A new car magazine hit the newsstands 20 years ago, catering for an emerging car market niche. Appropriately enough, it was produced by a new publishing company, Future Publishing, which had struck gold with a few computing magazines catering for the growing market in personal computers.
Diesel Car was the brainchild of founding editor John Kerswill. Not surprisingly, John was a car nut, who had spent ten years in the marketing department at British Leyland and also tried his hand at rallying. But John was drawn back to his native Somerset, “I had a career change”, explains John, “And was a lecturer in business studies, politics and economics and had lots of business ideas while I was doing that. One of those was for a car magazine and I looked for a gap in the market and diesel was an obvious gap, although not very big. I think the diesel share was probably under five per cent at that time.” “Then somebody mentioned to me that there was this young guy called Chris Anderson, in Somerton, who’d started a publishing company that was going great guns, and had two or three computer titles. So I gave him a call one day and he said, ‘Oh yeah, let’s go for a drink after work.’ So we went to the Unicorn in Somerton. I met him there about six o’clock and by about halfpast, he’d offered me a job as editor of Diesel Car! That was around Christmas ’86, so I had to see the academic year out and I started working for Future Publishing in July ’87.”
“The original plan was that the first issue would come out that autumn, about October or November, but it was put off several times because they couldn’t get the advertising revenue, and there were other things going on. There was at least one attempt to kill it off before it was launched. So I talked him out of that, and we finally launched in April ’88. After about two issues, Chris didn’t want to carry on. I talked him out of that, and then after three or four issues he came in and said, ‘This is non-negotiable, here are the redundancy notices, there will not be another issue.’”
“Fortunately, because it was my idea, my original contract with him stipulated that if the title was closed, the rights would revert to me. He asked me to try and sell it and I touted it around various publishing companies including EMAP and Haymarket. None of them were very interested. Haymarket was a bit interested, but I didn’t push it too hard because by that time, I was beginning to think of my own publishing company. So that autumn, I agreed to take the title over. We’d done issue four, and issue five was the first one we had to do ourselves.”
“We actually had to put together a partly colour magazine on a black and white computer!.”
“We had to quickly cobble together a publishing company. Future let us stay in the offices in Somerton for three months. The first issue we put together, on the only computer equipment we had, an original Macintosh. This thing was about the size of a shoebox. One black and white screen about six inches by four. We actually had to put together a partly colour magazine on a black and white computer!”
“I had to mortgage the house to get the finance for it, and we had to find premises. We moved into the original small premises (at Bancombe Road Trading Estate, now Somerton Business Park in Somerton) in January 1989. That’s it really, that’s the story. We had various crises, but in fits and starts, it progressed quite well.” That’s a modest assessment for a magazine that had a circulation of 26,000 copies on the news-stands in the 1990s. What else does John remember about those early days? “Driving a Montego turbo-diesel to Moscow,” he recalls, “Perkins made the engine (the Prima) and I was talking to the PR manager there, and he was very keen to do something with us to mark this. We suddenly realised that it was the 50th anniversary of Frank Perkins taking a Hillman Wizard, equipped with one of his engines to Moscow in 1938. This was 50 years later, so we said let’s repeat the trip. We got there, and we got to Red Square, and we were met by some Russian dignitary from the Russian trade office or something, and we showed him this original picture of Frank Perkins in Red Square with this car and he took one look at this and said, ‘No, it’s not possible.’ And we said, ‘Yes, that’s Frank Perkins in Moscow’, ‘No, it’s not possible, it’s Berlin’, replied the dignitary. So he’d actually been trying to flog them to Hitler!”
John also remembered the first test of the Escort turbodiesel. “It arrived on the back of a truck with four miles on the clock or something. The piece had to go to press in the next two or three days. It was an important car for us, and I wanted to get it a bit run-in, so I set out from here at three o’clock in the morning, drove up to Scotland, I was in Gretna Green by eight o’clock in the morning, drove across to Newcastle, back down to the Millbrook test track near Bedford, figured it, by which time it had done 800 miles or something and drove it back home again. The funny thing was, that car produced better performance figures than any Escort turbodiesel we ever got our hands on afterwards and whether it was a ‘Special’, I don’t know. We gave it a fairly rave review, but all the ones that followed it were dogs. Ford were so pleased with the road test, I think they bought a quarter of a million re-prints from us, which paid for the building.”
