Behind the Scenes at Ate Up With Motor, 2011 Edition

This time last year, we stepped out of our usual format to examine the making and methodology of articles on Ate Up With Motor. As 2011 draws to a close, we present a different kind of behind-the-scenes look: how we decide what to write about.

1957 Dual-Ghia convertible taillight

Author’s note: Given the nature of this article, I’ll once again spare you the editorial ‘we’ and stick to the first person. And thus were hosannas heard throughout the land…

THE SUBJECTS OF MY SUBJECTIVITY

The most frequent questions I get about Ate Up With Motor are variations on “Why don’t you do X?” and “When are you going to write about Y?” At the same time, I’m constantly asking myself what I should cover next — particularly if I’m running late and haven’t started yet.

How I answer those questions depends on a lot of different factors, but the most significant are usually the following:

1. Do I have information on that make or model, and/or do I know where to get it?

All of these articles require a great deal of research, and it’s basically a foregone conclusion that the research for any specific article will end up being more extensive and more time-consuming than I expect. Nonetheless, having a place to start is important. If my assortment of books and magazines includes period road tests or other articles on a particular model, or if I already know where I can obtain detailed information, it becomes a much more appealing prospect. Starting from zero is obviously much more challenging.

An important corollary is the question of how much information is available in a language I can read. (For the record, I can manage Spanish well enough, and by extension can puzzle through some Italian and a bit of French, but anything beyond that requires heavy use of online translation software.) I have no doubt that there are many fine books, magazines, and enthusiast websites in Japan, for instance, but how I would find them — much less make sense of them if I did — is quite a different matter. That tends to be a major strike against models that were never exported to English-speaking markets.

1972 Toyota Crown 2600 hardtop front 3q
This Toyota Crown hardtop is interesting to look at — rather like the illegitimate offspring of a 1971 Plymouth Satellite and a coastal gun emplacement — but in-depth information on more obscure Japanese cars can be very hard to come by, at least for the non-Japanese speaker.

In some cases, there may not be a lot of information available in any language. Marques like Porsche and cars like the Corvette tend to inspire a wide array of authoritative references, while more obscure, workaday models end up as footnotes, or brief encyclopedia entries. Books or magazines on lesser-known models tend to be from specialty publishers, and aren’t always carried by public libraries; since I’m not currently in a financial position to buy much of anything, getting access to those sources can be a challenge, particularly if they’re long out of print.

2. Do I have enough photos?

This is the perpetual question. Since I can only use photos that (a) I’ve taken myself, (b) the owners have explicitly authorized me to use, or (c) that have been released under Creative Commons licenses or to the public domain, there are any number of cars I’d love to write about, but of which I just don’t have enough photos. As of this writing, two leading examples are the prewar Lincoln Zephyr and Continental and Chrysler’s 300 “letter series.” [Since done: see the Zephyr here and the Chrysler here.]

Conversely, if I manage to obtain a bunch of usable photos of a particular subject, it tends to move toward the top of the list. For example, I had thought about doing a story on either the rotary engine or early Mazda rotaries specifically, but they might have remained in the “one of these days” pile indefinitely had I not gotten photos of a whole range of rotary Mazdas. By the same token, if one of these days I should get some good photos of an Aston Martin Lagonda, you can bet that an article on it will follow in short order.

1981 Triumph TR8 convertible blue side
The Triumph TR8 is not a common sight, even around these parts.

As a general rule, I rarely start on an article until I have at least a baseline of usable photos. Needing to find a few images is one thing, but if I have almost none, it becomes more problematic, particularly if I’ve already checked various potential sources and come up short. I’ve done it a few times, but it becomes something of a crapshoot, as I would rather not run all-text articles.

3. Would it be re-treading too much familiar ground?

Part of my editorial strategy for Ate Up With Motor is to cast a wide net, and not concentrate too much on any specific marque, model, era, or even nationality. On average, about half of my traffic is from first-time visitors, and I try to make sure that there’s a good mix of articles on the front page at any given time, lest new readers get the mistaken impression that Ate Up With Motor is only about Ford products, British cars of the sixties, or forgotten American marques. (Admittedly, over the site’s history there has been a preponderance of postwar American cars, although that’s more a reflection of the information available to me than any predisposition on my part.)

