Seen Through Glass: The Apex Interviews Sam Fane
If you’re anything like us, you spend far too long trawling YouTube for interesting videos about cars you love, and there is probably no better guide to the automotive internet’s wild west than this week’s guest, Sam Fane. A car enthusiast, media personality, and the driving force behind the hugely popular automotive YouTube channel Seen Through Glass, Sam has risen to fame as one of the car community's most prominent voices, producing a stream of high quality automotive videos and podcasts over the years which would put many major studios to shame.
Alongside road trips, car spotting, and giving subscribers an insight into the curious world of supercars, in 2019 Sam embarked on an epic adventure entitled Drive The World, rooting out the most interesting elements of global car culture for viewers at home. We managed to catch up with him about the curious life of a YouTuber, his experiences travelling the world in a Porsche 911T, and strange things you can do with Alfa Romeos on camera...
Hector Kociak interviews Sam Fane for The Apex by Custodian. Recorded and Produced by Jeremy Hindle and Guillaume Campos. Transcribed by David Marcus. Edited by Hector Kociak & Charles Clegg.
Could you tell us about your formative car experiences, and how you got interested in cars?
I think my earliest road car memories were highly illegally sitting on my mum's lap driving some kind of Audi cabriolet. I'll pretend like they weren't country roads, so let’s say that they were private roads! She's the petrol head in the family, and that's how I got into road cars. But truth be told, my passion started with motorsport, and mostly Formula 1. That was my obsession up until 12 or 13 years old. I mean it's still an obsession today, but the road cars came later, and didn't really take off until I got my drivers’ licence at 17 or 18 years old. A lot of the really early stuff was on track, and Formula 1.
You’ve jestingly described the Seen Through Glass YouTube channel as ‘a dodgy rip-off of the old Top Gear’. Of course it's much more than that, but is there something about that older style of TV motoring journalism that you try to evoke or that still appeals to you?
Hah, definitely not the journalism part - I try and steer clear of being too journalistic, because obviously I didn't train to be a journalist, and I don't pretend to try and be a journalist. So for me it's the road trips and the challenges; that old Top Gear format of guys having fun in cars or having fun adventures in a car is what I wanted to capture. Obviously when that version of the show ended, there was a gaping hole in my automotive life, and so I thought heck, maybe I'll go and fill it myself! When I make that comment, that’s what I’m hinting at, trying to do those epic adventures that I think we all enjoyed watching so much on the TV years ago. Naturally, because of the beast that is YouTube, I end up doing the odd car review, but I definitely steer clear of the journalistic tendencies because firstly, I don't have the ability, but also it's not the kind of content I consume. Everything is a bit more light-hearted I think.
Leading on from that, what is your take on the state of car media today? Do you think the emergence of the influencer has been a response to where car journalism was going, or do you think it's more about new technology allowing people to publish themselves and talk about what they love?
I think as a global audience we were craving a little bit more authenticity, or maybe being closer to people and to real life, even if it was virtually or digitally through screens. I think journalism and traditional media had become formulaic; whilst it was enjoyable, we knew what we were getting. When social media really started to gather pace, it allowed us into people's lives and behind the scenes of so many different aspects of life. As a Formula 1 nut, Twitter suddenly opened up that world for me massively, and I think the same happened with car journalism.
Tim Burton (Shmee150) arguably was the forefather in terms of supercar vlogging on YouTube, rather than supercar reviews. Suddenly we got this look into what it would be like to actually live with a supercar, or to attend a supercar launch event, which journalists never really had the chance to do, or never really showed us. They were focussed on, you know, this was the car and it understeered here and it felt good there. But I didn't really care! I wanted to know what it was like to turn up to a bar in the South of France in an Audi R8(!), and what that would be like. YouTube and Instagram gave me that kind of insight. We're all peeping Toms on social media these days, and if you're into cars that was a great thing to be able to do - be a peeping Tom into the world of supercar ownership. That's how I think it changed everything, and it forced traditional media to change as well. If you look at the likes of Carfection or DriveTribe or even Autocar, everyone is doing things differently and they've had to change. I think it's good, it’s great, and I'm all for it.
