evo magazine’s editor gives an exclusive interview to Sofiane Kennouche about teenage girls’ magazines, Evel Knievel, favourite drives and how to make a start in automotive journalism.
It’s quarter to five on a Tuesday afternoon in late April. There’s a click as Nick Trott locks the screen of his iPhone, which he places on top of the newly-released issue 209 on the table in front of me. ‘Fifteen minutes’ he says, with a smile.
We at Motormessenger are big fans of evo magazine’s devotion to The Thrill of Driving. When a work experience opportunity arose for Motormessenger, I pointed Project Junior Executive’s bonnet south for the long journey from North-east Scotland to Northamptonshire. Getting to pick Nick’s brains was an added incentive for someone who’d grown up reading the magazine.
Back in the room, the strong smell of fresh paper mixes with the springtime air. It may be late in the day, but Nick looks expectant and alert.
SK: How did you get your start in motoring journalism?
NT: ‘It was a bit of a fluke, I suppose. I didn’t choose a journalism degree, I chose a degree based on where I could study, so I went to Cornwall and studied Visual Culture. What it taught me was how to write and some of the discipline you need to become a journalist. I started to do some work, believe it or not, on a teenage girl’s magazine because my sister worked for them at the time. Two and two came together around then; I love car magazines and I realised I could write and it took me until I was 22 to realise that.
‘Then this job came up on Max Power; I was desperate to be on a car magazine. I joined there as a junior writer right at the bottom of the scale. I was on pathetic money; it was crazy. I basically spent three years flat-out, non-stop. I put everything into it and it got to a point where I felt I couldn’t stay forever. My interests were much wider – classic cars, performance cars – and I wanted to write more cerebral stories.
‘I just left. I tried to get some freelance work which was kinda dumb really as most people thought that if you worked on Max Power you were borderline illiterate and not a proper journalist!
‘My key aim at that point was to get my work published in a well-respected, known car magazine. The first magazine that picked me up was Top Gear and they asked me to do a freelance story and it was well-received. I went to see Greg Fountain at CAR magazine and helped out at the office; I tried to muscle my way in, and eventually got a commission from them. As soon as I got recognised by CAR, it just took off. Hopefully the quality of my work was liked and respected. I was freelance from 2000-2009.’
SK: What attracted you to evo?
NT: ‘I’d been at EMAP [publishing] when Performance Car was closed and it was kinda heartbreaking for me because I knew some of the people that worked on it including Dickie [Meaden, one of evo‘s original staff and current Contributing Editor] and I thought it was a potential place for me to go from Max Power.
‘Long story short, evo asked me. Harry [Metcalfe, original founder of evo] was editing the magazine but his focus was more on the business so they were kinda without a figurehead. I said I’d be interested, but only as the editor, as to go back into staff after nine years working for yourself is pretty tough. I always wondered how I’d deal with having a management structure. I still don’t know the answer to that, to be honest.’
I push the voice recorder a little closer to Nick and take a new page in my shorthand notebook in anticipation for my next question.
SK: What are the main attributes you look for in a motoring journalist?
NT: ‘It’s bloody difficult. People just automatically think they can do what a professional motoring journalist has been trained to do or has been doing their whole life. That really pisses me off.
‘I think coming into the business, you’ve gotta accept that while you can string a sentence together and you know a bit of magazine law, to be a professional journalist or road-tester is a totally different thing as most of it comes from experience. Be prepared to start at the very bottom and look for work anywhere. You’ve gotta be published. You can self-publish, but it’s harder to get noticed. Those people that just send me a five-page CV and a letter don’t do well.
He pulls the seat closer to the desk before continuing:
‘It’s also about listening. I think you’ve gotta have some natural ability in terms of writing. Dickie’s one of the best writers I know but he sweats over every word, whereas Jeremy Clarkson could write over 20,000 words a day. You’ve gotta be prepared to learn and take knock-backs, too. Then it comes down to ideas. When I started out with Top Gear and CAR, I’m pretty sure I didn’t get the jobs based on my writing ability because I was an unknown. It was because of my ideas; I looked at areas in the magazine where they were missing out. Gotta be careful though, as you’ve gotta do it with a bit of charm.
