by Paul Ingrassia
He derided federal automotive-safety regulators as “killjoys and pecksniffs.” He maybe could forgive Nixon for Watergate, but never for the 55 miles-an-hour speed limit. He worshiped maximum speed, but in 1978 he informed his many readers that he had proudly purchased an 86-horsepower Honda Accord.
Such was Brock Yates, automotive journalist and author, who died last week at age 82. Yates, shown racing in the picture above, was among those who propelled Car and Driver to prominence in the 1970s and 1980s. Others included such talents as David E. Davis Jr., P.J. O’Rourke, Leon Mandel and William Jeanes, who has penned a thank-you note to his former colleague that’s published nearby.
To my mind, as one who has written about the auto industry for more than 30 years, Yates was the defining automotive journalist of his day. In this era of non-stop “news-like” clutter on cable TV and social media, it’s worth remembering why.
Yates cut through automotive hyperbole and pretension like nobody else, just as he did when he unapologetically praised the “Honshu shoebox,” as he playfully dubbed the Accord. “A wide body of customers exists for a car that embodies form and function, a car that works…,” he wrote. “Quality and solid engineering will always supercede flashing styling and ad-biz two-steps…”
Take that, Detroit.
But Yates credited the Big Three when warranted. When the Chrysler minivan debuted in 1983, Yates elegantly summed up its appeal. “The blessed box. Ugly and prosaic when compared with the wedge, the oblate spheroid, the cone, the French curve and the parallelogram, especially as they have been contorted by the mad hallucinations of those tinware cultists and icon-mongers known as automotive stylists,” he wrote. “Yet the box is the most perfect storage bin devised by man.”
Yates was an enthusiast and an iconoclast. In 1971 he started a coast-to-coast, no-rules, madcap race between New York and Los Angeles, the Cannonball Run. When a journalist asked whether it was a for-profit event, Yates replied: “Do I look like Mother Teresa?”
In the second Run, Yates and racer Dan Gurney made the trip in a Ferrari Daytona in just under 36 hours. They averaged 80 miles an hour, despite being slowed by snow in the Rockies. “At no time did we exceed 175 mph,” Gurney declared. Yates later wrote the screenplay for the 1981 movieThe Cannonball Run.
After the Run ran its course, Yates in 1984 developed One Lap of America, a circumnavigation of the Lower 48 states. Each car’s team of drivers was instructed to respect speed limits. More or less.
Inevitably, there were complications. “Tales of snowstorms, monsoons, internecine fights, road closures and teammates left behind during gas breaks kept us all laughing and turning to Yates for rulings,” recalls Bill Baker, a veteran automotive publicist who worked on the project. “He’d laugh and say, ‘Keep going. No whining.’ “
As a journalistic star, Yates frequently bedeviled the anonymous copy editors who had to correct the frequent misspellings and grammatical liberties in his sometimes-purple prose. But he played his role, and they played theirs.
When I was posted to The Wall Street Journal’s Detroit bureau in 1985, my bosses suggested I read the book Yates had published two years earlier: The Decline and Fall of the American Automobile Industry. I was wowed by the richness of Yates’s reporting, the elegance of his writing and the depth of his withering insight.
In recounting Detroit’s failure in automotive technology, Yates described being invited to the General Motors proving ground in 1966 to test-drive the new Cadillac Eldorado. It was priced about $2,000 higher than the Mercedes-Benz 250S sedan.
But the lower-price Mercedes came with standard disc brakes. Those were a $100 extra-cost option on the Eldorado, because GM figured only a few automotive enthusiasts would complain about the barely-adequate standard drum brakes. Yates wrote: “Presumably only this tiny segment of the market — the ones Detroit privately called “car nuts” or “buffs” — would be interested in driving an automobile that stopped in time.”
Yates also memorably described how insular executives clustered in suburban Bloomfield Hills, Mich. missed the meaning of the muscle-car craze of the 1960s. “Had they looked beyond their hood ornaments,” he wrote, “the Bloomfield Hills contingent might have recognized that the so-called teenage punk street racers and their bouffant-haired girl friends could tell them more about the shifting tastes in cars than all the stultified market research being produced to satisfy the preconceptions of the Detroit Mind.”
In 2005, by which time I was based in New York, The Wall Street Journal editors asked me to list the five best car books ever for the paper’s Weekend Edition. I put Decline and Fall at the top. Yates graciously reached out to thank me, and thus crossed the journalistic divide between enthusiast writers and financial reporters. Neither side much respected the other.
The enthusiast types figured financial reporters couldn’t tell a balance sheet from a balance shaft. The financial reporters (most of whom hadn’t read Decline and Fall) figured the enthusiast writers were shills for the car companies. But Yates and I got beyond the stereotypes, and became email pen-pals. I would still put his book at the top of the list today.
Yates could be petulant at times. When Davis criticized his 1991 book on Enzo Ferrari, Yates declared their friendship over and a public feud began. They reconciled before Davis died in 2011.
Yates lived his last years in Wyoming, N.Y., some 50 miles east of Buffalo, sadly afflicted with Alzheimer’s disease. He’s now probably plotting some outlandish chariot race through the heavens, with Mother Teresa nodding approval.