There wasn't really a blueprint when you guys started out as to what this new kind of media would look like. You watch some of the early videos, and you see people trying all sorts of things just to see if it gets a reaction, don’t you?
Hah. I did yoga with my Alfa Romeo 4C, that's a thing, and that video is still live on my channel. That's how clueless, I'm going to say we were - but we still are! Maybe now you could identify a few channels started with a specific purpose to create a business or do journalism or whatever it might be. However when I began - and speaking for myself, but I know a number of other UK car channels are the same - we were just having fun. For the first 18 months of my YouTube career I still had a job, and this was very much a side hobby. There were no rules or rhythm to what worked, or what you could or couldn't do. I was just out there having fun, and I was a YouTube consumer too. I saw all these big lifestyle YouTubers doing yoga challenges with their partners, and I didn't have a partner at the time, so I thought heck, I'm going to do it with my Alfa Romeo! I think it's got like 40,000 views or something really embarrassing...
Gosh, what were you doing, getting up on the bonnet?
Oh yes, feet on the rear, and trying to go upside down; I'm not flexible anyway, so the whole thing was a disaster(!), but I kind of miss those days, because you didn't really think about views and ad revenue and commercialisation. You were just having a laugh and there was a real rawness to it and an enjoyment to it. Don't get me wrong, there are still great things I get to do and I get to enjoy, but everything is thought through with a business mentality now. You question everything and the pressure is insane - even for YouTube themselves! Back then, you would log on and for the first few hours it said you had 301 views and it took ages to refresh, so as long as you hit that, you were doing all right. Now you log on and after 10 minutes it tells you how your video rates compared to the others, and it's so depressing when it basically announces that no one cares. It's so upsetting but yes, that's the way it goes.
I was going to ask to what degree content is now driven by numbers and analytics, and if so, do you think it's a good thing?
I think it's an awful thing! It's really bad. I would hope that I have steered clear of it however. One goal I've always had for my channel is to create the content I want to make, not trying to skew too much to what I think is going to do well, or following too many trends. This is my business at the end of the day now of course; everything I do comes from Seen Through Glass, even if it's not all captured on Seen Through Glass. So I have to pay attention to the numbers, but it's a cruel world now too. You live your life by number of likes or number of views or YouTube telling you whether your video has performed well or not. What you often forget are the humans on the other side of that.
I had to really remind myself a couple of years ago that 20,000 people who were the right people, the ones you wanted to approach, the ones you wanted to hang out with, your peers and people that were important to you, are far better than a million people from somewhere that you might never know or might not know who you are. It's a weird thing to say, because don't get me wrong, I always want a million views, but it's also the importance of the authenticity of the viewer, the genuine engagement, and all these different things. So yes, for mental health reasons too it's becoming more important I think to give yourself more credit than the stats may suggest, because it's very easy to judge yourself on number of listens, number of likes, and all that kind of stuff.
As you talk about it sounds more and more like motorsport - a kind of brutal performance-based practice where you're in the seat, or you're out!
Hah, yes, you’re the Alex Albon of Red Bull, constantly under threat from a young up-and-comer or Sergio Perez or whoever it might be! That's how it feels sometimes, and over the last five years we've gone from a number of UK or European supercar vloggers (to give us our niche) which I could count on my hand, to hundreds now. There are channels that I get told about which I've never heard of before that have hundreds of thousands of subscribers, and are operating in the same space as me. It’s mad, and it’s become more competitive.
Back in the day I would do yoga with my Alfa, and whatever PR invite came in, I said yes to, because I was just into cars. If someone asked you to come and check out their collection of old Volkswagens, I was like, sure! Now my first question is - have you reached out to anyone else? Has anyone else filmed this recently? Unfortunately that's how we have to judge what content is worth making now.
