Autocar’s editor-in-chief tells us about his career path from a remote Aussie mining town, and the future of motoring journalism.
Broken Hill, New South Wales, is a tough town. Lying in the desolate Australian outback, it’s more than 300 miles from Adelaide, the nearest major city, and some 700 miles west of Sydney. Even today, much of the town’s employment comes from the vast zinc-lead ore deposits nearby, whose enormous spoil heaps dominate the town’s skyline.
It’s not the sort of place you’d expect one of Britain’s foremost motoring journalists to hail from – and yet, here in a dining-room-turned-home-office, in a Cotswold-stone house in Gloucestershire, sits Steve Cropley, Autocar editor-in-chief, 10,000 miles and over four decades from his youth in Broken Hill.
Steve credits nothing but sheer good luck for much of his journey from car-obsessed child in a remote Outback town to being one of the eminent voices of modern car writing. His first journalism gig was as a finance writer for the Adelaide Advertiser newspaper, which took on a small number of trainee hacks each year. “There was a massive swamp of people who wanted to do it, and by some ridiculous mischance, I got down to the point where there were three of us going for the last job,” he says. “We did the first interview, and only two of us presented for the second, because in the meantime, one of the other blokes’ father had won something called the Sydney Opera House Lottery, and he’d decided to buy a yacht and sail around the world. I’m sitting there with this other bloke, and in comes a guy to move these huge pot plants around. The other guy, being a nice fella, got up to help him… there’s this huge rending sound, and a nine-inch hole in his trousers. He had to rush off home, and I got the job.”
Wardrobe malfunctions and lottery wins aside, there’s evidently a lot of skill and passion involved in Steve’s life. As a child in Broken Hill, cars tended to be of the durable, practical workhorse variety. “There was one decent car in the town, owned by a solicitor. It fell to pieces around him because the roads were shite.” His connection to the more exotic stuff was through the car magazines arriving on trains that regularly rumbled into town with supplies on board.
“As much as the cars, I loved the sound of the people writing about them. Aussie motoring writers have a pretty good voice – I loved the connection. I was the kid standing on the footpath when the monthly parcel arrived, waiting for the bloody local newsagent to open it and give me my magazines.”
A perhaps less orthodox path into car journalism followed: a swiftly aborted engineering course at uni, that first dabble in writing in Adelaide, some clever (Steve might argue lucky) stock trading, and an ill-fated career in trucking that ended with a lucky escape (there’s that word again) when his rig left the road and had an unfortunate meeting with a tree. It was a woman he’d met at a pub he delivered to who convinced him to pursue writing once again.
“She’d send me these screwed-up pieces of paper with job adverts on them, and one day I opened one and it said ‘reporter required, Wheels Magazine, Sydney.’ I wrote this 10-page letter telling them about myself, and explaining that there wasn’t a typewriter within a 50-mile radius.” Steve, at this point, was working in a mine in northern Queensland, a cool 2,000 or so miles from Wheels’ office in Sydney. To his surprise, a couple of weeks later the mine manager’s office received a call inviting him to an interview. He quit his job, repaired his broken car, then headed south, “first through floods, second through bushfires” – a fairly standard Aussie road trip, then.
Then-editor Peter Robinson was clearly impressed by Steve’s dedication, because this was where his car journalism career began. It’s progressed through a move to the UK with Car magazine, the launch of his own publication, Buying Cars, and its buyout by the Haymarket group, to where we sit today, back at Steve’s dining table in Gloucestershire, with him heading up Britain’s oldest car magazine, Autocar.
The automotive landscape has changed beyond recognition in some ways during Steve’s career, and the automotive journalism industry has had to shift with it. For one, the press launches have become more streamlined and less lavish. “I once went to Japan via Honolulu. Ridiculous,” he says.
“They’re a bit more careful now with who they invite – if they can’t get value, they won’t invite you. They started to use a bunch of influencers who wouldn’t know a car if you drove it up their you-know-what… I think the truth is in the middle. The trick is to figure out who has the influence.”
What about print’s place in an increasingly online media landscape? Going back again to his formative years, Steve has always believed that a physical piece of media creates a level of connection with its reader. “That’s the reason, I hope, that for a little coterie of people, Wednesday is a better day because Autocar comes out. If you said to our MD ‘name the day that we’re going to stop printing’, he wouldn’t be able to, because it’s too profitable.”
One of the easiest assumptions to make about the state of modern car journalism is that it’s now the petrolhead’s, a place for people like us to retreat into deeply nerdy descriptions of power delivery and gearshift feel and tales of empty, winding moorland roads.
Steve disagrees. As the car industry undergoes its biggest shift in over 100 years, the car journalist has a bigger role to play with the wider public than ever.
“There’s a number of strands. There’s the education thing: plenty of people don’t understand the difference between a HEV and a PHEV, and they need to very soon. There’s definitely entertainment, too: one of the things that people are scared about in the future [of the car] is that everything’s going to be a refrigerator; it’s all going to be boring and terrible. I don’t believe it is.” (If our experience with the Porsche Taycan GTS is anything to go by, neither do we).
“We had a group of readers in for a meeting a while ago. There was a little group saying ‘I’m a petrolhead forever, don’t tell me about those f***ing EVs,’ and the rest of the room – 75 out of 80 people – were really concerned about what they should do next, and what a wise person would advise them to do. Our role is to be that wise person – there’s a massive job to do.”
There’s an increasing number of ways in which that job’s being done, but Steve, now in his 70s, is still firmly flying the flag for the art of the written word. He landed in an industry he loved, and has happily been one of its most influential names ever since. Maybe he really is lucky.