This is a story about how David E. Davis Jr., the legendary car-magazine editor who died March 27, created both a cautionary tale and a newsroom joke at Automotive News.
The joke is "Savannah Roller."
In a 1990 column, I cited some "rational" Japanese car buyers who "didn't read the car buff magazines, which have almost never met a car they didn't like."
At about that time, an Automotive News reporter was calling David for his opinion of Clarence Ditlow, the car-safety advocate.
David was running Automobile magazine. In a combative letter to me, with cc's to a list of buff-book editors, he wrote that he initially dismissed my remark "as the grumpy harrumphings of a wannabe competitor who will never achieve our circulation levels, but then I read your piece on Mr. Ditlow and saw that my statement about him being 'one of those second-rate Savonarolas' had become 'one of those second-rate Savannah Rollers.'
"Now I understand. You're illiterate.'"
Oof. The Ditlow profile did indeed include the nonsensical "Savannah Rollers."
Me: How did "Savannah Rollers" happen?
Reporter (sheepishly): That's what I thought he said.
Me: Yeah, but it makes no sense. Henceforth, let's not print anything we don't understand.
Because David's letter got under my skin, I published it as a letter to the editor. (Read it at autonews.com/davisletter.)
In a letter to David (I topped his cc's and copied Mother Teresa, Mexican President Carlos Salinas and others), I noted that I had studied in Florence and knew about Girolamo Savonarola, the extremist Renaissance friar.
Thereafter, David and I never discussed Savannah Rollers. For two decades, we often dined together at press dinners. He was unfailingly interesting, intelligent, honest and wonderful company. Like his contemporary, the late Leon Mandel, my friend and mentor who ran AutoWeek, David was bigger than life, and often better.