Grumpy Old Geezer Goes to Ground

American Driver

I had no more than read the first proof of last month’s column, which was an obituary for old friend and colleague John Jerome, when my son called from the Geneva show to tell me that Leon Mandel had died. Relations between Leon and me have never been cordial, and I didn’t feel compelled to write anything about a guy who’d gone out of his way to make trouble for me more than once. But something happened on my way to the Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance…

After making a U-turn on I-75, I did wind up writing a few words about Leon, then read them to a large and friendly crowd at the memorial gathering. Here they are:

“Leon Mandel was a most inconvenient man. He fit none of the convenient stereotypes. Outcomes, with Leon, were seldom convenient or predictable.

“I was driving to the Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance in Florida on Thursday, and I had almost reached Cincinnati on I-75, when Dutch Mandel called me on my mobile phone and said, ‘Before Leon died, he said he wanted you to speak at his funeral.’

“That cannot be true! Leon didn’t even like me! If he knows that I’m standing up here droning away on this occasion, he is appalled!

“We were together in England about four years ago. It was a Jaguar press trip, and we arrived in the wrong meeting room simultaneously. The room was dressed for a cocktail party, so we naturally assumed that it was where the press conference was to take place.

“While we waited, in vain, for the others to arrive, we talked, and I screwed up all my courage and said, ‘Leon, we have been making each other miserable for thirty years. Let’s give it up. We’re not going to live forever, so let’s spend the years remaining to us as friends.’ He wheeled on me and said, ‘You’re a very unusual guy. There aren’t many people who could have said what you just said, and I want you to know that I genuinely appreciate it. But I have no intention of changing.’

“So we can safely say that he may have been inconvenient, but, by God, he was consistent!

“I have traveled all over Europe and Great Britain with Leon. It is safe to say that we shared no social life outside press trips, automobile races, and international automobile shows. Of all our journeys together, Germany was always the best. Going to Germany with Leon was like going to a horror movie with an eleven-year-old girl. He knew that there would be storm troopers waiting to take him away when he got to his hotel room, and he could hardly control his excitement!

“We were contemporaries in automotive journalism. We were about the same age, had entered the business at the same time, and had shared the same friends and similar experiences. If we differed, it was in the area of our affection for the automobile. My love for cars is unconditional. Leon’s always struck me as being a little constrained.

“He loved them, no question, but, as one of his many readers, I felt he loved them more as objets d’art, more as exciting and dramatic vehicles of self-expression for racing drivers and other superhumans, than as vehicles of mass transit and personal freedom.

“It was my sense, that if Leon felt strongly about in-dividual freedom, it was mainly insofar as it applied to the individuals around his dinner table.

“He wrote beautifully, any time that he was fully engaged in his subject. He also had a sure hand as an editor, although he was a difficult man to work for. He enjoyed playing the curmudgeon, but I believe that he was, instead, a patrician—the world, the automobile industry, his colleagues in the automotive press, often disappointed him, and he gravitated to people and activities that accorded with his lofty view of what was appropriate.

“Because of that lofty view, because of his standards, and because of his elegant grasp of the language, I believe that he would have been a great critic of and commentator on the arts and literature if those subjects had captured his considerable intellect to the same degree that it was captured by the automobile.

<img src="http://enthusiastnetwork.s3.amazonaws.com/uploads/sites/11/2002/07/02-06-leonmandel.jpg" alt="Leon Mandel, AutoWeek
publisher emeritus, died
at his home on March
5. He was 73.” class=”wp-image-499373″ />

“Whenever Leon skewered me, as he often did, I would sit crouched at my typewriter or, later, at my terminal and dream of the cruel revenge I would exact upon him. Then I’d usually think of Olivia, his beautiful wife, who was a paragon of marital patience and support, and I’d think, ‘If Olivia loves him, he must be a great man. I have judged him un-justly.’ Then, in a couple of months, he’d skewer me again.

“Leon has friends and admirers all over the world. When I leave here today, I’ll resume my journey to the concours at Amelia Island, where I’ll be with scores of them. When they learn that I was with all of you here today, they’ll ask me what it was like, and I’ll tell them, ‘It was perfect. Even Leon would have approved.’ “

The memorial was a great success, and Dutch Mandel was brilliant. His tribute to his father perfectly captured the man, warts and all, and we all laughed immoderately. Leon’s boss, Keith Crain, very kindly took us to Amelia Island on his corporate jet, and, as we boarded, he grinned wickedly and said, “If it had been the other way around, and you were dead, Leon wouldn’t have made that U-turn.” He’s probably right.