August 1986

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.

Automobile Magazine has been in its new Liberty Street offices for about a month now, and life has improved dramatically for all hands. I like the sound of “Liberty Street.” It’s at once old-fashioned, Midwestern, and patrotic. We’re on the second floor of a building that used to house a famous undergraduate saloon called the Pretzel Bell, the venue of choice for countless generations of University of Michigan students bent on celebrating their twenty-first birthdays with a first legal bender. One hates to think of all the Betty Coeds who threw up within a hundred feet of this desk.

Happily, all trace of bygone technicolor yawns and liquid laughs has been erased by the extensive modification to the premises occasioned by the arrival of a traveling circus like ours, with all its desks, typewriters, CRTs, drawing boards, books, bookcases, and other essential goods and chattels. It was particularly nice to start fresh, with all new stuff. Except for my own office–furnished with the same desk I’ve used for years–everybody got elegant new furniture, and a dozen teams of local artisans have been through here in the past six months, building, decorating, and transforming. We now have a truly terrific place in which to work, here, upstairs and where the old Pretzel Bell used to be.

It is especially interesting to watch various people’s walls get covered with stuff. Oh, sure, there are a few among us who, monklike, sit surrounded by bare walls, but the sort of person who devotes his or her life to this sort of occupation is generally the sort of person who combines the pack rat’s lust to accumulate stuff with the nouveau riche’s need to show it off. I am the worst. I have devoted several hours, some of them in the middle of the night, to hanging stuff on my walls. Now I sit surrounded by odds and bits and symbols of a life probably misspent but enjoyed to a fare-thee-well.

I sit facing west as I write this, and if I swivel my chair counterclockwise, a lot of life rotates past.

Item: A bill of sale (number 122, dated June 5, 1946) from Art Quantrell Motors in Wyandotte, Michigan, for a brand-new two-tone-green Olds 76 four-door sedan that my father bought for $1665.28. This was our first new car, and the first car I ever drove without an accompanying parent. Said document indicates that my father traded a 1940 Olds 66 two-door upon which fifteen payments were outstanding–the car with which I learned to drive during the war years. He paid $7.05 for the optional solenoid starter and $9.33 for the optional Fram oil filter. Two-tone paint was an extra $11.55. The first time he let me drive the car, I scratched the right front fender on my way over to Mary Lou Brown’s house.

Item: A note to me from Lowell Thomas, dated September 21, 1974, thanking me for accosting him at a business dinner one night to tell him how much his With Lawrence of Arabia had meant to me as a boy. Receiving that note was almost as thrilling as if old T.E. Lawrence himself had phoned from the Great Beyond.

Item: A gorgeous Bill Neale poster based on his Alain Prost painting–which appeared in our inaugural issue–bearing the legend: “Commemorating the first issue of Automobile Magazine, April 1986.” Bill added that line out of the goodness of his heart, and as anyone who knows him will tell you, he has a heart as big as all outdoors. My poster is number one of three hundred, signed by the artist, and–as T.E. Lawrence once said of the Rolls-Royce scout car he used for battlefield transportation–it is a pearl beyond price.

Item: A tin Carling’s beer sign, which I found in the basement of the Danish-American Sportsmens Club in Detroit about twenty years ago. It depicts nine obviously blitzed policemen, each holding a clearly marked tankard of Carling’s, and the discreet message, “Nine ‘Pints’ of the Law.” When the light hits it just right you can see that some kid from the clouded past used it for BB gun practice.

Item: Two photographs of me with Jackie Stewart.

One, a small black-and-white shot of us sitting on the asphalt of the Mexico City Autodromo before the Mexican Grand Prix. It was 1965, his first trip to North America. He had already driven the U.S. and Canadian GPs, and that very morning had awakened to the awful knowledge that he’d blown right through the United States without tasting a hamburger or a milkshake. Just before practice, I took him to Sanborn’s in Mexico City for one of each. I stayed with him through the following weekend’s Times GP at Riverside and came away from the experience knowing that I had met a truly remarkable young racing driver.

The other, a larger color shot of us standing just down Liberty Street from what later became this office. We’d just had lunch, about a year ago, and you can tell from the look on my face that I had no idea that my life was about to change so dramatically.

Item: What I believe to be a reprint of a gorgeous old poster for the 1953 Golden Gate Road Races, held May 16-17 of that year. I dreamed of running at Golden Gate. California really seemed like the big time to a beginning road racer, even more so than Europe at that stage of my development. An unknown reader sent the poster, and the person who opened the mail that day lost his/her name and address. I hope that the donor contacts me. I’d like to express my gratitude in person.

Item (south wall): A framed set of “Dan Gurney for President” campaign bumper stickers and lapel buttons from our abortive attempt to run the too-young Gurney in 1964. Ah, what might have been.

There are forty-some-odd pieces hanging on my walls, including the items mentioned, ranging from autographed photos of Jim Clark and Graham Hill to a 1957 Mercedes-Benz 300Sc radiator grille. Paintings, caricatures, photographs, old license plates, and a reproduction of a want ad from the Times of London, soliciting recruits for a 1914 Antarctic expedition. It stirs me every time I spot it up there. It says: “MEN WANTED for hazardous journey. Small wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, constant danger, safe return doubtful. Honor and recognition in case of success–Ernest Shackleton.”

The ad pulled like crazy. It is said that guys were lined up around the block the next morning. I like to think that I’d have been lined up with them.