That's a really interesting insight. For readers who might not be familiar with what goes into making your content, how difficult is it to consistently put out high quality videos? Could you give us an idea what a YouTuber's workload looks like?
I mean I signed myself up for a never-ending mission! You can get away on YouTube filming everything on a mobile phone frankly, and there are lots of channels out there who are much more successful than me that do that. Unfortunately I have an obsession with high aesthetic values, so I spend a lot of my time trying to ensure that the content I put out is high quality. If I'm filming your car, I want you to be proud of the content I'm making and I don't want somebody to say, oh, this kid came along and filmed my car and the video is awful! I want you to really be proud of it. So I spend a lot of effort on that.
For example, in a traditional car review where I'm just turning up to drive a car and film it, that's probably four to six hours’ worth of filming. That's multiple cameras on the car, finding locations to pull over and get beautiful static shots of the car, and thinking of what I'm going to say while experiencing the car. That four to six hours’ worth of filming, which is probably three to four hours’ worth of editing. So that's obviously a full day’s work, but in between all that you've got the research beforehand, the travel time to get there. You've also got managing the expectations of the owner when you arrive, because often they just want to hang out and talk when you've got a job to do! It is usually, I would say, 2.5 days per video of my week; it can be shorter, but it can be a lot longer as well.
It's like a one-man BBC then?
Yes, that's the thing, I'm silly, because I probably should just turn up with one camera, hold it in my hands and talk nonsense. I just like to try to produce something that looks and feels great, and that I'm proud of. As the years have gone on I've pushed myself further and further to create more epic content, which means it's time to work harder and harder to create more, and it's a stressful thing actually. YouTube is not kind in that sense. There is a great quote by Gary Vaynerchuk, one of these business gurus online. Somebody asked him what was better, quantity over quality or the reverse? My remit has always been quality over quantity, but he said no - you've got to go for quantity, because quality is subjective. What one person thinks is quality, the other person won't. It's a weird thing to strive for on YouTube, but it's important to me. As I said, I want to be proud of every piece of content I make and release, so I try and put as much as I can into it.
Speaking of epic content, I think we should talk a bit about Drive the World. Could you tell us what the idea was behind that?
I think this was year three or four of me being a professional, full-time YouTuber. In 2018 I was looking at it and thinking that there's more and more people doing the same thing as me, and I've done it for three years in the same format. Buy a car, take it through Europe, modify it, go to UK car events… it was just a very similar formula, and it was great, but it was a bit repetitive. Because there were more people doing it, I wanted to do something different and push myself.
One thing that had always performed very well on the channel was travel. Whether it was going off to LA for a couple of months, or around Italy, that sort of storyline had always performed well. So the question was, how could I take that, follow up on it, but also max it out. Initially I thought it would be cool if I visited every continent, maybe split that up into a series. I don't really know how that evolved into just hitting the road for 12 months and circumnavigating the world! The point was really to discover what car culture was like in all these different countries that were watching my channel. YouTube is great, it gives you an insight into where your viewers are. They give you a breakdown, telling you that 6% came from Cambodia and all these different things. I thought to myself wow, what is a Seen Through Glass viewer in Cambodia like? I don't know why I'm using Cambodia as a reference because I didn't go there actually, but the point is that I just wanted to know what it meant to be a petrolhead in these different parts of the world.
Did any locations or communities take you by surprise? What were your favourite examples of car culture that you came across that you maybe didn't expect?
Weirdly the most depressing fact is how readily available supercars are. I was really hoping to go and find some really bizarre car cultures, and maybe I didn't work hard enough to deep dive into local scenes! In reality it’s probably also because of my channel, because historically I have filmed supercars. Whenever I arrived anywhere, my audience were into supercars, so they would suggest supercar content.
