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How Tech Is Changing Cars, and the People Who Write About Them

Seasoned automotive journalist Matt DeLorenzo says the modern automobile is a vehicle for technology and the future of journalism is in print.

Brian Blades, Jim Dunne

Matt DeLorenzo has been an automotive writer and editor for decades; his résumé includes such pillars as Autoweek, Automotive News, Road & Track and, most recently, Kelley Blue Book. DeLorenzo is a book author as well, having published Legendary American Cars, Modern Chrysler Concept Cars and Mustang 2005. In fact, I’ve been reading his work for decades, myself, which made talking to him about the state of the modern automobile, the evolution of automotive journalism and his career highlights all the more special. His insights about where we’re headed as a car culture (and as a book and magazine — or “buff book” — readers) are both fascinating and reassuring.

Q: What is your take on the state of the modern automobile?
A: All this technology has made cars incredibly complex. We’ve moved from less a question of basic vehicle quality to human interface with the vehicle. It’s become all about how the vehicle actually relates to the driver.

Q: So, as performance figures and interior appointments, etc., become much more uniform across the board, technology is what sets cars apart today?
A: Yes, it’s stuff that you definitely will not measure with a stopwatch or a radar gun. It’s things like infotainment. It’s things like How well does the nav system work? How easy is it to pair my phone with the Bluetooth? What sort of safety devices or cameras or blind spot warning is on the car, and how much is that going to cost me? Is it really relevant to my ownership experience?

It’s a much richer environment than it was even ten years ago. Look at hybrids and EVs. For some applications, or some drivers, they make perfect sense — if they have a very short commute or live in an urban area, they can get by owning just an EV. It’s not just about 0-60 times anymore.

“I think technology is what sets cars apart.It’s not just about 0-60 times anymore.”
– Delorenzo on the evolution of the automobile (Photo: Jim Dunne)

Q: And how does the evolution of cars relate to the state of automotive journalism today?
A: Well, there’s the Internet. When I started out there were three buff books and Autoweek. [Now, no matter what] type of auto enthusiast you are, you can find an automotive blog geared towards it.

Back in the day you couldn’t get Formula 1 on television, so you’d wait for your magazine to come to read a story about a Formula 1 race. The Internet and television and shows like Top Gear have changed the landscape tremendously.

If you go back to a lot of the buff books back in the ’60s — Road & Track, Car & Driver — they were primarily written for the enthusiasts. By the time the ’70s rolled around — and I give David E. Davis [the late former editor of Car and Driver, and Automobile Magazine founder] a lot of credit for this — he began pushing the idea of a car magazine testing everything that’s out there and becoming a sort of resource for the buyer.

Q: What is your take on how journalism itself has influenced cars? Has the dissemination of information — reviews, etc. — changed the actual product?
A: Back when I was starting out, the constant harping on vehicle quality certainly helped push it along. And I think if you look at a lot of auto journalists’ embrace of the Honda Accord and Japanese imports that typically had higher quality than domestic cars, [that] certainly helped. A lot of the automakers were pushing for quality back in the ’70s and ’80s and it certainly had an effect.

These days it’s hard to tell because there are so many voices out there. I just saw a thing this morning on one of the blogs about, “Are cars getting too safe to teach kids real driving skills?”

I think we’re entering that age. Also, the other area that auto journalism will have an impact on will be covering the coming autonomous vehicles. How should those be integrated into society? What are people looking for? But again I don’t think there’s any one cadre of authoritative people ruling the roost the way the car magazines did in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s — those days are gone.

The Ferrari F40, DeLorenzo’s pick for the most fun car he’s driven during his decades-long career. (Photo: Road & Track)

Q: How do you think autonomous vehicles will affect automotive journalism? Soon won’t we be reading about what it’s like to be a passenger rather than a driver?
A: Exactly. There’s going to be a transitional period here. And I think the role of modern journalism will be wading through all this technology, finding out what technology is relevant in [each] circumstance, in terms of what kind of car [they] want.

What’s happening is what I call the “Equestrian-ization of the Automobile.” In other words, when automobiles replaced horses, horses didn’t go away. They became a recreational pursuit and sport — that kind of thing. You’re starting to see that now with the automobile. This is why I’m bullish on the future of buff books: they will go back to their original role of catering to driving enthusiasts, people who race, or want to drive their own car, or want to participate in keeping vintage cars going. That whole scene is not going to go away. Even with autonomously driven cars, people will still want to own [cars]. I certainly believe that there will be a place where people want to drive their own cars. And there will be people there to write about it.

I certainly believe that there will be a place where people want to drive their own cars. And there will be people there to write about it.

Q: So does that mean that print media isn’t actually dead?
A: The thing I like about a print product — and I don’t think it’s going to go away — is that it’s a luxury item. It’s not a mass-information device anymore. It becomes a sort of talisman. “I’m involved in a luxury pursuit here, because I have time to sit down and read this.” It’s something tangible and physical that people can see. That’s what’s under-appreciated about print.

Books haven’t gone away. If you want to read for reading’s sake, you can do it in a much more efficient manner on a Kindle. It’s great to look at a high-def TV and all that other stuff, but a really beautiful photograph printed on paper is still something that’s compelling, and people will want to own those things. People are always suckers for a good story.

Q: Favorites? Favorite drives, favorite cars?
A: There’s been a lot of them. And that’s the beauty of having the job that I’ve had. I’ve been really fortunate [when you consider] the places I’ve gone, the people I’ve met. Driving a Lamborghini Diablo in Sardinia — that’s a great conversation starter. Meeting people like Sergio Pininfarina and great racing drivers. I met [Argentinian Formula 1 driver Juan Manuel Fangio] once, and that was really special. I drove in the Mille Miglia in 1997 — I drove a Mercedes 300SL that John Fitch had actually driven. John Fitch won the GT [class in the Mille Miglia] in that car, and I had the opportunity to talk to him after I’d driven the car, and asked, “what was it like in 1955 when you were driving this thing?”

The most fun and terrifying car I’ve driven is the Ferrari F40. I had the chance to drive it in Fiorano (Ferrari’s test track in Italy)…what a kick. Got a thrill ride before that with a Ferrari test driver, sideways all the way around. Being able to do that kind of stuff — once-in-a-lifetime things.

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