Born in a cabin in Kentucky hill country with no electricity and no running water, David E. Davis, Jr., moved to greater Detroit as a young boy during the Depression, when his itinerant father landed steady work there as a woodworker. An erratic student and college dropout with a flair for writing, the young Davis went on — in a life as rich with adventure and reward as it was with heartbreak and misfortune — to redefine the American car magazine, ushering in standards of literary quality that had been sorely absent while in the process creating a larger-than-life persona for himself so distinct that it often obscured the man behind it. Respected by his peers, beloved by readers and many in the industry he helped cover in a new and important way, he was also feared — and even loathed in some quarters — by those who did not subscribe to his views, by those who saw him as arrogant, and sometimes even by those once closest to him.
Davis died in March following surgery for bladder cancer, leaving behind his beloved wife, Jeannie, his sister, three children, eleven grandchildren, and three stepchildren.
Three weeks before his unexpected passing, New York bureau chief Jamie Kitman traveled to Davis’s office in Ypsilanti, Michigan — digs brimming with the memorabilia of a truly memorable life in and around automobiles — to conduct a six-hour interview, the first of what was to be a series of such meetings, chronicling the eighty-year-old legend’s life and times. The following are excerpts from what turned out instead to be the last telling of some of this master storyteller’s many stories.
“[My father] was short — maybe five-foot six — but really tough, really strong. He got to drinking when he was older, had two major automobile accidents, and did serious damage to himself; he walked with a pretty good limp. My mother was grumpy and hard to get along with sometimes, but she was an absolute saint compared to my father. He’d played football in college, and he wanted me to be an athlete, but I spent all my time reading books.
“Every time I got involved in something physical, I managed to hurt myself. I broke my collarbone three times. The last time, my old man was so mad that he sat me down on the toilet in the bathroom and set it himself and wrapped me in tape and sent me out to play.
“Years later, after I went to Car and Driver, I called my folks on a Sunday afternoon. My dad talked to me for a minute and he said, ‘Your Uncle Jim is here and he wants to talk to you.’ And he came on the phone and he said, ‘David?’ And I said, ‘Yes, sir?’ And he said, ‘They tell me you’re setting the woods on fire up there, boy.’ And I said, ‘Well, the magazine is going pretty good and I’m pretty excited about it.’ I said, ‘I think this could be a career.’ He said, ‘Well, goddamn, you’re doing good. Everybody’s real proud of you.’ And that was the closest my father ever got to paying me a compliment.
“Early on, when I didn’t finish college and when I was driving race cars and dating women who were twice my age, they were really sick of me. My sister did everything right — got her doctorate, got married. I was an enormous disappointment.
“I sold VWs, Porsches, MGs, Triumphs, Jaguars, and Singers, but I wasn’t good at it. I shot the breeze with everybody, and I talked too much. If somebody came in and bought a car, they convinced themselves to write the check. I was not a great closer.”
Life in California
“I was married [to high-school sweetheart Norma Jean Wohlfiel] in June of 1955, and we moved to California. Very bright, very tough, she’d been a competitive swimmer and had been living in California with some girlfriends. She wanted desperately to live there, so we moved there on our honeymoon. I was stunned at how fabulous California was; it was just one fantastic thing after another.
“I went to work as an expeditor at North American [Aviation] and was having the time of my life. I met a bunch of racing people, and there were three SCCA nationals going, and I thought if I was to do well in all of them, I could come away with some kind of production prize nationally. And so I prepared the car and was getting ready to do all three of them.
“Singers were actually better cars, but I always raced MGs. I raced a TD, and then I had a Mark 2 TD. And then I went to a TF. I was driving a TF 1500 — I’d been married for three months and was one week away from my twenty-fifth birthday — when I crashed the car and screwed my face up so horribly. I was laid up for a long time after I got out of the hospital.
“In 1957, I went to work for Road & Track as an ad salesman. [Publisher] Elaine [Bond] was younger than [husband, publisher] John, but they were both in their fifties. Elaine Bond was really wonderful, but it was tough for her. She wasn’t very well educated, but she had a very good mind and was thrust into a situation at the magazine where she had to make judgments about all kinds of things where she had absolutely no experience. And John loved to beat up on her, not physically, but berate her. And anything that went wrong on the magazine was her fault, and he would not let up. He’d keep at it and at it and at it.
“John had been an engineer who had worked for Harley-Davidson, but the printer contacted him to ask if he would take over Road & Track because the two guys who were doing it were absolutely worthless — Oliver Billingsley and Bill Brehaut.
