Being part of Automobile Magazine’s launch twenty-five years ago qualifies me to answer the same question forever: what’s David E. Davis, Jr. like?
After his death yesterday, it’s what was he like? Men, especially, were overawed by him. My most memorable interrogation about Automobile’s imperious founding editor happened during a vintage car auction. Discovering my affiliation, a pair of bidders invited me out to the parking lot for a steak dinner. I was flattered—and then startled to find their motorhome staffed by a whore named Turbo. But the dinner conversation was strictly about David E. “Tell us more!”
Calling him Dave betrayed unfamiliarity. I followed Jean Jennings’s lead and referred to him as David E. Only now do I learn the initial stood for Evan. As someone who’d been a guest in his home, a passenger in his cars, an officemate, how did I answer the question? What was he like? The simple adjectives “big” and “large” always fit. David E. was about six-feet-three and said, in one of our last meetings, “I need to lose a hundred pounds.” Everything about him was exaggerated: the eloquence, the elegance, the encyclopedic erudition that made him ever fascinating. And he was fantastically creative, erupting with ideas and opinions. I saw him as an eighteenth-century dandy and wit. He might have reported to his readers about wringing out an exotic car that was equipped with the latest technology, but it will not surprise me if he yet turns up somewhere in Samuel Pepys’ vast diaries. Beyond the immediately apparent aspects, self-aggrandizement was another characteristic. Yet for all his pomp and boasts and preening, he also projected a kind of helplessness, and it’s hard to imagine him completing—maybe I’m all wrong—a do-it-yourself project around the house or making anything other than scrambled eggs in the kitchen. The thing was that he could be disarmingly frank about his own vulnerabilities, hitting you right away with the story of how his MG overturned on the racetrack in 1955, the accident scraping off half his face, with an ambulance attendant throwing away cartilage that belonged to his nose. He could also seem like one of the loneliest and most abandoned persons ever. One year around Christmas I was doing some research at the magazine’s library, and in the nearby kitchen the great man was talking to an unseen counterpart or continuing his end of a broken conversation, calling himself “roly-poly, lovable David E. Davis, Jr.” and forecasting that his own sons wouldn’t be phoning for the holiday.
I grew up with a difficult and distant father. Sometimes with David E., two years older than my dad, it felt like childhood all over again. I had way of sticking my foot in my mouth around him, and it started fast. Kevin Smith and Jean, Automobile’s co-executive editors, were about to offer me a job in 1985, but first I had to meet the boss. Even after reading Car and Driver when I was eighteen, and reading intermittently in graduate school, I had no idea who David E. was. Now the four of us were lunching at an Ann Arbor restaurant. Kevin and Jean had laughed at my droll stories the previous night at dinner and were laughing again today. I told them about hunting in Nebraska with my father, shooting crows for sport: we couldn’t eat them but fired our shotguns and watched the varmints plummet to the ground, where they remained. We wore elaborate camouflage suits, and into the woods along with our sporting arms we carried a battery-powered portable record player. My father favored side two of a 45-rpm disk, a track titled “Single Distress Crow with Actual Owl Hoots.” After the owl’s solo contemplative introduction, a crow screams for a while, followed by a cacophony of cawing crows. (When I was twelve I knew this recording as well as any Monkees’ single.) The revolving record, amplified through the unit’s speaker, fooled real crows; they flew over, reconnoitering, and we blasted them. “All so absurd and pointless,” I said.
“Yuk, yuk!” Kevin and Jean said.
“I have one of those record players,” David E. said.
Kevin once subsequently noted that David E. had a way of mentally drawing a red line through your name. That line had just been drawn through mine.
Nevertheless, after lunch, we four returned to the office and conferred. Gesturing to Kevin and Jean, David issued the strongest endorsement I would receive from him, saying, “These guys want to hire you.”
On a dreary, wintry Monday morning a few weeks later, I was his employee and had the important mission of shuttling with him to the Sports Car Exchange, in Dearborn, to pick up the Ferrari 308GTBi Quattrovalvole that would appear on Automobile’s inaugural cover, along with its putative competitor, the Toyota MR2. On our way in, David E. drove the red MR2 that was part of the magazine’s first test fleet. He was hung over. “Would use your young eyes to tune the radio to seven-sixty?” he asked. His friend, WJR’s incomparable broadcast host J.P. McCarthy, sometimes beckoned David E. to ring in with a comment. But McCarthy ignored him today. I took the hangover advisory to mean “Shut up.” He talked idly about having been the subject of a cover story of some local Detroit magazine, which made the inevitable Hemingway comparison. I was unsure whether he’d been pleased or insulted and whether remarking its invidiousness was the right response.
