Remembering David E. Davis
Relaxing with a cigar and remembering Automobile's founder through his words
Unlit Arturo Fuente in hand, I scanned my home library's shelves for something to peruse while enjoying an afternoon cigar. I passed over the NASA section ("You have more space books than I do!" said friend and Apollo 7 astronaut Walt Cunningham when he came over for dinner one night), eased by the classics, then my eyes landed on a tome I hadn't picked up in a long while: "Thus Spake David E.," a collection of columns from the man who founded this magazine some 32 years ago. I opened the book to the title page and found an inscription: "Arthur, I am always available to help you find your way around strange cities. Cogito ergo zoom! —David E. 9/20/99." I took the book to the balcony, lit my cigar, and drifted back through the smoke.
David E. Davis Jr. (he died in 2011) was already an icon when I first met him way back in 1984, the man who transformed Car and Driver into the most talked-about automotive publication of its time. Fresh out of the University of Michigan, I'd somehow managed to wrangle an internship at the magazine (fortuitously in my backyard in Ann Arbor). I remember the first time I met David E. The Car and Driver offices were not, as I expected, in some magnificent glass tower. They were on the first floor of a forgettable, strangely wood-shingled industrial park on the outskirts of town. David E. 's office was in the back, and as I approached I could feel my throat tightening. His longtime secretary Harriet ushered me inside, and there he was. I don't remember what he said to my skinny, shaking self, but I'll never forget the sight. David E. had his feet up on his desk, leaning back in his chair while examining what I assumed were the proofs of another dazzling road test by one of my heroes. He was wearing an ascot, a thick tweed sport jacket, and knee-high leather hunting boots. Every piece of attire looked expensive and apparently styled in the 1930s. As for the bearded David E. himself, he seemed a cross between Ernest Hemingway and Sherlock Holmes. On his desk was a broken-open over/under shotgun.
Visiting the Davis home was an adventure. The place had a hunting lodge feel, with barking sporting dogs underfoot, piles of magazines, good cabernet flowing along with loud talk and laughter. The driveway was always a curious brew. You'd see, say, a Swiss military Pinzgauer alongside a Ferrari. David E. briefly owned a 308, but of course that ownership wasn't ordinary, either. His Ferrari's leather cockpit was devoured by a ravenous band of raccoons.
Less than a year after I joined Car and Driver, David E. left to start Automobile. The magazine's loss was my gain. As David E. had taken some staff with him, I got a shot as a full-time C/D writer. Technically, we were playing for rival teams. But our friendship grew. We'd see each other on press trips, swap lies over dinner, share test cars. David E. defined raconteur—always relating a new, hilarious story or an unvarnished, occasionally caustic assessment of someone in the industry. Many accused him of pomposity, but I didn't see it. Yes, he liked tailored English suits. But he could slip into a beer and cowboy boots as well as anybody.
Early in my career, on a press trip, I met the woman who would become my first wife. Afterward, we decided to stay the weekend in San Francisco, explore the city, wine and dine. Naturally, it was David E. who drove us into town. I remember the conspiratorial wink he gave me as he dropped us off in front of our hotel. He loved being a part of any adventure, especially one with a hint of the risqué.
David E. wrote about cars, but the title of auto journalist shortchanged him. In spring 2004 he was invited to give the University of Michigan's commencement address. Many students were crestfallen—they wanted a president, a Nobel Prize winner, a film star. Then they heard David E. speak: "I laugh a lot. I'm surrounded by friends and colleagues who stimulate, inform, and entertain me. And I can honestly say that my work does more good than harm," he said to the thousands. "I hope that each one of you can say the same thing when you address some commencement exercise in the year 2044." They loved him.
I took another puff, turned the pages of "Thus Spake David E.," chuckled at a photo of him leaning against a Dodge pickup in West Virginia, wearing a white three-piece suit and a straw hat. He was there to judge a chili cook-off. So of course, he wanted to look his best.