Friday, April 1, 2011

A checkered flag

I wrote a lot about cars in my previous blog. That is partly because many readers of the late Marketplace are aficionados of cars, current or vintage. And that is partly because of my own vehicular interest.

I have been a reader of car magazines for decades. That means I’ve been a reader of the work of David E. Davis Jr., the dean of U.S. automotive journalism as so deemed by Time magazine and others in the field. Davis was the editor of Car and Driver twice, founded Automobile Magazine, and was the first editor of Winding Road.

Davis, 80, died Sunday after cancer surgery. As far as I know, Davis and I never crossed paths (perhaps at Road America), but he was a role model from afar. (Well, one state to the east, since most car magazines are based in the Detroit area.) For one thing, he authored my favorite quote about the automobile:
We drive our cars because they make us free. With cars we need not wait in airline terminals, or travel only where the railway tracks go. Governments detest our cars: they give us too much freedom. How do you control people who can climb into a car at any hour of the day or night and drive to who knows where?
Car and Driver editor Eddie Alterman wrote:
He said the secret to his success lay in his ability to marry southern storytelling to big-city presentation. These gifts prompted Bill Ziff, the owner of Car and Driver up until 1985, to call David E. “the man who made special-interest magazines sing.” It was a formula that many other magazines, including some with great literary aspirations, rode to their own success. And it’s still the foundation of what we try do here every month.
He was so in love with the craft and subject matter of car magazines that he came to inhabit an archetype. He was the dashing, witty, high-spirited, and deeply knowledgeable writer/editor who brought the automobile to life, whose personal flair transferred to whatever he was writing about.
David E. could have written and edited brilliantly on a wide range of topics, from military history to hunting to food to travel to books. But he chose cars, he said, because that’s where the action was. The automobile, in David E.’s formulation, was not only the thing that took you to your next adventure; a great car was an adventure self-contained. …
He had the best life anyone could imagine, filled with great cars, loyal friends, and exhilarating journeys. And his wife, Jeannie, kept up with him, kept him focused, and, most important, kept him entertained. Davis demanded that of the people he let into his circle. You had better keep up.
Davis also sold advertising for Road & Track magazine and wrote ad copy for an ad agency whose client, Chevrolet, sold a car you have read about on this blog, the Corvette.
Automobile’s Joe DeMatio wrote:
Davis, who had already refashioned Car and Driver into one of the most literate and entertaining special-interest magazines in America, imagined Automobile Magazine as a celebration of the automotive good life with the rallying cry “No Boring Cars,” but the slogan could just as easily have been applied to everything else in his life: No boring stories. No boring meetings. No boring road trips. No boring wardrobes. No boring friends. No boring employees. No boring food. No boring parties. When he was stuck with boring bosses, he suffered them most reluctantly, and in fact it was his disgust with the management team at CBS, which bought Car and Driver from Ziff–Davis Publishing in the mid-1980s, that propelled him to quit what he had considered the best job in the world, editor-in-chief of Car and Driver.
Conventional wisdom held that the “buff book” category could not accommodate a fourth title, in addition to Car and Driver, Motor Trend, and Road and Track, but Davis thought differently and was determined that Automobile Magazine would not only succeed but would forge a new path in automotive journalism. The physical magazine itself changed the category, introducing full-color photography and thick paper stock, which the other three magazines quickly copied. The writing, editing, and magazine-production skills that the longtime editors of Road and Track, John and Elaine Bond, had instilled in Davis in the 1950s, and which he had honed during his many years at Car and Driver, were taken to new levels in the pages of Automobile Magazine. Davis directed it all with panache, style, and seeming ease, and his monthly American Driver column was a must-read for America’s most discerning automotive enthusiasts and the biggest players in the automotive industry.
Winding Road’s Seyth Miersma wrote:
Born in Burnside, Kentucky in 1930, and indelibly shaped by a racing accident in 1955, DED learned early on that the biggest things to fear in life were tedium and inactivity. His penchant for the extraordinary ran to include his circle of friends, iconoclastic wardrobe, and, most notably, his style of writing. Davis had the ability to recount tales or write reviews in language that was equal parts art and honesty. DED actually spoke the way that he wrote, too, with a sort of authoritative musicality that revealed him as not only a living link to a more graceful era, but also as a simply remarkable man.
Davis’s written legacy reveals a man that helped to shape what it means today to be an auto enthusiast. His vast knowledge and passion for all things automotive spilled through in every column he penned, and tapped into generations of enthusiasts that conceived of vehicles as being much more than basic transportation. He will be missed.
About that race car crash, Laura Vogel, who worked for Davis, writes:
The helmet he kept from the crash that scraped half his face onto a racetrack at age 25 didn’t represent a story about suffering. It was a two-part story: Part one about how if he could face death, no client meeting could ever go so badly that he would ever be intimidated again. Part two was a hilarious anecdote about how the helmet makers tried to advertise the fact that their product had saved David’s life. He begged to differ, writing to politely notify them that he had survived in spite of their handiwork. Always a punchline at the end.
How can I even begin to tell you the stories he told, and how he told them?
Everyone knows David E. reinvented automotive journalism. In fact, if you’ve read any major car magazine in the last couple of decades, that irreverent style is an echo of David E.’s inimitable voice. He was a master storyteller. He wrote like he spoke, and told me that eventually he began to speak like he wrote. He refused to use the subjunctive case in his writing, because he hated the way it sounded. Bravo to a man who could use the English language so intentionally and with such passion. He not only wrote like he spoke: he wrote like he lived.
What I got from Davis was the necessity of an editor’s interjecting his or her own personality into his or her magazine — not to assuage the editor’s ego, but because, in a marketplace (!) with many different reading choices, a publication needs to stand out however possible.

