Via Car Magazine and Motoring Middle East – beating the odds
A few days ago, Motoring Middle East, which is an automotive news media channel across YouTube and social media platforms, but based in Dubai, celebrated its 9th birthday. Why is that significant? Because in 2011, along with Imthishan Giado, I co-founded ‘MME’, as we came to call it.
Except I didn’t. I didn’t ‘found’ it so to speak. Not really. You did. Well not you, you… although actually perhaps him and her, and definitely that guy over there!
I moved to Dubai in 2006 to be editor of Car Magazine – yes, THE Car Magazine. One of the grandest, prestigious and literally most storied motoring magazines on the planet. It’s the magazine that gave us the late great motoring journalist LKJ Setright who, as legend goes, coined the very phrase ‘Supercar’ when he simultaneously pioneered the drive story, by driving a brand new Miura from the Lamborghini factory to the UK.
Not all of that is entirely true, I think, but it’s how the story is best told, plus Car does officially claim to have created both the term ‘Supercar,’ the drive story and also, by the way, multi-car group tests.
I do actually have an LJK Setright story, should I tell it now? What? Oh okay, go on then.
It must have been back in 2000 or 2001, and I turned up a bit late to a Mercedes media drive. I think it might have been a new C-Class, I’m not entirely sure as it was clearly less memorable than the actual experience I’m about to relate. Although somehow I do remember driving a Ford Puma to and from the event because that was a hoot!
By the time I arrived and driver’s had already paired up in most of the cars. One of the PR people asked me, somewhat apologetically was it… no I think more forebodingly…. if I wouldn’t mind pairing up with Mr LJK Setright.
Holy Moly! God damn LKJ Setright – this guy was like a superstar in automotive media at the time! I’d get to meet him, spend time with him, maybe learn something, watch him do what he does? To put it into context for modern audiences, it would be like turning up at a drive event and being asked if you wouldn’t mind sharing a car with Jeremy Clarkson.
Plus I loved Hondas, and Setright loved Hondas – he owned some in fact – one of the few British journalists that didn’t have a stuck-up Kenneth Williams nose when it came to Japanese cars, and who wasn’t instantly biased or prejudiced because a car wasn’t European (which during his era would usually mean it was unreliable) or British (which also meant it would be unreliable, plus it would fall apart too).
Perhaps it was because he was Jewish and hence a minority, that he was more open-minded. He wasn’t anti-European cars – his other favourite brand was Bristol. He was certainly less conventional then his contemporaries though, much less conventional. In any case, it would not only be an honour just to meet him, but fascinating to be in his company.
Of course I nodded in agreement, a little in surprise, a little in excitement and a little, well… anxiously. Imagine yourself being sat on a long-haul flight suddenly finding yourself next to the late President Mandela, and that he was in the mood to talk! It would be more than a little intimidating and overwhelming, how you would you keep up with the sheer intellect of the man? You’d be turning to the air hostess… ‘I’m gonna need lots of coffee… on tap… just keep it coming…’
And then there he was, Mr LJK Setright, imposing as anything. He was tall guy, taller than me (and I’m 6ft 2in), very slim and lanky, always impeccably attired and with a Gandalf-like beard, and very often head wear – either a hat or a skull cap. In his Wikipedia entry it actually says he’s been described as ‘a gaunt Old Testament prophet in Saville Row clothes,’ and that’s pretty apt.
‘Would you like to take the first stint behind the wheel Sir?’ I spluttered out rather pathetically, I was star struck to be honest. ‘No old boy, you go ahead!’ was his response, or something to that effect, just as you’d expect from someone with old-school etiquette.
I drove this Mercedes, on a press drive, like I was taking my bloody driving test! Correct ten-to-two hand positions on the steering wheel, mirror-signal-manoeuvres and shuffling the wheel – bear in mind I’d probably already been driving for a decade and half by this time. But you know, you’re sitting next to the master, quite simply the guru, and you suddenly become very self-conscious.
What I failed to grasp at the time was that he probably didn’t care about my driving. Halfway down this route and almost with some considerable relief at not having made any kind of driving blunder, but also not really knowing what the Mercedes was actually like because I was focussing so hard on my driving, I finally got to hand it over to Mr LJK Setright. He got into the driving seat, adjusted the seat and mirrors and… well I guess the alarms bells started ringing when he slowly and with theatrical flourish pulled out a pair of driving gloves and pulled them on.
Then he went from this deliberate, methodical, considered preparation to… utter nutter, mental, hooligan! He slammed the gearbox into drive and floored it like an all-action getaway driver. And he pretty much stayed on it the whole rest of the way.
