Q&A: Jethro Bovingdon
Motoring journalist and road car tester, turned TV presenter
As soon as we start the interview, we contemplate a very interesting library behind Mr. Bovingdon: An Autocourse yearbook, a bunch of Evo magazine copies, some Ferrari stuff… and a couple of Porsche pictures on the wall. Memorabilia, in one word. It all pays testimony to an intense career in motoring journalism that takes a new turn with him joining the streaming channel TEN: The Enthusiast Network, where Jethro Bovingdon has started to co-host the TV shows “Ignition” and “Head to Head”, along with presenter Jonny Lieberman.
I wrote to very different car magazines in the UK, including Evo. Fortunately for me, they were looking for someone to come into the team. They wanted someone fresh who they could train up, who didn’t came with baggage from other titles. Evo at the time was great because it was still independent effectively, so they could take me on and there was still no pressure for me to immediately start reviewing cars and going to launches. I spent maybe a year learning to drive, practising in the cars and on the racetrack stuff. I stayed in Evo for quite a while, several years. I went from staff writer to deputy editor. But probably I had to make a move at some point. The magazine changed slightly because it was no longer independent, and an opportunity came up from one of my colleagues for me to work on a new project with Chris Harris. But it was a disaster. It was a bit ahead of his time, and then the massive recession came, so we launched it at precisely the wrong moment.
The industry was going to move forward, so it was time to become more conservative and I saw the potential for video and many other things. After that, I became a freelancer working for Car Magazine primarily. It was fascinating to work for a mag with such a structure, completely different to Evo. Then I went back to Evo’s contributor, and then I was approached by what looked like a really cool digital outfit. Since then, things have gone in a slightly different direction, and the Motor Trend opportunity came along. I love what they are doing and how it is evolving. The guys seem committed to do real fun stuff with high quality.
What are the differences in approach when you have to write about a road test compared to when you have to broadcast that test in a TV programme?
It’s quite different in respect to the way that you deliver what you try to say, but effectively the job is the same, which is to try to catch the best imagery of the car and also to make sure you get under the skin. I always do the same sample, what the car feels like and behaves dynamically. I love writing about all the things that I care about, because it really allows you to get into detail, so I still try to write when I can. But there is more pressure with the video, because after driving the car you have to deliver the material very quickly, and you have to make sure that it’s consistent with what you want to say. But video is also very, very rewarding, when you get it right with the structure and you say exactly what you want to say in exactly the right way and you catch the car doing exactly what it does. So both have their pros and cons: video is a lot harder work because you have more content to get, but is really rewarding while writing is a different thing. I like to sit down and write a 2000-word feature, but video is now the main focus.
Do you think that having this new mainstream digital platform is a better way to interact with people who are interested in watching or following you?
Yes, of course it is. That’s changed so much in the last few years anyway, because social media is fantastic for that. If you are on Twitter or Instagram or whatever, you’re constantly interacting with people who look for your content, who want to hear your opinion and talk about the things you wanna talk about. It’s fascinating: you’re constantly talking with owners of the cars and interacting with people who are going to make a buying decision.. Video just spreads the message a bit wider and probably hits a wider audience but they’re still enthusiastic audience. So they’re still the right people but maybe it’s a slightly bigger, broader selection.
When one tries to translate Evo features into Spanish, you know what? You British guys have such a colourful vocabulary for the motor world, with maybe over 40 words to describe the feeling of a tyre over the asphalt. Do you speak the same way in a TV show?
I try to, but you’re right. It’s harder to be absolutely super precise about your experience but, on the same level, it’s pretty authentic, I think: when I do a video, I don’t try to script it, I just try to drive the car and discuss what it feels like. So I suspect that maybe the language is not quite as polished or as rich in a video as when you can take your time to sit to write a feature and craft it. That’s really cool: sometimes I watch it back, and I know that I can’t write it something as rough and as it was in the moment. So video in that respect is very good. They are different formats, different media, but I think that both have their place. I’d say that with video you get a really authentic idea about what the person who drives the car is feeling. That’s the point: Bring in people along with you and show them the character of the car and how much fun you’re having while you’re driving. I’ve been in the job for a long time, but I love driving cars, and for me as long as I drive cars, I’m happy, and it’s great to being able to describe it how it’s like in both platforms.
With such a background, you’ve driven many cars. Can you give us an estimation?
I wouldn’t even know where to begin! I think I’ve been really lucky. I’ve driven pretty much every supercar, sports car that I’d really want to drive, except some of the older classic cars that I’ve missed on. Hundreds and hundreds. What was great about my early career is that I did profess a lot of friendships that, even without having to write about them, they constantly looked for cars for me to experience and discover how they behaved, and it gave you that ability to discover how the car feels.