“But along came a guy named Charles Gillet — he’s at Greenwich every year showing his Rolls. He graduated from Yale in about ’51 and got into his Allard in Baltimore, Maryland, and drove across the country to Glendale, California, walked into the Road & Track office, and told John and Elaine that he wanted to take them to lunch. He had a proposition.
“And he said, ‘I have done a dummy, which I have with me.’ It was a great big thing that he had done at Yale, and his thesis was this, and it became Elaine’s thesis later: The United States has never had car magazines like England has. English magazines are interesting and foreign and exotic even though they’re not very good magazines. What makes them interesting to us is that they cover cars that we don’t get to see here in the United States. A good American car magazine should do the same thing.
“Last year, at Greenwich, Gillet said, ‘I told John Bond that I would work at his elbow free for a year. They didn’t have to pay me anything. I just wanted the pleasure of turning Road & Track into the kind of car magazine I thought America’s car enthusiasts needed. There were too many hot-rod magazines, too many other kinds of car magazines, but here was a chance to do a unique magazine in the United States that was like the British car magazines. But it had to be uniquely American, and the most uniquely American magazine that I could think of was the New Yorker. If you do a magazine that had the character, the personality, the sense of humor, the ability to surprise in mid-copy that the New Yorker had, and you covered cars the way the British did, it would be a very successful magazine, and maybe the most important car magazine in the United States.’ And they went for it. In a way, Gillet is the true godfather of the modern car magazine.
“[In 1960] I went to Detroit to see my parents after my face was starting to look better, and then I went on to the New York Automobile Show, but when I got back to California, the Bonds fired me for disloyalty and incompetence because they said I had gone looking for a job on their ticket. [Although he says it hadn’t been the reason for his trip, Davis had indeed been offered a job at Chevrolet’s ad agency, Campbell-Ewald, in Detroit, as head of the Corvette account.] So I put the house on the market, arranged for a mover, got everything out of the way, threw [the family] into the Peugeot 403, and drove back to Michigan. I loved the 403. The 404, which I got after that, was just awful.”
“Norma never forgave me for taking her out of California. And my face was a problem for her. When we were still living in Hermosa Beach, I was lying in bed one morning watching her get ready to go to work at American Airlines, and she was standing in front of the mirror putting on the finishing touches, and I just felt she looked like a million bucks. I slid out of bed, and I didn’t have any eyelids and I had a stainless-steel pin that went through here and stuck out, with corks on the end so that I wouldn’t make holes in the upholstery. And I walked into the bathroom and kissed her on the back of the neck, and she barfed into the sink. Jesus Christ, that was awful.
“Later, when we moved to Detroit, I was chasing around with women and stretching her patience still further. And when she filed for divorce sometime later, one of the items in the filing was that I had made her move the household eight or nine times in the first ten years of our marriage. For her it was a nightmare, and for me it was fabulous. Every time I moved it was another bounce upward.
“Norma hated New York. We had an apartment at 77th and York, and she decided that it was not to her taste, we ought to repaint everything. And so we spent a Saturday and a Sunday painting, and we were getting madder and madder at each other with each passing hour. And, finally, Sunday night at about 10 o’clock, we had come to a place where we could logically stop and were still jabbing at each other. She was in one bathroom and I was in the other bathroom, and she was pregnant, and she yelled something at me from the other end of the apartment. I figured it was another insult. And I came out of the bathroom, and I said, ‘What the fuck did you say?’ And she said, ‘I said I broke my fucking water.’
“That was [daughter] Peg. She was born at Doctors Hospital in New York. The next day I went to the Chanteclair [restaurant] and Rene Dreyfus [owner and former grand prix racing driver] bought my lunch and bought me a marc.”
First Stint at Car and Driver, 1963-1968
“I was at Campbell-Ewald doing the Corvette ads, and Steve Wilder, a longtime friend of mine who was then at Sports Cars Illustrated [later renamed Car and Driver] sent me to cover races. I wanted to keep my hand in. I had a ’58 Chevy Yeoman station wagon, and I set it up so that I could take these assignments at the last instant and go to the U. S. Grand Prix or the opening of the Mid-Ohio track. I’d get in my Chevy and drive down, sleep in the back, and write a story for them. I saw a lot of good races in those days.