‘All the key guys that I know in this business started out with work experience. Henry [Catchpole] did, Dan [Prosser] did, everyone has done it. We get a lot of workies coming in and they sit in the corner dumbstruck, but it’s work – you’ve seen the level of work that’s involved in putting together a multi-platform title. There’s more people who want to do this job than there are spaces available. I think we need more titles in the UK; there’s been a thinning-out in the market recently.’
SK: How straightforward was it to make the jump from freelancer to contracted journalist?
NT: ‘I remember being really excited. My first son was born three weeks before the job so to be honest there was a distraction. The reason I really came on board was because I wanted to test myself; I wanted to see if I could edit what I consider to be one of the top three car magazines in the world. Could I do it?
Assuming he’s asking a rhetorical question, I’m relieved when he answers his own point.
‘I basically came up with my own formula, my own rules of engagement I suppose, but I kept them to myself. That was simply how I would deal with any situation. It was based around straightforward stuff; an open and honest, inclusive policy. There was no way I was gunna come in here and tear everything up. First of all, we didn’t need it, and secondly, it shows a lack of confidence in the brand if you keep reinventing yourself. CAR which I love and owe a lot to, they do tend to reinvent themselves or redesign a lot. The essential idea of evo was Dickie, John Barker and Harry and they got it absolutely spot-on. I think the only area in which we’ve made a change is with the modern car industry, because that’s our commercial support and we have to acknowledge that we are a new car magazine.
‘The transition was okay; I’d been so used to managing my own diary so having a 9.30 to 17.30 was unusual. It was a leap of faith from the publishing director to bring me in, but I believe I got in on the strength of my ideas and I’m still here after five-and-a-half years.’
SK: Where would you like to be after Issue #300?
Twenty-six seconds pass before Nick can give me an answer. He shoots an incredulous look across the room before leaning forward:
NT: ‘It feels like yesterday that we did issue #200.We need to continue to champion The Thrill of Driving; at the end of the day that’s what separates us from every other car magazine in the world. It’s a question that I ask every single MD that I speak to – how relevant is the simple process of enjoying driving to your brand and all of them acknowledge that it is crucial, but I don’t believe all of them. There’s massive challenges ahead.
‘Is the next generation of driver gunna enjoy the features and technology more than driving? How does automated driving affect our future? Should we embrace these? We need to make sure that we’re steering a path through it for our readers who believe that the most important factor in having the use of a car is the driving. In a way, it’s probably easier to predict twenty to thirty years than the next six years. The period of change we’re in is dramatic.
‘We led with the app, but let’s see how the format moves on. Our YouTube channel has nearly 400,000 subscribers. There seems to be a very receptive and hungry audience for our content so we’ll continue. Six years is a tricky one. Most people think that print’s gunna be dead.’
SK: Which story or feature was one of your greatest achievements?
‘Convincing Nick Mason to give me his Enzo to drive to Maranello and back; I did 3000 miles in that car. When he sold it, I’d done more miles in that car than he had. The story was great and we [a photographer friend and I] tried to replicate a route that Gilles Villeneuve would drive to Maranello. It was brilliant, just a fantastic experience – there was jeopardy, fear, high drama and cops. It took months and months to pull that one off; I was 26 and pretty young. He didn’t know me at all and I got his phone number from a friend of a friend and I pitched him the story on the phone. Nick liked the story and told me yeah, go for it.
A smile envelops his face as he recounts the reverie. Clearly, there’s more to come.
‘I really wanted to see the space shuttle launch so I figured out a way I could go to Cape Canaveral to watch the last-ever night launch. It involved a story about the original Mercury and Apollo astronauts who were Corvette drivers, so I got a ZR1 in Florida and drove to Cape Canaveral.
