When a famous actor or athlete or politician dies, everyone recognizes the loss. The event makes the national news while talk shows and blogs discuss their contributions and legacy ad nauseum. Whether the individual is an Oscar winner, Super Bowl MVP, or powerful Senator, almost everyone knows what the person did and why so many people care.
For those of us in and around the automotive industry, our stars and statesmen are just a little more obscure. Their contributions are just as (in some cases, more) important. They're rarely mentioned on the evening news, if noticed beyond the trade rags at all.
In my circle, I've lost six of these automotive stars in the last several years, all of whom influenced me and most of whom are far from well known outside their little niche.
And since you're on this site, your love of all things automotive may be a bit more hardcore than the average "car guy." So you, too, might appreciate what each of these people gave to the industry and hobby we love.
Taylor Vinson, Fred Roe, Stan Stephenson, and Beverly Rae Kimes were very special to me. Each of them had an impact on my career path and added quite a bit to my knowledge and respect for the history of the automobile.
Whether it was Taylor and me walking through the Detroit Auto Show correcting errors... or Fred telling stories of how he and his friends salvaged many classics from the scrap heap... or Beverly's amazing way of putting perspective on the cars at the Burn Prevention Concours... or Stan at Motor Age helping me get my first real job... each has had a strong influence on my life and my writing. I hope to "pay it forward" when the opportunity arises.
I sat at the keyboard today to talk more about the two individuals I knew the least, however, and whom we lost the most recently. They were both called "icons" by many, and each was referred to as a "dean of automotive writing." And both carried auras (physical and otherwise) that were unmistakable when you saw them.
Last August, we lost Jerry Flint. His work appeared regularly in Forbes and other publications. He was quite opinionated, usually for good reason, since he had been in and around the automotive industry for generations. He was highly critical of the American industry in the hopes of getting U.S. companies to fix their own problems before they were forced to close their doors permanently.
We disagreed on ideas at times, and frequently disagreed about how he tried to make his point. Still, no one could really dislike this guy. At public appearances, he would stride in with an assistant in his wake. Usually swathed in a long coat, he sported an ascot around his neck and a cane in his hand. He had a voice as strong as the words that flowed through it.
The term "icon" fits Jerry Flint well. At the New York Auto Show a few years ago, Chrysler put on one of their trademark elaborate introductions. That particular year, they re-enacted the 1924 introduction of the Chrysler brand, featuring actors playing the roles of Walter Chrysler, hotel staff, and media attending the mock event.
Each of the players (aside from Mr. Chrysler) was named for a well-known automotive personality, with each "journalist" stating his name prior to asking his question. The last of the line was the best-dressed reporter on the stage, who announced in a booming voice, "JERRY FLINT, FORBES MAGAZINE!" Sitting in the audience a few seats to my left, Mr. Flint enjoyed the caricature of himself with a hardy laugh.
Over the weekend, David E. Davis Jr. left us after a long and valiant fight with cancer. He wrote for and edited such great publications as Car & Driver, Motor Trend, and Automobile, which he founded. He, too, had been in and around the automotive industry for half a century, during which time he helped add "Baseball, Hot Dogs, Apple Pie, and Chevrolet" to America's advertising lexicon.
As he walked through a car show, almost everyone would see his trademark beard and mustache and know immediately "That's David E!"
In the foreword to the aptly titled 1999 book Thus Spake David E., P.J. O'Rourke wrote that readers of Mr. Davis' writings are "already friends." He continued: "In all likelihood I mean that literally...he seems to know everyone involved in motor vehicles." And this may very well have been true.
Years ago, I considered launching my own magazine. A business associate encouraged me to get in touch with Mr. Davis.
We had a wonderfully memorable conversation about the state of the automotive publication world and the cost of launching a magazine. I was not the only one to remember our talk either, as Mr. Davis mentioned it the several times we met in person. On one of those occasions, he signed my copy of his book:
Thanks for wanting to join our ranks. This field has been awfully good to me--
Freedom and Whiskey!
David E Davis
The world is less colorful without these people. Yet we'll always have their contributions. Perhaps just knowing them (or knowing about them) will inspire the next Fred Roe, Bev Kimes, Jerry Flint, or David E. Davis Jr. to step up and enlighten (or entertain) the world.
Honor their memories by reading something by them or about them, and then passing on their legacy by teaching or writing or inspiring someone coming up through the ranks. That's what I intend to do.