Don Vorderman 1930-2018: The Best Editor I Ever Had

Don Vorderman 1930-2018: The Best Editor I Ever Had

A remem­brance first pub­lished in The Auto­mo­bileDecem­ber 2019. This ver­sion con­tains two addi­tion­al illus­tra­tions and a glos­sary of Vor­der­man bon mots on auto­mo­biles.

“His­to­ry with its flick­er­ing lamp stum­bles along the trail of the past, try­ing to recon­struct its scenes, to revive its echoes, and kin­dle with pale gleams the pas­sion of for­mer days.”  —Win­ston S. Churchill, 12 Novem­ber 1940

“Writ­ers rarely talk about writ­ing among each oth­er. It’s a very per­son­al thing, and it’s almost always hard to do well, none of which is too con­ducive to cheery cock­tail chitchat. Most of us would rather vis­it a den­tist than face up to the task of begin­ning the next piece, though it’s not quite so awful once the com­mit­ment is made and the thing is under way.”

My dear friend Don Vor­der­man wrote that about the Eng­lish motor­ing writer Den­nis May, but he was also describ­ing him­self. He didn’t write spon­ta­neous­ly, but when he did, his words sang. Vorderman’s years of prominence—editor, Auto­mo­bile Quar­ter­ly, 1968-74; auto edi­tor, Town & Coun­try, 1980s—were brief and under-appre­ci­at­ed. His work was as far from the falls-eas­i­ly-to-hand school of motor writ­ing as one could imag­ine. His depth of knowl­edge made great cars come alive. We saw our­selves crouched low over their steer­ing wheels, like Don’s fic­tion­al hero Simon Tem­plar, “the seat press­ing force­ful­ly into his back under the urge of the Hirondel’s ter­rif­ic pow­er….”

Vorderman and Charteris

Yes, the “Hiron­del”! Only Don, who as a boy read “Saint” nov­els with a flash­light under his blan­kets, could have con­jured up Simon Tem­plar’s great sil­ver sports car from the books of Leslie Char­teris. Wise­ly, Char­teris nev­er described the Hiron­del in detail. He left it to our imag­i­na­tions. Each of us con­jured up in our mind’s eyes the ulti­mate motor­car.

But in 1973, Don asked five of the world’s best auto artists to por­tray the car as they saw it, assign­ing each a few lines by Leslie Char­teris for inspi­ra­tion. The best of them, Wal­ter Gotschke, pro­duced a mas­ter­piece of con­trived motion. Know­ing Walter’s style, Don gave him the best and final pas­sage:

Again and again in the dark, the Hiron­del swooped up behind ridicu­lous, creep­ing glow­worms, sniffed at their red tails, snort­ed deri­sive­ly, swept past with a deep-throat­ed blare. No car in Eng­land could have held the lead of the Hiron­del that night.

Wal­ter Gotschke’s mag­nif­i­cent con­cep­tion of Simon Templar’s “Hiron­del,” from Leslie Char­teris’ “The Last Hero” (1930). Char­teris loved this paint­ing so much that he bought it to hang over his fire­place. It was accu­rate down to The Saint’s Ulster num­ber plate, ZX1257. Is that “The Saint” behind the wheel? Or is it Vor­der­man?

Der­wood Lor­rimer Michael Vor­der­man was born in Texas, though every­body thought he was South African. I rather think he pic­tured him­self as Simon Tem­plar come to life. He was a sharp dress­er, a friend recalls: “Don spent all his mon­ey on whisky, Burber­ry over­coats, silk pock­et squares and cra­vats. Such a dandy.”

He once vis­it­ed us in rur­al New Hamp­shire dri­ving a yel­low Fer­rari, wear­ing tweeds and wow­ing locals. His check­ered past includ­ed romances with Zsa Zsa Gabor, Gina Lol­lo­b­rigi­da and, report­ed­ly, Con­nie Fran­cis. At forty Vor­der­man still made ladies swoon, and AQ’s bril­liant man­ag­ing edi­tor Bev­er­ly Rae Kimes mar­ried him. Alas Don rapid­ly burned bridges, includ­ing that one.

