In The Spotlight: Cliff Atiyeh Autowriters Spotlight: Cliff Atiyeh
Cliff Atiyeh

Unless you are a self-proclaimed pundit who goes straight from your conceit to your own blog, it’s not a straight path to work as an auto writer, as Cliff Atiyeh recounts in this month’s Spotlight.

Back in 1995, I didn’t know automotive journalism was an actual business. I was nine years old, leafing through my first issue of Motor Trend, wondering how these writers could drive a yellow Porsche across Europe and call that a job. It was wild folklore, and editor C. Van Tune might as well have been Gandolf. Month after month I was hooked: reviews, comparison tests, wacky letters to the editor, concept art, gossip. Until I graduated high school, I couldn’t eat a bowl of cereal without a car magazine.

I realized two things before setting off to Boston University for a journalism degree. First, I’d need to move to Michigan (do I have to?) or California (right away) if I ever got a magazine job. The second part involved waiting for enough writers to die off the mastheads. I figured 20 years. Auto writers aren’t like professional athletes, in that they almost never retire. And who can blame them? When I’m 80, I want to be tearing around a track in the 2070 solar-hydrogen M3, not tending an organic vegetable garden.

I haven’t yet been published in a major magazine. Every time I try, another newspaper reels me in. In college I interned for two summers at the Record-Journal in Meriden, Conn., where I covered the 2003 New York Auto Show for their business section. Unlike most local papers, they actually paid me. Three years later I was writing about New York from London during a study-abroad semester at The Times. I wrote for the online auto section, read lots of Jeremy Clarkson, drank one too many beers for lunch, and wrangled a free ticket to the British Grand Prix. I was paid for that, too.

Now I’m the unofficial auto guy at The Boston Globe for both online and print. This is my third year. But first I had to take a dirt-pay layout job at a free newspaper, only to be fired and frustrated for six months. In that time I saw a job posting for that wanted someone to edit the auto section, but required meeting “product revenue” and “key performance indicators.” Editorial people don’t talk like that, but I thought it was a good way to get my name in a major newspaper. I didn’t realize how good until print staff were being bought out by the dozens, including auto writer Royal Ford, or laid off.

No one on got booted, and no one was covering cars. In 2008, I convinced the bosses to start a car blog, Boston Overdrive, to start building a voice. Soon I got talking to John Paul of AAA, whose “Car Doctor” advice column I posted each week. He got talking to journalists in the New England Motor Press Association, which had connections to nearly every automaker. Months later, they forced me to dress in an elf costume and play trombone to a crowd of national PR reps during a Christmas party. I’m on the billing till I retire, if that ever happens.

Turns out auto journalism isn’t impossible to join, it’s just a small world. Of all the writers in the Geneva Auto Show press room, I ran into Motor Trend’s Angus MacKenzie. Ezra Dyer lives 20 minutes south of me here in Boston. We even talk on the phone. Well, one time.

At 24, I’m living what I’ve always dreamed about as a little boy. I can visit an auto show and have the same car sitting on my driveway weeks later. I’m invited to fancy press trips, but get uncomfortable by the lure of free vacations. I’m finding the tipping point between editorial independence and advertising dollars. I’m certainly not in this for the money.

I joke that I’ve spent my whole life driving cars that aren’t mine. I came to work today in a Mercedes SL63. This is a real job, right?