David E. Davis Jr, whom TIME magazine called “the dean of automotive journalism,” has died in Ann Arbor, Michigan, following complications from surgery for bladder cancer.
Davis founded Ann Arbor-based Automobile Magazine with Rupert Murdoch’s backing in 1985 after leaving his second stint in the editor’s chair at Car and Driver, which he moved from New York City to Ann Arbor in 1978. Davis, who had already refashioned Car and Driver into one of the most literate and entertaining special-interest magazines in America, imagined Automobile Magazine as a celebration of the automotive good life with the rallying cry “No Boring Cars,” but the slogan could just as easily have been applied to everything else in his life: No boring stories. No boring meetings. No boring road trips. No boring wardrobes. No boring friends. No boring employees. No boring food. No boring parties. When he was stuck with boring bosses, he suffered them most reluctantly, and in fact it was his disgust with the management team at CBS, which bought Car and Driver from Ziff-Davis Publishing in the mid-1980s, that propelled him to quit what he had considered the best job in the world, editor-in-chief of Car and Driver.
Conventional wisdom held that the “buff book” category could not accommodate a fourth title, in addition to Car and Driver, Motor Trend, and Road and Track, but Davis thought differently and was determined that Automobile Magazine would not only succeed but would forge a new path in automotive journalism. The physical magazine itself changed the category, introducing full-color photography and thick paper stock, which the other three magazines quickly copied. The writing, editing, and magazine-production skills that the longtime editors of Road and Track, John and Elaine Bond, had instilled in Davis in the 1950s, and which he had honed during his many years at Car and Driver, were taken to new levels in the pages of Automobile Magazine. Davis directed it all with panache, style, and seeming ease, and his monthly American Driver column was a must-read for America’s most discerning automotive enthusiasts and the biggest players in the automotive industry. Davis’s vision for Automobile Magazine was vindicated less than six years after it was founded, when Rupert Murdoch was able to sell it at a handsome profit in 1991 to K-III Publications, which became Primedia, which was later sold to Automobile Magazine’s current parent, Source Interlink Media.
Davis reluctantly ceded the editor-in-chief’s chair to his protégé, Jean (Lindamood) Jennings in January 2000 and served as the magazine’s editor emeritus for six years, during which time he also occasionally served as an editorial consultant to sister magazine Motor Trend. In 2006, at the age of 75, he joined the start-up digital magazine Winding Road, and recently returned to the pages of Car and Driver as a monthly columnist.
Born in Burnside, Kentucky, on November 7, 1930, and graduating from high school in Royal Oak, Michigan, Davis attended Olivet College briefly and worked a string of jobs including stints selling Volkswagens and mens clothing and assembly work at an automotive plant. He credited the chance sight of a Jaguar XK120 with cementing his love of the automobile. His brief career as a racing driver came to a screeching, bloody halt in October 1955 at an SCCA race in Sacramento, California, when he flipped his MG and scraped off a good portion of his face. Spending his 25th birthday in the hospital was a sobering experience, to say the least, and the trauma of the accident and the subsequent surgeries and painful recovery was a turning point in his life.
After recovering from his accident, Davis got a job selling ads at Road and Track, then wrote Corvette advertising copy for Campbell-Ewald in Detroit, then did his first stint at Car and Driver in New York City, where he quickly became editor. An executive creative vice-presidency back at Campbell-Ewald in the 1970s segued to his second round at Car and Driver.
Davis is survived by his wife, Jeannie, a.k.a. J.L.K., a.k.a. “the woman who changed my life,” his sons Matthew (himself a well-known automotive journalist) and David III, his daughter, Peg, and his stepdaughter Eleanor Snow, and stepsons Vincent and Tony Kuhn.
Deputy Editor, Automobile Magazine
For more on David E. and his history with Automobile Magazine, please read Jean Jennings’s column from the April 2011 25th Anniversary issue.