Finally, we reached the dealership, which was a wonder—I saw for the first time an Aston Martin Lagonda, to which David E. expressed indifference—and after speaking with our host there, we left in tandem. David E. led in the Ferrari. I followed along and wondered about seeing Kurosawa’s Ran, which he had mentioned as a powerful film.
As I soon discovered, David E. had his impressive side, but he could also be pretty crass. At an early staff meeting, the managing editor, Patti Eldridge, an attractive woman in her mid-thirties, rested her feet—which along with her legs were swaddled in shimmering purple hose—atop his desk, leading him to ask, “Could I suck on one of those?” Impatient and aggressive, he was something else behind the wheel. In another of our first cars, the pale yellow Mercedes-Benz 300E, he negotiated a local expressway, conducting fellow associate editor John Stein and me to a meeting. With a slower car blocking the left lane, he flicked the wheel, moving the 300E right. Matting the gas pedal, he accelerated to 100 mph while flipping off the other driver.
Like the 300E, time races along, and it wasn’t for twenty-two years, until 2007, that we again paired up as driving partners. In that time I had been fired from the staff for incompetence, hanging on for the next decade as a freelance contributor and then quitting in a fit of pique about the magazine’s lousy business operation, denouncing David to everybody I could think of, including his bosses in New York. Hearing my complaints, one of the associate editors at the time said, “I don’t know why any of our freelancers work for us.” The magazine was sloppily managed. Editorially, it was a ramshackle derivative of Playboy, with a dash of Travel & Leisure . (The degree of Hugh Hefner’s mid-1950s influence on David E. couldn’t have been calculated.) The primary mission was to perpetuate his indulgent life-style, which included surrounding himself with a coterie of admiring senior contributors. Being on the B-list could mean waiting months for payment and no verbal acknowledgement of work well done—indeed no acknowledgement of my personal presence in the same elevator.
My four-year hiatus away from the magazine included a couple of highly instructive years as a marketing communications copywriter. Altogether, my rift with David E., if he noticed it, wasn’t so different from his self-publicized feud with Brock Yates, which had begun after an unfavorable review of Yates’s Ferrari book. But when David E. was ultimately nudged from his bailiwick, Jean took me back as a contributor. She and executive editor Mark Gillies gave me some choice feature story assignments. And my utility role expanded. I was likely to be sent anywhere. So in 2007, leaving on assignment for the new Toyota Land Cruiser’s press preview, who should I see in the airport’s departure lounge but David E., as whiskery and winsome as ever at the age of 76. Bound for the same press preview, he was representing his new title, Winding Road. His magnanimity toward me didn’t extend to finding an open seat near him in first class, but the next day he did suggest we drive together. We spent the morning alternating turns behind the wheel of our test vehicle on the Big Sky resort’s mountainside, an enjoyable interval of chatting about this and that while trying not to jolt the passenger’s head during the four-wheel-drive torture test. Hearing the confession that I’d never learned the art of left-foot braking, he absolved me, saying, “The Europeans don’t bother about that or heel-and-toe downshifting.” Clouds descended over the mountain, and wet snow started to fall, making us reflect about the onset of the northern Rockies’ long winter.
After lunch we did the test’s highway portion, driving down to Yellowstone and back, seeing elk and geysers. Listening to the summary of my research on the 1960s rivalry for GM’s presidency, David E. recollected about that affair’s two principals, Bunkie Knudsen and Ed Cole. And as long as he was thinking about the 1960s, he threw in the amusing and well-known tale of his cuckolding Ford’s design chief. I took a photo of a bull elk that day, but goddamn if I didn’t even think to take a portrait of the bull elk right beside me.
My final glimpse of him came last November. A few minutes into my presentation during the monthly open house at Bill Milliken’s car guys’ garage, in Ypsilanti, David E. rose and escaped through an interior passage to the office he kept there. After his departure, my tongue loosened, and I sailed through the slideshow, but disappointment lingered over another failure to dazzle.
Because of his inescapable sartorial influence, I long ago took to buying expensive neckwear made of fifty-ounce English silk. (It was from David E. that I learned the meaning of the word foulard.) “When I was kicked out of Olivet College at Christmas, 1949, I went to work as a sales trainee with a firm that sold mail-order custom-tailored men’s clothing,” he wrote in Thus Spake David E.: The Collected Wit and Wisdom of the Most Influential Automotive Journalist of Our Time. “The senior salesmen were the most sophisticated men I’d ever been around. They ordered me my first two bespoke suits and a gorgeous, navy blue Chesterfield topcoat. They taught me how to act like an adult, how to wear a hat, how to behave in bars, how to qualify a prospect, how to close a deal. But the most important thing they taught me was ‘Dress British, think Yiddish.’ I owe them a lot. I wish they were still around to read this book. Maybe they’d feel that their efforts on my behalf weren’t wasted.”
Knotting my tie before his memorial service, I’ll think the same, hoping anew to please David E.