With the exception of the longer two-part stories, I tend to shy away from articles on a marque or era that I’ve covered recently. That’s not to say I’ll never do another Cadillac article or a history of the MGA to complement last year’s MGB and MGC stories — I almost certainly will. However, I prefer to space them out, to avoid oversaturation.

1929 Ford Model A Town Sedan front 3q
A 1929 Ford Model A — certainly a car of great historical import, but perhaps too familiar? I’m still torn.

I also try to avoid articles that overlap substantially with past stories. I might do an article on a different generation of a model I’ve covered before, but I’m unlikely to do a second piece on the same generation. For example, the fact that I’ve previously written about the 1963-1967 Corvette Sting Ray wouldn’t stop me from doing a story about the 1953-1962 Corvette, but I probably wouldn’t do an article on the Porsche 944 Turbo, which I covered in the piece on the 924, 944, and 968 back in 2009. If I were to find new information on the 944 Turbo, I’d be more likely to amend or rewrite the original story.

On a related note, I’m sometimes reticent about models that have been covered exhaustively elsewhere. I’m not sure if there’s anything I can add to the encyclopedic lexicon of the ‘Tri-Five’ (1955-1956-1957) Chevys, and even the Ford Model A gives me pause. Aside from their familiarity, there are certain matters of filthy commerce to consider — despite what you might think, my articles on popular or ubiquitous models like the MGB tend to get fewer hits than lesser-known cult favorites like the AMC Pacer and Pontiac Trans Am Turbo. I’ve never made that the overriding criterion for doing or not doing a particular article (in large part because my theories about what topics would be the most popular have often been wrong), but it is relevant.

4. Is there an interesting narrative hook?

As I’ve said before, my intention is for these articles to present a sort of social history of each model: what it represents and what it tells us about the people who designed it and the people who bought it (or didn’t buy it, as the case may be). While I do talk about specifications, performance, and various technical details, I try to focus less on the data and more on the stories behind them.

This is as much a matter of brand positioning as personal inclination. There are many websites and publications that can give you specifications, and there is any number of clubs, magazines, and specialists better qualified to provide restoration, troubleshooting, or buying information. I accepted a long time ago that there will always be experts who’ve forgotten more about the inner workings of any given model than I’ll ever know. Rather than try to compete with those experts, it makes more sense for me to concentrate on finding something interesting or enlightening to say about it.

1948 Willys Jeepster front 3q
For the most part, I’m not willing to cover SUVs, but there are three potential exceptions, and this is one of them: a late-forties Willys Jeepster.

Therefore, when I’m considering a prospective topic, a major consideration is what story there might be to tell. For example, what made the Mazda rotary article compelling (aside from the fortuitous availability of photographs) was that it had several interesting threads: the company’s rocket-like ascendancy, followed by its near-collapse; the Yom Kippur War and the OPEC embargo; and of course the workings of the rotary engine itself. What intrigues me about the 1952-1954 Lincolns (a story I’d very much like to do) is their formidable record in the Carrera Panamericana — a legendary racing series that’s quite a story in itself.

Unsurprisingly, a topic that has a clear and compelling throughline tends to be more attractive to me than one that doesn’t. With some cars, the narrative thread is pretty obvious; however tangled their stories may be, trendsetters and noble failures are usually conceptually straightforward. With others, finding that thread takes more work. Sometimes, a story idea seems either too narrowly focused or too big to come to grips with. Other times, I just don’t see it, at least not right away, although it’s entirely possible that I will come around later, sometimes for reasons not obvious to the casual observer. (That isn’t limited to Ate Up With Motor, incidentally–it’s a subject of frequent consternation on the part of my friends and loved ones, who are all too familiar with my propensity for reluctant, noncommittal initial responses to perfectly reasonable suggestions, some of which I later decide to embrace after all.)

1956 Ford Fairlane Victoria front 3q
A 1956 Ford Fairlane Victoria two-door hardtop. A pretty car (and this color scheme makes me stupidly happy, for some reason I won’t try to analyze), but what would I say about it?

Of course, in some cases, the throughline of the actual article sometimes ends up being quite a bit different than I thought, but having a good hook at the start provides focus for my initial research, and they help to get me invested in and excited about the story. Given the amount of work involved in each of these articles, that’s not an inconsequential factor!

