Steve Cropley is editor in-chief of Haymarket motoring group, which includes Autocar and several other magazines and websites. Interviewed by Dave Leggett.
You attended the Tokyo Motor Show a few months back. What were your main impressions?
I was delighted to see a strong recovery in creative energy since the 2009 event. Two years ago Tokyo was so lacklustre people started saying the important Asian shows would in future be in India and China. But despite the recession and the earthquake, the Japanese showed considerable optimism in 2011, and quite a lot of fighting spirit.
Any Tokyo highs and lows stand out?
The Toyota GT-86 was the stand-out, I thought, closely followed by Akio Toyoda himself. Had a short drive in the car, which was as good as it looked. Mr Toyoda showed a lot of determination to change and improve his company’s image, and seemed to me to know how to do it. I was glad Honda appeared to be moving back into the sporty car business, and as usual there were some “challenging” concepts from the likes of Suzuki and Daihatsu.
The auto industry is facing a number of challenges right now. Besides the possibility that market growth will stall in some places next year, there are the constant demands to save cost and reduce environmental impact.
Are you optimistic about the industry’s ability to manage these challenges?
I absolutely am. Every time the industry is presented with another difficult hurdle, it seems to me to soar over it. The main danger, I believe, is that legislators have seen the industry comply with difficult demands so often and so promptly that they might starting thinking it’s easy!
Which car companies do you look at and think ‘yep, they know what they are doing’?
The Volkswagen group impresses me most at present. They seem able to bring appropriate products to market quicker than others (look at their provision of twin-clutch gearboxes for Polos and Golfs) yet provide a depth of technical development that leaves others standing. They’re also the world’s most successful group at managing a series of marques using the same fundamental mechanical bits. And by the way, their sales volume is still going up despite the bad times.
Are there any particular trends in the automotive marketplace that you think will be big over the next ten years?
Lots of things stand out. First, I’m struck by the fact that nothing sells really well unless it looks great. So I reckon the emphasis on emotive design can only grow.
Technically speaking, I think we’ve seen most of what we’ll see over the next decades: batteries will improve in potential and lightness, hybrid powertrains will grow lighter and more compact, knowledge about storage and dispersal of hydrogen will get better, piston engines will improve in emissions without losing performance.
New technology? I think we’re standing on the threshold of a new age of car connectivity that may keep one vehicle out of the path of another, which should help eliminate accidents altogether.
Traffic congestion is the one I can’t see improving much. I think we can make some improvements with real-time traffic and navigation systems, but I get the feeling the best solution, as ever, is going to be to travel when others don’t.
What’s your feeling on electric cars and making them work for the consumer? Do you get a sense – from the people you talk to, of real revolutionary technological change being imminent or do you think we’re seeing some hype from some manufacturers in particular?
I think it’ll be a matter of gradual improvement, and as long as this continues they’ll be fine.
Batteries improve in power density by roughly 10 percent a year, we’re told, and they already work quite well. I know that if my missus and I had a current-spec Nissan Leaf at our place in the Cotswolds, it would do most of our short-haul mileage: our most common journeys are between three and 25 miles. But we’d need a long-haul car as well.
What’s your role at Autocar these days and how else do you fill your time?
Officially, I’m editor-in-chief of Haymarket motoring group, which as well as Autocar includes several other magazines and websites. I write a lot and get involved in a bit of management, though I have never wanted to be a shiny-bum and avoid it as much as possible. To me, being a frontline feature writer, road tester, news reporter and columnist is the important job, and what I’m best at so I try to stick to it.
How do you see motoring journalism and publishing changing?
We’re certainly well into the web era, and all our motoring websites are rocketing ahead. We’ve also learned how to sell advertising for them, so they’re pretty profitable, too.
Print certainly isn’t expanding, but it’s hanging in there. Autocar (117 years old) has just posted a circulation increase. One advantage of having well-known print brands is that the reputation of those publications attracts people to their websites.
To me, all the talk of “citizen-journalists” taking bread from the mouths of old-style journalists is well and truly over-played. Web consumers are losing their naivety: they know much of what you turn up at random on websites is dross and so have learned to look to familiar brands for quality.
Car companies with stories to tell still want access to credible journalists. Thus these are the people who will continue to break stories and guide opinion.
Do you still go on car launches Steve? Name one that was particularly memorable…
Yes, I do car launches. That’s a big part of the job. But I’m interested in people: I’ve always said stories about cars are actually stories about people, either those who have created or will sell a new model, or those who will buy and use it.
Most memorable launch recently was that for the Range Rover Evoque in Liverpool, only a few miles from where the car is made. The launch displayed the model very well, emphasised the model’s Britishness, provided excellent photographic opportunities, allowed hacks to meet company bigwigs easily, and it was over promptly. We need all of those things.
Do you always drive to get from A to B or do you also regularly use other modes of transport in your daily life?
I drive if I can, though some destinations are better reached by air. We’re time-poor: the whole idea is to get stories and post or publish them ahead of the opposition. But I always enjoy driving. I do a lot of it and motorsport remains my hobby.
What was the last car you drove that put a smile on your face?
The Land Rover Discovery 4 with new ZF eight-speed automatic I was driving this very morning put a smile of deep contentment on my face. It’s a fine machine. With this and a few other refinements, they’ve pushed the practical fuel mileage beyond 30 mpg. That’s a terrific achievement for a 2.5 tonne car. Gives you a flavour of what might be possible when big cars get lighter, as they surely will.
Then yesterday I was driving my own Ariel Atom, a 525 kg mid-engined car with 300 bhp of supercharged power on tap. Goes like a guided missile…
What’s your favourite car of all time?
Can’t restrict the choice to one, sorry. I’d like a vintage “WO” Bentley, a 4.5 litre, probably. For long trips I’d choose that Discovery I was just telling you about. For diving about, I’d choose a Fiat 500 TwinAir (I love that tiny turbo engine) and for track days and hillclimbs with my son, something we’ve done together for 14 years, I’d stick with the Atom.
And for some reason, just at the moment I’ve got a penchant for owning a 50’s Austin, but I’m hoping that will pass.
Author: Dave Leggett
Steve joined Wheels Magazine (Sydney) in 1973 before moving to CAR (London) in 1978 becoming Editor in 1981. Steve Launched Buying Cars in 1989 which was later sold to Haymarket Publishing in 1991. Since then Steve has been working for Haymarket motoring group as Editor-in-Chief. Steve is also Columnist and reporter for Autocar and carries out various assignments for Autosport, What Car?, and F1 Racing. Steve helped instigate a postgrad auto journalism MA course at Coventry University in 2004. Steve was appointed visiting professor, automotive journalism in 2004.