Tazio Magazine’s Mastery of Crafting Compelling Car Stories

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In this month’s edition of “Scent of Paper”, we spoke with Johan Dillen, Founder and Editorial director of Tazio Magazine, a print magazine focused on the automotive world and its tales.

1. Johan, could you share a bit about your background and what sparked your passion for cars?

Cars have always been a significant presence in my life. Growing up throughout the Seventies and Eighties, the car meant easy travels and freedom. It was the most appealing object money could buy: you just jumped in and, in a matter of hours, got somewhere – more or less – exotic. On top of that, there was racing: the Eighties were the heydays of car competitions, with 1000HP turbocharged Formula One cars, the flame-spitting monsters of Group B rally and the crazy Group C at Le Mans: as a young boy, I was overwhelmed by all of this. This passion met my dream to become a journalist, and I realised all I ever wanted to be was a car journalist – like my idols Paul Frère and Pierre Dieudonné, Belgian racing drivers and journalists that really inspired me in my life journey.

2. In an age dominated by digital content, what inspired the decision to create a printed magazine like Tazio?

Again, it can all be traced back to my youth. In the Eighties and Nineties, magazines and newspapers were the only available sources for deep background information. In those days, and only if you were lucky, you could watch a race on television on Sunday, and had to wait days or even weeks before you could dig into the in-depth reports published on printed media.

Of course, magazines have now lost this precious role, but they still have the power to pull readers into the story. I’m a big fan of the storytelling concept in journalism: stitching facts together is not enough, what you really need to do is to narrate a beautiful story; and for me, a printed magazine is the right carrier for that story. It allows you to build an extra dimension through the look and – most importantly – the feel: this is where the perception of quality ensues. With Tazio, we opted for Condat Mat Périgord paper, for its luxurious, silky feel under your fingertips and because it’s one of the best for photographic reproduction.

We’re also lucky because our art director Maarten Deckers really digs into these stories, and has created a timeless design where the reading experience is key. The line “Slow stories on fast cars” is more than just a gimmick, it’s an invitation to take your time reading; and I love it when readers tell me “I’ve just had the nicest time, sitting down with a glass of wine and reading Tazio”. These days, it’s easy to see how design plays a fundamental role in the new printed magazines: they are envisioned to be beautiful products, much like watches; and the quarterly format gives you more time to make each story the best it can possibly be, both in content and in look and feel. This is an immensely satisfying part of the job.

3. Could you walk us through the process of putting together an issue of Tazio? Besides writing and layout planning, how do you curate the most compelling car stories for inclusion?

The writing and planning parts are actually the easiest bits. But as you rightfully note, the curation part is where you really have to be right. These days, for example, everything seems to be about anniversaries: 75 years of Ferrari in 2022, 75 years of Porsche in 2023, 30 years since Ayrton Senna’s passing in 2024. Of course you can’t overlook these occasions, but from a journalistic point of view, it’s just a dot on the timeline: anyone can write a piece about it.

The most interesting stories – for me, at least – come from talking with car owners. A car by itself is never a story, it’s just a piece of metal on the move; the story comes from the people connected to the cars. Racing drivers, engineers, enthusiasts… Ingenuity overcoming adversity, that’s where the story is. A Mercedes 300 SL Gullwing is not a story. A Gullwing that was smuggled piece by piece out of Cuba… well, now that’s a story!

So, once we have decided which story to cover, work begins to document it. Our goal is to show classic cars and their drivers in the present day as much as possible: having a dedicated, on-track photoshoot visually connects past to present, so symbolically this is very important to make old stories appeal to a younger audience.

4. Tazio is renowned for blending automotive stories with art through its featured paintings. How do you choose the themes and artists for each issue, and what role do you believe art plays in the storytelling of the automotive world?

Art is about letting imagination roam free. It allows us to create situations that have not been photographed, or to create a stronger image. Take, for instance, the cover of issue Number 3: it depicts Gilles Villeneuve, as he prepares to climb into his car at the 1982 Zolder Grand Prix. He just goes about his business as he would usually do, and he does not know he’ll never come back to those pits. That knowledge is only handed to us, the readers, as we all know his tragical fate: this creates a strong tension in that image. We work with Argentinian artist Rafael Varela, and it’s always impressive to see a cover grow from the first drafts and sketches to the real, finished painting.

A thing worth mentioning is that we opted to forego on headlines, so only the image decides whether you will pick up the magazine or not. We are the only car magazine adopting this approach, and I have to say it has worked pretty well so far. It certainly works the best on our hardcover limited editions: with those, you really get the feeling to buy an artwork with a magazine attached to it.

Tazio Magazine’s founder, Johan Dillen, and artist Rafael Varela

The cover of Tazio’s latest issue

5. One of the latest issue of Tazio focuses on the 60 Years of the Porsche 911. Can you provide a sneak peek into some of the most intriguing stories covered in the magazine?

We first approached Porsche with our intention to create that issue in 2022. There were two anniversaries coming up in 2023: 75 years of Porsche, as well as 60 of the 911, but we wanted to focus on the latter, diving into how the legend of the 911 as a racing car came to be – both on track and in rallying. One of my favourite features is Tobias Aichele’s article, bringing Eberhard Mahle’s car back to the hillclimb where it won the 911’s very first championship title in 1966.

