What's It Really Like To Obliterate a Press Car?

Murilee Martin
by Murilee Martin

After reading Jack’s “mean-spiritedly annotated” interpretation of Motor Trend’s Scott Evans’ rollover of a Cadillac ATS at a press event and then Scott’s safe-n-sane account of his unfortunate off-road adventure, I remembered 24 Hours of LeMons head honcho Jay Lamm mentioning that he’d rolled a Range Rover in spectacular fashion during his car-journo days. With all this talk about upside-down press cars lately, I decided to interview Mr. Lamm about his wreck and the effects it had on his subsequent career.

If there’s anyone who has car writing in his blood, it’s this guy. Jay’s father, Michael Lamm, wrote and edited for most of the car rags back in the day (and still writes good stuff for Hemmings nowadays), and Jay battled in the auto-journo trenches for a good quarter-century before hanging it up to become a race promoter. He’s refreshingly grumpy and cynical about the entire business (to the point of hanging a signed pledge to never write about cars again over his desk), so I knew he wouldn’t sugar-coat anything in this story. Here we go!

MM: A little background first. How long did you work as an automotive journalist before embarking on your current career as a race promoter, and what were some of the publications for which you wrote?

JL: The first thing I ever sold was a piece about Elvis’ metalflake-blue Maserati Ghibli, to AutoWeek when I was 16. Since then I did stuff for Automobile, Car and Driver, the late lamented MPH, Spy Magazine, Popular Mechanics, a bunch of others. And I was editor of Sports Car International in the 90s and Vintage Motorsport and a whole bunch of one-marque mags, some being pretty okay and some just appallingly awful.

MM: OK, now that we’ve got that stuff out of the way, let’s talk about the really interesting part, i.e., your glorious press-car-killing rollover. What was the vehicle, and where was the event?

JL: It was a Range Rover, and the event was The Great Divide Expedition. You still see those stickers sometimes on hooptie-ass Range Rovers from, I don’t know, it must’ve been the very late ’80s. Anyway, the deal was they had a bunch of Range Rovers and you flew into the Rockies and crossed the Great Divide in these sport-utes a whole bunch of times, taking pictures and ogling the scenery and all the while shoveling buckets of airlifted shrimp into your maw. Okay, I don’t actually remember the shrimp, so I’m projecting a little there. I do remember it was pretty swanky for a trip about grinding America’s nature under the British-built pneumatic boot-heel of a luxury SUV.

MM: On the Hella Sweet To Butt Turrable Continuum ( HSTBTC), where would you place this vehicle?

JL: About mid-pack. If you accept that the First World’s soccer moms need a short-coupled, leather-lined safari wagon with gigantic hoppy springs under the chassis, it was great. If you think “Hmm, sounds like a great recipe for a rollover if driven by a guy with no talent (ie, me),” it was butt-turrible. So really, that’s open to interpretation.

MM: So, how did the wreck happen? Walk us through the chain of events.

JL: I needed to pee. There were about seven of us up in the high country on these gravel roads, and I DESPERATELY needed to pee.

So I come around a corner, and there’s about four other dudes on this deal all pulled over to the side of the road with their donkeys out, simultaneously studying nature and hydrodynamics. I think “ah, salvation.” I join ’em.

So now I’m standing there, one-handed for, like, eight solid minutes. Did I mention I really had to pee? Finally I’m done, and by then all but one of the other cars had taken off, and the last one was just piling in and going away as I’m zipping my fly. Now, I don’t want to get lost, of course, and–you know, since I’m an automotive journalist–God forbid I should actually look at a map and find my own way like a grownup, so I jump back in my Range Rover and tear-ass to catch up to the guy who just left. And as soon as I catch up with him, I realize he’s really flying. FLYING. We’re on these gravel roads, going over hills and creeks and stuff, and he’s just ripping. But I say, you know, those classic final words, “if he can go that fast, I can go that fast.”

Turns out “he” was zillion-time Baja 1000 winner Malcolm Smith. If I’m in a Range Rover, Malcolm Smith could outrun me in a golf cart. I could so NOT go as fast as that guy, and about two minutes later I totally bit it. The road went up over a rise and jigged sharp right just on the other side. For Malcom, no problem–he, like, teleported the car 50 yards to the right and putted happily down the road. I rolled mine about four times, corner to corner, and I distinctly remember thinking, as it was sliding along on its windshield about 60 mph, “Wait–who did that? That’s REALLY FUCKING BAD. I sure feel sorry for THAT poor bastard.”

Nobody was hurt, but the PR guy in the backseat got the entire contents of an ice chest down his shorts, which I felt kinda bad about. The guy in the front passenger’s seat was a Motor Trend dude who’d just rolled a new Saab on a press launch in, like, Öbberlikkenflickenhammer a month ago, so he couldn’t say dick…in fact, they were both really kind about it, considering how badly I’d just screwed them.

MM: How trashed was the vehicle?

