Sunday, June 20, 2010

Tom McCahill - Voice of M.I.

When I was a boy, my father looked forward every month to receiving his new copy of Mechanix Illustrated (MI). One of his favorite parts of the magazines were the articles written by Tom McCahill, aka “Uncle Tom.” When my father died, I inherited all of his old issues, dating back to the 1940s. And, I decided to do a little checking on Uncle Tom and see what he was all about. Here’s what I found. The following is primarily edited copy from Wikipedia.

Thomas Jay McCahill III (1907-1975) was an automotive journalist, born the grandson of a wealthy attorney in Larchmont, New York. McCahill graduated from Yale University with a degree in fine arts. He is credited with, amongst other things, the creation of the "0 to 60" acceleration measurement now universally accepted in automotive testing.
He became a salesman for Marmon and in the mid-1930s operated dealerships in Manhattan and Palm Springs, featuring Rolls Royce, Jaguar and other high-line luxury cars. The depression and his father's alcoholism wiped out his family's fortune.

Journalist and Automobile Critic

After graduating from Yale, McCahill managed and later owned Murray's Garage in New York City. During the war he wrote articles on a variety of subjects for magazines such as Popular Science, Reader's Digest and Mechanix Illustrated Magazine ("M.I."). Hitting on the idea that an auto-starved post-wartime public might be interested in articles on new cars, he sold the concept to M.I. in February 1946, first reporting on his own 1946 Ford. His opinions were fearless and this endeared him to some in the automotive world but created enemies too. Ever the sportsman- at six foot two and 250 pounds- he once fought off goons hired by (as is was believed at the time) General Motors. It is alleged that he sent two to hospital and the third running.

McCahill was a personal friend of Walter P. Chrysler and appreciated the handling and performance characteristics of Chrysler Corporation cars in the late 1950s and 1960s, which included many advanced engineering features such as front torsion-bar suspensions (combined with rear multi-leaf springs) for flatter cornering, powerful V8 engine options across the board and positive-shifting three-speed TorqueFlite automatic transmissions. In a 1959 road test of the Plymouth Sport Fury (which he referred to as the "Sports Fury"), he claimed that the torsion bar suspensions were the finest in America. Few European sedans, said McCahill, could match the handling performance of the Plymouth.

On many of his earlier road tests, his wife Cynthia would accompany him as his photographer and almost always his black Labrador Retriever, "Boji." His later assistant was a professional driver and photographer Jim McMicheal, who was photographed sitting - or lying - in the trunk of every make tested and was known as "the trunk tester."

McCahill frequently used extreme metaphors and similes in his prose. For example, in M.I. he described the AC Cobra as "hairier than a Borneo gorilla in a raccoon suit". (McCahill was apparently unconcerned about the fact that there aren't any gorillas in Borneo). He proclaimed the ride of a 1957 Pontiac to be as "smooth as a prom queen's thighs".


McCahill reported in detail on every car imported to the U.S. during the early 1950s, all the while ridiculing the U.S. automakers for their excesses, including soft suspensions ("Jello suspensions" as he referred to them) and poor handling qualities. An example is provided by one of the first road tests of the 1958 Edsel in the September 1957 issue of M.I.: McCahill criticized the standard suspension as being too "horsey-back" and strongly recommended that Edsel buyers "pony up" a few extra bucks for the optional, heavy-duty (i.e. export) suspension package, which included heavier springs and shocks. He went so far as to tell his readers that "I wouldn't own one except with the export kit; without stiffer suspension, a car with so much performance (his test car had the 345-horsepower, 410 cubic-inch V8) could prove similar to opening a Christmas basket full of King Cobras in a small room with the lights out".

McCahill was in favour of lifting the Automobile Manufacturer's Association ban on factory backed stock car racing that was agreed upon by GM, Ford and Chrysler in June 1957 - however manufacturers continued under-the-table efforts to provide performance parts and engines to racing teams or performance-car enthusiasts. McCahill chose to live in Florida as its climate permitted owning such cars as his Jaguar sedan, as corrosion problems inherent with this type of car would have been compounded by the Eastern climate.

On The Chevrolet Corvair

McCahill conducted and reported on the first road test of the Corvair in 1959. In the presence of Zora Arkus-Duntov, chief Engineer of the Corvair project, McCahill ran the car at speed on the G.M. testing grounds. McCahill reported that he was pleased with the handling characteristics and that the Corvair handled better than the 1959 Porsche. This flies in the face of later findings by Ralph Nader.

