Currently reading: Back in my day: Autocar issues from our writers' birthdays
With more than 125 years of history available through the Autocar archive, where does one start? Simple: where you started

Now that the entire published history of Autocar has been digitised and made available online, there's never been a better time to look back on some standout years from the magazine's storied past. But where to start?

Easy. We dug out the issues from the weeks we were born and delved into a handy motoring time capsule:

19 February 1977 - James Disdale

There must have been something in the stars on the week I was born and this issue of Autocar hit the shelves. You see, splashed on the cover is the strapline ‘The cars of Saab and Volvo’. Nothing outwardly odd in that, you might say; it’s just a bit of a Swedish-themed week. True enough, but the suggestion of some sort of celestial shenanigans will make more sense when I tell you: “My name is James Disdale and I’m a Saabaholic”. We got our first 99 when I was still in short trousers, and my first car was a 96 V4. Hell, there’s a 9-5 estate and a 9-3 cabrio parked on my drive as I type this. So you can imagine my surprise (and just a little excitement) when I discovered that issue #4189 was something of a Trollhättan takeover.

I flicked straight past the interview with Alfa Romeo’s then boss (Gaetano Cortesi, should you ask) and the investigation into potholes (’twas ever thus) and headed straight for Kevin Blick’s lengthy analysis of the current state of Saab (it was always in crisis). He also drove the prototype 99 Turbo (a little laggy but fast) and wondered how it would get by with just one model range (the 900 was still a year or so away). All good stuff, but it was only one story, so perhaps I was getting carried away with this providence thing. But hold on, what’s this in the motorsport section? It’s a full report of the Swedish Rally, which was won by – wait, what? – Stig Blomqvist in a Saab 99 EMS.

11 September 1996 - Jack Warrick

Ford revealed the Ka the day after I was graced onto this Earth, hoping the machine would change the way people thought about city cars. Its low price of £7500 was enticing, it was praised for having a radical new design while maintaining levels of safety and its small 1.3-litre engine was good for 59bhp. It turned out the Ka would be as successful as it was fun to drive, even adding some now- desirable variants, such as the Sportka and convertible Streetka.

The other big stories that week were us meeting the Caterham 21, road-testing the Peugeot 406 SRi, catching first sight of the Volvo C70 and detailing yet another financial crisis at Lotus.

22 August 1981 - Matt Saunders

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There’s every chance that my old man picked up a copy of Autocar the week before the birth of his second child, glanced at the rather far-fetched looking car on its cover, assumed he had picked up a comic by mistake, returned it to the newsagent’s shelf and bought a copy of his favoured Motor magazine instead. “The technical drawings were always better in Motor,” he regularly reminds me; and since Dad qualified as a draughtsman out of Austin in the 1950s and likes his drawings, it’s hard to argue.

Well, that week he definitely should have bought Autocar. Who could have resisted the five-page cover feature on the mind-bending Wolfrace Sonic concept, complete with double-page cutaway drawing by the brilliant Dick Ellis? This mad one-off (apparently two were built, but only as showcars) came about as a means to promote Wolfrace’s latest ‘pepperpot’ alloy wheel. It had twin Rover V8s, twin gearboxes, drivelines and diffs, Tyrrell race car brakes (inboard at the rear), and no fewer than six wheels (presumably the more the better as far as Wolfrace saw it).

It looked like something a fully costumed Adam West might have driven for excitement at the weekend. Amazing. There was me thinking I would get some British Leyland facelift model. Clearly I don’t deserve the Wolfrace Sonic, but I fully commend it to one and all.

7 September 1988 - Richard Lane

I’d quietly hoped my birthday issue would picture a Ferrari Testarossa oversteering wildly or suchlike, but no, the magazine that hit the shelves the very day I was born was a straight-laced preview of which news cars were coming in 1989 – and a very early preview, too, because it wasonly September. I can’t complain, though: this cover does have a Ferrari (even if it is the much-maligned 348) and the BMW 8 Series, but the real treat is inside, where there’s an understandably drooling first-drive review of the E34 BMW M5 from none other than David Vivian.

24 August 1995 - Illya Verpraet

‘Well, they can’t all be winners’, I thought upon first sight of this cover advertising a triple test of the Volkswagen Polo, Vauxhall Corsa and Fiat Punto. Part of me still regards these cars as cheap, disposable street furniture, but scrappage schemes and the ULEZ have meant they’ve all but died out. And that’s sad, because it’s just nice to see cars from all eras, both valuable and worthless, out on the road.

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More intriguing is the little line about the 150mph Caterham at the bottom of the cover. This was about the 21, which was Caterham’s attempt to build a more liveable car. It was a good-looking thing, styled by one of Autocar’s writers and had possibly the best use ever of Ford Mondeo tail-lights. But it turned out to be too expensive, and the more exotic but just as usable Lotus Elise meant the 21 didn’t stand a chance. Fewer than 100 examples were made.

7 January 1949 - Steve Cropley

The copy of The Autocar published on the week of my birth doesn’t do me any favours. The cover features a mid-1920s Ford Model T, which makes the magazine look an extra 25 years older than it should. That’s because in those days advertisers could use the magazine’s cover to carry their commercial messages, and Ford’s point here was that times had moved on since their most famous car, the Tin Lizzie.

Disappointingly, this first issue of 1949 doesn’t carry the usual road test, a sure indicator that the motoring hacks of the time struggled to produce decent content across the Christmas break and took less trouble than we do now to prepare for the festive season. The headline piece is an aimless ramble through the important cars of 1948. Most are porridge (Vauxhall Velox, Standard Vanguard) but there are some stand-outs (Citroën Light 15, Jowett Javelin). Oddly, illustrations rather than photographs show the cars’ interiors and the copy contains lots of lazy generalisations about how cars have improved (“steering is in the main lighter with, more often than not, advances in accuracy”). Sadly, then, it’s not an example to cherish.