He was fast, damned fast, but the passenger experience was different to when you might be sitting beside a quick professional driver who’s so smooth, so precise that you’re perfectly at ease, despite the pace, because you know you’re in safe hands. No, this was like… well let’s just say my eyes were popping out of my ahead, my jaw was flapping about on my chest, and I’d definitely left my imprint on the passenger door grab handle. During this drive I rediscovered God and even as a Muslim, I’d have converted to Judaism then and there if he’d demanded it, and confessed to sins I couldn’t even have conceived.
Later on when I’d got back to the office, and my own colleagues picked themselves up off the floor after they’d finally stopped laughing at my experience, they rightly pointed out that I should have pondered why no one else had already partnered with Setright. Apparently he was quite notorious for his driving style. The guy drove without fear, without fear of death specifically, believing that when it was his time, it would be his time. Well that’s all fine, but what about MY time?!
Somehow we didn’t crash and die that day, we completed the route and got back, just in time for a spot of tiffin. Although frankly my appetite had escaped my tummy, leapt from the car, and run off into a forest about 45 minutes earlier, unsurprisingly the rest of my stomach’s contents had been pining to follow suit. Still when you partner up with someone on these things, you feel somewhat obliged to stick with your driving buddy, and part of me still figured I could learn something. Boy was I about to get a lesson… actually not me but… well, here’s what happened.
We sat down to eat, and because it was Mr LJK Setright, Mercedes sent a senior suspension engineer… Bechara… to come eat with us. It was like sending a lamb to the slaughter. If I thought I’d been pranked that day, it was nothing compared to what was about to happen to this guy.
Setright was one of the first technical motoring journalists, he really knew his nuts and bolts – which is kind of why he understood that the Japanese were doing things better. So he had knowledge, experience, reputation, gravitas and the ability to shut-you-down with a coolly delivered phrase so sharp it would literally cut you in half where you stood. He proceeded to verbally take apart the suspension of the Mercedes and reassemble it ‘correctly’. Within fifteen minutes, this senior engineer must have found himself not only doubting his abilities, but questioning his very life choices, whilst I was playing hide and seek with the peas on my plate and wishing the ground would just open up and swallow me, because this was awkward!
I didn’t stay for dessert, I just picked up some celebratory Laddoos on the way back. Celebrating what? That I was still alive innit?
Nonetheless, I did consider myself very fortunate to have shared time with a truly remarkable and impressive individual, an inspirational figure at the time, and now something of a legend. He passed away I think only around five years after this encounter. Not at the wheel of a car after all, but sadly from treacherous cancer. May he rest in peace, but at full chat!
Boy did I go off on a whole tangent there! Coming back to MME, where was I? Oh yeah, YOU started it. Well actually, like I said it was after I had gone over to Dubai, to be editor of Car Magazine, or more specifically Car Middle East magazine, because that was a dream come true for me.
I knew that I would never get that opportunity here in the UK at the time… actually even today let’s be honest, because I have a name that places me somewhere in the Arabian Nights Tales, and a skin tone that suggests to some blighted by prejudicial preconceptions, that my most eloquent language abilities could ‘most certainly’ only extend to ‘a thousand apologies’.
So instead I went to the wonderful UAE and I got to be editor of Car magazine – Oh Blimey! And you know what, I poured my heart and soul into it, creating the best damn motoring magazine the Middle East had ever seen, raising the bar on car reviews, drive features and automotive photography to standards not witnessed there before. I was initially flying UK photographers into Dubai to do a feature shoots for me – ah them days when magazine editors actually had budgets to burn, hey?
My personal remit was not to simply cut and paste the UK edition into a Middle East format, I wanted to uphold the quality, style and ground-breaking ethos of Car, but with very much a local focus and original bespoke content. I wanted to get into the local automotive mindset, understand the car culture and the lingo, and wasted no time getting in with the community. This is what made my mag authentically relatable to car enthusiasts in the region.
I even kick-started the cars and coffee style meets – actually more ‘cars and burgers’ to be exact. We held our first meet at a burger joint on Jumeirah Beach Road with 25 cars, ultimately growing to achieve the biggest car meet Dubai had ever seen at that point a few years later (well over a thousand cars).
Anyway, when the contract for the Car franchise was up, ITP, the publishers that I worked for, decided not to renew it. You might think that odd, after I’ve just said I created the best and most loved and well read car magazine in the region ever… well here’s where the crushing reality of publishing and media hit home and nearly put me off altogether.
