Autowriters Spotlight: Jil McIntosh

In a belated tip of the hat to the many fine professional auto writers in Canada this month’s spotlight is on one of their own, Jil McIntosh, who sketches her own auto writing career.

“It’s hard for me to believe – gray hair aside – that I’ve been writing professionally about cars for 25 years. I’d churned out stories since I was a child, and during an early-1980s stint as a taxi driver in Toronto, I met a driver who collected antique cars. I had no interest in vehicles, but when I saw them, I wanted one. I bought a 1948 Chevrolet, and later, the two vehicles I still own, a 1947 Cadillac and 1949 Studebaker pickup truck. (And an antique tractor. Every woman wants an antique tractor.)

Autowriters.com Autowriters Spotlight:Jil McIntosh

Jil McIntosh

I had no formal journalism education, but I started writing for a couple of local publications, Canadian Street Rodder and Old Autos. Along the way, I queried to every car magazine I could find. It wasn’t easy to break in; one editor told me he didn’t publish women because they only wrote about shopping while their husbands were at car shows. I submitted a story anyway, and became their columnist for several years. If anything’s changed the most in 25 years, it’s that women are now taken seriously in this business.

When Canada’s largest daily paper, the Toronto Star, started its weekly Wheels section, I was determined to be part of it. They took my first piece in 1987 – the cover story! – about a hot rod show. I was a semi-regular contributor over the next ten years, until the old-car writer left and I took over his column. Shortly after, I asked why, if women made half of all new-car purchases, there weren’t any women reviewing cars. A week later, I was in a press car, notebook in hand.

Reviewers had specific segments, and mine was entry-level. I endured a lot of teasing from colleagues, asking when I was going to drive “real” cars. It wore thin, until one said, “Think of your readers. Someone spending $70,000 doesn’t care what you think. But someone who only has $18,000 is hanging on your every word.” I’ve never forgotten that.

I now cover all segments, but still like entry-level. These buyers aren’t always familiar with vehicles, so I include explanations for everything. I look for little things they might miss on test drives: seats that are tough to fold, or liftgates that open too high for shorter drivers. I also mentally “buy” each car, because readers do that literally. I dislike stories describing a $60,000 car as a “deal” – yes, it is, because you didn’t pay for it.

I’m a freelancer, so along with The Star, I’m assistant editor at www.CanadianDriver.com, and a contributor to the industry magazine Tire News. I also write non-auto stuff, including columns on cocktails, fountain pen collecting, and years ago, a string of cheapie novels.

The auto scene is a little different up here – for one thing, we pick up our own press cars! Canadians also buy far more entry-level, more compacts, and more hatchbacks and wagons.

We have a national alliance, the Automobile Journalists Association of Canada (AJAC), of which I’m a member. You must be a writer, photographer or broadcaster for at least a year before applying, and there’s a two-year probationary period. It must be your full-time job, and if your outlet is online, it must be editorial, regularly updated, and supported by advertising or subscriptions – blogs alone don’t count.

Each October, we hold “Testfest” to judge the Canadian Car of the Year Awards, in three days of back-to-back road testing in one location. You don’t have to be a reviewer to be an AJAC member, but only recognized reviewers can judge at Testfest. The awards are highly regarded, and automakers use them prominently in their advertising.

I do meet the odd writer who never met a car he didn’t like, because he never met a press trip he didn’t like, but overall, the level of professionalism in Canada is very high. I know my editors would fire me if I wasn’t honest, and I’d expect them to do that. Someone with five years of car payments is counting on me. I won’t let him down.”

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