6 December 1995 - Felix Page

Can you remember the feverish anticipation among petrolheads during the build-up to the launch of the Porsche Boxster? It must have been palpable in the Autocar office. Finally, Stuttgart was going after the BMW Z3 and the Mercedes-Benz SLK with its own mid-engined take on the accessible premium sports car – and damned if it wasn’t going to have an atmospheric flat six, just like its 911 big brother. 

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But our first sighting of a road-ready prototype put a bit of a downer on things. The mean and muscular stance of 1993’s retro Boxster concept had been toned down. The production car looked far more conventional and staid – ‘flabby’, even, as one disgruntled writer put it – and the originally radical interior had gone the same way. We would soon find out just how special the Boxster really was (not just as a driver’s car; its huge popularity all but saved the beleaguered Porsche brand), but these grainy roadside images weren’t the early Christmas present they could have been.

16 June 1979 - James Attwood

The E-Type went out of production four years before I was born, and various Jaguar bosses have spent much of the intervening 45 years seeking a way to produce a suitable successor. The XJ Spider – enticingly described as ‘Pininfarina’s super Jaguar’ on the cover of our 16 June 1979 issue – was one of the more serious attempts. Jaguar supplied Pininfarina an XJ-S development car and allowed it to do its thing. The result was a bit of a stunner, with more than a whiff of Chevrolet Corvette about it (probably no coincidence when Jaguar was eyeing the US). After being revealed in 1978, the XJ Spider graced this cover as we brought a prototype to the Manchester Motor Show, where it proved predictably popular – although not enough for the car to become a production reality.

Elsewhere, my birthday issue contained a report on that year’s dramatic rain-hit Le Mans 24 Hours. It’s perhaps no surprise, then, that four of my 40-something birthdays have been spent attending the greatest motor race in the world.

3 August 1988 - Tom Morgan-Freelander

Well, that certainly explains my natural affinity with potent- yet-practical superminis: three grace this issue’s cover, published on the very day I was born. The defending champion, Ford’s Fiesta XR2, was also the old man of the group, having just one year of life left before the third-generation Fiesta would arrive. The Nova had always been a ‘classy chassis in search of an engine’, according to scribe Neil McIntee, with Vauxhall finally delivering the 100bhp fuel-injected GTE four years after the model first had its debut. The Daihatsu Charade GTti, meanwhile, was like something from the future: its 1.0-litre three-pot turbo wouldn’t look out of place in this week’s magazine. All three hot hatches were judged to have earned their junior GT labels, and while the Fiesta put in a commendable performance, it was the Nova that took the crown, thanks to its superior handling and greater refinement – not to mention a longer kit list, deemed remarkable for including central locking on the driver’s door as standard.

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1 October 1965 - Andrew Frankel

I arrived in the world on 1 October 1965. That very day was also born a new issue of Autocar, yours for one shilling and sixpence. Editor Maurice A Smith DFC had decided to adorn his cover with a picture of a new MG Midget, pointing out that it was fitted with Lockheed disc brakes. An interesting detail to pick, but there you go. Inset into the image is another, this time a rather older MG from 1936, which, would you know it, also used Lockheed brakes. And along the bottom ran an advert for, you guessed it, the Lockheed Hydraulic Brake company.

Yes, the entire cover of Autocar on my birthday turned out to have been a paid advertisement for a brake company. Entire? Well, not quite. Almost invisible at the top, there’s a small white box with the names of some forthcoming models, one of them none other than the Aston Martin DB6. But did it have Lockheed disc brakes? Given the diminutive amount of space provided for it, I’m guessing not...

18/25 December 1996 - Kris Culmer

Many great things arrived in 1996, including the BMW Z3, TVR Cerbera, Jaguar XK8, Ford Ka, Ferrari 550 Maranello, Peugeot 406, Audi A3, Mercedes-Benz A-Class and Lotus Elise (‘the best sports car in the world’, no less). Also some not-so-great things, including the Citroën Saxo, the Chrysler Neon, the Stewart Formula 1 team’s title ambitions (sorry, Sir Jackie) and a bold rebranding for Autocar, the amusing office nickname for which I won’t even try to get past Mr Editor Tisshaw into print. 

All of these appeared in the final Autocar magazine of the year, a special double issue containing the traditional road test yearbook, which arrived at the same time as one of the publication’s future chief sub-editors. Not that anyone would have predicted me to be so, as my parents would have been far more interested in ‘Driving the all-new Espace’ than ‘How to buy a Ferrari’. Had they been car lovers, they might have flicked through and seen contributions from Andrew Frankel, Allan Muir, John Evans, Colin Goodwin, Greg Kable and Steve Cropley, each of whom would one day be a colleague of mine. Time is truly a bizarre thing.

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24 May 1989 - Mark Tisshaw

No ‘what were we thinking?’ moments with this one: a scoop story on the Ford Escort Cosworth, the undoubted (or should that be only?) high point of the final Escort range that’s a bona fide cult classic and now pushing six figures for the best examples. Lovely artwork as well that Cosworth, isn’t it? Back then, the drawings were just that: hand drawings, something we were still doing for scoop stories as recently as about 2010, before computer-generated Photoshop images could be rendered to the kind of time/cost/quality we’re proud to put our names to.

The issue’s real highlight, though, was a feature interview with the most senior engineer in the state body running China’s car industry. As recently as 1989, there were only some 100,000 passenger cars on Chinese roads, and no more than 20% of them in private ownership. The grand long-term plan was to build just under a million cars per year. Last year, China built 25 million.

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Aerial 15 November 2021

the only thing amazing about the Ford Ka was the speed it rusted. If that had been Italian you would never have heard the end of it