Curmudgeons-R-Us

by Rick Kopec (September 2014)

It’s been a long time since I read Car and Driver magazine. I had been a subscriber since 1970 but I had been reading it religiously since 1964, when then-editor David E. Davis had the cojones to include an article about a Pontiac GTO versus a Ferrari GTO. The two cars never actually went head-to-head (only 39 GTOs were made and even back then it was hard to corral one for a track test) but the magazine created a cover story using an illustration showing both cars that immediately catapulted it into automotive magazine history. The Ferrari was only mentioned briefly but it was neither tested nor shown in a photograph. That hardly mattered. The audacity of the (theoretical) match-up caused the purists to howl like nudists in a cactus patch at midnight and established the magazine’s reputation as a rogue publication with editors who were hoodlums. A year later, after a continuous cacophony from outraged readers which served to only encourage the magazine’s shamelessness, Car and Driver offered up a comparison of a Ferrari 330/GT 2+2 and a Pontiac 2+2 in the form on a 421 cubic-inch, 376 h.p. 3x2V Catalina two-door. Both cars were driven at Bridgehampton by vaunted sports car racer Walt Hansgen. This set the magazine apart from its tamer competitors Road & Track, Car Life and Motor Trend and the subsequent bad boy image lasted for decades.

One of the reasons I stopped reading C/D was that they had reduced the size of the type (as did Road & Track, which I’ve also stopped reading), likely to allow them to use fewer pages and thereby keep their costs down. That’s just a curmudgeon thing. After you get to be 65 years old, it’s permitted. It’s like when I go into a gas station and stick my credit card into the pump. I have six different gas company cards because I prefer not to use a Visa or Mastercard for gas. I know the card can only be inserted into the slot in one of four ways (magnetic strip up and to the right; strip up and to the left; strip down and to the right; strip down and to the left). It seems that no matter what station I go to, their pump never takes the card the same way the last one did. If my card will not work after two prompts from the pump’s screen, I’ll move on to the next station down the road. I will not go inside to timidly give my card to some third world refugee (who probably owns the place), feeling like a degenerate whose last charge put his card over its limit. Make it difficult for me and I’ll take my business somewhere else. If the government is so intent on intruding in our daily lives, why can’t they specify that all gas pumps be made to operate exactly the same? The credit cards are all the same. And as long as I’m on a rant, why can’t the Department of Transportation require all vehicles sold in the U.S. have standardized light, turn signal and windshield wiper controls so when you go from one car to another you don’t have to deal with a learning curve while you’re driving down the road? Am I starting to sound like the late writer and broadcaster Andy Rooney? Near the end of his long career (he had been a combat correspondent in WWII), around 1978, his gig on the “60 Minutes” television show focused on him being perpetually irritated and annoyed and he never ran out of things that incensed him. He passed away in 2011 when he was 92. His last appearance on the air was a month earlier and it wouldn’t surprise me if he had been putting together his comments for the next show while he was on his deathbed: “You know what I really hate about funerals? …” He seemed like a crusty old curmudgeon to me back then, but now I get it.

Sorry for the detour; back to the point: why have I stopped reading Car and Driver? Even if I wanted to get a pair of magnifying eyeglasses for what has gradually become fine print, I was infuriated when they fired my favorite writer, Brock Yates. It was one of those corporate, belt-tightening moves where they canned the person who was getting paid the most. Eliminating Yates’ salary (whatever it was) probably allowed them to hire three young pups; all unknowns with a tenth of his knowledge and none of his style. Did a corporate bigwig call him in to deliver the bad news in person? No, they chose the cowardly way to handle the termination: they sent him an email. All it proved was that they didn’t deserve him and it was their loss. The magazine was worse for it but the suits in the top offices seemed not to care.