‘I drove a KTM X-Bow to the Arctic Circle and drove to Morocco in an R8 from Stuttgart, there and back in five days. As a freelancer I thought “What do I want to do, who do I want to meet?” and tried to figure out a way to do it. I could be a bit of a gypsy journalist as I didn’t have kids at that point.
‘Now, I get a kick out of the really collaborative stuff – evo #200, working on the app, video editing. I’m quite happy to let the brand and individuals take the credit for stuff – my role is to energise and excite people. The trick is to ensure you have the right team in the first place; it took us well over a year to find the web editor and we would not just commit to any person. Then Hunter [Skipworth] popped up and I knew within ten minutes of meeting him that he was our web editor.’
SK: What drive or experience summarises the thrill of driving for you?
NT: ‘Dickie taking me back to the hotel in the F50 for ‘Analogue Supercars’ [see evo #186] was unbelievable. I really enjoy being with skilled drivers; I love the science of driving and I love seeing people finesse speed out of a car; it’s wonderful to watch.
‘I also had a very, very emotional response to driving a McLaren F1 on that test. It quite surprised me; I choked up when I realised what was happening. It was a beautiful day and I had this amazing car. The roads were empty and I took that F1 – it’s such a brilliant driving position [he mimics the gearchange with his right hand] and you start to get into that flow, blipping the revs – and I thought ‘this is it’.
‘I’ve had some fantastic drives in hot hatches; I love hot hatches. I had a mk1 Citroen AX GT with steel wheels and skinny tyres. I had some joyful drives in that. I remember driving it up to Scotland. It’s just when you slightly feel detached from the road – it’s like the car’s a levitation device and you’re just flowing along and everything’s in control.
‘I’ve driven a 917 at Goodwood; I’ve driven a Formula One car, done 228mph in a Veyron Grand Sport, 193mph in the road in an Enzo. If the car’s talking to you and it’s well-engineered and you get that feeling that the car’s almost invisible and you’re floating on the road, that’s it for me and I’m fortunate to have had a lot of them.
‘I had a poster on my wall of John Barker – I ended up as his boss for a couple of years, weird – I had a poster on my wall of John Barker fully crossed-up in a McLaren F1, driving that car far better than I ever could. You have to look after your inner car enthusiast. I’ve been doing this job for a quite a long time and there are occasions where you stop and think ‘This is quite extraordinary what is happening now, so take a moment’. Drive for the hell of it too; the other day in the Huracan I just went out and drove it; I didn’t need to. Extraordinary freedom is afforded to us as drivers at the moment and it’s not gunna last forever. If my kids start driving – you think of the country as it is with congestion and pollution and everything else – what’s it gunna be like for the next generation to enjoy driving?’
SK: If you weren’t a journalist, what would you be doing instead?
‘Making films, maybe. I’ve enjoyed that massively since starting this job. I think it was inevitable that I’d do something with cars or music. I play the guitar. I thought at school I might become a guitar maker but I haven’t got the patience to do that, or be an engineer. My first ambition was to be Evel Kinevel. My first two heroes were Evel Kinevel and Barry Sheen and in a horrible twist of irony I’ve ended up with metal in most of my limbs [as a result of a motorbike accident].
‘I’ve no idea really. If I had no experience of this industry, then maybe something to do with music. It was inevitable I’d be in the media; dad worked for The Times and my sister works on a fashion magazine so I was heading in this direction whichever way you look at it.’
By the time my recorder clicks off, the fifteen minutes allocated to me had finished forty minutes ago. With Nick’s love of driving readily apparent, it’s reassuring to see a common strand between Motormessenger and the big-budget operations of evo.
With thanks to Nick Trott, Hunter Skipworth and all at evo magazine and Dennis Publishing for the editor’s work experience opportunity.