“Steve Wilder called and said, ‘Our stupid fucking editor was supposed to get a motorhome for us for the U.S. Grand Prix at Watkins Glen, and we were going to do a story about going to the racetrack with a motorhome and living it up, and we were going to do double duty with the thing and let the ad guys entertain from it. So my question to you is this: Would you be willing to call one of the manufacturers in Detroit, try to get a motorhome, and then drive it to Watkins Glen and do that story for us?’ So Norma and I loaded up all the catering stuff and drove back with this Vista Camper. And we parked it right down at the fence at Watkins Glen. We wound up entertaining everybody in the business. Brad Briggs and [the magazine’s owner] Bill Ziff were there. Brad was the vice chairman and was Bill’s chosen man.
“Tuesday of the following week I got a call from Briggs, and he said, ‘I guess you saw what we’re up against. People completely dropped the ball, and if you and your wife had not shown up, we would not have had the party that we sent the invitations out for, and I don’t know what the hell would have happened.’
“So they offered me the job as editor, and I went back to New York for my first round of meetings with those guys. Then they really unloaded on me. They said, ‘Karl Ludvigsen left as editor at the same time that we changed the name of the magazine. We did not do a good job of getting the word out. The readers didn’t know who the new editor was, and they had never seen Car and Driver magazine before. They didn’t know what that was. All they knew was that their favorite magazine with their favorite editor was no longer on the newsstand.’
“And he said, ‘We’re in a free fall. We need somebody to come in here and start from the first day.’ And it was a wonderful thing for me. In the three years that I’d been working at Campbell-Ewald, I kept looking around at the people I was working with in the creative department. They were bright. They were well dressed. They read interesting stuff. They went to all the best movies. And in the morning they’d come in and talk about it over coffee.
“And I thought two things. Car magazines at that time were dreadfully bad in terms of layout. Number two, what we called class-mass magazines — Sports Illustrated, Playboy, Esquire, those kind of male lifestyle magazines — were doing a better job of covering cars and car racing than the car magazines were. And I thought that if I could do a magazine that was as much fun to read as the New Yorker, as much fun as these others, and I could upgrade the professional side, then I could get those incredibly sharp, funny, brilliant, worldly people to come in on Monday morning and talk about their favorite piece of the magazine and their favorite writer. That would be a success. And I wanted very badly to do something like that, because I had been fired for disloyalty and incompetence at Road & Track and it was unfair and I wanted to get back at them. I thought, I’m going to do a magazine that will just steamroller Road & Track. It never really happened, but we became fully competitive with Road & Track, but with a different sort of magazine and a different sort of audience.
“I did two sessions at Car and Driver. The really big successes the first time were probably John Jerome and Gene Butera. John Jerome was really helpful in making the magazine more literary. He had an elegant touch, and it was a better read with John acting as a sort of senior copy editor. He had this wonderful Texas sense of humor and that sort of storytelling capability that Southerners have. He was super.
“Unfortunately, I lost him at the end of his first year. He went to work at Campbell-Ewald in my old job as the Corvette copywriter. Bruce McCall had taken the job from me, and then John Jerome took it from Bruce, and he also took Bruce’s sister in the process. He was still married to her when he died [about a decade ago]. In the one year that he was there he made an incredible contribution.
“Butera got off to a slower start. I fired a lot of the staff. Finally, the last guy I was going to fire was Gene Butera, and I realized that while I had been focusing on other things, Butera had been doing a very workmanlike job and was getting closer and closer to doing stuff I really liked. And so I kept him, and after that issue came out, I got a call from Brad Briggs. He said that we were a real success at this point. We had accomplished a bunch of things that he and Bill had begun to think were never going to happen, and this might be a time to take it easy and just get some magazines out and make some money. And I went back, and I was thinking about what I was going to do with Butera, and he walked into my office and he said, ‘We have to change the logo.’ And I said, ‘Jesus, Gene, we just changed the whole goddamn magazine and management is very antsy. I don’t think this is the time.’ And he said, ‘You’re the editor of this magazine. The editor’s job is to push the limits. Every month you’ve got to take it a little farther than you did the previous month. If you don’t do that, and if you can’t see a significant difference year to year from the magazine you’re doing, your magazine has failed.’ And I went back and I gave them Gene’s argument about changing the logo, and they all agreed.