I think the most surprising place however was Malaysia. It has insane import luxury taxes, so supercars there are extortionately expensive, but my God, do they have some, lurking around in hidden car collections or dealerships. Beautiful, incredibly rare cars that were for sale or owned, and that blew my mind as to the amount of money that they cost. On a grass roots level however, you also had guys there that couldn't afford those cars but were hugely passionate, modifying the hell out of Golf Rs and Subarus and things that you had never really heard of. They were so passionate, and so knowledgeable, absolutely loving life and enthusiastic, and they didn't really care about or aspire to have these ludicrously priced supercars. They were just doing their own thing. I went to a local ‘Cars and Coffee’ event and it was just cool and fun. The mentality was really positive, and that I liked to see, because sometimes it felt a little bit ‘them and us’ because of the price difference. But actually at the end of the day they're still a great car community there, they are passionate and enthusiastic and really knowledgeable. So that was a really nice eye opener for sure.
It’s interesting how you often find people are way more passionate about a Golf or something than the people who have 15 Ferraris...
Yes, it's a completely different world. Once you start spending hundreds of thousands of pounds or dollars on cars, you're a different person, and you're at a different stage of your life where it means something different to you. If you are spending 5,000 pounds or dollars on a car and doing it up over time, and you've had it for a number of years, you're often more emotionally invested in it. That's what it felt like, and that is true around the world, but in Malaysia it was so much more intense.
I think I was relieved, if you know what I mean, because the first few days I just went around and saw these collectors. There was just so much money around and I was like, okay great, I've seen the same cars everywhere, congrats, you're really rich. I was so relieved to see that it wasn't just that and then mopeds. There was this middle ground of truly enthusiastic people. I mean, every country was amazing, if I'm honest. The whole thing was an unbelievable experience, and an exhausting experience. We were never in a city longer than two days, and in the car for an average of seven hours per day. It was 40,000 miles in the car for the year. Which doesn't sound that much, but it was a lot.
The car you were in was a Porsche 911T wasn't it?
Yes, a 2018 911 Carrera T.
Looking back on the trip, was that the right car or would you have used something different if you were doing it again?
It was the perfect car for the trip actually. As anyone who has ever driven a Porsche will know, the modern ones just don't go wrong, and they can do everything very, very well. Literally whether it was a dirt road, a race track, a mountain road, or a city, it just always fitted in. You could get an unbelievable amount of stuff in it too. We actually got a roof box on top as well, which is another great thing. It's a fully fledged sports car that you can mount a roof box on, which is cool.
You put rally lights on it as well.
Hah, that was definitely not a factory option. I collected the car with about 300 miles on the clock; when I took it to a shop and told them to drill some holes in the bumper they were like, ‘are you sure?’. Weirdly you would think spending that much time in a car and doing that kind of adventure would make it a car that you would keep forever, but I got back and realised that it had done the job that it needed to do. I could never get anything more out of it; I had used it in every single situation you could possibly imagine, so driving it around my hometown just felt like a bit of an anticlimax. I actually sold it quicker than I thought I would.
Did it go to a fan?
Initially it went to someone who just wanted a summer car. It ended up at a dealership that were fans, and they were desperate for me to buy it back. I was like - first, I don't have that kind of money, and secondly, I've spent enough time in that car, thank you very much! It was great, I ruined the lives of friends and family for about six months trying to decide what car to take on that trip, but the 911 was fantastic. On social media, the thought of driving around the world in a Porsche 911 sounds extreme, but as I say, if you've spent time in a modern Porsche you know it's actually not that extreme. However it sounds crazy, which is what I wanted and what I needed for the trip to have a big impact online.
Talking a bit about cars, what's in your garage at the moment, and have you held onto anything from your younger years?
