Ethos

30 Years of Automobile Magazine: What It Means Today

Founding editor David E. Davis Jr. tells us how it all happened

David E. Davis Jr. often recalled for us those first few days in 1955 soon after his arrival in California from Detroit. He would speed through the darkened streets of Los Angeles at midnight to pick up his wife from her job as an American Airlines reservations clerk. The sound of his MG’s straight-pipe exhaust booming in the concrete canyons filled him with exhilaration at having reached the heart of what it meant to drive a sports car and live the life it offered. It was a feeling he thought all car enthusiasts wanted to share, he said. As much as anything, this experience in that faraway time was the moment when he created Automobile Magazine.

David E. (1930-2011) is gone now, of course, but when you read the collection of magazine columns from his long career that he left behind in “Thus Spake David E.” (Momentum Books, 1999), you get a sense of what Automobile should be about.

David E Davis
This image appeared on the cover of “Thus Spake David E.,” The 1999 book aggregating “The Wit and Wisdom of the Most Influential Automotive Journalist of All Time.”

The actual first issue would have to wait until April 1986, of course. First David E. would have to prevail over a nasty racing crash in his MG TF 1500 and learn the magazine business from Elaine and John Bond at Road & Track—especially Elaine, who was the smart one, he said. He would develop a sense of romance as the chief advertising copywriter for the Corvette, where soon-to-be crime novelist Elmore Leonard sat only a few desks away, and then finally in 1962 take a writing position at Car and Driver in New York City, where he quickly became editor and publisher. New York’s literary culture in those days helped David E. create a different kind of car magazine, and it changed the template for car magazines everywhere.

When he returned to Car and Driver as editor and publisher in 1976 after some lucrative years in the advertising world, it was the romance of great cars, great driving, and great places that brought him back. Yet even in the midst of that magazine’s great success in the 1980s, David E. longed to create a new title that would aspire to more than just the wall-to-wall hardware promoted by magazine publishers. And in 1985, an unexpected handshake with media mogul Rupert Murdoch led to the first issue of Automobile in April 1986. David E.’s first column described his aspirations:

Automobile Magazine is a celebration of quality—quality in automobiles, quality of life, and quality in magazines. We seek adventure and the good life, and we seek them in cars that are fun to drive. We’ll drive exciting cars to unforgettable places. We’ll go wherever the roads go, and sometimes beyond. We’ll wring out and review some of the finest, fastest, and most interesting cars in the world each month, and we’ll bring them to life with the most evocative photography and illustration that money can buy. We won’t waste your time with tiresome tales of boring cars.”

30th Intro

There were many unconventional personalities who signed up for the ride. But for all the great writers and photographers who found their way to Automobile, DED Jr. also included his readers as a crucial component of the outlet’s culture. As he noted in April 1993 on our seventh anniversary:

“A special-interest magazine serves as a catalyst for thousands of far-flung and disparate individuals like yourself, putting you in touch with one another and welding you into a sharply defined community of interest. Through your participation in a magazine like ours, you become a cohesive audience with a personality and a will of its own. … You guys become an active and dynamic force, a sharply defined group of highly motivated and well-informed car buyers. You have clout. And we appreciate the fact that you always seem to get the jokes.”

As long as we all knew him, David E.’s office, whether in New York City or Ann Arbor, Michigan, always displayed a massive array of framed pictures, most of which were souvenirs or remembrances of assorted adventures and misadventures. And if you knew where to look on the wall, you would find one of his favorite items, a pseudo facsimile of an advertisement purportedly placed in a London newspaper in 1913 by Ernest Shackleton, the legendary Antarctic explorer.

Perhaps the ad is apocryphal as no physical evidence of it has ever been found, but we all knew what it meant, and it called out to everyone who ever signed on to this publication, including every reader. And on this 30th anniversary, it’s as relevant to us all as ever:

“Men wanted for hazardous journey. Low wages, bitter cold, hours of complete darkness. Safe return doubtful. Honour and recognition in event of success.”