David E. Davis Jr., inarguably one of the deans of automotive journalism, died on Sunday 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 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.
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.
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. Davis leaves behind his wife, Jeannie, a daughter and two sons. Services are pending.
Steven Cole Smith is an AutoWeek contributor.