Fasten Your Seatbelts

A conversation with the irreverent—and irrepressible—Dan Neil, Pulitzer Prize-winning car critic for the Los Angeles Times.

published December 2004
 NC State magazine

If you didn’t know better, you might think Los Angeles Times automotive critic Dan Neil (1987 MA) was an average Joe from New Bern. He thinks minivans are sexy, wears his humility on his sleeve and would like to fix up that old car of his that’s out back.

Then he’ll tell you he traveled to Iraq this fall to write about its burgeoning youth drag-racing scene.

dan neilThere’s a reason Neil has catapulted automotive writing—that weekly section tucked in the classified ads—from dull-as-dirt doldrums to can’t-miss-it readable. He’s funny. He’s an astute cultural observer.

And this spring, he surprised the journalism cognoscenti by becoming the first auto critic to claim the Pulitzer Prize for criticism for his weekly column, “Rumble Seat”.

Not bad for a guy who got fired from his first newspaper job.

Neil talked with NC State contributing writer Beth McNichol about the downside of peer recognition, why cars move us and why Raleigh might be the best place to find love in an automobile.

I imagine there aren’t many automotive writers with backgrounds in creative writing [bachelor’s degree, East Carolina University] and English literature [master’s degree, NC State]. How does a guy go from Chaucer to Chevy?
Well Chaucer loved cars, and would have used them if he’d had one. The walk was long and people smelled bad.

I was just trying to make a living. I had an M.A. in English from NC State, which was a superior preparation—except if you wanted to eat. So I took this job as a copy editor at The News & Observer because I only knew how to do a couple of things. One was write and the other was read. Well, actually, at the time I wouldn’t say I was a very good writer. I worked for the Spectator for a couple of years, and wrote what I would call my first journalistic pieces. And they weren’t very good. So I was highly unpromising.

This chance came up to put together an automotive section for the classifieds department. I took that job and started writing columns that very month. When I started to do it, I realized that there was an opportunity for creative writing that maybe people hadn’t exploited before.

So you were always interested in writing about cars?
I wasn’t necessarily interested in cars. I knew that the job would give me a chance to travel. I was very provincial at the time, and I’d never had the opportunity. And I knew that if I took this job, I would be jetting all over the world to test cars. And, in fact, that’s exactly what I did.

Not a bad gig.
It was a very good gig. Because, of course, the classified advertising department wasn’t held to the high standards of journalistic ethics that the news side is, where you couldn’t take junkets. So I didn’t have to concern myself with that. I had to add pages to my passport at one point to accommodate all the entry and exit stamps I had.

John Simon, the theater critic for New York magazine, had some disparaging words about an automotive guy taking Pulitzer honors. What do you think about the idea that writing about cars is too greasy a subject for the esteemed Pulitzer?
John Simon is a very smart guy, and his comment was not without merit. He was arguing that criticism should be confined to creative arts as compared to the applied arts. However, car design, and cars in general, and architecture—which is considered to be a perfectly acceptable subject for this sort of thing—have a lot in common. They are large, industrial projects involving thousands of people, highly technical, highly market- and site-specific.

But I didn’t win it because I have this penetrating insight about automobiles. I won it because I was an entertaining writer. I kind of suspected, actually, that the Pulitzer board might be looking for a laugh. So I think it’s really more a reflection of my style than the subject matter.

That being said, you must have been surprised when you won.
I was. I really didn’t know what to think. I was surprised and honored and flattered—and embarrassed. I felt very conspicuous. I’d only been at the paper for four months. One thing about working at a newspaper—especially a big newspaper like the L.A. Times—you can walk up and down these halls, and you see very, very talented people who are just busting their asses every day, and they get no recognition, really. So for me to be so conspicuously celebrated after four months, I must confess I was a little chagrined by all that. I would just as soon win it after another year or so. But I’m not giving it back.

Has winning the award changed your daily life in any way?
It’s actually put a tremendous amount of pressure on my writing. It’s made me feel very responsible in a way that I didn’t feel before. It has imposed a creeping legitimacy on me that I would have found distasteful otherwise. So there’s that. And it’s a funny thing to be treated like, what, one of America’s premier journalists. It’s out of scale with my interior reality. And here’s the way I’ve learned to say it: If I’m so smart, how come I work so hard? If I were that smart, it would come easy. But it doesn’t come easy. It’s hard, and it’s getting harder.

I would say that since I’ve won the prize, I have not written as well as I used to. You get a little stage fright, frankly. This is the last thing that you think would happen to you as a writer, especially for someone like me, who’s never given a damn what people thought. Suddenly I do. My boss, [Times editor] John Carroll, told me that it has ruined more journalists than it has helped. It has ended more careers for one reason or another than it has really promoted. It’s a scary thought, isn’t it?

It’s sort of like the angry rock band that makes it big and has nothing to complain about anymore.
Exactly. And the dynamics are very much the same. You either start to believe your own press, which is the worst-case scenario, or you become tongue-tied, or you decide to diversify and sort of impose a kind of Peter Principle upon yourself, elevating yourself to a position for which you are not qualified. All of those things can happen, and do happen, commonly.

One of the perks of winning a Pulitzer is a check for $10,000, which is quite a sum for the average journalist. What did you do with your prize money? Did you “pimp your ride,” as the kids say?
I wish I had a good anecdote about that. My girlfriend—now my wife—came with a dowry of debt, and I paid off a lot of it. We did take our honeymoon before we got married and went to Paris a few days to and England. And I bought a dog, a Chihuahua. But I haven’t touched my car in months, my science project car. It’s a 1960 MGA. I haven’t picked up a wrench in ages. It’s a great car. Unfortunately, it’s just sitting out there, quietly rusting.

