Ben Oliver on Keeping Your Head, at Speed

Ben Oliver has been named Journalist of the Year, Columnist of the Year and Feature Writer of the Year among many other accolades throughout his 20-year career writing about cars, travel and tech. For Ben, the passion for journalism came before the passion for cars, which is something he champions. “Develop the core skills you need to tell a good story first. The subject comes second.”

With journalist parents, it felt like the family trade. His first paid published piece was for a cycling magazine when he was 15 years old and from that point on, he began writing race reports and products reviews, all submitted by phone and fax.

On bunking off school one day to attend a cycling show at Alexandra Palace and introduce himself in person, his editor was shocked to find he was a boy in a blue school blazer, not the adult they thought they’d commissioned.

It was a bold move but one Ben advocates. “If you have the passion for it, start now, do it yourself, and don’t wait. The younger you are, the more time you have to gain eyeballs on your work. The traditional paths into media are much reduced now. Great content on social media will get attention and maybe get you a conventional media job, if you want one, so build your own channels.”.

Supporting himself through his Government degree at the London School of Economics, Ben wrote about sex scandals for the News of the World and the Sunday Mirror, alongside contributing to powerhouses Maxim, FHM and Loaded. It was a golden era for men’s magazines, and he recalls missing registration for his final year at university because he was reporting on set on a porn film in Los Angeles, a tricky one to explain to any professor.

Unsurprisingly, his studies took a backseat, and his freelance work grew, so by graduation, he was well on his way to the career he wanted.

Always interested in cars, bikes and watches, his writing became more car-oriented and he was offered a proper job at Autocar, where he stayed for four years, becoming their Chief Test Driver.

His LSE contemporaries may have gone on to steady jobs as financiers, but on reflection, in media particularly, the freelance route is one Ben supports, “for the freedom, flexibility, earning potential and because stable, steady work in mainstream media is incredibly hard to find, especially today.”

On asked what it is about cars he loves – the mechanics, the speed and thrill, or the aesthetics – he replies, “it’s all of those things. The visceral thrill of driving, the technicalities of coaxing more power from an engine, but now, more than anything, what really excites me is how it’s all going to change. There are incredible people radically altering the way we get around and its impact on the planet. I don’t regard change as a bad thing.”

As someone who regularly drives electric cars such as Teslas and Polestars, does he mourn the classics?

“No, I look forward to us all driving zero emissions cars every day, but perhaps having something petrol-driven for occasional fun in the garage”.

For him, it would be a Series 1 Land Rover for simplicity of design, and a Porsche because beneath the glamour of the marque, “there is incredible depth and credibility to their engineering.”

In a varied career, Ben believes his main influences have been mentors within the industry, such as Mel Nichols of CAR Magazine, Australian journalist Peter Robinson and Andrew Frankel of the Sunday Times, all of whom who he now works with on motoring app The Intercooler. He promotes mentorship as something to take advantage of wherever possible, to help you learn your craft.

In other insights for those starting out, he says the most rewarding moments are often completely unexpected, and he always feels hugely privileged to have met some incredible people. He cites Elon Musk and Mate Rimac as “the Henry Fords of their day” and advises that if someone has agreed to give you their time for an interview, you must respect that with great preparation, timeliness, and integrity.

“Research thoroughly, and don’t ask questions you can already find the answer to on Google. Ask what will reveal something new: a thought, an opinion, a story.”

Ben believes that to be a good journalist, you must be accurate, impartial, dispassionate, and truthful. If you can hold yourself to those qualities and treat people fairly, you’ll build a good reputation. Equally, you don’t need to flatter.

He states that his journalism is motivated by wanting to take his readers with him to places they might otherwise never go. He’s driven through the Himalayas, the Arctic and Patagonia and been privileged to meet the players driving global change, but ponders that as a journalist you are always an outsider. You’re not part of the zealous team united with a common purpose to engineer the fastest electric car in the world: you’re just popping in for a day, and then you’re gone and onto the next story. Being able to take your audience with you and give them these insights, discover a truth, is what it’s all about.

Away from motoring journalism, Ben has diversified into movie industry PR, promoting films for the likes of Netflix, Disney, and Amazon. He says in hiring new talent, he looks for the technical skills required for the job, but also for passion. “It’s important to show you genuinely have an interest: that you consume the subject yourself but do so in a critical way.”

He’s not convinced a degree really mattered for him in his career or that it necessarily does for those getting off the blocks today. “All that really counts is that you can do the job.”

Circling back to the freelance career versus the steady job, he does advocate not getting swept away in the fun of a media career too much, but considering your long-term goals and achievements along the way,

“Keep in mind that if you want to one day own the incredible cars you’re driving, you’ll need to have a plan and keep your head screwed on, no matter how fast the ride.”

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