Yes, readers loved my magazine, but advertisers didn’t. Car advertisers that is especially. Probably because we were a little too honest about our views on cars. What am I saying ‘a little too honest…’ I should just say honest… actually I should just say that we actually did review cars, rather than just republish press releases and brochures.
Since advertising was hard to secure, and the money from magazine sales didn’t even cover the prints costs, the publishers decided to stop the mag. Outcry! Shock! Sadness! Disbelief. And that was just me! Actually it was the readers too. I felt like I had been stabbed in the heart when a major Abu Dhabi newspaper ran the story with the headline ‘End of the road for Car Middle East’.
A story about a specific magazine being closed in the news? ITP senior brass were taken aback… ‘but we launch and kill titles all the time, most of the time no one even notices,’ one of them complained to me. Yeah well most of your other titles don’t have real and loyal readers, and aren’t regarded as one of two best international franchise editions of a magazine (as Car Middle East was – the other being Car Russia) and finally, that’s because you suck big time!
Actually I didn’t say that. I didn’t say any of that. I just nodded sadly… well they were still paying my salary at the time. But as a send-off to the magazine, we decided to stage a final Car Middle East Car Meet.
Oh man, the turn out, the emotions, the love, the appreciation and the respect we got that evening… yeah it got a little hard to hold back the tears once or twice. And there was one overriding message coming through loud and clear: ‘It can’t end like this. You guys have got to carry on!’
Perhaps foolishly we heard and complied. Myself and my deputy editor on Car ME, thus founded Motoring Middle East. Not because we wanted too, not because we thought it would be a good business idea, but because the car community wanted us too. And very soon we abandoned our paid jobs to do it full time.
Those were the scary months! The OMIGOD, what am I doing? How could I be so stupid? This is utterly crazy and foolhardy… months. Actually years? In fact, I’m still in that phase to a large extent now. Okay let me come back to that.
Motoring Middle East was a rollercoaster ride. We had deep, frustrating and painful lows, but the highs were sensational!
We continued the car meets and broke records in meet attendance numbers, we ended up with a six-year weekly radio slot on Dubai Eye – the leading talk show station there – we hosted live stage shows at the Dubai Motor Show, we created ground-breaking video content for ourselves and for manufacturers and dealers there, and I even hosted a car show on FOX TV for the whole Middle East region! We developed an even bigger following that meant we’d be recognised and asked for selfies and autographs whenever we were out and about.
Anyway I left Motoring Middle East and returned to the UK at the end of 2018, but Imthishan continues to take the brand forward, and part of me will forever be Motoring Middle East – a huge achievement of which I will always be proud and that’s why I wanted to mark its 9th birthday.
And part of me will always be Car Middle East magazine before it. That was my baby. And part of me will be in the glossy relaunch of Used Car Buyer magazine here in the UK in the early 2000s which was brilliant. And part of me will always be in the award-winning Parkers Car Price Guide website, which I actually launched back at the end of 1999 – and which became the second biggest British automotive website after Autotrader within a few months. And part of me will always be with the Saudi Gazette and Arab News English daily newspapers in Jeddah, with which I started my career in motoring journalism and which also enabled me to claim the title of the Kingdom’s very first car journo!
Some pretty awesome achievements, if I say so myself. Despite not always getting the easiest and best breaks in life because of being the wicked Wazir’s Desi cousin, while trying to pave my path in an era bridging the National Front and 911 – I’m referring to the Twin Towers attack not the Porsche.
But whilst I love looking back, I relish even more looking forward. Even if I’m back to those scary months, and still find myself up against the same odds I encountered 30 years ago here in the UK. Seriously, how have we not managed to progress? Why am I still fighting against a tidal wave of whiteness, that ain’t so fair after all, if you see where I’m coming from.
Now I’m the Brown Car Guy – my very own brand. Why the Brown Car Guy? Because simplicity works in a digital world and it’s a literal interpretation of what I am. No, I don’t mean I have a brown car… duh! I’m brown and I’m a Car Guy – hence Brown Car Guy. Oh yes, some might hold it against me, but I’m not going to deny the truth of my identity, in fact I’m going to own it. It is confirmation of being proud of my distinctiveness and in outright defiance of convention. Hey, I guess I did learn something from Setright after all. What a hero!
I’m also part of MotorOverload.com, which I’ve co-founded with my dear friend Kevin Haggarthy, a highly experienced motoring journalist, but also one of the most skilled and talented drivers I know… er not like Setright.
Exciting, anxious days ahead that could turn out to be deeply rewarding or utterly disastrous. I know what I’m capable of, so the rest is down to you. No, no, don’t look over your shoulder, I don’t mean that guy this time, I do mean you! Are you with me?
Cool. Let’s do this.