As we come to the end of 2010, we present a special behind-the-scenes look at the making of Ate Up With Motor.
PART ONE: GATHERING INFORMATION
One of the first (and sometimes the most challenging) parts of writing an article for Ate Up With Motor is finding information. I hardly qualify as an automotive insider and, with rare exceptions, the articles that appear on this site are based entirely on publicly available information found in various print and/or online sources. All of those sources, public or otherwise, are detailed in the “Notes on Sources” section at the end of each article.
My sources generally fall into the following categories, listed by order of preference:
- First-person accounts of people actually involved in the design/development of the subject. Occasionally, these may come from direct e-mail, phone, or face-to-face communications with those individuals, if they’re still living and available; some industry people have very generously offered their recollections, feedback, and/or corrections, either before or after publication. More often, however, such accounts come from transcripts or excerpts of past interviews, such as the Automotive Design Oral History Project, conducted in the mid-eighties by Dave Crippen of the University of Michigan’s Benson Ford Research Center, or excerpts of interviews appearing in published books or articles.
- The more scholarly marque-specific histories. Some marque histories are essentially coffee-table books, with lovely photography and production design, but modest written content; others contain a wealth of minor details not easily found elsewhere. (For example, some include appendices detailing the company or division’s principal executives, along with the dates of their tenures.) In general, most really of the useful marque histories I’ve encountered have been print books, but there are occasionally some exceptionally thorough online sources that serve a similar function.
- Historical articles or books on the subject. There are many these, of highly variable quality and utility. The most valuable are generally ones that are based on interviews with designers, engineers, and executives involved in the development process, particularly if those individuals are now deceased.
- Contemporary reviews and articles. These may include vintage road tests (for general specifications, performance, and driving impressions), new model previews (which occasionally provide snippets of behind-the-scenes information), articles on specific new features or technologies, and manufacturer press releases and advertisements. I also sometimes consult popular magazines, newspapers, or non-automotive business journals, which seldom have much useful technical data, but may provide information on major business or legal developments — particularly for articles like the DeLorean Motor Company story, whose scope went well beyond the automotive sphere.
- Patents and other publicly available government documents. The full text of applicable patents are publicly available, as are both the full text and various summaries of automotive safety, emissions, and fuel economy standards. They aren’t necessarily easy or scintillating reading, but they are sometimes very handy for clarifying the details of complicated technical or regulatory issues.
- General automotive histories and other modern sources. These may include the less scholarly sort of marque history, fan websites, automotive encyclopedias, and the occasional non-automotive history texts. The broader the history, the less likely it is to have useful specific information, but general histories may provide additional context on events outside the automotive realm, such as the 1973 October War and the ensuing OPEC embargo.
Inevitably missing from this list are the sort of corporate cultural references that would be intimately familiar to an insider, things like a company’s internal terminology and slang or the intricacies of the corporate org chart. Having gritted my teeth while reading “outsider” histories of other industries in which I’ve worked, I’m well aware of how off they can sometimes sound. It’s regrettable, but it’s difficult to avoid; even historians who’ve conducted dozens of interviews with employees of a particular company will sometimes stumble on unfamiliar names or concepts. The best I can offer is a preemptive apology to insiders who find that tone deafness grating.
PART TWO: DISTILLING THE DATA
After compiling much of the information for an article, I will typically have anywhere from 12 to 50 pages of typewritten notes, which tend to expand further as I investigate questions that come up during the writing process. After that, I have to sort it into some intelligible form. I do a lot of the outlining in my head; I’ve never been particularly fond of formal outlines (which I find to be as much work as a rough draft, and markedly less useful), although I will sometimes create an annotated timeline for easier reference.
Aside from sorting out the chronology (which can be very troublesome, given the lengthy and sometimes irregular lead times involved in automotive design), this process involves deciding how much weight to give the individual sources, particularly when they conflict. Even when dealing entirely with primary sources (e.g., first-person accounts by actual participants), those accounts are limited by what the participant knows or remembers — or what the interviewer thinks to ask. Occasionally, I’ve even found contradictory statements made by the same person at different times. While researching the Cadillac Seville article, for example, I found two quite different explanations of why the 1976 Seville didn’t have front-wheel drive, both of which were direct quotes from former Cadillac chief engineer Bob Templin, apparently from two separate interviews, years apart.
