Of fast cars and quick thinking

Automan was launched with a  simple idea, let’s talk cars with the people who seem to love cars the most – the Omani car buyer! And from there, till today, we’ve been making history in our own way

One of the questions I get asked on my travels is “how many car magazines are published in Oman?” Good question considering the questioner knows that I edit this magazine and would know something about competition. Well, for most of my time with the magazine I have said, truthfully, none. Why is it then that I feel a sense of nostalgia for the car magazine market I left behind when I came to Oman? Perhaps it is a sense of recognising that competition helps challenge the set norm.

It is this sense of competition that comes out to the fore when you see Oman’s car industry. It has grown enormously over the past few decades and the last ten years have been really dramatic. Is it any wonder then that in the month of May 2000, my predecessor in the magazine and our publisher Hatim Al Taie, set out to write a small piece of local lore by launching Oman’s first car magazine. Perhaps it was a wee bit misplaced, a coffee table presentation, with print and production quality that the country’s readers had not seen before in a magazine, with some saucy photography and a bon vivant editorial style. But the readers lapped it up and this magazine grew in popularity and in appeal. By now the country’s car industry had recognised a kindred soul and across competition lines importers accepted the magazine as a great platform to communicate their cars and brands to the car buying public. It was around the time of the magazine’s 18th issue that I came on board. After having edited two of India’s leading car magazines, Indian Auto and Auto India, the thought of editing a magazine for a much smaller market was tempered with the knowledge that overnight, I had come to a place where better than 250 separate models of cars were available in a 10 minute drive from the office. Manna from heaven for a soaked-in-the-oil petrolhead.

As the issues and the years rolled by, I marvelled at some of the uniquenesses of this place. A dealer driven marketplace meant that any test drive car was given with the request to limit the kilometres run on it – more often than not, the company hadn’t taken the trouble of capitalising a test car and was intending to sell the car I was driving. Stranger still was the dealership that offered to send a driver with me to test the car. And of course the normal, “can you bring it back in two hours” request gradually gave way as I interacted with the senior people and managed to get certain concessions in place. Right from the start, we set certain ground rules – we were a professional magazine, run by professionals for both the layman and professional to read. Hence, when we tested cars, we didn’t accept any of that shortshrift approach and the result was that in no time at all, both the magazine and industry were on the same wave length.

However, one of the shortcomings of a marketplace run by importers was that the people in the industry were far more sensitive to the criticism we printed. Especially about their cars. As one executive told me, “it isn’t as if we can do anything here to correct the flaws, so why bring them up?” Not exactly the stuff we like to hear and that particular mindset took some convincing to change. You, the reader, want to read about the best features about the car you are going to buy. But, you also want to know what to look out for – whether it is shoddy fit, cheap looking plastics or that door handle that pinches. You may still buy the car, but you would like to know. And how does it help the seller or the brand if we hid it from you? You’ld buy the car, find the fault and then promise to never buy another car from the brand (and also not read us anymore). So there you are, time, logic and some really passionate writing later and most of the industry here have swung over to the acceptance that it is better to have a known beast in the form of a fair and impartial magazine operating, rather than one that is not liked by anyone.

Of course, this story isn’t complete without the cars I have driven, the miles I have clocked and the destinations visited in the tedious job of driving, analysing and reporting on cars for you. Yes it seems like I’ve been enjoying the high life, but compared to my colleagues in the car magazine industry in Dubai or even back in India, this is as quiet a life as most of you enjoy in Muscat anyway. One of the serious facts that we face here is that irrespective of how seriously we take our jobs and our business in Oman, on the regional scene and globally, we are smaller than a drop in the ocean of car sales. And that reflects in the attitude of car manufacturers to the car buyer, the car sellers and to us, auto journalists. And all of this was way before the financial crisis hit.

Some of the cars that stay with me in my mind are the Bentley Arnage I had parked in my garage over four nights – a tank to drive, yet with a presence and power that other drivers parted way for; the Murcielago ‘test drive’ I was invited for in Muscat, where I ended up being driven to Ghala and back in the passenger seat. Or my refusing the same treatment again in the Aston DB7 – which led to an owner giving me her car for the afternoon to test. Or indeed the Gallardo I test drove in Las Vegas, with the town serving as a fantastic backdrop for the larger than life car I was driving.

One thing I can say with certainty is that the journey till this issue has been very exciting and completely engaging. Frankly, I wouldn’t have it any other way. And I look forward to continuing this trip with you, the reader along for the ride.

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