With Vorderman at Automobile Quarterly

For­tune brought me to AQ dur­ing a gold­en age for the hard­bound “Mag­a­zine of Motor­ing”: the reign of Don Vor­der­man and Bev Kimes. You couldn’t buy that edu­ca­tion in a uni­ver­si­ty. Don taught me things I nev­er for­got. On word-count: “A bore is some­one who tells every­thing.” On bylines: “One per issue. No over-indulging. If you write a sec­ond arti­cle, use a pen name.” (Don was “Michael Lor­rimer,” and he hat­ed “Der­wood.” Wouldn’t you?)

He taught me man­ners. To the throw­away greet­ing, “How are you?” Don would reply, “I’m fine, thank-you. I hope you are”—and wait for an answer. He didn’t tol­er­ate fools: “Putzes are every­where, like diar­rhea.” He was impa­tient with the sharks and blowhards of our world. Yet he intro­duced me, a mere putz, to the ton of auto­mo­bil­ia, from Phil Hill to Dutch Dar­rin to René Drey­fus.

And what a pho­tog­ra­ph­er he was—with an 8×10-inch view cam­era, a rel­ic nowa­days. Ken Drass­er, then our art direc­tor, writes: “I remem­ber his trans­paren­cies. The pic­tures were stun­ning. We chris­tened him ‘Ol’ Mag­ic Fin­gers.’ He was so tal­ent­ed.”

Edi­tors exist to make writ­ers bet­ter, and Don was the best edi­tor one could have. He fired me once (I deserved it), but recon­sid­ered when he liked my next piece, on Tri­umph. In it I’d writ­ten that the Luft­waffe “did its num­ber” on Coven­try. He blue-lined that and sub­sti­tut­ed “wrought ter­ri­ble destruction”—sensitive and pre­cise. We shared mis­eries over a cer­tain pub­lish­er, and I declared I’d wear a red tie the day he died. “Don’t say that,” Don scold­ed. “Life is too short to car­ry grudges.” It was just like him. The day came, and I refrained.

The Allard Named “Grendel”

“‘Who calls mighty Ursis hor­ri­bilis from his home in the forests?’ There was a crash­ing of brush. Stan­ley emerged wear­ing a string of beads, a few flow­ers, a lot of hair and noth­ing else. His huge, hairy face part­ed in a grin and his eyes began to fill with tears. Then he dropped to his knees and threw his arms round Grendel’s hideous pink nose. ‘Moth­er!’ he sobbed.” —Dick O’Kane. (Illus­tra­tion by Stan Mott, Auto­mo­bile Quar­ter­ly, Sum­mer 1970)

Above all stood his fan­tas­tic imag­i­na­tion. Who else would pre­cede a road test of the fear­some Allard J2X with a fan­ta­sy by Dick O’Kane about a fic­ti­tious Allard named “Gren­del,” owned by twin moun­tains of flesh, the Boslovsky Broth­ers? Don hired the zany genius Stan Mott to illus­trate Stanley—”Boslavsky Major.” (Stanley’s broth­er Nick was “Boslavsky Minor,” only six-feet-sev­en.)

Mott duly por­trayed Boslavsky Major, stoned out of his mind, wear­ing noth­ing but hair and beads, his pin­wheel eyes fixed on Gren­del. Dazed­ly he approached the Allard. His eyes filled with tears. Then he was wrap­ping his arms around her hideous nose and sob­bing, “Moth­er.”

Don, of course, caught and used O’Kane’s ref­er­ences to Beowulf. His road test began: “And now alone I shall set­tle affairs with Gren­del, the mon­ster, the demon.”

Farewell, Don

Though we nev­er saw each oth­er after exchang­ing a few vis­its in the 1980s, we had a warm email friend­ship. When I sent him my arti­cles in The Auto­mo­bile, he always had an inter­est­ing smidgen to add. Of “Churchill’s Motor­cars” (August 2016) he wrote: “What a deli­cious idea! You men­tioned the death of Churchill’s daugh­ter Marigold. It brought to mind Bent­ley Boy Tim Birkin, pass­ing from the same con­di­tion while not a mile away, Flem­ing had already devel­oped the ear­ly ver­sions of peni­cillin.” Of Dutch Dar­rin (May 2017): “Your touch is just right—authoritative but friend­ly. I still think that 1938 Phan­tom II town car he built for Count­ess di Fras­so is one of the pret­ti­est cars I have ever seen.”