“Getting fired for the BMW 2002 — probably the best road test I ever wrote in my life — was the worst. I was working on a Saturday, and I got a call to come down to the art department. Briggs was standing there. It was obvious that he was just monumentally pissed off. And he said, ‘I have received calls from a number of people complaining about the bad taste of the BMW road test, and one of the things particularly that has upset everybody is your comment that the Blaupunkt radio in the BMW could not pick up a Manhattan station from the other end of the George Washington Bridge.’ And he said, ‘Your next column will be an apology to the Blaupunkt people.’ And I said, ‘Only if you write it, Brad, because I’m not going to write an apology. The radio was a piece of shit, and I have absolutely no intention of.’ And he said, ‘Well, if you’re not going to write it, you’ll be out of here.’ And I said, ‘No. I’ve already made that decision. This is all the shit I’m going to take from you, and I quit.’ Years later, he called me to hire me back. In between, I spent eight more years at Campbell-Ewald. I loved it…”
On GM President Ed Cole
“Cole was just a loose cannon. He had more ideas, most of them terrible. The whole business with the Vega. We knew it was going to have engine troubles. [Chevrolet engineer] Jim Musser and I went in and had a serious heart to heart with [GM engineering chief] Frank Winchell and said that they really ought to be making plans right now to pull that engine out and put the Iron Duke in, because the troubles are only going to get worse. Frank threw his pencil at me, and he said, ‘I’m going to tell you guys something. I want you to listen very carefully, and then don’t bring this up again.’ And I was like, ‘OK. What?’ And he said, ‘The technology in this car is Ed Cole’s, from the footprint to the top of the roof. The metallurgy and the camshaft is Ed Cole’s. That’s how involved he is in this car. And I am not going to go to Ed Cole and suggest that we pull that engine out and put the Iron Duke in.’ Which is what ultimately happened.”
On John De Lorean
“[Pontiac general manager, later Chevrolet general manager, then VP for all GM car and truck production, John Z.] De Lorean was rapidly becoming a problem. He was a crook, a liar, irresponsible. There was nobody quite like him. I mean, there was nobody at General Motors during the years when I was involved with him that would have run the scam on both the Irish and the British governments and probably nobody, even some of the really slimy guys, would have been caught in a cocaine thing the way John was.
“John kind of thought he was bulletproof, that he could do about anything he wanted to do. One time, we went to De Lorean’s house for dinner. John and his wife left the room. John’s lawyer was sitting across from me, and he said, ‘Boy, I’ll tell you something, he’s an interesting guy.’ I said, ‘Why do you say that?’ And he said, ‘Well, do you see that chandelier? There’s a queer in New York that has called me four times in tears because John owes him $1700 for that chandelier, and John just won’t pay it. He figures he doesn’t have to. And he’s got stuff like that going on all over the country.’
“And the lawyer, who also handled my divorce, later told me that kind of stuff just went on all the time. He also said, ‘The only thing in my whole career that I am genuinely ashamed of is the things we did to [De Lorean’s ex-wife] Kelly to keep her from getting their little boy. John just treated her savagely.’
“One day, De Lorean called me to his office on a Monday morning. He had flown back the night before from California and he said, ‘God, those guys in California are so cool. They do stuff nobody else in the world does. You have to admire them.’
“And he said, ‘I was going out there on a GM plane and [television and film executive James] Aubrey had a limo waiting for me at the GM terminal in Los Angeles. He took me out into the Hollywood Hills. I didn’t know where the hell we were going. We were driving out there and the driver wouldn’t tell me anything. And when we got to this house, it was all lit up and it looked like there was a big party going on. And I went in and there were ten models in there who have all been dressed and hair done and made up to look like Kelly. One of them came over and she was kind of the head girl, and she handed me a letter from Jim Aubrey and it said, ‘John, we just want you to know that there’s a lot of fish in the sea and you shouldn’t feel bad about Kelly. There are lots of Kellys.'”
On Lee Iacocca
“[Carroll Shelby told me], ‘You know, Iacocca isn’t a car guy like you.’ And he said, ‘He’s not a car guy like me. Lee is called a car guy in Detroit, but it’s a whole different kind of car guy. Lee can go to a meeting with the styling people and the engineers, and they roll a prototype in and Lee will sit there and look at it and then get up and go walk around it and say, “I think it needs taller side glass. You’re going to have to come up with some money for the change to the windshield and the rear window. And then I think you should get some kind of a downward slope on the hood to meet that windshield change. And I think that would be pretty good, but I think, too, that we should probably dump the idea of a six-cylinder engine. Go with a V-8 engine.'” And Shelby says, ‘He does that, and the car is profitable and the dealers love it. That’s the kind of car guy he is. Now, you couldn’t do that. And I couldn’t do that. But that’s what he does. On the other hand, he thought the K-car was a good car. A guy who is a car guy would never make that mistake. He’s the other kind of car guy. He’s a business car guy, not a car enthusiast.’
“We had dinner with Hal Sperlich [Chrysler executive considered the father of the minivan] and his wife at Oakland Hills Country Club, and we got into a terrible argument about how good or how bad Iacocca was. Finally we had to go to bed or go home, because they were going to close the place. And I got up to say good-bye, and I shook hands with Sperlich and kissed his wife on the cheek, and as I was walking away, Sperlich said, ‘He may not be the philosopher prince I’d say he is, but he’s not the asshole you say he is.'”