Automobile editor Jean Jennings, who followed Davis from Car & Driver to Automobile, tells in a story why someone would work for Davis:
David E. would tell you that it was the magazine of his dreams. …
The meat of the magazine would be written by the best writers in the world. They would not necessarily be automotive journalists: humorist P. J. O'Rourke followed David E. from Car and Driver. Pulitzer Prize-winning writer David Halberstam answered the call more than once to write a big-picture story. Some were not journalists at all: Jim Harrison, the Michigan poet/novelist who wrote about hunting for Sports Afield and about food for Esquire, contributed several essays in the first five years. …
David E. hung a quote over his door, which he attributed to former Car and Driver editor Patrick Bedard: "If you want readers to think a story is important, you have to treat it importantly." They were words we can only try to embrace as heartily as did David E., the master of the grand gesture and the Big Idea.
Davis’ last column printed in his lifetime was in the April Car and Driver:
When the Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor projected the United States sled-length into World War II, President Roosevelt immediately looked to the nation’s automobile industry to change over from automobiles to military hardware more or less overnight. For instance, an Oldsmobile plant in Lansing, Michigan, went from Oldsmobiles to artillery within months of our declaration of war. Remarkable transformations like this were overseen by senior automotive executives whose contributions to the war effort were universally acknowledged at the time and are still recognized today.
Paradoxically, President Roosevelt’s ­passionately progressive wife, Eleanor, did whatever she could to keep the nation’s industrialists out of these wartime activities, fearing, I guess, that the Roosevelt New Deal might be contaminated by contact with “those people” in Detroit or Pittsburgh or Los Angeles.
One imagines New Deal production commissars and workers’ committees overseeing production of the thousands and thousands of Dodge and Chevrolet trucks that provided mobility for Allied armies all over the world.
Now we’ve had a latter-day taste of how the government will run our automobile industry, with the rise and ignominious fall of the so-called “car czar,” Mr. Steven Rattner. He fired GM chairman Rick Wagoner and created a place at the trough for the United Auto Workers union as a member of GM’s management. The UAW got one board seat and picked analyst Steve Girsky, already a Wagoner advisor, to champion their interests on the board. ­Rattner did not have much to do with the selection; Girsky turns out to be a very able vice-chairman at GM. Rattner wrote a book, Overhaul, in which he expressed ­contempt for every living soul with a southeastern Michigan ZIP Code. Then he got caught running a scam on New York state’s vast multi-gazillion-dollar Common Retirement Fund.
He would be a very poor choice to oversee your IRA, and there are no sex scenes in his stupid book.
Back in 1994, I interviewed Fred Kiekhaefer, president of Mercury Marine Hi-Performance (now Mercury Racing). Kiekhaefer, son of Mercury Marine founder Carl Kiekhaefer, had a green flag on his lapel, and Kiekhaefer pointed out the green flag, indicating an ongoing race, was more appropriate than a checkered flag, which indicates the end of a race. Davis has reached the end of his race, and a race well run.

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