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What I learned on my first day as a motoring journalist | Thank Frankel it’s Friday

21st April 2022
andrew_frankel_headshot.jpg Andrew Frankel

Loath to admit it though I am, I’m quite clearly nearer the exit point of my career than the entry. I started 34 years ago at Autocar and if I’m still in the game 34 years from now, I’ll be one of tiny handful of people who have somehow managed to earn anything at all as a motoring journalist in their 90s. But I doubt it – I came out of the shallow end of the gene pool and while I’d love to emulate the unique achievement of MotorSport’s Bill Boddy and still be filing copy at the age of 98, I really don’t think that’s too likely.

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So, at times I like to think back to where it all started. And for me it was the issue of Autocar published on 29th June, 1988, which was not the first on which I had worked, but was the first in which my work appeared, along with my name. Even though I had access to as many copies as I liked in the office, the thrill of knowing I could walk into any newsagent in any high street in any town in the land and pick up a magazine which carried my name on a bylined story and - if you knew whom you were looking for and squinted - my face in its photographs, excited me beyond my powers of description. Every time I passed one, I’d go in and casually browse through a copy, wanting to grab every passer-by and say nonchalantly, ‘that’s me, you know.’

I remember that test so well, and for reasons both good and bad. It sought to compare a Porsche 924S – the one with a mildly detuned Porsche engine under the bonnet instead of a mildly tuned one from a VW van – to the then new Honda CRX coupe. A David and Goliath confrontation of a very traditional kind, but at least the sub editors at the time showed a fraction more imagination and called the resulting confrontation ‘The Odd Couple.’

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When we photographed the cars, I was still the new hotshot on the road test desk who, if his patter was to be believed, was really going to shake things up. Or at least that’s what they thought when we set off for our photo location. By the time we returned, it was with an altogether less rosy image of their newest recruit.

Truth was, and by the standards expected then and now of the most rigorous test team in the business, I was effectively unable to drive. Yes, I could go, stop and steer and be relied upon (usually) to make it from one place to the next without crashing, but that was about it. And I genuinely thought that would do.

I remember being a bit alarmed by the cross-country pace once we’d left the motorway but I was able to keep up, just about, and arrived at the Witchampton airfield feeling cautiously optimistic about how things were going. It was not to last.

Witchampton was an old disused WW2 airfield we used in the late ‘80s until it fell into terminal disrepair. Located just to the east of Blandford, it was quiet, cheap and the roads nearby were excellent. We took some tracking pictures, where the two cars trailed along behind a third with the photographer hanging out of the back, some detail images and a set up static ‘pretty’ of the two together. And then someone said, ‘better do some cornering shots.’

Whereupon I watched with total horror as a colleague angled the Porsche into what seemed to be quite a quick corner and saw it start to spin. Except it didn’t. The tail went so far and stayed there. Lucky to get away with that I thought. But then he did it again. And again. Clearly luck had nothing to do with it. This was how the car was meant to be driven for this particular shot. Tail out, foot down, very dramatic. Probably suspecting I was already a busted flush, after a while the driver parked up next to me, got out of the Porsche and said, ‘I’ll take the CRX now, you drive this.’

What the hell was I to do? I had precisely no idea how to induce a slide like that. The one and only time I’d tried in the past I wrote a car off. Miserably, I got into the Porsche and headed up to the offending corner at slightly more than the maximum speed at which I thought it might negotiate it, and simply wrenched the wheel.

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The photographer was a bloke called Dougie Firth, and if you read Car magazine much in the 1980s you’ll be very familiar with his work. Tall, thin, dressed from head to toe in black – I never saw him in anything else – he was also one of all too few really decent people I met in my early years of this business. And to this day I remain slightly ashamed of the fact that on that day I became only the second person in his long and illustrious career to make him run away from a car he was trying to film. If I ever knew the identity of the first, I have long since forgotten.

Actually, and in my defence, I technically didn’t lose complete control of the car, insofar as it never came to a halt pointing in an unintended direction, but that said far more about the inherent balance and endlessly forgiving nature of the 924S than it did my sadly parlous driving skills.

That was the last cornering shot I did on that job or, if I recall, any other for some considerable time to come. But actually, it was probably what saved me. Because with damage to neither man nor machine, I left Witchampton a much-chastened man, determined to learn his trade through hard work, and the slow accumulation of experience. Thirty-four years later, I still am.

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