Editorial: In Praise of . . . Tom McCahill
There are many great reasons to be happy to be a Baby Boomer. We may be getting old but we misspent our youth in some great decades. We had the iconic cars and lots of drive-ins for a custom fit with an increasingly relaxed moral code. We only had AM radio, but it played some of the best music ever heard in a car. But mostly we (or at least I) had Tom McCahill.
Tom McCahill was a god to me; the guy who made me glad that I’d learned how to read. Tom appeared in my home every month as a feature writer and test pilot for Mechanix Illustrated. He drove every car like he just stole Don Corleone’s personal ride. Very little was off limits to Uncle Tom. He put test cars through a hellacious torture sessions, proving the engineering mettle of over 600 vehicles, over the course of several decades. And he lived to talk about it.
A lot of his test vehicles were only a few decades removed from Model T technology. A Tom McCahill hell-drive put these dinosaurs at the very edge of extinction. Or, in some Uncle Tom tests, over the abyss.
One of the funnier McCahill tests involved a 1966 Dodge Coronet 426 Hemi convertible. Uncle Tom coaxed the beast to 144 mph on an oval track. He pinned the car despite a promise to keep his foot out of the test. At the “pedal meets floorboard” pinnacle of his test flight, the Dodge’s fabric roof looked like a pup tent during prime time Katrina. McCahill’s only regret: the roof kept him from achieving even more insane speeds. The man had brass and balls in no particular order.
McCahill’s prose sparkled. In fact, he never met a metaphor or simile he didn’t like. The AC Cobra was “hairier than a Borneo gorilla in a raccoon suit.” The 1957 Pontiac’s ride quality was as “smooth as a prom queen’s thighs.” The ’59 Chrysler Imperial was “as loaded as an opium peddler during a tong war.” The ’57 Buicks handled “like a fat matron trying to get out of a slippery bathtub.” His writing style made him famous, but testing cars made him a decent living, and McCahill liked to live large.
One of my favorite McCahillisms: “idiot lights.” He used the term for Detroit’s cheap-ass replacement for gauges to show high water temperature and low oil pressure. A lot of them had plenty of both problems, and idiot lights usually came on shortly before the patient died.
The zero to sixty sprint was the most famous Tom McCahill automobile test feature. Some of the dogs he tested (not including his beloved Labrador) required an hourglass. We still measure performance by the McCahill meter.
Tom wrote during an era of big cars which became even bigger cars. I always liked his measurements for roominess, which included sticking his large hunting dogs or his trusty photographer in the trunk for a photo shoot.
His November 1959 MI preview of the 1960 cars illustrated his belief in the big boys, despite the birth of Big Three compacts in that model year. Uncle Tom felt that “America is basically a big car country with big car needs.” His personal favorites included a series of late 50s and early 60s Chrysler Imperials which presumably provided a few acres of room for Uncle Tom and the mutts.
Uncle Tom had an obvious affinity for Mopar, particularly in the torsion bar period, where Chrysler’s legendary letter cars moved muscle and mass with surprising agility for the era.
As a journalist, McCahill was a force to be reckoned with. After testing the first post-war Oldsmobile (the 1948 Futuramic 98), Uncle Tom said that hitting the gas pedal “was like stepping on a wet sponge.” Olds dealers were livid. History has it that McCahill’s review “inspired” Olds to fit the 88 with the legendary Rocket V-8 .
Eventually every Mechanix Illustrated came equipped with an added feature called “Mail for McCahill.” It was an information Q and A hosted by the always quotable Uncle Tom. Every now and then some bozo would poke the lion with a sharp stick with a cheap shot. The net result was always the same: Tom would take the guy apart, immortalizing his antagonist as another idiot run over by a fast moving McCahill one-liner.
As a car guy, Tom McCahill will always be my favorite non-related Uncle Tom. Detroit didn’t really love the guy, but they had to listen to him when he complained about handling and performance issues. Why? Because the man preached from a very big pulpit in car world. And we loved the sermons.
[Note: TTAC is now the only car site with both father and son writers (Paul and Edward Niedermeyer) and identical twin writers (Jim and Jerry Sutherland). For more of the latter’s work please visit mystarcollectorcar.com.]
G. O. Mann on Jun 09, 2019
Notwithstanding Uncle Tom's personal biases, he certainly entertained and informed me back in those days. I agree that Norbye and Dunn, Clymer, Shaw, et al. provided good solid information, but for a kid who wouldn't own a new car in his lifetime, Uncle Tom was the man for me. His background information shaped my ideas of why things were as they were in the automotive industry in a way none of the other writers did. As I grew into adulthood, the truth of what he said became more and more apparrent, especially in the bloated era in the mid-sixties just before the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards. I owe a good amount of my automotive cynicism to him, as well as my high regard for import (especially Oriental) engineering expertise and quality control. Mechanix Illustrated had nothing on Popular Science, Popular Mechanics, or Science and Mechanix (mostly) except that MI had Tom McCahill. When he was gone, not even Denise McCluggage (ugh) could pick up the baton. Oh for the good old days!
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