Other problems may arise from errors in secondary sources. The fundamental problem with secondary sources (including my articles) is that they can only be as accurate as their own sources, and they often inherit the original source’s mistakes and shortcomings. Some are minor — someone simply wrote down the wrong date, misspelled someone’s name (or accidentally substituted one similar-sounding name for another), or made a typographical error — but they can elude the best editors and they sometimes become quite persistent; I’ve spoken before about the amazing number of sources that misspell the name of engineer Earle MacPherson, designer of the MacPherson strut. Sometimes, a piece of information is obviously wrong, particularly if it contradicts other reasonably reliable sources. To confirm the spelling of MacPherson’s name, for instance, I was able to look up some of his patents, which included scans of the actual applications and MacPherson’s original signature. In other cases, the problems are not as easy to recognize. All I can do is consider the weight of the evidence and either make my best judgment or present both versions and leave it up to the reader to decide.
PART THREE: THAT TROUBLESOME OPINION THING
The next step is to form a thesis or a through-line, which leads us to the always-sticky issue of subjectivity and personal opinion.
While I’m sure some historians will take issue with me on this point, I think subjectivity is to narrative history as ice cream is to milkshakes. Even if you’re describing events in which you personally participated, your account is going to be different from that of the person was standing next to you, sometimes dramatically so. (If you don’t believe me, try asking your spouse or significant other for a detailed description of your last argument.)
No matter how much research or evidence you have, any narrative is ultimately a combination of individual perspective, interpolation (if a and c, then b), inference (if a and b, then c), and supposition. This is not to say a narrative history can’t be inaccurate if it’s based on faulty premises or quantitative factual errors, such as incorrect dates. The point is that even in the best-case scenario, it will only ever be one person’s interpretation of the available data.
I firmly believe that the entire purpose of history is to interpret facts: to draw conclusions about why things happened, why people made the choices they did, and why understanding those things is important in the present. If you made a list of only the quantifiable facts about a past event, you would have an almanac, not a history — and even then, you’d inevitably have ferocious arguments about the accuracy of measuring devices and calendar systems.
I’ve been criticized by a number of readers for not pointing out that the content of the articles is simply my interpretation of events. I would argue that that subjectivity is implicit in any history text. If you pick up an intimate biography of Alexander the Great by a noted historian, the author is unlikely to begin each new paragraph, “I believe, based on the evidence I’ve gathered…” unless he or she is either presenting a new or controversial finding to which s/he wants to call attention, or is preparing to enter into a rhetorical argument with other writers and academics. In general, if I qualify my statements, it usually implies that (1) I’m presenting someone else’s thought, with which I don’t necessarily agree (or that I don’t have any way to evaluate) or (2) I’m either on the fence about something or feel that my information is too sketchy to support anything more than a tentative theory.
I’m well aware that some readers will disagree with my conclusions, which is certainly their prerogative. If you find the presentation of subjective interpretations inherently offensive, though, or dislike reading anything with which you don’t wholly agree, I can only suggest that you’d be happier elsewhere.
PART FOUR: IMAGES AND A BUNCH OF TECHNICAL STUFF
Once the article text is done, I go through it a few times to see if it reads smoothly and look for typographical and grammatical errors. (Inevitably, some slip through, which is a source of great frustration. I don’t have a proofreading staff and it’s very, very difficult to reliably proof your own work until some time has elapsed.) I then compile the sources into a list to build the “Notes on Sources” section. After that, I load the content into the CMS, set up the formatting and internal linking, and start placing the illustrations. Sometimes I write the image captions along with the rest of the text, adding placeholders to indicate where each illustration will go; other times, I write the captions after the rest of the text has been set up. The whole process is quite involved and usually takes at least two or three hours.
Finding suitable illustrations is an ongoing challenge. I am generally reluctant to start an article if I don’t have at least some of the images I’ll need (or at least know where I can get them), and my choice of subjects is often dictated by my supply of photos. While I do sometimes use images from elsewhere (either ones that the authors/owners have given me permission to use, or public domain or Creative Commons images), I strongly prefer to use my own, even if they’re not the best. It’s partially a question of time (locating and securing permission to use a lot of images can take days or weeks) and partially because my standard terms for licensing someone’s image allows them to rescind that license at any time. Since I’m not in a financial position to buy images outright, I consider that only fair, but it means the risk of having to replace a bunch of images on short notice. Therefore, an okay image that I actually own is often preferable to a gorgeous one I do not for purely practical reasons.