And then the emails stopped. I wrote him, but my let­ter was returned. Too bad, because I had writ­ten how much he meant to me.

This remem­brance began with Don’s piece about Den­nis May, and I’ve often quot­ed his final para­graph:

“There’s noth­ing to be said when a friend dies, even among peo­ple whose trade is words. There’s just an emp­ty hole where there was once some­one you loved. And all the talk in the world won’t change that. Every­one who knew him well miss­es him. And that’s one crowd I’m proud to be a mem­ber of.”

Vordermaniana: Don on Cars

Mem­o­ries: Don Vor­der­man, Diane Mor­ri­son, Richard and Bar­bara Lang­worth, New Hamp­shire, 1980.

Alfa Romeo: “Sure, they’re build­ing nice cars today, but before the Sec­ond World War they were mag­nif­i­cent. Every blessed one of them.”

Allard J2X: “The first thing you notice is the accel­er­a­tion. This is also the sec­ond and the third thing….”

Bugat­ti: “They were bit­ter rivals, but you have to admit that for every year when Bugat­ti was build­ing a good car, Alfa was build­ing a great one.”

Cadil­lac Eldo­ra­do: “It’s a high­ly vis­i­ble dec­la­ra­tion of what the own­er wants you to think of him, but it’s a free coun­try, and every­body has the right to make a fool of him­self.”

Hud­son: “I tried to keep up appear­ances for my MG’s sake, but soon my friend’s Hor­net and I start­ed to meet secret­ly. She could do every­thing my TC could, only ten times bet­ter.”

Jaguar: “In 1961 the new E-type was the most excit­ing car in the world. Sir William Lyons was one in a thou­sand.”

Lin­coln Con­ti­nen­tal: “You know why you want one: because it’s big and expen­sive and every­body knows it. Also, the instru­ments are down by your knees where you won’t have to look at them.”

Lotus Elite:Col­in Chap­man’s come a long way from the back­yard weld­ing torch.”

Mer­cer Race­about: “Why not be philo­soph­i­cal about it, and con­sid­er it an hon­or to be passed by such a car?”

Messer­schmitt: “Is das nicht einen Kabi­nen­roller? Ja das icht ein Kabi­nen­roller!”

Packard: “The 1947 Cus­tom Super Clip­per is my idea of the per­fect Packard. Won­der­ful­ly smooth big-ass straight eight and that grace­ful, swoopy shape. Doesn’t mat­ter what color—they’re all gor­geous.”

Pon­ti­ac, 1973 Grand Am: “Get one quick, before they change it.”

Rolls-Royce: “They haven’t been mak­ing RRs since the Sil­ver Wraith….They must sense the dis­tress of we impa­tient, dis­ap­point­ed lovers. But even an unre­quit­ed lover has his lim­its.”

Stude­bak­er, 1953 Star­lin­er: “You are not old enough to have expe­ri­enced the impact it had on every­body who was into cars. How gor­geous! How un-Amer­i­can!”

3 thoughts on “Don Vorderman 1930-2018: The Best Editor I Ever Had

  1. Don gone! I was won­der­ing, as I had not heard from him. Old friend, we hitched up dur­ing his AQ days and spent much time togeth­er. Lunch’s – long ones and wet, at Chante­clair; I intro­duced him to Diane. had not seen much of him, but I cher­ish the time togeth­er, though long ago. Had him for cock­tails some­time in 2018. I was glad to have even that short time.

  2. Don lived here in Stam­ford, CT and he would often call or dri­ve over to my office for a chat or to vis­it my work­shop. Don just loved the 1934 Ryan ST air­craft that I was restor­ing. He pro­claimed it the most beau­ti­ful air­plane ever made. I agreed. I miss his calls and his tow­er­ing per­sona. RIP Don.

    Dave Paqua

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