In my household, there always seems to be a car-repair or car-reality show on television, whether it’s “Monster Garage” or “Rides”. Is there a new interest in cars in our culture?
I think there’s no limit to the amount of pandering, this kind of narrowcasting, that cable is capable of. So yeah, there are a lot more shows like that on TV. However, I would wager that a smaller proportion of the population works on cars than ever before. One, modern cars are extremely hard to work on, unless you’re a trained technician. They require special tools, sophisticated equipment. The days of the shade-tree mechanic are virtually over. So a lot of this is [for] armchair mechanics. They’ll watch a show about putting big headers, drag pipes, on their truck, but they won’t actually do it, because you’d need a functioning garage. Also, I see some of this stuff being done on television, and I think, “That is so unsafe.” You see these guys getting 400 horsepower out of a 2-liter Mitsubishi engine. That’s just like a grenade. You’re just waiting for it to explode. It’s all fantasy. I mean, who among Martha Stewart’s audience actually goes out and makes the popcorn Christmas balls? Not that many.

Just as most people won’t be going out to purchase the Lamborghini that you’re test driving in a couple weeks, no matter how tantalizing your column might make it seem. You talked about how a big part of the draw of “Rumble Seat” is its entertainment value. Where do your references come from?
I think that if I had one contribution to make to automotive writing—and I’m not swearing that I did—it’s that I’ve tried to relate automobiles to the larger culture. Not just the society, which is to say the way people move and interact, but the culture—the way the entertain themselves, the meanings, associations and aesthetic trend that they see happening around them. I don’t know if that many people have really thought that hard about cars. But cars really are a cultural icon.

What do cars mean to people?
They are objects of desire, they are mechanical contrivances, they are utilitarian and they are anti-utilitarian in sort of the best combination. When you think about how perverse an automobile is, what do we want? We want that highest possible combination of the useful and the useless. I was just writing this story about the Dodge Magnum, which is the sort of low-slung, chop-top station wagon with a big engine in it. And it’s really old-fashioned in its way. It’s very utilitarian. And yet it looks so non-utilitarian. It’s got all of this soul, and it has an esprit about it. That’s what we look for in cars. I try to measure them across both of those axes, of usefulness and uselessness.

What kind of car embodies Raleigh’s identity?
Oh, I think the Toyota Avalon. You know, not dangerous in any particular way. It’s an easygoing car, genteel, not threatening. Not particularly exciting, but very comfortable. Very livable.

Is your ultimate car a bit more sport than that?
My ultimate car is a Mercedes-Benz 500-E wagon. That to me is everything I want—except for fuel economy. It’d be nice if it were a hybrid. But it is classic, understated, elegant, useful, stealthy and very, very fast. You know, Mercedes-Benz means something in the history of the automobile. Whereas the Toyota Scion means nothing, and people can’t even pronounce it, even though they make really great cars. I don’t need a Ferrari. I don’t need a Lamborghini. In fact, I kind of hate exotic cars. They really are just pointless displays of excess.

What do you drive now?
Test cars. I don’t own a car, like a lot of people in this business—other than my science project. The [manufacturing] companies drop off a car every week, and then come and get it and bring me another one. This week I have the Scion TC, and next week I’m driving the Lincoln Town Car armored car. We’re going to take it to the worst part of town and see if anybody will shoot at us.

In terms of the automobile, I have the perfect job. Because really, you buy a car and the buzz lasts for just about a week. And then the new wears off, and what you’ve got is car payments. See, I do that and I don’t even have a car payment. So I’m very promiscuous in my affection.

Speaking of affection, in 1996, when you were working for The News & Observer’s automotive section, you wrote a column that examined the merits of a Ford truck’s cab for hanky panky, not hauling.
When that story came out, my boss in classified advertising said, “Hey, we’re going to have to get you an editor, because you’re too much of a risk.” Because the stories I was writing would go right in the paper and no one would read them. Considering I did that for almost seven years, that was a pretty good run, and the ideal situation for a journalist. I mean, what is heaven for a journalist? Complete and unfettered access to a newspaper press. Anyway, I refused to run my stuff by anybody. So, after three or four months of what I’ve come to call “principled insubordination,” they fired me. [Neil then freelanced, contributing to the Independent Weekly, The New York Times and a number of car and travel magazines, before being hired by the Los Angeles Times.]

But it seemed like a good idea at the time, you know? It was an opportunity to talk about something that everyone has done in cars—and if they haven’t, they should rush right out and do it. It my view, it was extremely loving and tasteful. And we had our seatbelts on, so it was safe sex.

Because you seem to be an authority on such matters, I think we have to ask: What’s the best make-out car on the market today?
I’d say probably your Lincoln Town Car or other bench-seat equipped vehicles. Or the Toyota Avalon has a bench-seat option. Which, of course, is great. Bucket seats are great if you want to be alone, but if you want—well, let’s just say intimacy—you need a bench seat. Also, the smaller the car, the harder the car is to make out in. Some of your sexy sports cars, your Ferraris, you have to get out to make out.

And I would argue that the minivan is a very sexy vehicle. The minivan says to the world: “I’ve had sexual congress with the opposite sex recently, and have the proof in the screaming children. And furthermore, I’m not even trying to attract the opposite sex. I’m that secure.” In my view, your big swinging studs are driving the minivan, and your wankers are driving the sports cars. This is a point of view women intuitively understand.

Do you recommend people get tinted windows for such activities?
I just recommend they keep the sunroof closed so that truckers can’t see in.

Copyright 2004 NC State Alumni Association