Grande Dame of Auto Journalism
Denise McCluggage Passed May 6, 2015
It’s altogether fitting that AutoWeek, the publication she helped start, scooped the mainstream automotive press in reporting the passing of one of the greats of the profession. They have an unfair advantage though, publishing twice as often.
Their obit says she was born in 1927 in El Dorado, Kansas, and graduated Manga Cum Laude from Mills College in Oakland, California.
To get an idea of her stature, know that she’s the only journalist in the Sports Car Club of America Hall of Fame, and received both the Ken Purdy Award for Excellence in Automotive Journalism and the Dean Batchelor Lifetime Achievement Award.
She raced fender-to-fender – successfully – with the greats of professional road racing, like Stirling Moss, Phil Hill, Dan Gurney and Juan Manuel Fangio, in the golden age of the sport, at least on the occasions when sexism did not relegate her to the “ladies races” or ban her altogether. Although she was nominated to race at Le Mans by none other than Luigi Chinetti himself, the Automobile Club de l’Ouest never allowed her (or any other woman) to compete there.
Among her credits, on her own merits she won the GT class at Sebring in 1962 co-driving her own Ferrari 250GT SWB Berlinetta, and the touring car class at the Monte Carlo Rally driving a Ford Falcon.
She won 2nd in the GT class at Sebring in 1967, driving the same Ferrari 275GTB 4/S NART Spyder that Faye Dunaway appeared in as Viki Anderson in the polo scene in the original Steve McQueen Thomas Crown Affair.
In the movie, Thomas Crown (her pre-fame boyfriend Steve McQueen) describes it as “One of those red Italian things.” One of ten built, this one bid up to a record $25 million at the RM Monterey Auction in 2013. It’s the sister to the one Denise co-drove (with Marianne “Pinkie” Rollo) to 2nd in the GT class at the 12 hours of Sebring in 1967. The first built, it was yellow then, and while the catalog quotes her praise of the car’s street manners, she told me that in the race it “plowed like a John Deere.”
I wish I had been there in 2011 when she was among the speakers at the Petersen Automotive Museum who paid tribute to her friend and fellow Ferrari driver Phil Hill on his passing.
Now as the magazine lead times play out, the tributes are pouring in from her surviving competitors, media colleagues, and a host of others, most of whom knew her better than I did.
It’s impossible to sum up a life in a sentence, but she was a mystic; multi-talented, erudite, funny, engaging, and a terrific writer and storyteller, with a wealth of experience to draw from.
Mark Vaughn, in that AutoWeek obit says, “She was, of course, a racer – polka-dot helmet and all. As such she understood racers and could write about them far better than a sportswriter who saw it as just another sport.”
So You Want to Write About Cars.
Denise and I have a connection, since I write about cars too, though I should blush when I say it in such company. I would probably not still be doing it if she had not actually read an issue of my “Automotive Commentary,” CAR-MA, back in 1995.
I had sent her a copy after quoting from her article on “The Centered Driver” in AutoWeek. Then I learned that she had written about me in her syndicated column “Drive” She said. I had returned from a Holiday weekend in Crestline to find my mailbox full of requests for a copy of CAR-MA, all from Houston, Texas, where I knew no one. It was a mystery until one correspondent included a clipping of her December 21, 1995 column from the Houston Chronicle.
I sent every one of those correspondents a copy of the latest issue of CAR-MA, with an invitation to subscribe. Eventually I was sending copies to people in twelve states. Thanks to her, I was a professional writer.
Scan of the clipping from the Houston Chronicle, December 21, 1995. She covered a lot in one page but most important, included my address (It’s changed, so don’t try to reach me there.) so readers could request a copy of CAR-MA. If I have written one sentence worthy of her praise it’s more than I’d have ever hoped for.
CAR-MA went through several iterations before settling on this blog. I kept sending her copies, and when I published my book, Car-Ma; Why Bad Cars Happen to Good People in 2008, she offered to exchange an autographed copy for one of her own By Brooks Too Broad For Leaping (out of print at the time), at her Tuesday Car Table in Santa Fe in June of 2008.
