My Life in Cars - Bruce McCall
An excerpt from https://www.amazon.com/How-Did-Get-Here-Memoir/dp/0399172289
(make sure to follow the link for his awesome illustrations)
Cars had gripped my imagination almost since I had one, as a boy growing up in Ontario. I loved to draw them as they appeared on the pages of magazines. First, in the immediate postwar era, the foggy reprints from British racing journals of prewar Grand Prix. A golden age of mighty giants and fierce competition: Auto Union, Mercedes-Benz, Alfa Romeo, and Delahaye. Immortal drivers: Nuvolari, Caracciola, Seaman. America had the Indianapolis 500, dirt-track racing, world-speed attempts on the Utah salt flats. The so-called sports-car revolution, sparked by U.S. servicemen bringing home spindly little MG TCs, mushroomed into a whole car culture that ignored Detroit. By the time I could legally drive, cars occupied my mind and much of my life. A Ford Anglia, a Morgan Plus Four, two Triumph TR3s, a Porsche 356 coupé. The upward climb that often ended only in bankruptcy or death.
Back in the hot-blooded heyday of driving as a hobby, Canada supported, marginally, a single major magazine: Canada Track & Traffic. Much of Canadian racing amounted to a few amateur regional races on abandoned airfields, and the national automotive industry was a bunch of factories in Windsor and Toronto that bolted together Detroit cars. Along with another myopic visionary, I started a second Canadian car magazine, The Canadian Driver, which turned out to be a fool’s errand, a hubristic brainstorm of tiny brains, and instantly collapsed in total failure, humiliation, and the loss of other people’s money. By some miracle, though, I ended up replacing the outgoing editor of Canada Track & Traffic. It was a sinking scow, and I wrote, or rewrote, every word of every issue and designed all the page layouts. After a dreary six months, the American advertising industry provided my ticket out: a mentor and friend persuaded me to relocate to Detroit and write car ads for Campbell Ewald, the big agency that handled Chevrolet.
Image may contain Human Person Vehicle Transportation Automobile and Car
Inside the Bulgemobile’s styling studio.
Canada jiggled in the rearview mirror, receded, and disappeared as I drove into the tunnel conveying me from Windsor to Detroit on a gray afternoon in December, 1962. By this time, the suspicion that I wasn’t cut out for a contented Canadian life had become a conviction. I was temperamentally too antsy for that conspiracy of calm, phlegmatism, and compulsive self-effacement. It increasingly irked me that Canada shunned all extremes, breeding what I saw as a wallflower mentality and a bland tolerance for mediocrity. With J.F.K. cheering up the White House, it felt like a propitious moment to immigrate to America. I exited the tunnel in the unglamorous Volvo I was driving then and found no welcoming committee, no Emma Lazarus scenario. A customs officer waved me through, and the most significant act of my life passed with all the drama of paying last month’s water bill.
I reported for my first day of work at the General Motors Building. Uniformed elevator operators whisked V.I.P.s up to the top two floors, to the carpeted hush of the Chevrolet executive suites. As I stood in the reception area, I reflected that I would be earning more money than I ever had before. How had this come about? Because of a man named David E. Davis, Jr. It was David E. (nobody called him Dave) who plucked me from obscurity and brought me to Campbell Ewald, where he wrote ads and swanned around the executive suite. He was fast on his feet. He seemed to remember everything he’d ever read or heard. His speech had a natural fluency, laced with a wicked wit. He knew what he was talking about. He knew everybody. His example illuminated what I had dimly suspected: that life means more when you are deeply involved in your work, appreciating the treasure of a well-furnished mind and interesting company, usually smarter than you.
Campbell Ewald was too big, its layers of command too complex, to allow an intimate atmosphere. We creative drones seldom even saw our ostensible partners, the account executives. Print copywriters and art directors, the creative infantry, worked in cubicles no bigger than they had to be to hold a man and his typewriter. I wish I’d pilfered the big old Underwood that came as standard equipment. You could drop one of those behemoths from the tenth floor, and it might bounce but it wouldn’t break. And its elegant typeface transformed banalities into profundity. The dark wood, frosted glass, and a stiff sense of order in the office lent an aura of solidity and a kind of charm reminiscent of a bank. It certainly didn’t feel like the world “Mad Men” would later depict.
Not that there wasn’t drinking. A few weeks in, a grizzled, middle-aged fellow-copywriter named Bart took me to lunch. His enthusiasm, if he ever had any, was buried under a thick layer of cynicism. Drinking was Bart’s hobby. Work didn’t interest him. He introduced me to the two-hour, three-martini lunch. It wasn’t Bart’s invention, but nobody ever did more to honor it. Bart, with his toilet humor and alcoholic passion, eventually wore me down. The time passed among red-leather banquettes and linen tablecloths first appeared to be glamorous, then revealed itself as pathetic.