On Automotive Journalists
“I told everybody that I hired to have either a blue suit or a really good blue blazer and a really good pair of slacks and shiny shoes and a good shirt and a good necktie, because you’re going to go to the Frankfurt motor show and you’re going to be at a cocktail party, and the number-two PR guy is going to come and peek out through a curtain and look at the crowd and figure out who should be sitting at the chairman’s table. And if you’re suited up and you look like a million bucks and you look like a success, you’ll be the guy that gets tapped to sit with the chairman. And if you’re wearing a pullover sweater and no necktie, you’re not going to be sitting with the chairman. You’ll be sitting with some other journalists who are dressed just like you are.”
On his second departure from Car and Driver
“The first time I left Ziff-Davis after the BMW 2002 disaster, I reached a point where I was just heartsick. I had been to dinner with some other ad people, and I came back to my office and sat down and called Bill Ziff at home. I said, ‘Look. I walked out in a huff and said a lot of really rude stuff to Brad Briggs, but I find that all my stories are getting old. I’d really like to be back in the magazine business.’ And he said, ‘Well, I think you need to learn your lesson. I’m not going to upset things around here right now.’ Eighteen months later he did. When the call did come [in 1976], it was great.
“When CBS [which purchased Car and Driver in 1985 from Ziff-Davis] sued Bill Ziff, that was when I quit. I was speaking to their single-copy-sales organization at Amelia Island. And I’m sitting there at the speaker’s table eating my supper, and some apparatchik comes up and leans over, and he says, ‘We’d really appreciate if you don’t say anything about the lawsuit.’ And I said, ‘What lawsuit?’ And he said, ‘We’re suing Bill Ziff.’ And I said, ‘Why are you suing Bill Ziff?’ And he said, ‘Well, we feel we were overcharged for the magazine.’ I said, ‘What about caveat emptor?’ He said, ‘Well, somehow there was a misunderstanding, and we were taken on what we paid for these magazines.’
“Bill Ziff has done everything to make my career a success, and I basically owed him everything for those last fifteen years, and I wasn’t going to stand by and be a party to this lawsuit. So I went to the airport the next morning to fly home and sat down on the plane and wrote a letter of resignation.
“And then we went out and bought a really expensive piece of furniture that night.”
On Starting Automobile Magazine
“I tell people not to quit without another job, but it doesn’t always work that way. So a former president of Ziff-Davis took me to lunch one day — he was a consultant. I told him, ‘You know, I want to make a magazine connection, and if I can’t make a magazine connection, I want to know what it’s going to take for me to start a magazine that will become competitive with Road & Track and Car and Driver.’ And he said, ‘Well, you don’t really want to do that. That’s really big money. You’d be in debt for the rest of your life.’ He said, ‘Over at Murdoch, they think you walk on water. I’ve been a consultant to Rupert Murdoch for a long time, and they think you’re really hot stuff and they’ve talked about hiring you. I think that you ought to explore that.’
And I said, ‘Goddamn it. I want to start a magazine, and I don’t know anything about Rupert Murdoch or any of the people that work for him.’
“On a Friday morning a couple weeks later, the phone rings and Jeannie says, ‘It’s Rupert Murdoch.’ And I get on the phone and he says, ‘I have always wanted to do a magazine like Car and Driver. I’ve admired Car and Driver for several years, and I didn’t want to do it unless I could find somebody who knew how. You’ve demonstrated that you know how. You’ve done it. I’d like very much to talk to you.
“And I flew to New York, was told to go to Marty Singerman’s office — Marty was the executive vice president under Rupert — and he was very jovial. We went to Rupert’s office, walked in, and Rupert said, ‘If you fail to make a million dollars in your first year, you will be fired. If you fail to make four million dollars in your third year, you will be fired.’ And it was just a wonderful relationship.
“I did not have any kind of a written agreement. It was all a handshake. [When Murdoch sold the entire magazine group in 1991] Marty Singerman called and said, ‘Rupert would like you to be the one to get up at the 21 Club and thank him and speak to all the other editors and publishers. Then Rupert will speak.’
“And so we went to New York the day before. And I was sitting in the room and the phone rang and Marty said, ‘It’s all set. You just get up and speak and then I think Rupert’s probably going to want to talk. Rupert is going to cut you a check for a million dollars.’
“And sure enough, he wrote me a check for a million dollars.”