James Ruppert

The interesting career of one of the UK’s most storied motoring writers

David Milloy

James Ruppert embarked on a career as a motoring journalist in the late 1980s and has since gone on to write for just about every car magazine you’ll have heard of as well as some that you haven’t. He’s also written a number of books, appeared on TV and radio and taken home an impressive number of awards.

What was your path into motoring journalism, James?
Quite a twisty one, I suppose. After I left school, I worked in the bullion department of a merchant bank in London for a year. I had hoped to figure out a way to get my hands on some of the bullion using a few minis, an adapted coach and an alpine pass but the plan never quite came together! I then went slightly mad and ended up enrolling to study for a law degree.

Did you ever practice law?
No, which was probably for the best. I graduated but don’t think I’d have made a good lawyer.

Did you go straight into journalism after leaving university?
No. I noticed an advert for a job as a car salesman with Park Lane BMW which paid pretty well and came with a company car. As I had neither any money nor a car, I applied for it. I ended up working there for two years in the mid-1980s. Good times. Most of the salesmen were young, so we got up to a few high jinks, some of which are perhaps best left in the mists of time.

Any stories you can safely tell us?
One of my favourite tales from back in the day concerns a customer who bought a brand new BMW. It was black but he wanted it turned white inside and out, which cost a pretty penny. After the necessary work was carried out, he came to pick it up from the showroom’s underground garage. All went well until he drove it out into the daylight and immediately found that the dashboard, now painted white as per his instructions, was so reflective he couldn’t see where he was going. So the car went straight back in to the workshop to have the dashboard turned back to black!

What made you decide to leave car sales?
I enjoyed my time with Park Lane BMW but selling cars was – and still is – a high-pressure environment. If you don’t meet your sales targets then you’re out. I left when I decided that the pressure to make my numbers outweighed the enjoyment I was getting from the job. It was the right time to get out – there aren’t many retirement parties in that line of work.

What did you do next?
I’d always fancied being a writer and I was lucky enough to get a job with an advertising agency. One of my main clients was Renault West London, so I went from selling cars to writing about them.

Which led you into journalism?
Sort of. Whilst at the ad agency, I wrote a book, Dealing with Car Dealers. It’s probably my most successful book. Anyway, on the strength of that I wrote to the editor of Car magazine, which was then probably the biggest-selling monthly car mag in the UK, and suggested they hire me to write about used cars. My cheek was rewarded with a job. I started out by writing about used cars and was eventually given my own monthly column.

As I recall it, Car was a prestigious magazine and home to the cream of motoring journalists back then.
Absolutely, though it operated out of tiny offices and only had a full-time staff of about half a dozen people. All of the writers – including the likes of LJK Setright, ‘Steady’ Barker, and George Bishop – worked on a freelance basis. They weren’t just brilliant writers, they were all great drivers and many of them had a lot of engineering knowledge too. They really were experts. Being able to write for the same mag as them was a real privilege.

Who else did you write for?
Lots of publications including, believe it or not, Woman’s Realm!

Woman’s Realm?
Yes, Woman’s Realm had a motoring section. I also wrote for Performance Car, Supercar Classics, Classic Cars, Classic Car Weekly, Practical Classics, Car Buyer Magazine, Tatler, The Independent, GQ, FHM, and The London Evening Standard. I didn’t just write under my own name – for example, for a long time my column in Performance Car was written under the name of ‘Eddie Riff’.

Why was that?
Back in the day, some magazine publishers didn’t like freelancers to also do work for other publishers, so it was sometimes necessary to hide your identity to avoid problems. Also, some magazines liked to pretend to have more writers than they actually did, so the same writer’s work might appear in the mag under a variety of names.

These days, your work is largely to be found in Autocar magazine.
Indeed, I’ve had a weekly column in Autocar for a long time.

You’ve also appeared on TV.
I have, though I could have done more. Back in the day, motoring writers tended not to be overly keen on doing TV, as it wasn’t constant work – you might only get a few weeks a year out of it. I turned down the chance to be a presenter on Top Gear twice back in the days before it was rebooted with Clarkson, May and Hammond. In addition to doing a few stints in front of the camera, I also wrote some scripts for Deals on Wheels, a series which featured Mike Brewer.

You still do some radio work.
Every now and then, yes. I’ve been doing the odd bit on radio for a long time. Maybe it’s because I’ve got the perfect face for it!

You also set up your own car magazine as well.
I founded Free Car Magazine in 2015. It was originally published in printed form and distributed at subway stations, garages, ferry terminals etc. It was aimed at a general readership rather than just people who are car enthusiasts. It has changed a bit over time: it’s now published in digital form only and has become a pro-motorist magazine.

And then there’s your books. Tell us a bit about those.
I used to write for some fairly well-known publishers, including Haynes, but these days I self-publish my books. Writing for a publisher usually means having very little control over the final product and you’ll often have to wait a while before it’s published. Self-publishing gives you complete control over the book, so it looks and reads the way that you want it to. You won’t sell as many copies but you’ll probably make the same amount of money.

I believe you managed to persuade some famous people to add forewords to a couple of your books.
I wrote a series of books about various types of car – the Jaguar Driver’s Book, the BMW Driver’s Book etc. I thought it would be good to have a famous owner write a foreword for each book, so I contacted both Kenny Everett (for the BMW book) and Les Dawson (for the Jaguar book). I managed to get their addresses so I wrote to them asking if they would write a foreword for my forthcoming book – this was back when you could contact famous people without having to go through their agents and managers. They were both really helpful, sending me forewords without even asking for a penny in return. Some years later, after Les Dawson’s death, a documentary about him aired on TV. The programme featured some footage of his office, and I was amazed – and delighted – to see a copy of my Jaguar book on the great man’s desk. That meant a lot to me.

I believe you also created Spencer Haze, a time-travelling comic superhero, didn’t you?
Indeed. I came up with the idea of a man, a sort of knight-errant, who was frozen in the 1970s and revived in modern times.

This was before Life on Mars popularised the time-travel genre, wasn’t it?
It was. Spencer Haze never made it to the TV, alas, though a cartoon strip featuring him did appear on the 4car website. A couple of years ago, I collated all of the comic strips and published them as a paperback.

Would I be right in thinking that you did the illustrations as well as the text?
I did.

Going back to your magazine work, would it be fair to say that some of the things you’ve written have gotten you into the odd bit of bother?
Absolutely. I don’t feel that you can call yourself a journalist unless you’ve got into the odd scrape!

Any particular bit of bother that you can share with us?
Older readers might have heard of Simon Dee, who was a famous DJ and TV presenter back in the late 1960s. I wrote a tongue-in-cheek (but factually accurate) comment about him back in the 1990s, to which he didn’t take kindly. He consulted a solicitor and threatened to sue me for libel. It was a storm in a teacup but I had to defend myself, so there was quite a lengthy exchange of correspondence. In the end he withdrew his claim. It would have been better – and cheaper – if he’d just got in touch to tell me that he didn’t appreciate what I’d written. I’m sure we could have sorted it out with a handshake.

In more recent times you’ve also featured on a weekly podcast.
Yes, I co-hosted the Bangers & Classics podcast, which ran for about 90 episodes. It might even come back in some form if my co-host, who’s from Ayrshire, ever re-emerges from hiding from all the Mazda MX-5 and Triumph Stag owners he upset with his unflattering comments about their cars!

That’s something to look forward to. Thank you for your time, James.
My pleasure.