Across The Pond Part Two. The Story of Uncle Tom

The first modern motor journalist? In praise of Thomas Jay McCahill III.

Tom McCahill. Image: Simanaitissays.com

Part of every dollar goes into the redesigning and styling pot, in an attempt to make your current car look doggy, outdated.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.

Image: Thetruthaboutcars.com

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.

Image: Mystarcollectorcar.com

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.

Image: Mystarcollectorcar.com

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.

Image via Flickr.

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.

Author: Andrew Miles

Beyond hope there lie dreams; after those, custard creams?

9 thoughts on “Across The Pond Part Two. The Story of Uncle Tom”

  1. Good morning Andrew. I would imagine that Tom McCahill is largely unknown to our European readership, but he was a certainly quite a presence in the US automotive landscape. For some reason, my dad had a small collection of Mechanix Illustrated magazines from the mid-1950’s. Even as a child, I was able to appreciate McCahill’s irreverent wit and enjoyable writing style. He certainly didn’t pull his punches when it came to calling out the shortcomings of the cars he tested.

  2. Separated so much by time, culture, and distance, I have to admit I was unaware until this morning of “Uncle Tom”.

    Andrew – are you SURE he wasn’t an invention of That Richard Porter?

  3. Morning Andrew. He sounds like an earlier version of some of our “favourite television personalities and commentators” of today. Not quite sure if that is a good thing or not? He certainly didn’t hold back. That’s for sure!

  4. Nice to be reminded of Tom McCahill – thank you, Andrew. I had heard of him most recently via the Curbside Classic website; he was an entertaining writer and quite a Volkswagen Beetle fan.

    1. Hello Adam, I was wondering about that. I’ll enjoy browsing that archive – thank you very much.

    2. Unfortunately the complete archive of Mechanix Illustrated isn’t archived at Google Books, unlike its’ competitors.

      Fawcett Publications’ non-comics IP seems to have been scattered to the four winds so it’s likely Google can’t find who owns the rights to the archives, which may or may not be the current owners of the name.

  5. “Ralf Nader”? Ahem.

    After we got to Canada from England in 1959, I stumbled across Uncle Tom’s warblings in some old Mechanix Illustrated magazines in the barn behind the first house we rented (from a summertime resident US citizen who was getting on a bit and finding it a bit of a fag commuting from Honolulu to Nova Scotia annually — no jets then). There were also some Popular Science and LIFE magazine issues from the late 1940s to mid ’50s. Great reading for a 12 year-old to catch up on a new culture.

    In 1951 for example, Popular Science showed you how to make a suitcase atom bomb, very edifying. Mechanix Illustrated was printed on paper not much above newspaper grade, and cost only 25 cents compared to 30 for Popular Science and its real rival Popular Mechanics which were both of decent physical quality on proper shiny paper. MI was distinctly second rate compared to those two, and only Uncle Tom made it worth perusing on the magazine racks. And then only in small doses. Say, monthly.

    Motocar was first with timed acceleration runs in the 1930s, but Uncle Tom hadn’t heard of much beyond the borders of the USA, in common with the vast majority of his countrymen, as we soon discovered. There were many Americans with summer homes here in those days, the beat the heat exodus which had started back in the late 1800s. Their interest in Canada? Nil. The American we rented our first house from was always going on that late summer of ’59 about me saying aluminium instead of the American/Canadian aluminum. Of course, he wasn’t happy when I pointed out that it was officially The Aluminium Company of Canada from an ad in the Canadian edition of LIFE. Even (!) Wikipedia gets that wrong in its opening paragraphs on AlCan, but the subsequent text is correct. Still, you go with the flow where you live if you want to be understood, so I changed. There were always a surfeit of kids at school who were fascinated by my English prep school RPN accent, so I soon learned what the main differences in pronunciation were and fitted in. It’s pretty simple from English to Canadian, but not so easy to parrot an American. The English impassable, referring to road conditions, comes out sounding the same as US impossible, for instance.

    Uncle Tom was that strange old bird of an uncle you had with big opinions and tall stories based on not much more than vivid imagination and a twinkle in his eye. He did well out of being contrary and was obviously no fool but liked to pontificate! Kept that cheapy magazine MI afloat for decades.

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