My arrival in 1997 was almost a re-run of Diesel Car’s birth nine years before. I originally answered an interview for a Deputy Editor in autumn 1996, having met John several times on launches in the previous few years. During the interview, he told me there was a possibility that the magazine would be sold back to Future Publishing, but he doubted that the deal would come off. A few days later, he phoned and offered me the job. To cut a long story short, I never went to work for John, because the deal with Future Publishing came off, eventually. I started work at Future, having already met up with Ivor Carroll and Mike Orford, then deputy editor and staff writer respectively. Mike stayed on with Merricks Publishing until their final issue was cleared.
In the meantime, Ivor and I had started at Future on 1 June 1997, still waiting for the deal to be signed off. So we had an easy first few weeks, which gave us an opportunity to recruit the rest of the editorial team. Future sanctioned an editorial team of five, the art and production editors being found from Future’s existing staff. We chose Simon Barnes as Art Editor and Jo Parker to handle production, although Jo didn’t stay long, being replaced by Helen Burge in 1998. It was a great team and so started the best two years I have ever had in journalism. We worked hard, but had a great deal of fun in the process.
Times were tough for diesel cars at this stage. We watched the market share slide down to around eleven per cent, as the latest diesel health scares made headlines. The Government didn’t like diesels either, as the extra fuel duty on diesel, which survives until today, demonstrates. The UK is still one of the few European countries where diesel fuel costs more than petrol.
Even so, it was time for a change of pace on the magazine. John Kerswill had struggled to find enough cars to test for the magazine in the early days and had created a great mix of other material in the magazine to help fill the pages. These included coverage of light commercial vehicles, and even a wildlife page. Despite market pressures, the number of new diesel cars was on the increase and it was time to focus the magazine fully on its title, diesel cars. So we did and that hasn’t changed in the years since. I had one name on my wish list of contributors when I joined the magazine, and that was Phil Llewellin. Long-standing contributor to CAR magazine, and a regular contributor to the Daily Telegraph motoring pages, among others. Phil had begun writing for CAR’s sister title Truck in the 1970s, filing travel stories from all corners of the globe as he rode shotgun in a variety of trucks as the magazine’s regular Long Distance Diary columnist.
I rapidly gave up hope of catching Phil, on the grounds that he would be a) too expensive and b) was in great demand. So imagine my surprise when I got back to the office after lunch one day and Simon Barnes told me that Phil had been on the phone. Minutes later a fax arrived from him. Phil was offering copy for a long-term Ford Focus diesel, due for launch in the next few weeks, if I was interested. I seized the opportunity and persuaded Phil to come down for a meeting.
“I had one name on my wish list of contributors when I joined the magazine and that was Phil Llewellin.”
By the time we had finished, I had my new columnist. Phil worked long hours, was a perfectionist and also enormously good company. He phoned me shortly after we had signed him up and told me that he had worked out that we could visit the four cardinal points of the British mainland in 24 hours, just. That meant, Lizard Point in Cornwall, Lowestoft Ness in Suffolk, Ardnamurchan Point in western Scotland and finally Dunnet Head on the north coast. I decided to join Phil for the attempt. We chose the longest day, 21st June 1998 for the epic journey, aboard an early Freelander diesel, accompanied by photographer Rick Buettner. Rick hails from the United States and our combined story telling helped to keep us all awake for the 24-hour marathon. The result appeared in the September 1998 issue, entitled The Longest Day, starting from a fog bound Lizard Point and ending 23 hours and 53 minutes later at Dunnet Head. Phil’s sad death in July 2005 robbed us of one of the best motoring writers of recent years. We also marked the magazine’s first ten years in that 120th issue. Some of the early issues had appeared bi-monthly which is why the 120th had not appeared in April.
John Kerswill gave chapter and verse on the magazine’s beginnings. Looking ahead to the next 20 years, John commented, “As motoring priorities shift in the next millennium from performance to efficiency and the best use of our remaining, scarce resources, Rudolf Diesel’s brilliant invention will come into its own as never before.” And he could just as easily have written that today.
Happy birthday What Diesel and here’s to the next 20 years.