Ever since Issue One of Auto Express hit the shelves on 23 September 1988, its cover emblazoned with an exclusive picture of the boxy new Rover saloon, the magazine has built its reputation on being first for news, reviews and in-depth road tests.
But after 25 years of beating the competition to the punch, what are the scoops that really stand out? These are the stories of which we’re most proud; exclusives for which we stayed up late, went the extra mile and, in some cases, risked imprisonment to bring you the lowdown on the cars you really care about.
Bentley Continental GT (Issue 695)
The Continental GT is a common sight today in affluent towns and Premiership football club car parks, but in March 2002 it was top secret. As a smaller, more ‘affordable’ Bentley, it was revolutionary for the luxury brand – so when we revealed the coupe and Flying Spur saloon, it was a story that rocked the motoring world. It began with an anonymous phone call.
The man on the line claimed he had undisguised shots of the new Bentley, and would hand them over for the right price. When our accounts department refused to supply several thousand pounds in a brown envelope, the chairman of our publishing company stepped in to release the funds.
A meeting was arranged in a service station near London, where the money was swapped for an unlabelled floppy disc. It was only when our then news editor, Tom Barnard, was halfway back to the office that he realised he could be carrying a blank disc. Fortunately, it held the pictures as promised. Needless to say, Bentley wasn’t pleased; it threatened to sue us unless we revealed our sources.
We had one more weapon in our armoury, though, and agreed not to publish shots we had of an SUV concept (yes, such a car was on the cards way back then). This quickly diffused the situation.
Rover 200 first drive (Issue 373)
After a fall-out over our coverage of the MGF sports car a few months previously, we were informed by Rover that we weren’t welcome at the international launch of the new 200 hatchback. Without a formal invite, our executive editor Andrew English decided to travel to the Italian Riviera regardless and stay in a hotel located around the corner from the event. While there, he managed to secure a few hours’ driving time with the car from a friendly fellow journalist – and English then set about the task of sending his article and a selection of images (with an extremely primitive digital photo-sharing machine) back to the office moments before the magazine went to press.
As we weren’t officially invited on the launch, we hadn’t agreed to any embargo stipulations – a small twist of the rules that allowed us to scoop the world’s press and deliver our verdict on this crucial hatch first.
MINI Clubman (Issue 849)
With its rear-hinged back door that opens into the middle of the road, the MINI Clubman has always been a controversial car. And it was even causing a stir prior to its launch, when we revealed the oddball layout two years before it went on sale.
The yellow car on our cover is actually a digital rendering based on official CAD drawings, hence the incredible resemblance to the final production model. We also got our hands on a full set of interior photos, revealing the layout in detail. The drawings and interior picture were supplied to us by someone working for a fabrication company, commissioned to build mock-up interiors for Clubman prototypes.
But as with the Bentley Continental GT (opposite), the maker wasn’t prepared to let it lie. MINI parent company BMW hired a detective to track down our sources – and BMW itself even phoned up the Auto Express office pretending to be the source, hoping we’d slip up and supply a name.
Auto Express' 25th Anniversary specials
New MINI (Issue 1,276)
Last month we were busy spoiling MINI’s well laid plans once again, when we caught the all-new hatch completely undisguised. It was being snapped at an official photoshoot, four months before debuting at the LA and Tokyo Motor Shows. It’s the first BMW Group car to use a new front-drive chassis, and with its one-piece grille it looks more like the 1959 Mini than ever.
Ford Focus MkII (Issue 806)
Some of the best spy shots come via unsuspecting members of the public, as was proven by our sensational images of the MkII Focus in May 2004.
With four months until the car’s Paris Motor Show debut, these pictures were the last thing Ford wanted the public to see – so you can imagine our reader’s surprise when he saw the Focus while walking his dog.
Apparently, his suspicions were aroused when his pooch ran off and started sniffing a marquee erected on their route. When the reader went to investigate and lifted up the canvas, he was stunned to see the new Focus surrounded by competitors such as the Vauxhall Astra and Volkswagen Golf. Clearly, he’d stumbled across a secret customer clinic.
With nobody about he swiftly took a set of pictures, and called us immediately to ask if we were interested. We were, of course, and bagged another major scoop on the cover of the following week’s magazine.
Lotus Elise (Issue 347)
Eighteen years ago, when we referred to artists’ illustrations they were just that – drawn by putting pen to paper. Compare our hand-sketched pictures, published in May 1995, to the MkI Elise launched a year later, though, and the similarity is phenomenal.
However, we didn’t just get lucky – we had photos of the real thing. So why not simply publish the photos of this revolutionary lightweight sports car? Well, at the time, manufacturers were clamping down hard on the sources of any leaked pictures or spy photographs, launching witch hunts left, right and centre. In order to protect our photographer, we had the images illustrated instead, leaving Lotus bosses scratching their heads.
Mazda 3 (Issue 1,238)
Not everyone wants credit, or money, for supplying inside information – as was proven by the curious case of the latest-generation Mazda 3. One day, without warning, a brown envelope arrived at the Auto Express office. Inside were several official renderings of the new 3 in both hatch and saloon form, printed on A4 paper. With no clue as to where they came from, we could only assume that a disgruntled employee popped them in the post.
Mazda UK confirmed that these images were indeed from within the company, but denied they were representative of the production car. Having since seen the showroom model, of course, it’s clear that aside from slightly sharper air vents and reshaped rear lights, our leaked renderings were right on the money.
Impreza hatchback (Issue 853)
Swapping the Impreza’s trusty saloon shape for a hatch body was a brave move from Subaru, as it meant ditching 12 years of tradition in search of more sales. So people thought we were mad when our Japanese correspondent broke the story in April 2005 – two years before the radically redesigned third-generation Impreza arrived.
The story since then is well known, with dwindling UK sales leading to the Impreza being axed last December. However, a forthcoming WRX STi concept has fuelled speculation that a hot version of the new car could return.
Fast Fords (Issues 1,221/1,267)
When testing a car, it helps to have its rivals alongside. In June 2012, we were first to bring the new Focus ST together with the VW Golf GTI and Renaultsport Mégane for a hot hatch showdown in France. And 11 months later we were at it again, with an exclusive UK road test of the new Fiesta ST, Renaultsport Clio and Peugeot 208 GTi.