The first modern motor journalist? In praise of Thomas Jay McCahill III.
“Part of every dollar goes into the redesigning and styling pot, in an attempt to make your current car look doggy, outdated. It’s a successful trick that closely borders fraud.” These words from possibly the last known living descendant of the Scottish highwayman, Rob Roy. And if, as Henry Ford proclaimed that history is bunk, the story of this particular fellow could as easily be a work of fiction.
Thomas Jay McCahill III was once America’s foremost automotive journalist with a character as large as his substantial six foot two, 250 pound frame. The grandson of a wealthy lawyer, he graduated from Yale with a Fine Arts degree (possibly English, his story changed over time) and was surrounded by the automobile – his father had Mercedes-Benz dealerships.
Taking on two garages of his own, the Depression excised the McCahill wealth, leaving him destitute in New York. That city’s Times newspaper carried an ad for an Automotive Editor at Popular Science with a remit firmly stating: simple technical review, no brand names. McCahill’s sarcastic leanings, mentioning those taboo brands got him the sack only to be hired the very same day as a freelance writer with rival magazine, Mechanix Illustrated.
Keen to use his new position to test and report on the latest cars, manufacturers demonstrated caution; “We test our own.” McCahill was lent nothing. Conning his way one evening into a railway siding, he asked an employee to retrieve a Buick from the wagon, for photographic purposes. His report of this and a 1946 Ford on loan were in Mechanix Illustrated next issue. People began to take notice.
McCahill’s pithy comments garnered personable accolades from the public as MI readership grew. His colourfully imaginative prose pulled no punches. Should Uncle Tom (as he preferred) believe a car good he would say so. One such example being the AC Cobra, “a car hairier than a Borneo gorilla in a raccoon suit.” Time and again his rambunctious uttering caused mirth and debate within the garage, workshop or building site only to the consternation and frequent anger of the car makers.
A myth revolves where three GM hired goons attempted to persuade McCahill into submission; two were apparently hospitalised, the other ran away. Regardless of the truth, it makes for a great story.
On Ford’s 1957 build quality, “rugged as an Irish riot in a Russian saloon bar.” Packard from 1955 “changing to a V8 was like Truman voting Republican.” Few were spared. Oldsmobile’s 1948 Futuramic 98 receiving “it’s like stepping on a wet sponge” concerning the gas pedal. Equally, the ‘59 Chrysler Imperial was “as loaded as an opium peddler during a tongue war.”
A 1957 Buick was blessed with being likened to “a fat matron trying to get out a slippery bath tub.” General Motors (as others) were apoplectic but McCahill’s influence gained momentum. Packard president Hugh Ferry much later told McCahill “we never really liked you; but we always respected you.”
Believing this to help sort wheat from chaff, McCahill hit upon the idea of a sprint test and thus was born the 0-60mph benchmark to which every car magazine, be that print or digital still adheres to this day. Using a stopwatch himself and painted lines on the road, this method lacked the sophistication of more modern day recording but again, he got his point across.
By the late 1950’s, Uncle Tom’s lofty mantle as Mexhanix Illustrated’s figurehead had manufacturers trembling. His reviews could make or break a car. He openly preferred the Corvair to any ‘59 Porsche and was unconvinced by Ralf Nader’s comments over the formers “unsafe at any speed” sobriquet.
Through his articles he championed car safety; demands for better brakes, handling and more power. “The cause of most wrecks is not by speed but by slow driving.” Detroit in general came in for ridicule over gauges which McCahill named idiot lights such as high water temperatures or low oil pressure – “The idiot lights would come on just as the patient died.”
Whilst his rhetoric ensured equal amounts of both good and bad publicity (depending on view) he argued and campaigned for America’s auto industry to up its game and ward off foreign competition. A strong demand by Uncle Tom was to end what he saw as unfair trade discrepancies between the US and England, Canada and France.
He wished for the United States to halt imports and in lieu of wartime repatriations for those three nations into accepting thousands of quality used American made vehicles. This in turn would improve the home economy as American car manufacturers would make more. Holding court within a monthly magazine was one thing, orchestrating Congress quite another.
Uncle Tom’s personal life mirrors his shrinking violet-like journalistic lifestyle. Married four times, he opined to having “more cash than hair.” This quote stemmed from the covers of two Mexhanix Illustrated where McCahill posed with cars alongside two different wives. One in New York, the other at his Florida home, where he garaged his treasured 1953 Bentley convertible and several Imperials as “the Florida climate kills rust.”
McCahill died aged 68 in 1975. A keen fisherman, diver and (former champion) duck shooter, he lost a leg after a duck shoot; a thorn causing gangrene, although he succumbed to his lifelong nicotine addiction.
A public champion who gave Mechanix Illustrated Mail men backache and who shook the automotive bedrock, we conclude with two personal favourite anecdotes. The 1966 Hemi engined Dodge Coronet Uncle Tom describes having “all the belt of a two mile swim in a whisky vat”, swiftly followed by, “it’s as furry as a mink farm, snarly as Bengal tiger in a butchers shop.”
And the 1958 Edsel Export package; “I wouldn’t own one (without the export package) because of the jello suspension. That power (345bhp from a 410 cubic inch V8) could prove similar to opening a Christmas basket full of king cobras in a small room with the light off.”