It turns my ears pink today to recall the Corvette headlines I perpetrated. The 1963 Corvette Sting Ray, a startlingly original design, capable on looks alone of making people want to buy it, was the most technically advanced and arguably the least criticized car in General Motors history. And yet “Clip Along the Dotted Line” was the headline I wrote for one Corvette ad. A lame pun: the photo above it showed a Corvette clipping along the dotted center line on a rural highway. Another inanity of stupendous irrelevance: “We Took a Little off the Top.” I borrowed a barbering phrase to prattle about the way the doors of this hot new sports car cut into the roof. Not that Chevrolet advertising set a standard for innovation anywhere. Corporate advertising clung to “Jet-Smooth Ride” as the slogan for the entire model line for years. This gem had come from the pen of Campbell Ewald’s chairman, a Buddha-size man of a certain age whose name, ironically, was Mr. Little. Someone at Chevrolet decided that the failing Corvair could be repositioned as an ideal runabout for women: rear-engined and thus light-steering, gutless enough not to frighten a spinster, cute as a button in pastel colors. Into the breach lunged Mr. Little, an unchallenged copywriting tyro such as only an agency chairman could be. His Corvair headline: “She flirts with you, that’s what she does!” The creative troops cringed.
After two and a half years, my euphoria at having been given a professional home and the early makings of an advertising career had tapered off. I had learned just enough to start feeling restless. A few of my copywriting friends had defected to New York—to Doyle Dane Bernbach, the hottest agency in the world. D.D.B.’s Volkswagen work alone (the now famous “Think Small” ad) heralded a brash new dogma that suddenly made big, conventional agencies seem constipated. D.D.B. mocked the mastodons’ research departments, mission statements, focus groups, and “safe” advertising. Instead, there arose a blasphemous sidestepping of social science, a practice of going straight for the jugular. I felt ready to test my brains and talents in the big leagues, in the most competitive arena extant, New York.
Through David E., I met Barney Clark, a creative elder on the Ford account at the J. Walter Thompson agency in New York. He made a call for me, and I was soon hired to write copy for Fords. My triumphal entry into New York fell flat the moment I flopped down on the bed in my room at the Lexington Hotel. I knew as much about living in Constantinople as I did about coping with New York. I lay there on my bed, cursing myself for cruising into the biggest city on the continent as if it were Ottawa. Years before, back in my teens, the barber’s shifting of the part in my hair from one side of my head to the other triggered a woozy discombobulation that lasted days. I interpreted this as a miniature example of a profound larger truth: change jangles. Avoid it when you can. My first Sunday in town, a spanking-bright early November morning, I decided to amble around the city. Five blocks in, I surrendered to a force greater than myself and returned to my room. The scale was too large. I felt squashed, insignificant, stupid. I spent the afternoon in bed, reading a Mordecai Richler article about Quebec politics.
David E. lived over in Brooklyn Heights. After overcoming my self-pity, I made a trip to his house on Henry Street, where, in the living room, weekend salons were held. Here David E. was in his element: genial host to every famous European racing driver passing through town, American heads of imported car brands, automotive writers and photographers, and assorted louche characters that he had collected here and there. One was a blond, gamine wife or girlfriend of a slippery Brit, a professional hanger-on who was always about to take a job too secret to talk about. Pookie was her name. She did the twist amid a forest of moving legs. The Beatles, the Mamas and the Papas, and the Lovin’ Spoonful warbled, behind the conversational hubbub. I didn’t yet belong there, but I tried to enjoy it.
The organization of the Ford creative group was evidently modelled on the assembly line in Chaplin’s “Modern Times.” Individual brilliance was rendered pointless by the fact that the group functioned on the monkeys-and-typewriters principle: every writer in that glorified boiler room was commanded to churn out headlines and copy for the same Mustang or Galaxie or Falcon newspaper ad. Every writer’s efforts were tendered to Bert, the copy supervisor. There ensued the briefest of pauses while he speed-read the few dozen candidates’ pages.
His critiques were muttered in a rapid-fire monotone out of the side of his mouth. He approached making ads as a grim, joyless exercise: boiling the fat out of every line of copy, driving his writers to the wall with orders to go back and whip up more. Bert’s approach was to grab readers by the scruff of the neck and rush them through a volley of bullet points to the bottom of the page. He begrudged a wasted word. To him, the romance of language, the allure of the automobile, emotion of any kind, diluted the hard sell. As the self-imagined poet laureate of driving’s pleasures, I chafed at this. After the Corvette experience, writing on Ford was boot camp. I learned to clip, chop, and tighten to shape a selling argument to the buyer’s needs. It felt good to be good at it, but it wasn’t enough.
I eventually vamoosed, landing at Ogilvy & Mather, in my dream job: head copywriter on the Mercedes-Benz account. The best cars in the world, linked with the best advertising agency in the world. David Ogilvy, the company’s founder, had elucidated a radical advertising philosophy in his 1963 best-seller, “Confessions of an Advertising Man.” From first page to last, D.O., as he was known by everyone in his agency, hammered home the doctrine of rationality. He had studied advertising as a researcher and had measured its effectiveness. He repeated or spun adages that stuck in the mind as inarguably true: “The more facts you tell, the more you sell.” “People don’t buy from clowns.” “The consumer is not a moron, she is your wife.” Ogilvy codified advertising relentlessly and persuasively. He elegantly railed against advertising creativity untethered to a selling proposition. This enraged the liberals in the field and made him a pariah to most of them. It also attracted clients. The reassurance that Ogilvy’s doctrine offered—objectively proven facts versus creative hot air and guesswork—clicked.
