Monday, May 18, 2015

Where did it all start?

It all began at a small 500 watt radio station ... Wait! That was Ted Baxter not me. Where did it start for me? It seems so long ago because it was a long, long time ago.

I've always been a car guy; I came by that naturally. My dad was a mechanic back when you didn't need to say auto mechanic and way before they became technicians. By most accounts he was damned good.

My mom was a teacher, an English teacher for a long time (she ended up teaching 5th grade). Also by most accounts a good teacher.

So I started out with an interest in cars and words. I can't say I was particularly outstanding with either at an early age but that's where my interests lay - that and cowboys.

I think my first automotive article (if you could call it that) was an essay I wrote on Mickey Thompson and the Challenger 1 probably in 1961. I think I still have it somewhere. Most of it was cribbed from Hot Rod Magazine.

My writing, like so much of my life, was interrupted by my teen angst and current events. I worked on the periphery of the automotive repair world from the time I turned 16 in 1965 and went to work for Joe Pelletier at his Chevron until I enrolled in the Ontario Apprenticeship program in 1973; a turning point in my automotive life. Writing was not even on my horizon.

In the early '80s I went to work for the Canadian Automobile Association-Toronto as a mechanic in their Vehicle Inspection Center. After a few years I promoted to their F.A.C.T.S. (Free Automotive Consumer Tecnical Services) department as a Technical Advisor. One of the duties was to assist in writing new car reviews. I was pretty good at it and eventually became "the" reviewer.

Writing for the CAA got me into a world I had not even dreamt of; the automotive PR circuit. I think the very first event I was invited to was a Chrysler event at one of the better hotels in Toronto, maybe the Harbour Castle. I remember they had a huge chocolate waterfall and I met Lee Iaocca and - be still my beating heart - Carrol Shelby! Soon I was attending the long leads in and around Detroit. Then new vehicle introductions in plush locations. I was part of the elite! I admit that I was pretty full of myself.

When I promoted out of the position with CAA the writing dried up for a time. I was not happy; I wanted to write. I remember I sent out letters and writing samples to just about every single newspaper in the Toronto area. No dice.

Then I took what I thought was a leap to the big time. In 1985 I saw an ad in AutoWeek for a writer from a company in San Jose, California. I sent some clips and a cover letter. I was asked down for an interview (at my expense - first mistake). I went and I guess interviewed okay because I was offered the position. It was a cut in pay but I'd be writing! So of course I went.

It was my first experience with technical writing and it didn't go well. I was not really suited for writing "how to" articles (basically I wrote captions for photos or pictures of how to repair) and my supervisor wasn't into mentoring. All in all it was a bad mix and after about three months I was fired. I was devastated. I returned home to Toronto with my tail between my legs in the late winter of 1986.

I did get the occasional freelance writing job after returning but nothing of importance until I was hired to edit the Canadian Pickup Truck Guide. I think I did two annual issues. I was not a great or even good editor but it paid and my name was on the mast head.

I attended my last PR trip in 1987, ironically with American Motors, Canada. We went to a tennis resort in Ontario. I wish I remembered the name of the place but I don't. I do remember eating Northern Pike for the first time, getting a pair of Serengeti Drivers (sunglasses) that I loved, and a Scottish lass who was one of the tennis pros. She and some dude borrowed one of the AMC Medallions and flipped it one night on a dirt road.

I said ironically because before the trip but after I was invited I was hired by AMC as an Owner Relations Specialist in their Ontario Zone Office. Not exactly the big time but I was getting there. From my hiring on with AMC in 1987 until I left for California in 1990, I worked for AMC, then Chrysler (after their takeover of AMC) and finally Honda Canada. Once I went to work for an auto maker I stopped writing.

In January 1991, I began my government career with the State of California, Department of Consumer Affairs, Bureau of Automotive Repair. Although there was no written policy against writing it was made clear that it was incompatible.

In 1997, the then Editor of the Pacifica Tribune, Chris Hunter, was judging the "Rustiest Car" event in town. As an East Coast boy I wanted to see what was considered rusty so I went to watch the judging. Much to my amazement coastal (Pacifica sits on the coast just below San Francisco) cars can get severely corroded.

After the judging Chris and I got to talking and out of the blue he asked me if I had ever considered writing about cars. Really? I jumped at the chance even though I was somewhat concerned about the incompatibility with my job.

In my job with the State we dealt with automotive repair shops including dealerships. I figured that as long as I didn't write about automotive repair I was safe. In all the years I wrote I was never called on the carpet for any article.

My first review for the Tribune was of a 1997 Chrysler Sebring Convertible. I had no idea how to get a press car so I either wrote or called some of the auto makers. Chrysler was the first to respond with contact info for one of the companies that handle press cars, Page One Automotive.

From 1997 until 2014, I wrote new car reviews, opinion pieces and general interest auto articles for the Tribune. In 2014, the Tribune decided it was time to go a different direction. I was saddened of course. They had stuck with me for 17 years including the four years I was in Vegas. But all things must come to an end.

It wasn't just me though; newspapers everywhere have cut back. New car reviews can be a good or bad thing for a newspaper that depends on advertising for revenue. They simply do not want to alienate any advertiser.

Once I was lucky enough to get on a local radio station, KFOG. I had pitched the idea of doing a short new car review once a week. They liked the idea of having an automotive segment but not reviews because many of their advertisers were car dealers. So I did one guest spot answering callers auto questions. I guess even that was too controversial, or dull.

Since moving back to California I have tried to find an outlet to no avail. I'm sure part of the problem is I am just not that much of a go-getter. Outside of my letter writing campaign to find a gig many years ago I find it difficult to sell myself.

I am a decent writer; not great but decent. My grasp of grammar could use some improvement I am sure, or at least a good editing. Sometimes I am amazed that I have been successful enough to have kept at it (off and on) for all these years.

If this is the end so be it. If anyone knows of an outlet let me know. But if not I am content that I did it - I wrote auto articles (and even got paid occasionally).


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