When she wasn’t traveling, Denise hosted a gathering called the Tuesday Car Table in Santa Fe, New Mexico. I flew out to Albuquerque, rented a Mustang GT350 Convertible and joined the group. Unimpressed by my ride (as I was), she commented that Shelbys had lousy brakes. I am sure it had nothing to do with the fact that it was a GT350 that beat her and Pinkie for the GT class win at Sebring in 1967.
For those of her acquaintances who never graced the masthead of a big car magazine, or the grid of the great road races of the sixties, it is her generosity that is appreciated.
One example was at the Los Angeles International Auto Show in 2009. I had arrived early and was delighted to find her there. She greeted me warmly and then, after I had filled my plate, followed me to a table and sat with me there, joined in turn by Car and Driver technical Director Don Sherman and a cohort of other Real Motoring Journalists, basking in her wisdom and wit. At the keynote address, she sat next to me again, making me feel for a moment that I really belonged there among the Big Dogs.
We corresponded intermittently whenever I had a question into which she might have insight. She was always available, responsive, and helpful.
We saw each other often at the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance where she was an honorary judge and sometimes helped out judging the cars she drove. I found her a valuable source of information about them.
Never at a loss for a historical detail, an insight, or an anecdote, Denise had the automotive cognoscenti hanging on her every word, like these fellow judges as she scrutinizes the Ferrari GTOs at Pebble Beach in 2011.
Once, when reporting on the 2010 Pebble Beach Concours, I quoted the specs of a Ferrari 250GT like the one she owned and raced, not having noticed the car in my picture had three carburetors while the program said all the SEFAC Hot Rods had six. I later asked her if she knew why there was such a discrepancy.
In her usual forthright manner she responded that she did not know for a fact why it deviated from the norm but agreed the likely answer lay in the fact that the car had been restored to the configuration it was in when it won the Tour de France. She explained that the three-carburetor cars were more tractable and thus more suitable for the multi-venue format of the TdF.
In support of that theory, from her store of anecdotes she cited a conversation with Le Mans winner and US Ferrari distributor Luigi Chinetti in which he complained that while driving a six-carburetor car in the Alps, he had to back down and “re-attack” when he approached an uphill switchback too slowly, because the oversize carbs would load up and the engine would stall.
The plaque in front of the Class M-3 winning 1961 Ferrari 250GT SWB Berlinetta says “The Comp/61s, often referred to as SEFAC Hot Rods, were built using a competition-prepared Tipo 168 B/61 engine that had 250 TR heads with revised cam timing, larger intake ports and bigger manifolds, and six twin choke Weber 46 DCF/3 Carburetors replacing the 36s or 40s fitted normally.”
Under the hood, one can count only three carburetors. Denise had an anecdote to explain the discrepancy.
Denise delighted in questioning conventional wisdom and was fascinated by the new and innovative.
We shared a dislike of the use of horsepower as the primary performance parameter in advertising and reporting. In speed-limited America, we agreed, a high top speed is of little use, and getting away from a stop light is the primary source of recreational driving thrills. So here, torque is the more important spec, as reflected in the large displacement, slow revving engines favored by American drivers and manufacturers.
I have long championed the sum of horsepower and torque divided by vehicle weight as a measure of the predicted performance of a car. It logically yields a number that increases with performance potential, whereas “power to weight” varies the wrong way. We corresponded on the subject, and she agreed, suggesting that the index needed a catchier name than my (h+t)/T, but we gave up trying to invent one. Eventually she invited me to participate in a video panel discussion on the subject for her blog, but it never got off the ground.
Naturally, she had a fondness for diesels, with their high torque, impressive fuel economy and resulting extraordinary range. To my argument that it was one’s bladder capacity that limited range, not the vehicle’s fuel tank, she responded that she wanted her own fancy to be what decided when to stop, not the car’s fuel gauge or battery condition meter.
The Denise I knew was never content with the status quo, seeking to explore alternatives. Typically, in her last column for AutoWeek she wrote about an innovative method of restoring accessibility to rural areas cut off when rain turned dirt roads into bogs.
My one regret is that I did not get to know the Zen Denise – the mystic, the seeker, the questioner. It’s the first thing she notes about me in her “Drive!” She Said column, and I am sure we’d have had a lot to talk about if cars hadn’t gotten in the way.
Wherever she is now, no doubt she knows a lot more about such things.
We’re going to miss you, Denise. Godspeed. I hope there are manual gearboxes in heaven.