STORY IDEAS FOR 2012

All that being said, here are a few of the ideas I’m considering for the new year, again in no particular order:

  • The Triumph TR7 and TR8 [see here]
  • The 1949 Ford
  • The aforementioned 1952-1954 Lincolns
  • The Australian Chrysler Valiant and Charger
  • The pre-Rolls-Royce history of Bentley and the “Bentley Boys”
  • The war between Ford and Ferrari at Le Mans in the mid-1960s
  • The Austin-Healey 100 and 3000 [see here]
  • The original Lotus Elan
  • The BMW M1
  • The Nissan 280ZX and 300ZX (Z31 and Z32)
  • The 1956-1958 Dual-Ghia and 1961-1963 Dual-Ghia L6.4
  • The Triumph Stag
  • The Tucker

As always, suggestions are always welcome.

Happy New Year to all, and I will see you in 2012.

# # #

36 Comments

  1. Should you need it, I have a copy of W.O.’s autobiography, “My Life and My Cars” somewhere in the stacks… It’s a fascinating read.

  2. One of my favorite automotive sites on the Web.

    I like your story ideas! Here are a few more:

    – Audi Quattro
    – Nissan Skyline
    – Ferrari F355 (and Ferrari’s "reinvention")
    – Renault Alpine A310
    – Honda/Acura NSX

  3. And thank you for your consistently engaging and interesting writeups about these cars. I look forward to your 2012 articles!

  4. Thanks for the look at the creative process. Of your list, I’m particularly looking forward to the following (and why):

    The original Elan – seems to be the car that popularized the less is more philosophy in an elegant package.

    The BMW M1 – BMW running gear, exotic extior design.

    280 & 300 ZX – evolution of 240, and the 1991 twin turbo “Z” was a high water mark for my generation.

    Triumph Stag – another great BL story

    Tucker – I’d love to know where the movie got it right, and wrong.

  5. I would love to see an in-depth article on the Willy’s Jeepster. Of all the cars produced by Jeep/Willy’s, the original Jeepster has the least amount of ink on it. Though that’s probably because it was — and sort of still is — considered the Jeep Compass of the 1940s.

  6. This is a great site for cars (despite my blog moniker, old cars are a big draw too). I like the write-up you did for the Aussie Ford Falcon, and that you are considering the Au Chrysler. Perhaps the Holden Kingswood and Monaro HK to HZ and their 253/308 VB, and the level of autonomy GM in the USA provided this subsidiary. This series was about the size of the US Nova, but more stylish.

    Thanks for the work!

    1. The reason the Valiant and Charger are currently ranking higher than the Holdens is an entirely selfish one. To do the mid-seventies Holdens properly, I’d really need to start with the 48/215 (whose origins I talked about in the Falcon story) and the FJ/FE. That will be very likely to end up a massive two-part story like the Falcon piece, which was a huge amount of work. The Holden or the Chrysler would be slightly less daunting because I now have a better idea where to look, but it’s still a big chunk. (The Falcon story took me nine weeks to put together, and my notes for the story ran to more than 70 single-spaced pages!)

      I’m not saying I won’t do the big Holdens, mind you, just that the Chryslers seem a somewhat more manageable prospect…

  7. Aaron–

    I know you did the A-H 3000 already (and it WAS a good article, as usual) but I was left wanting to know more about the original car’s inception and development; like how BMC "took over" the car and eventually forced changes like the 6-cyl. engine, etc. A Healey 100 story would fill those holes very nicely.

    Having said that, I also would second Scott’s vote for the Tucker article, especially exploring the similarities/differences with the movie story. One thing that got short shrift was Harry Miller’s involvement (at least conceptually) and the eventual unworkability of the original 589 cu. in. engine Miller designed for the car.

    1. Well, I talked about the Austin-Healey 3000 a bit in the MGC article, although that was more about plans for its replacement — the MGB-based ADO51 and the Healeys’ Austin-Healey 4000 — but not in a lot of detail, so I would likely do the 100 and 3000 together. (Not the Bugeye and the Spridget, though, which would be better served by a separate story.)

      1. There is also the Nash-Healey…

  8. …the Borgward Isabella? :o)

  9. Renault R5/LeCar
    Subaru 4wheel/All Wheel drive – do you know why?

    Love the site!