Favorite vehicles

In the 600 road tests he performed and reported on, his favorite cars were the 1953 Bentley Continental and the 1957-62 Chrysler Imperial, each model year of which he owned as his personal vehicles.

In 1950 he purchased a new Ford and proceeded to acquire the assistance of Andy Granatelli in "hopping it up" by switching to high-performance heads and manifolding. He then tested the car extensively and noticed a 90 mile an hour cruising speed. The car became known as the "M.I. Ford" as it was frequently featured in the Magazine.

The wise and considerate McCahill de-tuned the car before selling it with 32.000 miles. The fear of mechanical failure at speed concerned McCahill with the safety of any future owner. He purchased a new 1952 Cadillac Series 62 sedan which he eventually raced in NASCAR speed week events. He also purchased new and reported on the '54 Jeep CJ3A, stating that while his Lincoln was the finest road car available at the time, in the end, the Jeep was the best idea that mankind had ever made. He claimed it would outrun a contemporary M.G.

Sounding Off

In a 1958 M.I. article McCahill accused the U.S. Auto Industry of causing the recession and poor auto sales of 1958 by standardizing styling and eliminating factory- or factory-sanctioned racing. He focused on AMC's George Romney, who claimed that the Rambler handled better than U.S. full-size makes. McCahill performed tests to prove him wrong.

He was at odds with Walter Reuther of the U.A.W. over the issue of poor quality in U.S. cars and the fact that European imports - at the time SAAB and Volvo in particular - were of high quality, outstanding performers and no more costly than a good used car for those who could not afford a new domestic car. McCahill railed against unfair trade with Canada and Europe. He demanded that the U.S. stop accepting imports and, in lieu of war reparations, force England, Canada and France (where one could purchase an English or German car, but no U.S. makes) to accept the forced sale of hundreds of thousands of used U.S. cars, a plan which he claimed would increase the sale of new vehicles by more than six million annually over the following five years, thus significantly accelerating the U.S. economy.

McCahill had become Mechanics Illustrated public face, and the industry quickly realized that his review could make or break a product instantly. When he tested the 1948 Oldsmobile Futuramic 98 powered by a flat-head eight-cylinder engine of prewar design, he claimed that depressing the accelerator was like "Stepping on a wet sponge". General Motors was incensed over his review of the '48 Olds and scores of angry letters from the corporation, as well as from Olds dealers and owners, came into to MI's 'office demanding his firing.

However, it was widely known that McCahill's report motivated GM into development of Oldsmobile's new overhead-valve, high-compression "Rocket V8" engine, which made its d├ębut the following year in the 1949 "98." The format of the engine was filtered down to the smaller and lighter body/chassis used for Oldsmobile's lowest-price "76" series (powered by six-cylinder engines) and to create the Olds "Rocket 88." The Rocket V8 performed even better than in the bigger and heavier 98, thereby creating a whole new image for Olds and set the stage for similar designed V8 engines throughout Detroit over the next few years.


Anonymous said...

A fascinating post. I always wondered about Tom. Used to read him all the time. My Dad was a MI subscriber.


Michael said...

My dad was, too. I ended up with all of his old MI mags, which I cherish and love to look through. It brings back good memories. Thanks for your comment.

JRP said...

This is a great article. When I was in high school in the mid 50ies I subscribed to MI. My first interest in each new edition was Tom's road tests. "Mail for McCahill" was often interesting, too. Hadn't heard of him in years so tonight I Googled and found this. Thanks


Will said...

Outstanding "bio" on McCahill! I too remember looking forward every month to his section in favorite publication. His similes are sorely missed today in hum drum car reviews. He was not only the best car reviewer, but a prolific and artful journalist.

Anonymous said...

Iloved his writing style as really, second to none and so much fun to read!! I liked the way he stood up for the little guy; that is, the small companie; Studie, Rambler, Hudson the fablous Tucker Torpedo etc. garry jones

olmon said...

I grew up reading Tom's articles & road-tests. He was a big influence on me. I learned a lot from his writings & humor.

T Glenn Ellison said...

"Unc" Tom's best work in my opinionn was something more like a fairly comprehensive handbook on the makeup of most autos, domestics as well as foreign. This included the cars, the engines, the suspensions, and a primer on good driving.
I very much want a copy of this for my driving age youth. I want this because I learned more from Unc than from any other one place.
I worked as an engineering supe for 24.5 yrs, but still amasssed 0ver 3M miles in autos and as a CDL driver. It's hard for them to learn from their father, as youthful pride jumps i the way.
I'm willing to pay a premium and postage to get this book into my house.
Thank you in advance,

T. G. Ellison