Another story I’m particularly proud of is that on the Martini-sponsored 911 RSR that came fourth at Le Mans ’74: on what can only be described as a chaotic day, we managed to squeeze an interview with driver Jacky Ickx in Bruxelles at 11 a.m., and then reach the gates of Goodwood at 5 p.m. to have our meet up with the car. It was the first version of the 911 capable of going for outright victory, and the noise it makes is something you will remember for the rest of your life.

6. Who constitutes the readership of Tazio, and what do you believe makes the magazine resonate with them?

The quality of the whole magazine stands out. We see we resonate well with car collectors, who are always eager for information and for well-documented stories. Furthermore, the magazine is meant for keeping, which is in line with a collector’s approach. More surprisingly, we also see a younger generation of readers, who especially enjoy the allure of a printed magazine – practically a novelty for many of them. 

Tazio Magazine’s chief photographer Dirk de Jager.

7. As a founder, what has been the most rewarding aspect of creating and running Tazio? Any particular moments or milestones that stand out to you?

In all fairness, Tazio is an adventure my associate and main photographer Dirk de Jager and I embarked upon out of sheer enthusiasm. Many of the car magazines we worked for turned our pitches down: “Oh, not another racing story!”. But those stories are the best automotive tales: they have drama, they have heroism, and stretch across a whole century of motorsport history. I mean, what is not to be liked? I would say we were lucky when Netflix proved a huge audience was out there, just waiting to hear those stories, but that was not something we could have anticipated.

So far, what impressed me the most was the reaction to our magazine. We are just two guys, giving it our best. When you hear people say they rank Tazio in the top two automotive magazines, it’s just beyond any expectations you could have. All we wanted to do, really, was to produce a beautiful magazine on racing stories.

A crucial milestone was the reception of our name in Italy. Keeping the memory of old racing legends alive is pretty much what we set out to do with this magazine, so we chose Tazio referencing Tazio Nuvolari, the world’s best racing driver in the thirties, whose legacy seems to be waning these days. There is no denying the man is still a bit of a national treasure in Italy, however, and I wasn’t sure if they would approve on a couple of Belgians using the name of their hero. I needn’t have worried, as the reaction has been wonderful, and we now receive a lot of support whenever we want to do a story on the pilot through Giampaolo Benedini of the Scuderia Tazio Nuvolari Italia.

8. Reflecting on Tazio’s journey since its inception, how has the magazine evolved, and what do you envision as its future direction?

Our best move was to reserve the entire cover for the artwork, something we only did from Issue 5 onwards.  In the beginning, the magazine was too much the work of Dirk’s and my agenda, and focused too much on us; luckily, we have assembled a very talented crew of collaborators over time, and we can now say that from a wider range of ideas come better stories. And I think we can still grow a lot in that domain: if you see how much information is still hidden in archives, waiting to be uncovered, there is still a lot to tell from the world of motor racing.

9. With ten issues under your belt, if you could pick only one article (from past issues) for people to read, which one would it be and why?

I would point people to the second issue of Tazio, where our Portuguese journalist Hugo Reis did a deep-dive into one of the most controversial stories in rallying. When Joaquim Santos’ Ford RS200 went off the road in the 1986 Portugal rally,  killing several spectators, it was the beginning of the end for Group B. This was by all means a difficult subject to cover, as we obviously wanted to remain respectful to the victims at all time. Hugo went back to the scene with that very car, and he talked to all the main actors involved: in the end, you come to a sense of understanding. It’s a nuanced story, and – in fairness – a most beautifully written and photographed one. It’s a benchmark for us.

Ford RS200, Rally Portugal 1986

10. In a world where attention spans are fleeting, Tazio’s format encourages readers to slow down and savor the content. What’s your perspective on this, and how do you foresee the future of magazines and print media?

The desperate fight for attention on social media, even just for a millisecond, is as dramatic as it is stupid. It’s only about grabbing people’s attention and keeping them occupied; but what is presented as content often has little or no depth. I admit I found the social media revolution fascinating at first, but I now consider it just the theft of an individual’s most prized possession: time. You could be doing so much more!

Instead, we believe what we present is worthy of time and attention. I think this is what sets niche magazines apart: we create value and make for a nice experience. It’s all about adapting and finding a model for a smaller audience; and this also means it’s easier to bring people what they want. In terms of content, it all adds up. What makes magazines stand out against a digital context is also the feel: just as with vinyl records, it’s this physical touch that makes certain magazines stand out. I find the future for print magazines relatively easy to predict: make a stand-out product, with quality content created through human work, dedicated photography and design; make it worth the money for your reader, and you should have the right ingredients to make the cut.

But you’d have to be blind not to see that printed magazines are a hard business: the costs they require, even for big publishers – in combination with the dwindling advertising market – inevitably mean even generalist print magazines will have a hard time. However, I’m convinced that independent publishers have a far better understanding of their readers and eventually will stand better chances against these hardships. I hope we will see a real growth in these curated magazine stores you see around – Magalleria in Bath, to name just one – where people come specifically to buy niche magazines. It’s the new, refined version of the newsstand. I’d like to see that take off a bit more!

McLaren CEO Zak Brown with a copy of Tazio Magazine Issue 7.

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