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David E. Davis Jr., inarguably one of the deans of automotive journalism, died on Sunday, March 27, at age 80. Davis had been suffering from bladder cancer and underwent surgery a few days earlier. Even so, his passing was unexpected. He appeared to be in comparatively good health and was in reasonably good spirits at the Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance in Florida just two weeks earlier.
Davis was the founder of Automobile magazine, which just celebrated his 25th anniversary, and prior to that he was the editor of Car and Driver. He had returned to the pages of Car and Driver in the summer of 2009 to write a monthly column for the magazine’s editor, Eddie Alterman, a graduate of Automobile magazine.
“He was a man of enormous talent and presence, genteel most often, and scythelike when he had to be,” said AutoWeek associate publisher and editorial director Dutch Mandel, whose late father and predecessor at AutoWeek, Leon, was one of the few in the business who could go toe-to-toe with Davis in both talent and occasional irascibility. “My father had great respect for David and still had the distinction of firing him from Car and Driver. David taught multiple generations what great automotive journalism looked like.”
After leaving Automobile, Davis took over the online magazine Winding Road before returning to the pages of Car and Driver in 2009.
Davis was a lifelong car enthusiast and, early in his career, a racer, until a serious accident at age 24 nearly cost him his life and left him with severe facial injuries that required plastic surgery, though with his trademark beard, few would suspect. In 1955, he flipped his race car upside down during a national championship in California. He lost his left eyelid, the bridge of his nose, the roof of his mouth and all but a few of his teeth.
“I was uglier than a mud fence,” he said in a commencement speech to 4,000 University of Michigan graduates in spring 2004. “I actually frightened children and sometimes caused their parents to call the police on me.”
Following that, Davis said that he “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.”
That perhaps explains Davis’s take-no-prisoners style of journalism, which he personally practiced as a writer and an editor. Though actually quite shy, Davis was a superb speaker but typically let his writing speak for him.
Davis did not shy away from feuds and, in fact, started several, one of the most famous with writer Brock Yates. In 1991, Davis slammed Yates’s book on Enzo Ferrari. The feud continued for years, with Yates adding his own wood to the fire: “To know him is to acknowledge his short fuse and his penchant for unpredictable, snorting charges at friendly targets.”
The two did make up and, in fact, Davis was in the front row for a seminar at Amelia Island hosted by Yates on the history of the Cannonball Run.
Among the literally hundreds of writers whom Davis influenced–including his own son, Matt, who has written for AutoWeek and who remains a European correspondent for multiple publications–was Jean Jennings, plucked from her previous careers of driving a taxi and testing vehicles for Chrysler to become Davis’s most visible protégé. Jennings left Car and Driver with Davis to start Automobile for the then-owner Rupert Murdoch, and while the two will forever be connected in journalism history, they had some battles of their own that were legendary and which led to periodic estrangement.
As recently as 2009, Davis, in an interview with Autoline: Detroit, said he sometimes dreams “of a FedEx flight on its way to Memphis flying over Parma where she lives and a grand piano falling out of the airplane and whistling down through the air, this enormous object, and lands on her and makes the damnedest chord anybody has ever heard; this sound of music that has never been heard by the human ear. And the next morning all they can find are some shards of wood and a grease spot and no other trace of Mrs. Jennings.”
Still, in her story in the April issue of Automobile on its 25th birthday, Jennings wrote of Davis as “the most interesting, most difficult, cleverest, darkest, most erudite, dandiest, and most inspirational, charismatic and all-around damnedest human being I will ever meet. I have loved him. I have seriously not loved him. But this isn’t an obituary, so we don’t have to get into any weepy crap here.”
Unfortunately, now we do.
“I worked for David E. in the magazine world and in the advertising business,” said William Jeanes, another contemporary of Davis and himself the former editor and publisher of Car and Driver, and publisher of Road & Track. “He never fired me. I always suspected that he just never got around to it, but it’s nonetheless true. We were also competitors for a while, during which period he took a shot or two from time to time. But so did I; that’s competition. Our relationship was never less than cordial, and it became quite close as the years went on.
“Every one of us who ever picked up a pen, pencil, typewriter or word processor to write about cars owes David E. Davis Jr. more than we will ever be able to repay. He made our writing better, and he saw to it that we were well paid. He did nothing less than change the paradigm for car magazines and raise the standards for all enthusiast magazines. In our orbit he stands unchallenged as the best storyteller that ever was. I only wish he’d told his own more completely. He was not always a gentle man, but he was forever a gentleman. We were already deficient in that category, and now we’ve lost one of the real ones.”
Davis leaves behind his wife, Jeannie, a daughter and two sons. Services are pending.