Writing a monthly column in a national magazine has to be just about the best gig around. Certainly the pressure is there to come up with clever and reasonably intelligent things to say every month, but the opportunity to stand upon a soapbox and tell the world what you think is more fun than you might imagine. If that soapbox is european car and your entire life has been consumed by cars from across the pond, it would seem to be a job made in heaven.
I have been extremely fortunate to have worked for just three different editors at ec. Greg Brown invited me to write a monthly column for the magazine nearly 15 years ago. His phone call came out of the blue. "Sure," I responded. "How long do you want the column to be?"
"As long as you want," he said.
"What do you want me to write about?"
"Anything you want."
I was struck by my good fortune, but nonetheless asked for further explanation. "I want my magazine to have more personality," Greg explained. "And I want you to give it that." I didn't question his judgment on hiring an engineer to provide personality, but stuck my nose to the grindstone and started cranking out a column a month. We called it "On the Line" and it has had that name ever since.
My first column was about teaching my 13-year-old daughter how to drive in my 1952 MG TD-the better to ensure that her first driving experience would be something memorable. It struck a nerve apparently; when I meet readers at vintage races or car shows, they mention that column more than any other.
Sherri Collins followed Greg Brown at the magazine's helm and put her own signature on the book. Among Sherri's other enviable editorial talents is an ability to find the best titles and subtitles for stories. The woman is a title queen. Her reign was lamentably brief but her departure to other pursuits brought to the top job Les Bidrawn. Under his capable leadership the magazine has continued to hold its own, despite economic downturns and a magazine publishing industry that at times seem destined to spiral down the drain behind the nation's newspapers. Les has kept the magazine interesting and fun, and his photographer's eye has brought a whole new graphic sensibility to its pages.
Most of my columns have something to do with the things that have happened to me as a "car guy." I have to be careful here to remind you that I use the term "guy" in a non-gender-specific sense. As I've said before, I know lots of women who are "car guys." I've written about trips to that great American institution, the rapidly disappearing junkyard. I've written about how drivers from different countries drive. I've written about competing in a 55-day, 15,000-mile rally in South America, a seven-day jaunt through the Pyrenees in an East-German Trabant, and a three-month, multi-part series about my drive around the world in 2000 in a 1959 Mercedes-Benz. I've written about towing trailers, buying motorcycles, running in marathons, and why televised classic car auctions are wrecking the car hobby for "normal" car enthusiasts. Les tells me that I have always received more reader mail than anyone else and I am proud that my voice reaches so many who care enough to write a letter or e-mail.
Several years ago, I gathered a group of my early columns and put together a book. I called it Motor Oil for a Car Guy's Soul. It was successful enough, but more importantly it won me the 2005 Ken Purdy Award for Excellence in Automotive Journalism from the International Motor Press Award. Ken Purdy was one of the pioneers of automotive writing in this country and has always been one of my biggest heroes. To win the award named for him was a humbling experience. Somewhere along the way I started a publishing company, Demontreville Press, to publish books, mostly the kind of automotive books that mainstream publishers wouldn't find profitable. I followed the first Motor Oil book with Volume II in 2006, mainly because I still had plenty of columns left that I wanted to put into a form that people could easily access. My final book in the Motor Oil trilogy, Volume III, is on the market as you read this and has yet more columns and stories, mostly from the pages of ec.
When you write for a newspaper, the best you can hope is that the next day someone will wrap fish or line the bottom of a birdcage with your prose. If you write for a magazine you can hope that your brilliance will grace a bathroom for a month or two. When you write a book, you can live with the hope that a copy will sit on a dusty shelf in some forgotten library a hundred years from now.
During 2007 and 2008, I was selected for an eight-month Knight-Wallace Journalism Fellowship at the University of Michigan. I like to think that my ongoing work at ec was a significant factor in my selection for this honor. While there, I studied alternative fuels, hybrid cars, energy and infrastructure, resulting in another book I called The Crooked Mile: Through peak oil, biofuels, hybrid cars, and global climate change to reach a brighter future. The process of doing the research for this book changed me in a number of ways, not the least of which was a realization that I enjoy the academic world.
On returning home, I enrolled in a master's program at Hamline University to study environmental education, and I've recently become more involved in research through that institution's Center for Global Environmental Education. I've come to realize that we as a society have significant problems we need to face. Most of these problems were created by those of us who are now middle-aged adults. We are so entrenched in our way of life that we cannot be counted on to solve the problems we've created-that will fall to upcoming generations. As a car guy, engineer, writer, publisher, and journalist, I feel a responsibility to find a way to communicate with future generations, and by learning how teachers teach, I'm hoping to learn to be a more effective writer and a publisher of works that will help mold young minds.
Alas, with a budding academic career on my plate and a publishing house to run, something has to give. This is my last column for european car magazine, a place that has been my home for nearly a decade and a half. I tried everything I could think of to keep my monthly column in these pages, but the truth is I couldn't devote the proper effort to you, the reader, and I didn't want to produce something that you wouldn't want to read. Les has been more than understanding about my decision and has offered to let me contribute from time to time for whatever special projects or stories might benefit from my idiosyncrasies. To say I have enjoyed being a part of this magazine would understate how I feel about the people I have worked with and the readers who have made what I do such a pleasure. I will miss them and you. Thank you for all that you have given me.