It Was The Best Of Times

Vile Gossip

On the tenth anniversary of Automobile Magazine, I was moved to reprint a page of my favorite memos from the founder of this magazine, David E. Davis, Jr. It was a tiny window into the daily cataclysm of life with the most interesting, most difficult, cleverest, darkest, most erudite, dandiest, most inspirational, charismatic, and all-around damnedest human being I will ever meet. I have loved him. I have seriously not loved him. But this isn’t an obituary, so we don’t have to get into any weepy crap here.

The magazine you are reading would not exist without him. I mean that in the most present of tenses. Only David E. could have started “a high-style magazine for high-profile car enthusiasts” in 1986 that not only succeeded, but changed the face of car magazines in America forever. Twenty-five years later-although he has been gone since 2000, a situation that was not part of his grand plan (I’ll get to the flying grand piano later) — his stamp remains indelible. The travel, the adventure, the exotic comparison tests, the staff road trips, the importance of car design, and the quality of the writing and art are the bedrock of every issue. His will be done.

When David E. asked me to leave Car and Driver with him to be the executive editor, I figured that if this effort failed, I was only thirty-one and could always drive a cab again. The idea of returning to the mean streets of Ann Arbor perhaps ensured my laserlike focus on making the dream reality. He was fifty-four years old.

We did not fail.

David E. would tell you that it was the magazine of his dreams. And, of course, it was. All his. I had no dreams whatsoever — I was only five years removed from being a mechanic, for God’s sake. And what was he thinking, dragging me with him? Never mind. I was very happy to follow a man with a plan, especially with a plan as big as his and which included an unbelievable role at the top for a girl with a permanently interrupted college education.

He had Rupert Murdoch’s money. He ditched what he called “the cold, dead hand” of the technical department back at Car and Driver, and he could now review cars without the expense of testing them and the annoyance of hewing to those test results. Let Car and Driver and Motor Trend cover the testing, and let the car companies stand by their own numbers, freeing us to take cars on fabulous adventures and then write about what it was actually like to live with them.

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. wanted car designer and occasional writer Robert Cumberford to be our design guru. Cumberford’s monthly column, By Design, appeared in the sixth issue of the magazine and evolved from an essay to today’s two-page visual design analysis — a format I stole ten years ago from a diagram pointing to elements of a grunge outfit in the original Details magazine. It is without question the most popular feature in the book.

It was my job to secure the services of Georg Kacher, arguably the most connected automotive journalist in the world then and now. Kacher, loyal to a fault, wouldn’t be easy to pry from Car and Driver, and he made the decision to stay with them, until the same CBS management that infuriated Mr. Davis into departing had a similar fatal moment with Kacher, much to our joy. He has been our European bureau chief since Volume 1, Issue 1.

Absent the cold, dead hand of a tech department, DED’s friend Trant Jarman, a quirky, aging race car engineer, was posted on the masthead as Technical Hobbit. His inability to write complete sentences, coupled with a critical error in describing the difference between horsepower and torque, finally exasperated Mr. Davis (not an uncommon occurrence with his closest friends) to the point of firing Jarman with an outsized blistering letter (another Davis hallmark). David E.’s infamous gut-instinct hirings were much more successful than not, but when they failed to produce the hoped — for brilliance, out came the push broom. Mrs. Davis once consoled — with lunch — a distraught young man who’d just been sent packing. “You’re in good company,” former tech editor Don Sherman later told him. “Just about every auto writer has been fired by DED at least once.” David E. attributed another high-level firing to the fact that the spurned editor “wore river driver shirts.” He gave me a raise one year to upgrade my wardrobe, sparing me a similar fate. I was not to be the only executive editor for our start-up magazine. He hedged his bets with former Off-Road editor Kevin Smith and perversely assigned us dueling roles to plan and execute alternate issues of the magazine. Mr. Davis loved “creative” tension, especially when it led to a firing. After a couple months of this, Smith and I secretly met and hashed out a plan to divide responsibilities and work together on each issue. When Smith left several years later over “creative” differences, DED hired a new executive editor and forgot to tell me he’d given him my title. “I’m promoting you to deputy editor,” he said in response to my grumpiness. “It’s a perfectly good title,” he barked back at me when I complained that everyone was going to call me Deputy Dawg. Which they did.

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.

He hatched the All-Stars awards in the second issue, all the while railing about having to leave his other creation-Ten Best-behind at Car and Driver. He just hated that Motor Trend owned the best franchise of all-Car of the Year-and recounted every hair-raising story about how that award was bought and sold, a practice that disappeared along with the three-martini advertising lunch. He broke down and added Automobile of the Year four years later, along with Man of the Year, Design of the Year, and so on, tinkering with the formula yearly.

He loved the monthly Giant Test in the U.K. magazine Car, and from it came the idea for our signature road test-the Four Seasons review. Car also provided DED’s master list of great British photographers, like the award-winning Martyn Goddard, whose work spans from our first issue to this month’s “Back Roads and Barbecue.”

