David E. Davis Returns to Car and Driver Magazine

March 18, 2012 by  

The July issue of Car and Driver, venerable automotive fanboy mag, added a new contributing editor to its masthead. David E. Davis, Jr. (never “Dave”) was editor in chief of Car and Driver (henceforth C/D) from the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s. He took the magazine to some of its greatest heights as well as some of its most outrageous moments. After working as an advertising copywriter and magazine writer, Davis took over C/D in the mid-60s and transformed a Road & Track clone into a unique and iconoclastic voice of the motoring press, and one of the flagship publications of the Ziff-Davis publishing empire.

Davis hired some of the finest writers of the 60s, from radio raconteur/humorist Jean Shepherd, to tweed coat-wearing and sensible Volvo driving Warren Weith, to British motoring icon L.J.K. Setright, to comedian/musician Dick Smothers (who raced with some success in the 60s and 70s), to humorist P.J. O’Rourke, to the founder of the original Cannonball Run, Brock Yates, and many others. Davis, a brilliant writer in his own right, wrote a number of memorable pieces in C/D.

BMW 2002

The article that made me a lifetime DED fanboy was his 1968 piece on the BMW 2002, a car that BMW was forced to make to compensate for the early U.S.-mandated crude exhaust emission controls that robbed cars of much of their power. BMW had been shipping the 1600, a nice little coupe with a free-revving four cylinder engine, for a few years, but that little 1.6 liter four with multiple carburetors couldn’t be adapted to use the exhaust gas recirculation device, air pump, and other state of the art (for the day) emission controls. Forced to make a choice of abandoning the US market, the biggest in the world, BMW engineers made a solid choice by taking the 2.0 liter engine with a single carburetor from the 1600’s bigger four-door product (not sold in the USA), the BMW 2000, and installed it in the 1600 body. Even with the emission controls, it completely transformed the car. Davis got a chance to drive one for a few weeks, and from that experience came his ode to this wundercar in the April, 1968 issue of Car and Driver, titled “Turn Your Hymnals to 2002–David E. Davis, Jr. Blows His Mind on the Latest from BMW.” It was an article that, as one writer stated, “changed the face of automotive journalism.” Some of the quotes from that story:

Depress the clutch. Easy. Like there was no spring. Snick. First gear. Remove weight of left foot from clutch. Place weight of right foot on accelerator. The moment it starts moving, you know that Fangio and Moss and Tony Brooks and all those other big racing studs retired only because they feared that someday you’d have one of these, and when that day came, you’d be indomitable. They were right. You are indomitable.

What you like to look for are Triumphs and Porsches and such. Them you can slaughter, no matter how hard they try. And they always try. They really believe all the jazz about their highly-tuned, super-sophisticated sports machines, and the first couple of drubbings at the hands of the 2002 make them think they’re off on a bad trip or something.

The Germans have a word for it. The German paper Auto Bild called the 2002 Flüstern Bombe which means Whispering Bomb, and you should bear in mind that the German press speaks of bombs, whispering and otherwise, with unique authority.

This is writing, automotive or not, at its finest. Prose like this turned me into not only a fan of the BMW 2002 (I finally owned one for a few years when I lived in Germany, a wonderful experience causing me to vow to own another someday), but also into a lifelong fan of David E. Davis, Jr., the writer.

Infamous Opel Kadett Road Test

Davis was not without controversy. Greatness breeds controversy. The same year the the BMW 2002 essay appeared, the magazine reviewed the new Opel Kadett, a bottom feeder of the first order. To punctuate their belief in what a complete piece of garbage this car was, they did their entire photo shoot in a junkyard. General Motors was so incensed, they canceled advertising in all Ziff-Davis publications for several months. Davis successfully defended his actions to Chairman William Ziff, Jr., who greatly admired him.

In 1977, humorist P.J. O’Rourke wrote a profile/lifestyle piece on driving an Aston Martin convertible in Palm Beach that was so completely offensive (and uproariously funny, in a sophomoric vein) that it has never been reprinted, not even in a recent compilation of some of his best automotive journalism pieces, titled “Driving Like Crazy.” Davis defended him, and even joked about it, referring to him as P.J. “We’re Going to Get Letters” O’Rourke. Jean Jennings only alluded to it in her back page editorial in the July, 2009 Automobile Magazine. It is so completely offensive that even I, one who possesses extremely low standards, won’t go that low. Drop me a line or give me a call, and we can talk about it offline.

Then there was the complete gonzo feature article in 1983, Escape from Baja, written by Brock Yates, where Davis and about 10 additional C/D staffers drove and in some cases totally destroyed eight sport sedans in Baja, Mexico. Let’s see, there was the Dodge 600ES that struck a cow on a pitch dark night at 60 MPH which ultimately resulted in some time in a Mexican jail while authorities tried to sort things out. Then there was the Nissan Maxima that sucked up a whole lot of water when it tried to ford a flooded depression in the road, or as Yates observed, “the fuel injection’s brain has gurgled its last.” P.J. O’Rourke wrote a screamingly funny sidebar on “What to See and What to Do in Sunny Mexico.”

This was the environment Davis fostered when he ran C/D. Eventually, though, William Ziff sold C/D to CBS, who was dabbling in magazine publishing at the time, meaning he lost his protector and biggest fan. The result was that running C/D ceased to be fun, and he jumped at the chance to start up Automobile Magazine (“we will not drive boring cars”). Corporate life deteriorated when Automobile was sold to another publisher, and Davis left a few years ago. He ran Motor Trend magazine for a year or so, but his heart wasn’t in it and went into semi-retirement, though he blogged for the webzine Winding Road for a time.

When he was a young man, he drove race cars until a bad crash left him horribly disfigured, requiring many sessions with a plastic surgeon. In the aftermath of that crash, Davis observed “I suddenly understood with great clarity that nothing in life — except death itself — was ever going to kill me. No meeting could ever go that badly. No client would ever be that angry. No business error would ever bring me as close to the brink as I had already been.” This is a lesson that those of us who are cubicle dwellers or otherwise chasing a buck in corporate America should read and heed.

Now he’s back where all the fuss started. To you, David, I issue a hearty “welcome home–we all missed you.”

Author’s Note: Sadly, David E. Davis passed away in 2011 at age 80, from complications following cancer surgery.