Thursday, March 31, 2011

David E. Davis

David E. Davis died last Sunday at the age of 80. Known as the "Dean of Automotive Journalists," he had at various points of his life been a writer, editor, and publisher for Road and Track, Car and Driver, Motor Trend, and Automobile.

Davis was one of the first writers to blend facts and statistics about cars with prose. For him, an article was not just about acceleration times and braking distances, but a story about how the car felt to drive. A car story should be an adventure with a spectacular setting like the one below:

One of the great roads in New York State is Route 97 from Port Jervis to Hancock, where it joins Route 17. It is a fast, winding asphalt two-lane that clings to the eastern bank of the Delaware River. We always used it when driving from New York City to Watkins Glen for the U.S. Grand Prix. Watkins Glen was--and is--the only suitable venue for a Formula 1 race in this country. Not Long Beach. Not Detroit, Not Las Vegas, Not Phoenix. Watkins Glen, hard by Seneca Lake in New York’s Finger Lakes district, is the place. A racing car looks comfortable at Watkins Glen in a way that it will never look when running in a moat in downtown Phoenix.

Davis not only wrote car adventures, he lived them. He was friends with countless racing drivers, attended and threw lavish parties, hunted avidly, and loved dogs. Larger than life, he seemed almost boastful. At first his writing annoyed me. I wasn't sure if he was compensating for something or just full of himself. Perhaps both. In 1955 he flipped an MG at a race just outside Sacramento and went through 18 months of rehabilitation hell. Instead cowering from the near death experience, Davis found it liberating. As he said later,“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.

It was then I realized Davis was simply grabbing life by both horns in a way most of us only dream of. Like Hemingway or Twain he was vividly weaving his life experiences into prose. And like Twain, he could be self effacing as well. In 1989 a subscriber to Automobile wrote a letter informing Davis that people were laughing at him behind his back. Davis responded in typical fashion by writing an editorial piece, making light of his disfigurement, and ending with:

It should be apparent, by now, that people laughing behind one’s back are the child’s play compared with the behavior of one’s friends. But nonetheless, Mr. Walker, your thoughtfulness in bringing this to my attention is sincerely appreciated. I’m just not sure that I can do anything about it. I’m not even sure that I want to.

To thine own self be true. In a world of vanilla, Davis was hot fudge. He will be missed.

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