I no longer own a car because we live in central Bath where it's possible to walk to most places. I miss driving, but I don’t know much about cars and I don’t miss the cost of running one or the hassle of using it in a car-unfriendly city and my fear of breakdowns. So I’m not the sort of person drawn to 5054, a magazine about ‘automotive culture’. But I was wrong.
The first, inescapable thing about 5054 is that it doesn’t look like other car magazines. It looks like a quality indie magazine. Heavy uncoated paper, coolly and gently minimalist in design and generous with rich, inky images that are framed and bordered with accomplished and ambitious type. The cover even features an illustration (and an exceptionally fine one) rather than the requisite glossy photo. The minimalism stretches to the name, which occupies the top third of the cover: 5054. The numbers allude to the serial number of the prototype Spitfire. Not even a car, then, and a signpost to where 5054 wants to take us.
5054 aims ‘to investigate the wider world and wider impact of the automotive world’ – engineering, design, production and history. That’s a much wider take on things than you’re likely to find elsewhere, driven by editor Hilton Holloway’s belief that we don’t fully recognise achievements in automotive culture or garland them as we do with architecture, film, fashion and other, seemingly more graspable genres.
Things therefore get moving with the first four objects (in series of 50) that changed the British car industry. Not objects of desire, note, but the first race track, a Mini driveshaft, the humble tax disc and a trade union pamphlet. The first lengthy article considers the latest incarnation of the Range Rover, split with a potted design history of the car by Stephen Bayley, no less. There’s a look at Henry Ford, an innovative UK load carrier (the OX), and a test drive for the new Aston Martin DB11.
Then we’re somewhere less familiar. ‘DH-9’ follows a husband and wife team mission to rebuild and fly a World War One bomber, the De Havilland DH-9. This was the most widely manufactured bomber of the war and the first to utilise a bomb bay. Before this, bombs were simply lobbed over the side. This story, which starts at the dawn of the current century, is an excellent yarn in terms of piecing together the body parts from the most unlikely places (Afghanistan and northern India) but hits its stride when it gets into the ingenuity and perseverance required to pull this off. It’s about research as much as restoration, and we learn that director and classic plane nut Peter Jackson has personally visited the project.
There’s an examination of the Mini Clubman which segues nicely into the Austin and Mini Countryman. It’s socio-cultural as much as automotive and comes accompanied by period brochure illustrations evoking the country motoring lifestyle – cue tweed, pipe-smoking and fly fishing. It’s followed by ‘Streets in the Sky’, a look at the utopian expressway dream of the 1960s that, with more than 10 million cars on the road by 1963, aimed to cater for the mass boom in car use but in view of its failures barely saw out the decade (see Elephant and Castle). There’s more eye-popping period imagery but it’s the big, historical picture stuff we’re getting here that makes 5054 an all round treat. We get further engineering history and heroics with the restoration of a 1911 Fiat S76, the ‘Beast of Turin’ and the largest car of its era.
Because I know little about fixing cars my ownership progressed through various German makers in the (wrong) belief that owning these cars was more likely to confer trouble-free motoring. As time went by my basic level engine tampering became more inhibited and eventually sealed off by the advent of electronic engineering. Towards the end of 5054 we get an examination of autonomous intervention and the ‘data-hoovering devices’ becoming embedded in the modern car. I’m a little bored now with discussion on artificial intelligence, Google cars and the like, but this is intriguing and important for us all. So-called ‘connected cars’ generate information that might be useful to you, but it may also be of great interest to your insurer. Who’s pioneering this stuff? Audi and the VW Group.
There’s much more, but you get the idea. I knew 5054 was in the works and while I suspected it wouldn’t disappoint I didn’t expect such a smooth, thoughtful ride. Hilton Holloway has wheeled out a winner here.