This wasn’t the first time Brock Yates was shown the door from Car and Driver. You might recall that he was responsible for a touch of automotive insanity in the early 1970s called the Cannonball Baker Sea-to-Shining-Sea Memorial Trophy Dash, commonly referred to as just “the Cannonball.” At that time Yates was a senior editor at Car and Driver. While doing some research for an article he came across the story of Erwin G. “Cannonball” Baker, a professional daredevil (when is the last time you heard that term used to describe someone who wasn’t doing stupid things on YouTube?) who set a record in 1933 for driving across the United States by car (a 1936 supercharged Graham-Paige) in 53 ½ hours. By himself. This was back before the interstate highway system, when the best roads were two-lanes and others were unpaved, going through every Podunk town along the way. Baker admitted to pulling over for a half-hour nap in Oklahoma.

Over lunch with fellow C/D staffers, Yates postulated that it should be possible to break that record today and could find no evidence of anyone since 1933 who had even tried. Wilt Chamberlain claimed to have driven coast-to-coast by himself in his Maserati in 40 hours but could offer no proof. With the interstate highway system and gas stations at almost every exit, Yates figured it could be done with a couple of drivers in the right car in 36 hours. Some of his fellow associates suggested he was insane, but that only seem to spur him forward. He posed the question publicly, in the next issue of C/D, soliciting readers’ opinions of what the best car and route might be. Without realizing it, he had touched a hot wire with automotive enthusiasts, causing sparks, smoke and sizzle. The “Cannonball” became the subject of lunchtime talk by motorheads across the country. When Yates failed to convince any of his cohorts to join him, he, two other C/D writers and his fourteen-year old son eventually made the trip in a ‘71 Dodge Custom Sportsman van. They drove nonstop from the center of Manhattan to Redondo Beach in 40 hours and 51 minutes.

Duly reported in the magazine, their road trip and subsequent “official” record had the effect of throwing a Molotov cocktail into a balsa wood shack. Yates hinted at another attempt to lower his record and like a Pied Piper, enthusiastic potential participants crowded behind him, pushing him forward. Every car enthusiast seemed to know the best route, the best car and could tick off the best equipment. There were lesser voices in the background murmuring about the illegality of such anarchistic behavior, of using public roads as a personal racetrack. Yates pressed on and eventually organized three subsequent events that spawned more magazine articles and a couple of movies. One of the strongest voices of dissatisfaction and disapproval came from Yates’ boss, Car and Driver’s editor/publisher David E. Davis, Jr. Following the fourth running of the “outlaw” event Davis could take no more. He sent Yates a terse telegram informing him he was no longer employed by the magazine.

Yates’ next move was to start his own newsletter, “The Cannonball Ex-Press.” He ran a few ads in publications like Autoweek but most subscribers found out about it through word of mouth. The newsletter served as an outlet and forum for opinions and viewpoints that were pure Yates: too acerbic or contemptuous to be included in a mainstream publication. He also used it to announce the next Cannonball, in the spring of 1979. It would be the last one but no one knew that at the time. Yates posited the event as a protest of the national 55-MPH speed limit; a motorist’s call to arms to challenge the government’s jackbooted attempt to control the populace by limiting top speeds on every road in the country. It would be automotive anarchy for 3,000 miles spread over 48 hours. The potentially high-risk exploit was presented at a time when the rough edges of everyday life were being gradually ground off by a suffocating legal system, overbearing nanny-state politicians and government alphabet soup micro-managing agencies like the EPA, DOT, NHTSA and OSHA.

The fifth and final Cannonball provided Yates with fodder for a movie screenplay that became “The Cannonball Run” starring Burt Reynolds, Dom Deluise and Farrah Fawcett. He also became an on-screen presence for television and cable race coverage, then in its infancy, and wrote several well-received books on various automotive subjects. He began writing for Car and Driver again in the late 1990s, was let go in the early 2000s, and began writing a monthly column for Vintage Racer magazine. Yates essentially stopped writing a few years ago due to Alzheimer’s disease. After being diagnosed, he volunteered to participate in a medical trial to evaluate the effectiveness of certain Alzheimer’s medications. He did a lot of writing in his fifty-plus year career, beginning with weekly columns in Competition Press (later to become Autoweek) where he was referred to as Brock “The Assassin” Yates. It’s all out there, should you care to find it and read it. Everything he wrote is entertaining and informative.