    Rurik

  10. Please tell me what those first two photo cars are! Also I would really enjoy a jeepster story (or really anything Willy’s) and definitely the Isabella if you can do it. It’s got looks an interesting story and no one else is talking about it.

    1. The top image (the fin) is a 1957 Dual-Ghia convertible. The second is a 1972 Toyota Crown 2600 Coupe, and the blue car is a 1981 Triumph TR8 convertible.

  11. How about writing an article about the BMW Isetta? That would be interesting as in the late ’50’s they were fairly common in the U.S.

  12. I feel that the story of the Tucker has already been told well by several people. How about a story that groups together some of the other mid-century automotive start-ups that didn’t quite get off the ground? Muntz Jet, Playboy, Gaylord, etc.

    Some other ideas:

    -Something on early 20th century cycle cars.

    -An overview of the 100s of auto makes that existed around the turn of the last century which lays out which companies ceased to exist all together, which were consolidated into new companies, which were absorbed by others, and which touches upon some of the higher profile personalities and how they moved from company to company.

    -A story about how the Japanese auto industry got started

    -Renault Dauphine & Caravelle

    -Mitsubishi Starion / Chrysler Conquest

    -If you ever find a Japanese speaking coorespondant / translator…Japanese odd-balls such as the Hino Contessa and Isuzu Bellet would be fun to hear about.

    1. Odd balls like the Contessa and Bellet were sold outside Japan we had them here in New zealand though Contessas are very rare now Bellets are still about

  13. It would be interesting for you to wrap-up your Oldsmobile coverage with the Aurora.

    That car seems to show both the best and the worst of post-1980 GM, it has innovative features and beautiful lines, but also horrible GM marketing and a family of under-achieving (pun intended) sister cars.

  14. Id love to see you take on the Aussie Valiants after reading your story of the Falcon Im sure it would be interesting and accurate.

  15. Aaron,
    as much as that 56 Victoria makes you happy, it makes me both happy and nostalgic. My first girlfriend (and 38 years later my wife)owned one exactly like it back in 1968. Colonial White over Peacock Blue. /sigh/. Keep up the outstanding work. I really dont care whats up next. The suprise factor is like a birthday present.

  16. I restored a 1955 Olds that was originally 2 tone duck egg blue & white. Looking for a more masculine combo (to my taste, anyway) and inspired by factory sales literature, I revised it to dark metallic blue & white; very similar to your Fairlane photo, albeit a darker blue. I think the 55 Olds two-tone looks fantastic in those colors.
    Correct me if I’m mistaken, but didn’t 1952 Lincoln styling continuity extend to 1955; not saying that the ’55 was still a contender in racing.

    1. It was, and in fact the story would likely go through the ’57s, as the last of the B-o-F Lincolns until the Mark III a decade later. However, the ’55s were already veering away from the earlier cars in character, becoming more the stereotypical big American luxury sedan, so an era was already ending.

  17. Great explanation of the considerations that go into picking projects – and yes all your articles are really research projects and not just articles.

    I am very interested in the original Lotus Elan – it was a groundbreaking car that made at least designers rethink their past approaches. Light weight AND great crash protection seemed back then to be polar opposite, but not in the Elan.Great car, but I have no idea how it came about.

    I confess ignorance to but curiosity about the Bentley. So I would love to read that history. Triumphs are always interesting.

    I know Australian cars are a lot of work for you to research, but any project on an Australian brand would be welcome.

    1. Well, almost any article is a research project to some extent, whether it’s a magazine feature or a 300-word news item. Still, some certainly require more research than others…

  18. [quote]”rather like the illegitimate offspring of a 1971 Plymouth Satellite and a coastal gun emplacement…”[/quote]

    LOL! I thought these were quite handsome back in the day, though I’ve never seen the coupe version. I don’t think that was ever imported to this neck of the wood (Indonesia), only the sedan and the rare station wagon version. I thought back then the parking lights on the hood was incredibly cool and futuristic looking. The Japanese has a tendency to use Detroit styling for their large cars. The Nissan 280C was even more detroit-like. I got the brochure as a kid, and marvelled at its sheer Americanness.

    Anyway, keep up the good work. Your in-depth articles are always enjoyable to read, and informative to boot! As you said in the article, and others have said in the comments area, there are no shortage of topics.

