November 1990

American Driver

In memory of our founder, David E. Davis, Jr., Automobile Magazine editors are choosing our ten favorite American Driver columns and will be posting one each day over the next two weeks.

Sunday afternoon. The white Range Rover showed up two days ago. It’s one of the new Great Divide limited-edition models, and we’ll be driving it to Colorado midweek. When we drove Range Rover’s Great Divide expedition last year, Charlie Hughes (president of Range Rover), Malcolm Smith (everybody’s motorcycle champion and off-road racing driver), and I vowed that we’d return to do it again, this time with wives. Now the day of departure is nigh. When I left the house an hour ago, J.L.K. Davis was on her hands and knees muttering vile oaths as she tried to roll up our tent, which she’d been airing out in the yard. She’d also discovered a tear in the tent fly, and she was grumpy because she didn’t know how to do a waterproof patch on nylon. I thought it best to come to the office.

November marks my sixtieth birthday. Six decades of decadence, some would say, and this little rerun of the Great Divide extravaganza sort of opens the festivities. It will be followed by a shooting trip to South Africa and Botswana, then a couple of days at Cader Cox’s Riverview Plantation in Georgia, and then we’ll come home and really get into it. We spent a couple of months commemorating my fiftieth, and surely we can do no less, now that my sixtieth year is winding to a close. I’ve only had one bad birthday, my twenty-fifth, and I spent that one mostly unconscious in Sacramento’s Mercy Hospital. Otherwise, my birthdays have always been occasions for celebrations–no regrets, no angst, no forebodings about the encroachments of age. (Even the twenty-fifth was a celebration of sorts: I was alive, and I had no right to be.)

I was always touched by Walter Huston’s rendition of “September Song.” He’s the only guy I ever heard sing it who sounded as though he knew whereof the he sang. I’m sure somebody like Mabel Mercer (the interior voice says “There was nobody like Mabel Mercer”) might have done it justice, or Ray Charles, but I’ve never heard either of them sing it. Somehow, though, September seems like the wrong month for the sense of winding-down conveyed by “September Song.” September is still a summer month in the temperate zone, and those lyrics really seem to be talking above November.

At my age, I’m developing some perspective about these things. Sixty, it seems to me, corresponds pretty accurately to the month of September in the song, which means that I still have glorious October to enjoy, followed by November–when the days really do begin to dwindle down–with December still to follow, which will be time enough and then some for speculations about mortality.

Being camped out in the tops of the Rocky Mountains next week means that I’ll miss John R. Bond’s memorial service aboard the Reuben E. Lee in Newport Beach, California. John Bond and his second wife, Elaine, were the people who turned Road & Track into a real magazine, taking over in 1953. They were also the people who gave me my start in this business, in April of 1957, before my new face was even fully broken in. They’d paid off their predecessors’ debts a year before and became sole owners of the enterprise. The magazine had actually been started by Oliver Billingsley and Bill Brehaut in New York, in 1947, but Billingsley and Brehaut between them couldn’t muster the skills necessary to run a magazine, and it foundered, to be raised from the dead by the Bonds.

Their vision for the Road & Track of the Fifties was shaped like this: America has no magazines like Autocar or Motor. America’s car enthusiasts need a magazine of that kind, a magazine that even covers the same basic portfolio of cars as Autocar and Motor. However, English magazines are really boring–remember, there was no Car in those days–and we must give our version of Autocar and Motor a distinctly American flavor. Elaine admired the New Yorker magazine immensely, and the New Yorker became their model. Their Road & Track combined the subject matter of English car magazines with the sly wit and understated elegance of the New Yorker. It was a brilliant plan, and it resulted in a brilliantly successful magazine.

Elaine Bond–dead, now, since 1984–was the ramrod that turned R&T into the magazine it was in the Sixties and Seventies. John was the voice. He was eccentric, suspicious, and generally out of touch with what was going on in the wider world of automobiles, but it didn’t matter. He projected an aura of calm and good sense in public and in print. People loved him, and loved what he wrote, even when he proposed that a Ford flathead V-8 was the way to win Le Mans, or expressed the concern that the Alfa Giulietta Veloce engine had such radical valve timing that it would never run for any length of time, or announced that the Chevrolet Vega was the best-handling car in the world. He lived mainly on booze and cigarettes in the years that I was close to him, and spent most of every night at his drawing board, worrying over designs for front-steer sailboats, or oddball bicycles. He usually looked like he was about to die, and we were all certain that he’d outlive every one of us.

I loved Elaine Bond and admired John, and eagerly sopped up every drop of wisdom they let fall. In three years they taught me what I needed to know to make a better-than-average living as an automotive magazine person. When they fired me, in April of 1960, it was as though Dad had sold my dog. They canned me because another employee who wanted my job took them to dinner and fed them a lie about me. They never asked for my side of the story. We shouted at one another for thirty minutes or so, then I left and drove home. I slammed the car door, stalked out of the garage, and suddenly burst into wracking sobs. I stood crying with my face pressed into the stucco wall of that garage for five minutes before I could regain my composure and go into the house to tell my family what had happened to me.

In the twenty-fifth-anniversary issue of Road & Track, John wrote: “I suppose that my most famous faux pas was firing David E. Davis [sic]. I met DED at one of the monthly SCCA meetings in Los Angeles back around 1955. We hired him to work for us as advertising director. His oft-related story of his dismissal was that he was charged with being incompetent and insubordinate. Our story was that he was lazy. Neither is correct.” I took some grim satisfaction from that quote, but I never completely got over the injustice of my dismissal. It has been an important motivator in all of my work since.

Even so, we did make up, and I can say without any caveat whatsoever that every success I’ve enjoyed–in the advertising business, at Car and Driver, and now with Automobile Magazine–can be traced back to my three years with John and Elaine Bond. I owe them both a great deal.

At the time of his death, John had remarried his first wife, Mercedes, who had brought him a measure of peace of mind and happiness that I doubt he’d felt in many years. Everyone should be so fortunate. As it happens, I am.

I wonder how John R. Bond felt on the eve of his sixtieth birthday.