If you had to pick one car and one place to test it, which ones would they be?
Ahh… wow… I’m trying to think… I think that if I had to pick one car, it maybe wouldn’t be a ten-million-pound car, nor anything too expensive. I love 911s, particularly the 917S. I think I would probably pick Southern France or any Spanish road through the Pyrenees. I love driving on the Nürburgring, but also driving on the road.
Are you of the opinion that 911, in its evolution over the years, has lost a bit of its “on-the-edge” feeling? Do you think that it has become easier to drive for anyone?
I think there’s a bit of myth that says that 911 used to be critically hard to drive. With the sixth generation, I was amazed at how easy it was to jump and drive it quite quickly. But of course they’ve changed. The big step change was the 991: the electric power-steering that was a huge change, and the weight distribution also changed much. With the early units of the 991, I think that they went a bit too far away from what a 911 was, and even Porsche would recognize that now and they did care about bringing that classic 911 feeling back to their cars. And with the new GT3… you’d have to be hypercritical to not enjoy that car. It’s fantastic, particularly its massive engine. But it’s a constant for all manufacturers now how much a premium they put on character and feel, and how much effort they put on performance. People like you and I, we care about steering feel and such things, but most of the people only cares about what the acceleration figures say, what the Nürburgring time says… They are trying to appease lots of different people, but Porsche has shown with the GT4 and the 911R and then going back to manual gearbox, that there is a real market for people who still loves driving. They’re passionate, they spend money, they tell their friends and then create the legend about the brand, and I think that Porsche has done brilliantly to show that you don’t have to be fastest to be the best.
You see the 911 and you appreciate that it all has evolved from the same concept. But you have to respect the heritage that Porsche has.
They have a great heritage and a great understanding both of it and the feedback they get. I speak to the test drivers and they don’t talk about numbers, what they really care about is about how it feels. 911 has shown how much a car can catch people’s imagination. It’s probably a good blueprint for all performance cars, the way they think about the driver again.
Your point about people looking for figures vs. people who looks for the feeling, reminds us of the choice between a Panamera Hybrid and a Panamera Diesel…
You know, the world is changing so quickly… The media have changed, as Motor Trend is proof of, but the cars are equally changing. I think it’s down to the media to remind the manufacturers that they are not providing just a mean of transportation, because they’re now focused on the autonomous car, for example. Yes, things are changing quick, but I hope that people will always love cars that put a premium on driving dynamics.
If we talk about racing cars, which one would you like to test among those that you have not driven yet?
Everyone would love to test a Formula 1 car. That would be the ultimate test drive for me. I’ve not driven thousands of Racing cars, but I’ve been lucky to drive some really cool racing machines. GT3 cars are fantastic fun, because they have huge potential but they are pretty easy to drive. The difficult bit is to extract the last second from them. So GT cars are probably what I like most: GT3s, GTEs, ALMS… But ultimately, I’d love to experience just once a Formula 1 car, to get in it with all the driving devices and find out how it feels like.
But do you mean a really hard to drive Formula 1 car?
The ultimate for me would probably be a V10 from when I grew up. As much as I love a manual gearbox in a road car, I think you’d get such a sensitivity anyway when driving an F1 car, that the main experience to enjoy would come from the engine, on cornering, under braking… So a V10 powered F1 car from back in the day… that would do it for me. Preferably at Spa, maybe!
What was the first car that you tested as a journalist?
The very first car that I tested as a journalist at my first day at Evo was a Fiat Seicento Sporting that they had booked for me (this was how junior I was…). They had booked a Fiat Seicento Sporting for me to drive, but because I was only about 23, So the first long-term test car that I took home was the yellow Seat Leon Cupra 1.8. It was great, and I came to really love that Cupra generation.
Sergio: Mine was a Honda CR-Z! They took me on a city loop to have a look at my “driving style”…
The CR-Z was one of those cars that should have been really cool, but it just never had the power, did it? It looked like a good idea to attach a manual gearbox to a hybrid little hot hatch, but it would have needed around 200 HP or something.
Do you want to add something else about the shows?
For me, “Ignition” is about carrying on doing what I love doing: high quality work while driving the coolest cars, which really gets me excited. And we want to bring that high standard to a big audience while having fun from it. I think that sometimes we take it a bit seriously, but we’re trying to impart that experience to other people. We do serious testing and measure it true to what you think, but we also want to show how much fun we can have in these things. The car industry tends to beat itself a bit too much but cars are still fantastic, and as long as I can test them I would be more than happy.
Interview conducted by Sergio Álvarez & Diego Merino