  19. I think the late 50’s Lincoln Continentals would make a good story. It starts with the classic restrained Mark II and then all hell breaks loose with the wild, flashy architecture of the 58-60 models. There’s a nice little sidebar of Neil Young’s Linc-Volt.

    To be honest, I’ll read about any car you write about. Thank you for your hard work. It shows,

    1. The ’58-’60 Lincolns are very interesting — aside from their baroque styling, they were probably the biggest unit-bodied production cars anybody had ever built at that point. (The old CW Airflow Imperial Custom was bigger, but (a) it was bridge-and-truss, not exactly a unit body and (b) it was only produced in tiny numbers.) The trick has been that they’re just not that common — in fact, I don’t believe I’ve ever seen one in the wild, and it hasn’t been for lack of looking! One of these days, though…

  20. I would like to see an article about the fuselage Mopar cars of the late sixties and early seventies. I did not appreciate the beauty of these cars until twenty years after they came out.

    1. I would echo Peter’s comment on the ’69-‘7x full-size Chrysler, Plymouth and Dodge fuselage cars. These fascinated me as a car-crazed kid and our family actually bought a ’71 Dodge Monaco new. Coming from what had been a GM family, this was a big leap and the car offered a different driving experience. I find the ’70-’71 Plymouth and Dodge particularly interesting, as they were restyled after their debut in 1969.

      In contrast (and perhaps I am unique) nothing interests me less than articles about Aussie cars. In recent years, Collectible Automobile has devoted considerable space to articles on those subjects and they do not hold my interest at all. Perhaps if one grew up in Australia that would be different. But to me they are an automatic skip.

      Thanks for an interesting website.

      1. I recognize that the challenge Australian-only models can hold for North American readers (which constitutes something like 70% of my readership) is that for the most part, they are dauntingly unfamiliar. It’s not just a matter of not being familiar with a specific model or variation, but of not having any context to place it in. I freely admit I had that response the first time I looked at the history of the Australian Valiant and Falcon — I didn’t understand the model codes, and even when I made an effort to find out, I had to do a lot of research just to get a sense of what the Australian industry was like at that time. (This is why when I did the Falcon, I really started at the beginning of Ford in Australia; a lot of the background of that article is stuff I had to find out myself to be able to make sense of it.)

        My observation — and I don’t mean to speak for you here, but just to remark on a general tendency — is that a lot of automotive enthusiasts really start from a place of emotional engagement with a specific car, model, or make. It was something their parents had when they were kids, or something they had when they were kids (or wanted and couldn’t afford), or was connected with family or regional loyalty (their uncle worked at the plant for 40 years, or the plant was in their hometown). From there, they may branch out into earlier or later versions, contemporary rivals, etc., but it stems from that familiar root. Something that’s completely foreign — especially if it was never sold in your home market at all — is a bigger leap, and that can feel more like work than fun.

        So, I get that, and in tackling such cars, I will endeavor to lay out the background and the context for the unfamiliar reader, in hopes of bridging that gap. (And I hope readers from the home markets of those models will indulge me a certain amount of back story and explanation that they might not really need.) Of course, some things won’t grab everybody, but that is the risk of casting a wide net.

  21. That 56Ford breaks my heart. had the same car back in ’65. Not enough brains to keep it. Ateup is great, keep it going.

  22. I’d love to learn more about the early-20th century Lanchesters. Frederick Lanchester was a fascinating man, and his early cars were years ahead of their time.

    Your articles are consistently excellent–thank you for all your efforts!

  23. I’d love to see more on Canadian cars – Meteor / Monarch / Frontenac, “Plodges” and the unique Chrysler / DeSoto models like the Diplomat (built in Canada for the export market), and the various GM models like the Parisienne / Laurentian, Acadian, etc.

  24. I’m fascinated by the companion lines GM foisted on the public prior to the Great Depression – LaSalle, Pontiac, etcetera. An overview of the whole Sloan branding and GM’s position in the market, as only Aaron can tell it.

  25. I am sure I am not the only one of your readers that would love to see you go through the first generation SUVs .. ( Jeeps, Broncos, Scouts,Land Rover and Landcrushers.)

    My daily driver is a 96 Olds Cutlass Supreme. It has the 3.4 DOHC which is an interesting engine. ( and hard to maintain.) This is a great write up on the 3.4…
    [URL]

    I love the work you are doing. Keep the Fire.

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