There's a long standing member, which is a manual Ferrari 360 Modena which I've had now for four years I think, and it is my obsession. I am a Ferrari lover, and the 360 was the car on the roads as I was growing up, so I love that thing. It's really going nowhere, and I want to be able to hand it down to my grandkids in person, should I live long enough. That's the main keeper, and then everything else comes and goes. I literally just picked up a beautiful Jaguar F-Type R from Jaguar themselves; they've lent me that car indefinitely, because I am on the hunt to buy my own, and so they said while you're looking, why don't we lend you the new one? That was too good a deal to ignore.
I think you owned one in the past didn't you?
I did, I had an original F-Type R when they first launched, the really scary rear wheel drive one that tried to kill you if there was even the murmur or rain.
Ah, I love Jaguars.
They are so good! I sold it and regretted it instantly. For four years I've toyed with the idea of buying one back, and so I finally decided this will be the year I'd do it, but I need to sell some bits first. So yes, so the 360, the F-Type... I've also got a 996 generation Porsche 911 at the moment. It's their 40th anniversary model, so it's a bit of a special edition with a few nice options. It was my chance to experience a slightly older Porsche. There’s also an Abarth 595 Competizione, which I'm trying to make into a little track car because I want to do some more track driving. And finally the dog's car, the family car, is a BMW X3. I sound like an obsessive collector, but I'm not rich enough to have all these cars, I don't really know how I've ended up with them all! It is great fun however and I genuinely don't have enough time to drive them, so anyone who wants to get involved and help keep them all running, please let me know and you're more than welcome to borrow the keys...
Do you see yourself as a collector or more of an enthusiast? I know that there are some YouTube figures who are quite deliberately building a collection for the future, but what's your position on it?
I'm an over-leveraged enthusiast, 100%.
Hah, join the club!
I think I've openly said that the 911 and the Abarth are the first time I've ever bought cars for content. I've always bought the cars that I wanted, and just made content with them, and if people enjoyed it then great. Coming out of the corona lockdown here in the UK, I wanted to try something different, so I went out to buy cars for content. It's been a great experience and I'm still really enjoying it, but it's also meant that I've ended up with loads of cars which seems a bit silly, so yes, that will change. I think two cars is enough for me. Anything more than two, you are then trying to be a collector, and I'm not in that game, if I'm honest.
Entering the realm of fantasy, what would you currently buy if you had the means? Two or three cars, putting the current garage to one side.
I think if money was no option, it would be a variation of what I've already got. I would have a 360 Challenge Stradale, because that's my all-time dream car, an F-Type Project 7, because that's my dream F-Type, and I'd have a new 911 Speedster, because that's probably my dream Porsche. So it's not too different to what I've got now, but just better versions of it!
Would you ever dip your toes into the world of worthy classics, or is that a step too far?
I would love to, I'm just not sure I'm brave enough, and with the amount of miles that I do...
It's an extreme sport.
Hah, it's an extreme sport, yes, so hey, at some point when I can be relaxed enough to break down on the way to my next video shoot, I'll sign up to that world! But I'm just not quite there yet.
I think I watched a video of yours recently where you were talking about GTO Engineering and driving their 250 SWB recreation?
The original Ferrari 250 SWB was my Euromillions car, because who has 15 million quid lying around to buy cars with? I always said if I won the lottery, I would go and buy one of those straight away. The GTO Engineering car I think starts at £850,000 or something like that, so is remarkably more affordable! It’s an unbelievable thing which ticked all the boxes. I would love a classic, it's such an authentic driving experience and for me and I'm all about the emotion, all about the connection with the car. I don't care how fast it is or how much horsepower it's got, it's how it makes me feel, and classics do make me feel great, but they're hard work. You have to be prepared, and I think I've got to get a little bit better with my mechanical skills, which are severely lacking at this point.
Yes, well maybe we'll see you get into a Sebring Sprite or something soon!
You never know, I won't write anything off...
You mentioned track cars a moment ago, so it sounds like you do have plans to get more involved in racing. I think some of your YouTube contemporaries have started making moves in that direction too. What's your plan?
