you hit on the nail on the head here—for any publication to thrive it must be well edited! Octane and Hagerty are good examples, however, I would also point you to Sports Car Market which is enjoying huge success in an era where magazines are dying. Why? Great writing and editing that is thoughtful, timely, relevant, and meaningful. SCM has organic writers from inside the sport that take the time to really do the work and write high quality articles. In this sense, SCM is almost like an organic “public good” given that the content is mostly generated by high profile experienced enthusiasts like Miles Collier, Donald Osborne, and Thor Thorson. Most of the writers for SCM are not employed by the magazine, but rather are called in from time to time for their specific expertise. Somehow the big U.S. magazines like R&T didn’t continously increase the qulaity of their content. They did not adapt and upgrade their offering. I tend to look at the iPad and the internet as a general benefit to print in the sense that newspapers are so much better to read on an iPad and I equally enjoying reading SCM on the iPad app. I still want and need the information and content, I just access it on a different platform. If I get my content over the internet or in print it is the same to me—I pay to get the New York Times, the New York Post, Sports Car Market and Bloomberg over an app. Print has been challenged for decades—first by radio in the 30’s then by television in the 50’s. The internet is just more of the same. I submit that its the content side that slipped at these big U.S. car magazines and that is the real reason for their demise. My niece who is a millenial works for a magazine called Dwell and they are killing it. Why? Great content for a fee that is accessable via print, the web, or an app.

      Thank you all for being subscribers and providing this thoughtful dialogue.

      Philip

  8. JK of Miami January 29, 2019 at 8:48 am #

    I am a long time R&T subscriber and felt it odd yesterday when I received an invoice from R&T for an additional 1 year “Magazine” subscription for $7.00 ( how much lower can they go?).
    Note that the invoice is dated January 16, 2019, the envelope is postmarked January 24 and, of course, they are encouraging me to pay for it online!

    Thank you Philip for the heads-up!!