From the beginning, one of my principal roles was to be the Perils of Pauline editor. DED encouraged my bad behavior and indulged my desire to pursue adventures around the country and the globe, even as he remained dismayed by my inelegance. I rode motorcycles across China with Malcolm Smith, followed the Camel Trophy in Madagascar, raced in Baja with a Russian circle-track driver, and navigated a vintage rally across the Alps with Stirling Moss. I toured the East Bloc after the Berlin Wall fell. I thrived because I could tell a story, and I emerged from under David E.’s wing as a decent writer who could speak in complete sentences on television and discovered early on that the secret to my longevity was the ability to see the exact moment in his eyes when he wished I wasn’t standing in front of him. Then it was time to leave his office or, even better, leave the country.

After five years, Automobile Magazine was pretty much running right along according to his plan, especially once the Murdoch debt was forgiven with the magazine’s sale to K-III, which later changed its name to Primedia. For our tenth anniversary, he dreamt up the Perfect Ten tour, where readers would pay to bring their vintage cars for a circle tour of Lake Michigan. There were also the three European Grand Tours, where we traveled around the Continent with readers who paid to play with us. From those came lifelong friendships with great car enthusiasts and vintage collectors, people whose names you would recognize to this day because we still borrow their cars and have adventures with them.

Our tenth anniversary was also the year of the parties, and this for a man who was accustomed to throwing parties. A blow-out in New York City. Another in Detroit. And one I’ll never forget at the Beverly Hills Hotel on Grammy night. It was packed with lots of our famous friends, both executives and racing drivers. Boyd Coddington, with whom I’d just done a story, arrived with his wife, who toyed uncomfortably with the unfamiliar food on her plate before looking at me and asking, “Why were we invited?”

Tony Bennett had a similar response when he mistook our party for a Grammy event he’d been invited to at the same hotel. Our crazy publisher, Terry Russell, greeted him like an old friend, which completely confused him.

“Tony!” he gushed, pumping his hand. “So glad to see you! Come on in!”

The suave Bennett sailed into our affair, took one look, and sailed right back out, stopping long enough to deliver a stiff “fuck you” to the bemused Russell, who’s dined out on that story ever since.

There was nothing David E. liked to do more than throw parties, and he sure knew how to make them important. He knew everyone in the industry at the highest level, from car-company to ad-agency execs, having worked on both sides of the business, and he could command their presence. His show of shows was his annual Saturday morning, post-Detroit auto show bacchanal at the Detroit Institute of Arts, complete with a thirteen-piece mariachi band and vast buffets groaning under the weight of suckling pigs. Shots of tequila barely took the edge off the sight for most of the queasy Midwestern suburban crowd.

“I hate this goddamn breakfast,” whined former Chrysler chairman Bob Eaton to me one year. “Why does he have it so early on Saturday morning? But you have to come because everyone is always here.” David E.’s greatest thrill was standing at the entrance to the soaring Diego Rivera Court — bedecked with over-the-top tropical flowers, mariachi band blaring from the balcony — greeting all the swells by name. No name tags allowed.

This was, after all, a magazine created in the image of this man, and he treasured the relationships that allowed him to launch the magazine when many said that a fourth monthly car book would never fly. Later, the heads of both Toyota and Honda in the United States explained to my new bosses the special relationship they had with Automobile Magazine. They had eaten with us. Partied with us. They knew who we were by name. Which never seemed to figure into their threats to pull advertising or tempered David E.’s heated return phone calls to them, which spread through the office as pervasively as his cigar smoke. Cigar smoke was always a good thing. That and the packages of fabric swatches from his shirtmaker in New York or suiting samples from his Savile Row tailor, which he would pore over as carefully as any manuscript, the Penguin Cafe Orchestra burbling in the background.

Those days — good and bad — are gone. I am in no position or mood to explain or judge the departure of David E. Davis, Jr., from the corner office on the second floor of 120 East Liberty. That is between him and one of the many revolving-door bosses at our former company, Primedia. (I suffered my own one-year exile during which an unsuccessful experiment was conducted to try A Brit — Any Brit Would Do — in the big seat.) I can say that, when it was my turn to become the editor on January 1, 2000, David E. magnanimously offered me his imposing, history-steeped ad executive’s mahogany desk. I turned him down flat. “I don’t want to be the pinhead sitting at your desk when you’re gone,” I told him.

His good-bye party had to be at the DIA, but I didn’t want it to be in the expensive Diego Rivera Court. There was no roasted pig with apple in mouth, and there was no stunning, budget-breaking floral bill. It could have been drab and dull, except everyone who was anyone was there. And they weren’t there for me.

David E. Davis, Jr., continued to write his monthly American Driver column for six years after he left the building and helped reshape Motor Trend, which became part of our magazine group in 2001. He resigned in 2005 to develop the online magazine Winding Road. He is back at Car and Driver, writing a column for his protégé and Automobile Magazine alumnus Eddie Alterman.

David E. turned eighty last fall, and he is still pretty crabby about his leave-taking. He had a moment on a local cable show a year and a half ago during which he said he often dreamed of a FedEx plane dropping a grand piano over my house, with the aftermath being splinters and a grease spot where I had been standing. It makes for a goddamn funny illustration, doesn’t it?

All I have to say is, today is my fifty-seventh birthday. And the last thing I can imagine doing after all these years is starting a brand-new car magazine. I should die by piano first.

God bless you for that, David E.

For an obituary celebrating the late David E. Davis Jr., please click here.