It will be immediately obvious that I’m neither a professional photographer nor a technical illustrator. All I can hope is that my photos are serviceable and the diagrams not comically inept.
PART FIVE: WHEN I MAKE A MISTAKE
As is probably clear by this point, I put a lot of work into each of these articles, both in research and writing. Nonetheless, I make mistakes. My information is neither limitless nor infallible; there’s some data that I simply don’t have any reliable way of finding and potentially useful sources of which I was either unaware or couldn’t get prior to writing. Sometimes I miss some critical point in the sources I do have, accidentally transpose specifications, or come to a conclusion that turns out to be wrong. Not even the most well-established and respected authors and publishers are immune to error; that’s why newspapers print errata.
While I am obliged to point out the “No Warranty” provision of the Terms & Conditions, I take errors very seriously and if I become aware of a mistake, I take pains to fix it to the best of my ability. One of the great luxuries of the web format is that it makes it possible to go back and make corrections with far less hassle than reissuing a printed book or magazine. I make changes to these articles all the time, either in response to comments or because I’ve found a new source of information. Occasionally, days or weeks after the fact, I’ll be walking to the grocery store or making dinner when I suddenly remember some point I’d forgotten.
Whenever I find a related book or article I hadn’t previously read, I usually go through it to see if its information jibes with my existing sources or if it clarifies any points of which I’d been unsure. For example, I recently persuaded the public library to let me check out a reference book containing interviews with a number of American automotive designers, including Frank Hershey. I had previously found some conflicting or questionable information on his career (such as exactly when joined Ford), which I was able to clarify based on Hershey’s recollections. I made a number of amendments and added the book to the sources for each article. I don’t necessarily announce those sorts of minor revisions, unless it’s something significant — do you really want to know every time I fix a minor grammatical error? — but they happen constantly.
If someone points out a potential error or questions my premises, my first response is to recheck my notes to see if I’ve simply garbled something — scrambled a date, dropped a digit, confused one trim series for another. If that’s the case, I’ll just correct the mistake immediately. If I can’t verify the point that way, I will generally ask the commentator for their source(s), if they haven’t already made that clear. To paraphrase Charles Kettering, GM’s first research VP, one of us may be wrong, but it’s important to figure out whom.
In general, if you can present credible evidence (whether from other written sources or from personal experience) that I’m wrong, I’ll revise the text accordingly. If you have a logical argument for why my conclusions are faulty, I may decide you’re right. On the other hand, if you cite a source that I’ve examined and decided was most likely off base, I’ll say so; this is why I list my sources. And if it’s solely a question of opinion — if I think X is beautiful and you find it hideous, or vice versa — we’ll have to agree to disagree. I have no illusions about satisfying all of the people all of the time.
As longtime readers will have noticed, my more recent articles are frequently longer and more extensively researched than ones written earlier. From time to time, I will reevaluate an older article and decide that it merits a complete revamp and expansion. Most of the revamped articles are what Hollywood describes as a page-one rewrite; by the time I’m done, little generally survives of the original except for the title and a few images. (In many cases, the title survives simply so that existing links to that article won’t break, which is a big technical hassle.) The major revisions are rarely prompted by any specific feedback; they tend to be driven more by my personal standards for what each of these articles should be. There is not, nor will there ever be, a perfect history text, automotive or otherwise. If there were, I’d just buy it for my own reference rather than trying to write these articles. There will never be a critic with whom you always agree; the question is whether you find their observations interesting or useful. If not, look at the sources, find new ones, and draw your own conclusions. That’s what I’ve done, and I invite each of you to do the same.
In closing, I’d like to offer my thanks to everyone who’s tuned in for new articles, the photographers who’ve allowed me to use their images, and the industry folks who have taken the time to offer their thoughts and feedback. Ate Up With Motor is a commercial enterprise — albeit not a hugely lucrative one — but it’s the response from readers that makes it worthwhile. I hope to see you here again in 2011.
24 December 2010