The reader of an Ogilvy ad entered a deluxe selling machine, was royally entertained, and, on exiting, was punch-drunk on the merits of the product. Ogilvy became my hero. Single-handedly and almost overnight, he levered advertising out of the demiworld of lowbrow hucksterism. Advertising didn’t have to be a near-criminal conspiracy. It could be tasteful, honest, and useful.
The O. & M. offices at Forty-eighth Street and Fifth Avenue felt on first acquaintance like those of a prosperous London legal firm. Ogilvy himself stomped through the halls, the ultimate headmaster. It wasn’t in him to waste time or words. “Tell me what you think that headline is actually saying,” he’d bark, on walking into my office. Or, “How do you talk to a millionaire?” I’d blurt out some bromide. “I’m a millionaire,” he’d say. “I want the same information as anybody else!” Copywriters, he said, used unctuous, silly language. “They think they have to suck up to the rich, and they end up sounding like butlers.”
I wrote and rewrote Mercedes-Benz copy night and day, seven days a week. I thought and worked myself into being an Ogilvist, while also serving as the guardian of the oldest and most respected manufacturer of automobiles on earth. I learned from Ogilvy that brutally hard work is the secret of great writing and that, if you’re patient, there is always a better way to say it. Those first months on Mercedes-Benz at O. & M. were my happiest, most fulfilling time in advertising. I was made a vice-president. (The world didn’t need to know that an advertising agency vice-president was the equivalent of an admiral of the Swiss Navy.) Our little gang of zealots, abetted by a typographic angel, the Danish designer Ingeborg Baton, worked around the clock, feeling the fizz known only to people in love with their work.
Mine was close to the last generation of car nuts. Since my time working on car ads, automobiles have morphed into emotionally neutered large appliances, competing more on entertainment than performance, dulling risk with technological interventions that replace the need for judgment. This is good for safety and inarguably progressive—but it’s heading into a tomorrow where we’ll all be guests in our automated, self-driving blobs. Driving under the proper conditions—the right kind of car, small, light, and responsive to the slightest touch—made driving a sport and a pleasure, with a frisson of underlying danger to penalize a lack of skill. I look back and see that I had lucked into the romance of driving at its fervent peak.
Hopefully he's wrong, and that we'll always have car nuts (maybe just a different kind of nut than in the past).
WhoIsTheLeader last edited by
@davesaddiction That is stupendous writing right there. The illustrations accompanying the New Yorker article really drive it home. Thank you.
Huzer last edited by
There have always been people to whom a car is merely a conveyance. Those people are generally the majority of people, and while they may mutter "That's a nice car" on occasion, that's usually the amount of excitement reserved for a vehicle. My wife fits in that category. She tolerates my obsession, notices a car or two every once in a while, and appreciates old Mustangs because a 1967 Mustang was her first car. But she doesn't want a 1967 Mustang. She wants a heated steering wheel, heated seats, power everything else and a bluetooth connection with a large easy to read screen. She wants a comfortable conveyance.
Then there are those that enjoy the aspect of driving, those that are pleased by the aesthetics of design. Those folks have largely been in the minority. There are those that enjoy working on their own cars. Personally, I like fixing broken things and figuring out how things work. I tend to prefer a solo drive, whether it was a romp in the Miata, a backroad cruise in the Cougar, or a trail in the 4Runner. My wife doesn't go on drives, and on the occasion where she does humor me and rides along, it's akin to me going shopping with her at a department store. She can't see driving for just the act of driving, and not a destination, and spending a couple of hours in a car. I can't see going to a store with no definitive purchase in mind, I can't wrap my head around browsing and spending hours in a store.
That said, even intelligent people fall victim to nostalgia and how everything was better when they were the center of their own universe. I can't help but feel that way every time I read a "my generation will be the last to..." There always have been, and always will be enthusiasts, and like always, they will be the minority.
@huzer Solid take.
I'm in the "love to drive, love great industrial design, like to tinker and always looking to expand my mechanical knowledge" camp. There are many varied ways to care about cars. I look forward to seeing what automotive culture looks like in ten or twenty years. One can only imagine what kind of EV "hot rods" we might see down the road.
Very good comparison with her going for a drive vs. you going shopping with her. Hard to make someone enjoy something that they don't enjoy!
trivet last edited by
I'm in the "love to drive, love great industrial design, like to tinker and always looking to expand my mechanical knowledge" camp
I haven't really thought about it before like this, but you have nailed the description of a lot of OPPOs, myself included.
@trivet I wish my dad or older brothers had been more mechanical-minded and had been able to pass on more to me. I can handle simple things, but really want to learn to take on more and pass on that knowledge to my kids.
trivet last edited by
My dad wasn't a "car guy", but he was mechanically inclined and passed that on to me. I try like hell to pass it on to my kids - my son is very computer savvy, both hardware and software, but still needs a lot of coaching on the car stuff. But he gets it, so I'll call it a win.