V&R Stories: The Accidental Automotive Journalist

If you asked me in 1982 – the year I graduated high school – what I wanted to be when I grew up, you would not to be surprised by my response.

I was all set to get into broadcasting. Since I could not get into California State University Northridge's Radio-Television-Film program immediately out of high school, I had to take the transfer route through my local community college.

It was not for lack of effort…actually, it was. I won't get into the experience of high school or the circumstances that caused this mixed experience. I will say that I took the wrong collegiate entry test – the ACT. I did not do well in it. I would probably have flunked my SATs anyway.

Still, I had my eye on a radio gig after college. Why radio? You see, I had the face and body for radio…let's just go with that.

While I waited for my chance to see if broadcasting would be my eventual career, I found another way to get into the media business before graduating high school – print journalism.

Reseda High School had a monthly paper called the Regent Review where seniors could be a part of as an English elective. Just so happens, I was interested in joining the staff – and got in.

My primary job was sports editor, starting in the spring semester. Every issue, I was to put out a column every month and gather news and photos from our sports teams. It was that simple.

It wasn't. There was controversy and frustration that went along with the job. I remembered upsetting then drama department over an interview I did of a minor leaguer who graduated from Reseda. Three lessons here: Check your facts carefully, never piss off even part of your readership (unless you're Jeremy Clarkson and you could afford to) and never piss off the hand(s) that feed you.

Even back then, I had issues maintaining an equilibrium with my sports writing…

Then, I decided to try my hand at automotive writing. The idea was to write about high schoolers and their love of the automobile. Looking back, there were mass doses of naivety as I approached this three-part series (or, was it two? Eh, the memory’s shot!).

In doing research for these three pieces, I reached out to the manufacturers and importers for information. From Nissan and Posrche+Audi (remember when they were a distribution company and not part of each other’s corporate family?), I received press kits in the mail (with real live glossy photos and pieces of paper – not like today’s digital press kits and photography!). I was surprised, really. What automotive concern would want to give a high schooler press information on their vehicle – even today?

Photo by Randy Stern

In one piece, I wrote about automobiles that elicited the fantasies of many car heads. Based on the press kit I received from Porsche+Audi, I ended up writing on two upcoming machines: The Porsche 944 and the Audi Quattro Coupe.

I may have hit half the tree between these two. As much as the 944 was loved immediately, we would find 29 years later that it wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. Porsche purists would give the evil eye to the Cayenne and Panamera today as not being true Porsches. Anything that was not a 911 is considered worthless by the purists today.

Yet, the 944 was a step in the right direction. Taking the body from the 924, originally a combined effort with Volkswagen, Porsche forged more of their own design and engineering stamp on it. The platform was reworked to accommodate a more powerful, Porsche-developed engine. The 2.5-liter four-cylinder was essentially half of the 928’s V8, with a twist – a balance shaft. Mitsubishi engineered a way for four cylinders to run without excessive harshness and vibration. By employing stabilizing bars with eccentric weights, a four cylinder can run as smooth as a V8.

And, who could not resist the 944's extended fenders? It was as Porsche gave it some hormones and sent it to the gym daily to work out.

The 944 was seen as a great improvement for the brand despite sharing showroom space with front-wheel-drive entry-level luxury cars that were technically a part of Volkswagen AG and controlled by the Piech family.

This was where the Quattro came in. While the arguments simmered underneath the surface over the 944’s legacy, the Quattro was seen as more exotic than the 911 Turbo it shared showroom space with. It was a rally-bred piece of engineering that would set the course of automotive history for the next few decades. No one has ever dreamed of such a performance machine on the scale of the Quattro.

Little did we know at the time how much the Quattro would be revered over time? Nor did we know how that rally-bred coupe would help build the brand after its split with Porsche and the setbacks caused by the unintended acceleration case over the mid-1980s 5000 sedan (the 100 in the USA/Canada). Today, Audi uses the quattro system as its key selling point ranging from upscale compacts (the A3) all the way to big crossovers (the Q7) and Lamborghini-powered sports machines (R8).

The original Quattro had a 160-horsepower 2.1-liter turbocharged five-cylinder motor. The original quattro system had a manual center differential lock that allowed the driver to switch from front drive to all-wheel drive. Sales volume was low not because no one wanted an all-wheel drive sports coupe. It was a rare and rather expensive to buy. Some might say that one could’ve easily purchased a Porsche 944 than wait for a Quattro coupe.

After all, the Quattro also appeared to have worked out at the same gym as the 944.

The other piece looked at the other end of the new car spectrum through the lens of the Nissan Sentra. At that time, the Sentra was introduced as one of the lowest priced passenger vehicles in the USA. The attraction wasn't just the price, but the simplicity of the Sentra that was the hallmark of Nissan (and Datsun). In fact, it was the third model to be sold by Nissan/Datsun with front wheel drive – succeeding the subcompact F-10/310 and the larger Stanza.

Powered by a 67-horsepower 1.5-liter engine, the front-drive Sentra came in four body styles: A two- and four-door sedan, a station wagon and a hatchback coupe. These were models that had been part of two previous generations of Nissan Sunnys sold here (The B210 and the 210 afterwards). Along with its low price, the Sentra achieved one of the highest consumption figures in the USA – a combined 48 MPG. This a number that is reserved for the likes of the Toyota Prius today.

The brand was catching on – now applied to its strong-selling pickup trucks that were being built at their new plant in Smyrna, Tennessee. The Sentra would soon join the pickup on the same line in 1985. Even from its humble beginnings, the Sentra would become the volume seller of the Nissan lineup until the Altima showed up in the 1990s.

Photo courtesy of Nissan North America

Did I drive any of these cars? Obviously, not the Porsche and the Audi. I did test drive the Sentra at a dealership – a 2-door model with an automatic and some better equipment. It was quite decent to drive. Even with 67 horsepower, a carburetor off to the side and three ratios in the gearbox, it did a good job getting around town. What I enjoyed was the light weight and feeling the Sentra had to offer even with a bit more equipment than the sub-$5,000 starter model. Mind you, things were much more simpler then.

Needless to say, I have not driven any of these vehicles since.

It would not be a surprise that I was a budding automotive journalist as a senior in high school. Who knew it parlay into something like it is today? Maybe so…but, something has to start somewhere.

Besides, this body and face for radio had the voice for print (and digital) journalism.

Cover photo by Randy Stern

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