I am definitely a frustrated ex-go karter. I wanted to be a Formula 1 driver when I was younger but left that behind many years ago, so I would love to do some racing. There are two things that have held me back from doing it so far. Firstly, I find it incredibly hard to capture for content. If you're Top Gear, you've got hundreds of thousands of pounds per segment and a crew of 35 people, so you can make it look great. A one man band with an action camera stuck to the windscreen is never quite as exhilarating as you think it's going to be... I'm not sure I want to put anyone through watching me drive 10 seconds off the pace around Silverstone.
Also, again, it does come down to finances, and it's such a weird and hard one. In the world of what I do and with my contemporaries, I think there's often an assumption that we have bottomless amounts of money, but it's not really the case. There's a lot of clever leveraging that goes on, and a lot of companies that support what we do, but that takes a lot of work, a lot of networking, and deals. With racing you don't often have that support, so you have to stump up quite a lot of money yourself and I just have other places that money needs to go at the moment! So we'll see - I would love to do it at some point, but if I'm honest, it would probably be a hobby, rather than a content narrative on the channel. So yes, for now it's sitting on the sidelines until I can find the time and the money to do it.
Awesome. I hope we do see you out on track at some point in the future.
Track days for sure. I think there are plenty of track days ahead that I'm going to be signing up to, it's just the actual racing...
I think those track days can be a bit more dangerous than the actual racing to be honest!
Almost certainly, yes, and more expensive!
I had some quick fire questions to end with. The first one is maybe is a bit cheeky: if you could change one thing about the YouTube / influencer / car media scene, what would it be?
I'm going to say something really controversial and say: the lying! Stop the lying. People can read into that what they want...
Interesting. Next question is: what is your best road trip moment, and then also what's the finest driving road that you've ever been on?
I'd say the best road trip moment was back in the day when YouTube was less pressured. There was a group of us who all do the same thing here in the UK, and we used to do these road trips down to Monaco, so to shout a few other channels, it was myself, Supercars of London, Shmee150, MrJWW, and Seb Delanney. We would go back and forth quite a few times per year, and those memories are still so strong in my mind. It's the camaraderie. I think any great road trip memory is great because of the people you're with.
That's essentially why those stick out, but the greatest road or trip moment was actually during the Drive The World trip in New Zealand, on the North Island. I was in a beautiful Bentley Continental GT, and we were driving down the East Coast of the North Island and struck upon Thermal Explorer Highway. It was sunset, golden hour, no one else was on the road and oh my God, it was just the best car on the best road in the best conditions. I loved it, absolutely loved it.
Wow, we'll take a note of that one. And the last quick fire question is: where would you like Seen Through Glass to be in 10 or 20 years’ time? What's your long term goal?
With a Challenge Stradale and a Project 7! Hah, it's such a hard one because I could sit here and say I'm not really sure I want to be vlogging or creating content in 15 years’ time, but actually I do love it. So I think I would love to have expanded it, to be doing things outside of YouTube that I can create content around if that makes sense. It would be an evolution of what I'm doing now. Year on year I can track the evolution of this channel, and I'd love to keep pushing it forward. But fundamentally, in my heart of hearts, I’d like to be involved with Formula 1 a bit more. It is really my true passion and love, so if I can move this channel towards getting more involved with that sport, I would be very happy.
Fingers crossed for that. On that note - Sam, sadly we're out of time, so that just leaves me to thank you very much for your time today, and for such an interesting chat.
Thank you for having me on, I've really enjoyed it!
You can find out more about Sam and Seen Through Glass you can follow him on YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/user/seenthroughglass; listen to his podcast, 'Behind the Glass' at https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCCB0a4mZMVme-csPvBHAZxg; or visit his website at https://www.seenthroughglass.com/. For coffee lovers you should also check out STG Coffee by Perla at https://drinkperla.co.uk/product/stg.