While he foggily recalls the red and white Corvair his dad owned, Dan Neil has no trouble remembering stealing his mother’s car at age eight, for the first time, and driving it until the fuel tank was dry. “The keys were available and the seat went up really far, and I was obsessed with getting out of the house.” He wasn’t unhappy, he “just had to go.” Driving cars with manual transmissions, turning wrenches, all of the technical auto-related knowledge that he possesses seems to have been learned similarly through osmosis, or as Neil puts it, “the air we breathe.” It was simply absorbed.
Yet despite his inhaled knowledge and passion for cars, he had no intention of pursuing a career in automotive journalism. He planned on becoming an English professor. Reading an article one night while working as copy editor on the national slot desk at the Raleigh, N.C.’s News & Observer changed his mind. The article profiled automotive journalists’ lives and jobs, which included flights to exotic locations and driving fast cars. Neil though to himself, “That sounds like fun, I think I’ll do that.”
And so he did.
He switched directions at the News & Observer, moving to the classified advertising section and took it upon himself to include a weekly car review at the beginning of the section. The response was positive following his first review and so he continued. It also freed him to write what and how he wanted because his writing wasn’t edited by anyone. This freedom, which he loved, also led to his sudden, eventual downfall.
Neil wrote a review about the Ford Expedition in which he described its roomy interior by using metaphors related to a lovemaking session (with his wife) in said Expedition. While his children were fooled by his explanation for the footprints on the windows, they were evidence too provocative for his audience. Angry letters ensued. Management offered him an ultimatum: from now on, have your copy reviewed or leave the paper. Neil chose the latter and calls it “the smartest thing he ever did.”
He concedes that he was panicked when it occurred, after all he had just lost his job. But he’s quick to point out “that in composition as in life, fortune favors the bold.” Indeed, it does as Neil is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist.
But luck has less to do with his Pulitzer Prize than his work ethic and ability. And Neil also notes that even though he works in a field as marginal as automotive journalism, and won the Prize for criticism, the award did provide a tremendous sense of validation, “No matter how bad [sic] I stink in the future…I’ll always have that.”
Having enjoyed the accolades, Neil does believe that the ensuing disapproval was warranted because cars aren’t pure art as is theater, music, etc. Accordingly, he is the first to admit that the award was a fluke and that his win, as a car reviewer, will never be repeated. Regardless, he continues writing, and is under an exclusive contract to the Wall Street Journal, and is currently developing a National Public Radio show.