Jack Teahen -- friend, mentor, 'numbers nut,' curmudgeon, cornerstone of Automotive News -- dies at 87
Jack Teahen, during a career spanning six decades, created what have become staples of industry scorekeeping, including an annual dealer census and tallies of automakers' sales per dealership.
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John K. Teahen Jr., who was born a week before Automotive News' founding in 1925 and became a pillar of the publication through six decades of writing and editing, died Tuesday, Jan. 8, after a long illness. He was 87.
His first byline appeared in Automotive News on Nov. 14, 1955. His last was posted on autonews.com on Sept. 18 of last year, a month after he turned 87.
In between, he graced hundreds of columns, news stories and editorials with a peerless writing touch, mentored generations of reporters and editors and chronicled the industry's triumphs and failures.
Teahen created what have become staples of industry scorekeeping, including an annual dealer census and tallies of automakers' sales per dealership.
And he enlivened the Automotive News newsroom with barbed comments about such things as disobedient computers and automakers that failed to see the folly of abandoning cars in favor of SUVs.
To his colleagues he was the ever-gracious gentleman, always ready with kind words delivered with the elegant Teahen touch. To a favorite editor temporarily away from the office, he wrote: "I await the day that you are again the brow-beating dominatrix we all love."
For her help in his epic battles with "the abomination" -- the newspaper's computer system -- he annually awarded her a box of premium chocolates.
In 2006, Teahen's career won widespread accolades from his peers. In that year he was inducted into the Michigan Journalism Hall of Fame, received a Distinguished Service Citation from the Automotive Hall of Fame and accepted a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Detroit Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.
"He was the editor, more than any other, who made sure everything was right, from facts collected by our reporters to the way commas and apostrophes were used," wrote a former colleague, the late Richard A. Wright, in 2006.
Teahen's desk was a resource center for colleagues who mined his extensive storehouse of auto industry history and retreated to his hardcover dictionary and thesaurus when online searches failed them. To this day, a 1959 edition of Strunk and White's The Elements of Style sits in the shadow of the latest editions of his pricing bible, The Original New Car Cost Guide.
An auto family
Jack Teahen was born on Aug. 20, 1925, in Detroit. A week later, the first issue of Automotive Daily News was published in New York.
They would come together three decades later. In the interim, Teahen was no stranger to the auto industry. His father, J. King Teahen Sr., spent 46 years in the business, most of them at Fisher Body.
During World War II, "we didn't see much of my father for several months," his son wrote in a 2001 column comparing post-World War II America to the nation after 9/11.
Teahen graduated from the University of Detroit in 1949. He spent his first year in the work force as the university's director of sports publicity. After four years on the copy desk of the Detroit Free Press, he joined Automotive News as a reporter.
"He was a Fisher Body executive and was much involved in the changeover of Fisher and General Motors plants to war production. He worked days, nights and weekends."
The younger Teahen graduated from the University of Detroit in 1949 with a degree in industrial management. He spent his first year in the work force as the university's director of sports publicity.
After four years on the copy desk of the Detroit Free Press, he joined Automotive News as a reporter.
In the three decades after that he was an associate editor, assistant managing editor and managing editor. He held the title of senior editor for the next quarter century, until his retirement in 2009 at the age of 83.
In retirement, Teahen returned to his desk twice a month to write his signature "Sales Tales" column as well as other pieces analyzing the industry's performance.
In his last column, Teahen took issue with so-called industry experts who "change their projections as often as I change my socks."
In the same piece, he predicted that U.S. auto sales in 2012 would "perhaps" reach 14.5 million. The final tally, released last week, was 14.49 million.
"I'm a numbers nut," he once wrote in a memo entitled "Stuff I have done at Automotive News since 1955."
In 1957, he created the American car-dealer census. That led to the creation of the sales-per-dealership metric, a widely accepted measure of franchise health. The feature runs monthly in Automotive News to this day.
Defying what he considered to be the tyranny of the computer, he meticulously tracked automakers' price increases on stacks of yellow legal pads, often turning up facts and maneuvers that automakers would rather have left undiscovered.
"While automakers typically don't announce price hikes, Jack smokes them out," wrote Automotive News Publisher Peter Brown in a tribute that accompanied Teahen's induction into the Michigan Journalism Hall of Fame. "Better, he devised a system of sales-weighting that puts increases in prices into context within the brand."
Former colleague Wright said of Teahen: "His work was so highly respected that the auto companies would call Automotive News for his price figures ... a truly occult effort."
Teahen was also statistician for the Detroit Lions from 1948 to 2000. His tenure was highlighted by three National Football League championships in the 1950s and one playoff-game victory in the four decades that followed.
"You know about statisticians, the old question: What are the three degrees of liars? Answer: Liars, damn liars and statisticians," Teahen wrote last year.
"I'm proud to be among the stats guys, although I object to the liar's designation."
In 2005, Teahen went on the defensive by writing a letter to the editor of his own publication after readers took issue with his history of the Ford Thunderbird.
Model or nameplate?
Scores of Automotive News staffers were schooled by Teahen to know a model from a make from a nameplate.
Because of his guidance, they know the difference between dealer discounts and holdbacks. They know that while franchises may change hands, they aren't bought or sold.
Teahen wasn't afraid to take newsroom debates public in his columns.
"I must acknowledge that some of my Automotive News colleagues disagree with me on the definition of 'brand,'" he wrote in 1998. "My colleagues are wrong."
In 2000, he steered an 88-page special edition marking the 75th anniversary of Automotive News.
In it, he told the story of the industry through excerpts from the paper's archives. Under the heading "Perspective 2000," he explained how the tidbits resonated through the lens of history. No other single work serves as a better showcase for his craft.
Teahen had a reputation for having the most energetic writing style in a newsroom full of colleagues half his age.
His take on imports approaching the 10 percent mark in U.S. market share: "The U.S. auto industry got a rude wake-up call in 1959. The automakers realized they no longer had the American market to themselves."
His response to Ford Motor's failed 1997 attempt to create a network of company-owned stores: "Apparently, it never occurred to the automaker that its 4,800 dealers might be opposed to that type of competition."
Of Automotive News Washington Bureau Chief Helen Kahn, Teahen wrote: "She lived in the world of doublespeak and con artists, but nobody ever conned Helen."
In 2005, he went on the defensive by writing a letter to the editor of his own publication after readers took issue with his history of the Ford Thunderbird.
Teahen split historical hairs on model years, coupes and hardtops before concluding in his trademark gentlemanly fashion: "My thanks to all who wrote to me. As they say in my business, 'If they don't write, it means they're not reading.'
"Fortunately, I do not have that problem."
You can reach Dave Versical at email@example.com.