David E. Davis, Jr. died today during an unspecified “cancer surgery”. Readers wishing to read a historically accurate, solemn, heartfelt tribute to the man from one of his most devoted acolytes should turn to Eddie Alterman’s blog entry at Car and Driver.
The rest of you can come sit here by me.
Like it or not, American automotive journalism in the post-Vietnam-War era was entirely and singlehandedly defined by David E. Davis, Jr. The majority of the tropes we all take for granted today were either invented by or nutured by Davis. He was many things, but he was first and foremost a salesman. He sold products for the Big Three, and then he sold his own products, but most of all he sold the image of himself. Alterman writes:
He was a champion of the automotive good life, and he lived it right to the very end. I hope he forgives me for using his sign-off, but: Freedom and Whiskey!
Mr. Alterman neglects to mention that this good life was usually paid for and provided by the automotive industry. As the years went on, the idea of the bon vivant auto writer, as characterized by Davis, thoroughly polluted every corner of journalism, with the possible exception of the guys at Consumer Reports. Davis often railed against the effete, West Coast, Jag-and-MG crowd, but he (and Brock Yates) ended up incorporating that schtick into theirs — Yates as a kind of third-rate shadow of top-drawer New York literary society, Davis as a country gentleman of the sort only actually encountered in the imagination. Thirty years later, we are only now outgrowing the idea of an “automotive journalist” as a cigar-and-whiskey type delivering declarative statements from the comfortable driver’s seat of a loaner Bentley or Ferrari.
And could Davis ever declare. In a single, brilliant bit of advertising — excuse me, magazine article — Davis catapulted the BMW 2002 into the public eye. His continual advocacy of the brand was partially responsible for the marque’s rise in the United States. Years later, he became a cheerleader for Honda, as well. By the time Davis left C/D, the magazine was effectively a full-length ad for Honda and BMW. His next effort, Automobile Magazine, continued that tradition, with a motto — “No Boring Cars!” — which served as an excuse, er, reason to demand an ever-greater variety of exotic machinery from the world’s press fleets and cross-continental promotional junkets. Hell, Automobile didn’t even bother to publish performance numbers. Why waste a day somewhere with a stopwatch, doing atmospheric correction like some kind of Bedard-esque nerd, when you could be tossing the keys to the valet and settling down for a long lunch at Detroit’s “London Chop House”?
As a child and pre-teen, I was a C/D subscriber and big David E. fan. I quite admired the man, and like Eddie Alterman I fancied that I might one day write extremely self-important and self-congratulatory articles only tangentially related to automobiles while enjoying a lifestyle normally associated with truly wealthy people. Little did I know I would only make it halfway — but I digress.
DED’s spell on me was broken the day he took delivery of a used Ferrari. I can’t express what a shock that was at the time. For years, Davis and his editors had trashed those lovely Pininfarina coupes, loudly proclaiming how the Corvette and the Esprit Turbo kicked their poser asses all the place. At the time, my neighbor had a 328 GTB and I remember telling my father, rather maliciously, what a piece of shit the car was, based solely on my extensive time reading C/D. But the minute Davis himself had the money, he didn’t buy a Corvette, or a Nissan 300ZX, or any of the other junk pimped out in the pages of his rag. He went and bought a used Ferrari. Because he wanted to be a Ferrari owner. Because, in the long run, he wasn’t really concerned about performance, or value for money, or any of that stuff. He wanted to be a Ferrari owner, even if it meant being a used Ferrari owner. I still have the issue of Automobile where Davis crowed over his purchase. He was finally in a club which he’d observed from the outside for his entire adult life, but I felt like I’d been lied to.
Naturally, that was simple teenaged naivete on my part. A few years ago, I sat down over the course of a few days at my library’s old microfiche reader and read fifteen years of C/D all at once. In that context, it was easy to see the magazine’s drift from simple gearhead silliness (think Grassroots Motorsports, had that mag existed in 1972) to a bizarre kind of elitist journal, written by and for people who considered themselves to be a breed apart from the everyday motorist. Davis masterminded the transformation. He gave us all those wonderful images. The Saab 99 Turbo driver, putting on his leather gloves before making a night run down a deserted freeway? The American man in a German car, flashing traffic out of the way as if Interstate 75 were an Autobahn? The hard-edged fellow wearing sunglasses in a Pontiac 6000STE, clipping a precise apex on the off-ramp with the stereo turned defiantly off? All courtesy of the man with the mustache. Davis made being a car guy cool in an era where the automotive choices were mostly second-rate, the speed limit was a ridiculous fifty-five miles per hour, and shiny nylon jackets with “Porsche 924” block-print logos down the sleeves were worn in public.
I would like to think that automotive journalism has almost hit escape velocity from the Davis gravitational pull, the same way he blasted out of the grimy-fingernails-and-clipboard aesthetic that defined his predecessors. Automotive enthusiasm doesn’t have shit to do with expensive meals, five-star hotels, or any kind of “good life”. It’s found wherever you, the enthusiast, are. Doesn’t matter if that’s underneath a five-hundred-dollar heap at a LeMons race, in the garage with your cherished Miata, or in the rows of perfectly prepared vintage Ferraris at Amelia Island. It’s free of any associations with “class”, particularly imagined ones. It’s electric, biofuel, Carter-AFB-gasoline-swilling. It’s East Coast, West Coast, and nowhere in particular. It’s about the love of cars, not the love of lifestyle. When you find it, I’d like to think you will find a young David E. Davis looking back at you, sharing that same spark, following a similar journey regardless of the destination.