Autocar’s digital archives are like Spotify for the Car Mag geeks
It’s easy to forget how easily music lovers have it these days. Satellite radio gave us access to dozens of more stations, but the real change was Apple’s iPod, followed by streaming. Now you can call up anything from the latest K-Pop track to a Bach cello suite with just the push of a virtual button.
Companies like Spotify have crammed millions of songs, or at least have access to them, into something the size of a deck of playing cards. Fifteen years ago, things weren’t that simple. I remember making the two day trip from the UK to Malaga in southern Spain in a Porsche 911 GT3 for a date with the new BMW M3 of the time with two bags: one full clothes, the other stuffed with enough CDs to keep me sane (European radio is horrible).
And now it looks like a similar miniaturization process is about to take place with my sprawling collection of old car magazines. British weekly Coach just launched a subscription service that gives members access to almost any number it has ever produced for Â£ 7.99 ($ ââ11) per month, or Â£ 74.99 ($ ââ103) per year, with a concession for subscribers to the current print product.
We are talking about a forest of automotive literature. The oldest automotive magazine in the world, Coach was first published in 1895, when there were only six cars on UK roads, meaning that Archive Digital, the company responsible for scanning and downloading, had to digitize 6,180 issues and over 1.2 million pages.
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Not many people will find themselves going through the first few years unless they do some serious historical project. In fact, I’ve flipped through physical bound volumes before, and the stuff from the 1890s makes a phone book come alive. In fact, at the end of the day, most 126 year olds are dry as cacti compared to stuff like Driver came out in the 1960s and 1970s, and I say I wrote part of it.
But as a record, it’s hard to beat. As Coachthe current editor of, Mark Tisshaw, says, the story of Coach is pretty much the history of the car. What if, like me, you want to hear what critics thought about cars when they were new and how fast they really went, rather than reading someone’s point of view, say, a Lamborghini Miura today? , based on the experience of driving a car that’s now too valuable to really beat, let alone send a drag strip, that’s great news.
The power of the iPad
The process of converting paper to pixels in this case is interesting for several reasons. First, it uses Archive Digital’s proprietary app running through a regular Apple iPad Pro rather than a conventional (and extremely expensive) scanner. In the past, a human had to manually check and adjust each image, but here the smart software automatically corrects things like color and even page curvature.
Which is one of the beauties of this system. Most digitization projects are destructive, and no one really wants to be the person who probably destroys the only surviving copy of a 120-year-old hardcover volume just to get a flat image. No Coach Problems were harmed in the realization of this digital archive which occupied the lives of four people and their two assistants for seven consecutive months.
But the really smart thing is the search function. Instead of just creating a jpg image of each page (which I naively tried to do with my own collection before realizing how ridiculous it was, give up and reluctantly send years of copies to the recycling center), the software actually reads the words, discarding the unnecessary ones and compiling an index from the rest. Want to find an article about the world premiere of the Ford Sierra Cosworth and don’t want to spend days flipping through endless magazines looking for a Cossie-shaped needle in a stack of digital paper? No problem.
Other titles from the same publishing house, including Which car?, Classic and sports car, and Coach’his old rival Motor, which was absorbed by Coach in 1988, are in preparation. Obviously, the only sensible thing to do would be to offer a choice of single title subscriptions or a multi-title package for a higher price. But it seems that each magazine operates as its own business and wants to keep the money separate.
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It seems short-sighted, because as interesting and comprehensive as Autocar’s archives are, I would prefer to read a multitude of voices. In fact, what I’d really like to see is some sort of Spotify or Apple Music-like service that brings together old catalogs from a lot of different automotive magazines, all accessible for a monthly or yearly payment.
This sort of thing already exists in print through Brooklands Books. The company has been around for over 60 years and started when the founder couldn’t buy a service manual for his old Morgan, but discovered one out of print and bought the rights to republish it.
These days, Brooklands is also reissuing the original service manuals and other books, but the best stuff can be found in the road test books. Each volume focuses on a particular car, or genre of car, and contains a collection of vintage road tests, track tests, comparison tests, and reviews from people like Coach, car, car and driver, road and track, and long-lost magazines like Car life, test drive and fast lane.
I know it’s geek, but I love these books. I bought dozens of them with my own money and saved even more than a jump when Automotive ReviewThe editor of foolishly decided to get rid of its reference library to make room for a few more desks. The nerd in me loved to read them when I was a teenager, and over the past 20 years have used them regularly as a source of information when writing stories. But they take up a lot of office space, and my collection is far from complete. In addition, some of the older copies are now out of print for a long time.
I contacted Brooklands Books to see if they intended to digitize their catalog, but had no response. I still have hope. If I can get it all on my phone, I line up to grab an entire room in my house.
CoachThe online resource for can be found at TheMotoringArchive.com.