JL: It was hella-done trashed. Bill Baker, who was the head of Range Rover at the time, came back eventually after we’d pushed it back on its wheels and said “Hey, these things are so tough, it’ll just start right up!” Yeah, um, sorry Bill, not so much. Every corner was rounded off, the roof was caved in, the wheels were exploring new forms of directional self-expression…that thing was messed up. For all I know, there was, like, a nest of endangered snowy plovers sucked up in the air cleaner. It was done.

MM: Did you get sweated by anybody (e.g., press flacks, editors, cops) about the wreck?

JL: Not a soul. Even Bill, who I’m sure would have been delighted to chuck my ass off the nearest cliff, was very polite about it, though he did suggest that for my own sake–you know, rattled and all, probably sore, snakebit, blah blah blah–I should probably take the next goddamn plane out of Wyoming and thus his professional life. Oh, and BTW, they’d happily pay for it. Which they did.

Now, I’ve never worked on the PR side, so this is purely a supposition, but I’ve always assumed that if you hand the keys to a zillion-dollar luxury vehicle to a 22-year-old kid and say “have fun!!” you probably already expect that it might not come back in pristine dealer condition. And that said, I’m not nearly as surprised that some press cars get wiped out as I am that so few get wiped out. Even if you’re talking about some given set of well trained, highly responsible drivers–and, let’s be perfectly clear here, we are NOT talking about a set of well trained and highly responsible drivers–then by sheer probability alone, you’d kind of assume that a lot more would end in a ditch. You’re just talking about hundreds and hundreds of guys who are out there driving constantly, in all kinds of weather, in unfamiliar cars, on all kinds of weird routes, traffic signs in Urdu and shit, and they’re all doing God knows how many tens of millions of miles a year between them. The fact that they’re not stacking them up ALL THE TIME is more amazing to me than the fact that some dude named Darth Bissoon-Vader occasionally shortens a Lambo.

MM: Did you ever mention the wreck in your writing?

JL: Yeah, all the time, in fact. I don’t even remember who I was sent by on that thing, and I know they didn’t say Boo about it, but it came up a lot for a while after that–you know, as in “…not wanting to roll yet another press vehicle, I declined Mr. Moss’s invitation to….”

MM: Did you get blacklisted with that manufacturer or otherwise suffer any negative, career-tarnishing consequences as a result of the wreck?

JL: Not that I’m aware of, but really, who knows? I did so little SUV stuff anyway, they could have said “we’re never letting THAT Jewish bastard in one of our cars again,” and I doubt that I would have noticed. Certainly nobody else seemed to care, except my mother, who is still kinda horrified to this day. But a week later, I was driving a Nissan Pathfinder press car and thinking, “Man, I sure hope Malcolm Smith isn’t around here anyplace.”

Murilee Martin
Murilee Martin

Murilee Martin is the pen name of Phil Greden, a writer who has lived in Minnesota, California, Georgia and (now) Colorado. He has toiled at copywriting, technical writing, junkmail writing, fiction writing and now automotive writing. He has owned many terrible vehicles and some good ones. He spends a great deal of time in self-service junkyards. These days, he writes for publications including Autoweek, Autoblog, Hagerty, The Truth About Cars and Capital One.

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3 of 22 comments
  • GiddyHitch GiddyHitch on Jul 29, 2012

    Jesus, I would love to read more stories about or by this guy. If he vowed to never write about cars again, how about just having him dictate articles to someone and then posting them up here? Rolling Stone does that with Ozzy Osbourne's advice column and Adam Carolla did that for his books. Just a thought ...

    • Murilee Martin Murilee Martin on Jul 29, 2012

      If you get on the LeMons mailing list, you'll get regular Jay Tirades. They're pretty good. I'm also trying to talk Jay into writing a sitcom. It would be darker than David Lynch but also funnier.

  • Satch Satch on Aug 01, 2012

    Lord, lord: Lamm is a National Art Treasure for sure. Thanks for making my day. (And no, I was NOT the dude who rolled the Saab on the trip he alludes to, but if it was 1984 or 1985, I'll bet I was on that trip and know who rolled the 9000!) As for the Saab 900 Turbo that was rolled on the AlCan in 1984, let's not go there. Satch Carlson

  • Daniel J Alabama is a right to work state so I'd be interested in how this plays out. If a plant in Alabama unionized, there are many workers who's still oppose joining and can work.
  • ToolGuy This guest was pretty interesting.
  • NJRide So this is an average age of car to be junked now and of course this is a lower end (and now semi-orphaned) product. But street examples seem to still be worth 2500? So are cars getting junked only coming in because of a traumatic repair? If not it seems a lot of cars being junked that would still possibly worth more than scrap.Also Murilee I remember your Taurus article way back what is the king of the junkyard in 2024?
  • AMcA I applaud Toyota for getting away from the TRD performance name. TuRD. This is another great example of "if they'd just thought to preview the name with a 13 year old boy."
  • Jeff Does this really surprise anyone? How about the shoes and the clothes you wear. Anything you can think of that is either directly made in China or has components made in China likely has some slave labor involved. The very smart phone, tablet, and laptop you are using probably has some component in it that is either mined or made by slave labor. Not endorsing slave labor just trying to be real.