How to write a feature car story for modified-car enthusiast magazines

We are hiring a whole bunch of new people at work, I have been working on a scholarly article about writing for car magazines, but I now realise I need to write a far simpler version so it is useful for people who may actually become motoring writers. The following is based on my experiences as a writer for car magazines (must be close to 100 feature car articles by now) over about eight years on and off and my PhD research where I have read several hundred magazines. The below is a very basic account of the process and different writing styles.

What you will need, but won’t always have at the start of the writing process:
1. Tech sheet. This contains all the various specifications of the vehicle, pretty much every single major part. The owner/builder fills this out.
2. Photos of car. So you know what it actually looks like and/or to be used as a reference resource when writing.
3. Interview with owner or builder of the car. This is to clarify certain elements of the technical details and to also get an account of the build. The easiest way to find out information about the build is to ask for a timeline. Often enthusiasts will describe what they did in terms of how hard somthing was to do and how much of a challenge it was. Without challenges there can not be enthusiasm.

There are three main ways to write the story, and each story could be written purely following these different ways with the right information. However, you normally have mixed information at your disposal so each story will be a combination of these three main types:
1. Use metaphor/simile. This is the last resort for me.
2. Locate vehicle in the scene. Good middle ground when you have little information about the build.
3. Narrative form of the challenges of the build. How I write feature car stories.

1. Stories based around metaphor/simile are normally written when not much about the build or technical details of the car are known. This can be because a new owner has taken possession of the vehicle and actually doesn’t know much or perhaps the owner can not be contacted in time to clarify technical details before the story deadline. Metaphor is when you say thing A is thing B, such as “The WRX is a bomb ready to go off.” Simile is when you say thing A is like thing B, such as “The WRX is like a fashion model transforming the George Street cruising strip into a catwalk.”

The imagery of a bomb or fashion model is used in a similar way to poetry. It works to create an image of the vehicle for the reader that is associated with various thoughts and feelings. In feature car stories the central image organises the rest of the text. Most car builders do not like these sorts of stories because they diminish the role of the car and certainly of the builder in the story which is more about the poetic capacity of the writer.

2. If you have a clear understanding of the particular segment of the scene to which the given vehicle belongs, and you have good technical details on the vehicle, but without much information about how the particular build occurred, then you can discuss the technical details in the context of their socio-technical function in the scene.

‘Socio-technical’ is a term derived from academic philosophy; it refers to the way all technology is not only technical but also social. One way to think about this is in terms of the function of technology to complete or satisfy tests, i.e. performance. These tests are culturally specific. For example, if you are concerned about the environment then you want to know how a vehicle performs as technology that produces pollution. Or if you are concerned about the speed and acceleration of the vehicle then you want to know how well the car performs in speed and acceleration tests. Certain humanities scholars and social scientists would describe this as the discursive dimension of technology.

‘Performance’ here has an ambiguity in modified-car culture when thought in a socio-technical manner. Modified cars also perform when they are turning heads, cruising the strip as well as when they are being raced on the drag strip. By locating the vehicle in the scene and drawing on knowledge of the scene you can explain the performance of various modifications. How well does the vehicle perform tests of acceleration because of ‘this’ and ‘that’ modification? How well does the vehicle turn heads cruising or at a car show with ‘this’ or ‘that’ modification?

3. My preferred way of writing feature car stories is by writing up an account of the build. My signature modus operandi is to focus on the challenges of the build that demanded of the enthusist that he (or she, but normally it is a ‘he’) mobilise his (or her) enthusiasm. Real enthusiasts know that building modified cars is about facing the challenges they present. A modified car is a topological inculcation of socio-technical challenges that an enthusiast has ‘risen to’ and overcome. The subject of the story then is less the poetic form of the story or the car itself.

All three types of story are often incorporated into each story.

Structure of main copy.
Opening paragraph: I normally open each story by using imagery to create a tone and creating a relation to the scene by describing or implying the location of the vehicle in the scene.
First section: Describes the aquisition of the vehicle and how the project started.
Second section: Provides an account of the main features of the build and the challenges that they posed.
Third section: The remainder of the technical details.
Repeat: Sometimes vehicles have undergone more than one build, so repeat sections 1-3.
End section: What is the character of the enthusiast’s satisfaction, what goals were accomplished, and what goals are remaining (if any beyond pure enjoyment of a completed project).

Besides the main copy you will also need to write up a few different bits and pieces:

1. ‘Tech breakout box’. This is a separate box from the columns of the main text and it contains every major technical component that has been modified or replaced.
2. Owner profile. This is basic biographical detail about the owner and perhaps a few direct answer to specific questions.
3. Captions for photos. As the writer you are the expert about everything you are writing about (or should be), you isolate particular important elements of the car and make sure the photographer takes proper photos.
4. Possibly another breakout box depending on the nature of the car. Often you’ll use a particular fact, component or technique to expand and add another dimension to the story. I often ring up the engine builder or someone else associated with the build and get an expert opinion on some facet of the car.

That is purely on the writing side of the job. Before you start writing, you need to find the cars. This is the journalistic function of the job, to investigate what is happening in the scene and know when cars will be finished and so on. After you have finished the story, and hopefully spoken with the owner/builder, you will also have to supply ad leads to the ad sales department based on the businesses that did work on the car and are mentioned in the tech sheet.

3 replies on “How to write a feature car story for modified-car enthusiast magazines”

  1. Maybe a story in the west for you. John O my mate has rebuilt a seized up Nissan 300 Z TT (at home!!), looks fantastic and in the circumstances he now finds himself , deserves recognition in some form , for an outstanding technical acheivement.

  2. yeah, get him to send through some pics to my work email gfuller (at) expresspublications (dot) com (dot) au

    we ran a zed not too long ago, so we certainly run them in the mag if they are modified enough, plus if he has done all the work himself it would be cool. No promises though as I don’t make the decisions about the suitability of the car.

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