We paid tribute to Jim Wangers so Car and Driver wouldn’t have to

History isn’t what it used to be!

Mr. Lucker had that emblazoned on the board in 11th grade History class. I don’t recall if the quote was attributed, but it was brought to our attention to suggest the view of history changes over time. I was reminded of this quote with the July 2023 passing of Reeves Callaway, he of Callaway Corvette fame and much more. I read about it in Car and Driver, a magazine that has been on my reading list since the 1980s. The obituary appeared three days after Mr. Callaway’s passing.

Yet I find it confounding that the same publication has yet to mention the passing of Jim Wangers. The gentleman who became known as the Godfather of the Pontiac GTO passed away one year ago today, April 29th. We paid tribute to Jim Wangers a few days later, but it comes off as curious that an enthusiast-centered publication like Car and Driver, whose reputation was built on Wangers’ marketing ingenuity, has yet to make mention of his passing.

Back when the Pontiac GTO debuted for 1964, David E. Davis, Jr. was editor of Car and Driver, at the time a sportscar-inflected periodical that sought to combine Euro-inspired enthusiasm with New Journalism. Wangers was an account manager at MacManus, John & Adams, Pontiac’s ad agency, but he also was an accomplished street racer who happened to win Stock Eliminator at the 1960 NHRA Nationals. He was the one who suggested to Davis the absurd idea of comparing a Pontiac to its Ferrari namesake. Davis embraced the idea and scheduled a test at Daytona International Speedway late in December 1963. Pontiac brought two GTOs to the track: a red car for acceleration runs and a dark blue one for everything else. Unbeknownst to everyone but Wangers, he special-ordered the red car to be built without sealer or sound deadener, then had Pontiac engineers slip in a Tri-Power 421 High Output engine from a full-size model, which was practically identical visually. The ringer’s ruse wasn’t given up until the 1990s in Wangers’ autobiography, though the performance stats — 0-60 in 4.6 seconds and 13.1 seconds at 115 mph — were a huge hint. Extra credit went to the Royal Pontiac, the suburban Detroit dealership that installed its Royal Bobcat kit to give the Goat even more suds at the strip.

David E. Davis, Jr. and Jim Wangers with the original GTO from the 1964 road test. (courtesy of Tenney Fairchild)

Here is Davis talking about the impact Jim Wangers had on his magazine: “We can trace everything that happened to Car and Driver going on to become the most profitable and the largest car magazine in the world right back to the day that story hit the stands. That story changed everything for Car and Driver magazine.”

Adds Wangers in another interview, “The car didn’t really get any serious exposure until after the Car and Driver story.”

Brock Yates, a man whose cantankerous musings suggest he’d proudly wear the epithet “sumbitch” like a badge, said this: “When I went to work for Car and Driver in 1964, months after probably the most seminal automotive story which was ever written, the one story that triggered more outrage, more memory, more craziness, more insanity than any other story that I can remember in automobile journalism. That was David E. Davis’ comparison of the Ferrari GTO and a Pontiac GTO. Incredible story … Everybody went crazy. We were getting letters from that story a year afterwards.”

Bill McGuire, former senior editor of Hot Rod, had this to say: “It is said that with his infamous road-test comparison of the Pontiac versus Ferrari GTOs, David E. Davis, Jr., invented modern automotive journalism. If so, then modern automotive journalism is mainly baloney, for the GTO that Pontiac PR guy Jim Wangers supplied to Car and Driver was a total fraud, sporting a 421 engine among other subtle mods. Really, it’s about stirring the reader’s passion for cars, and the cheated-up little GTO certainly accomplished that.”

Wangers’ Motortown converted the Pontiac LeMans into the Can Am.

Above you have heavy hitters in the annals of American automotive journalism expressing recognition and appreciation for Jim Wangers and how his input changed the trajectory of the periodical (if not the performance market in Detroit), yet Car and Driver never devoted a page or blurb giving props to the man to worked for MacManus, John & Adams, and founded Motortown and Automotive Marketing Consultants Inc. (AMCI). (Interestingly, the latter was his biggest success.)

In the world of sociology, there is a concept called historical fading that describes the decline of perceived importance of events over time. This concept involves the diminished collective memory and emotional impact of an event when those who experienced it pass away, with subsequent generations becoming even more removed from the event itself. Influential factors include changes in education, cultural shifts, and new historical events that capture the collective attention and reframe historical narratives.

Perhaps the most familiar event today that has been affected by historical fading is the sacrifice men and women made during the Japanese invasion off the coast of Hawaii. The significance of December 7, 1941, is still strong in America’s heart, but the low level of survivors who have yet to pass away is such that perhaps the anniversary may bear less importance in the country’s current consciousness — that despite the day being one that will live in infamy.

I ponder whether the same thing has happened with Car and Driver, as much of the old guard has left the masthead over the past 10-15 years. Most of those writing for the periodical are GenXers and younger folks who may have seen GTOs in the high school parking lot at best, not those who have waxed poetic countless times such as Patrick Bedard.

Yet, if we don’t remember from where we came, how can we navigate the future?

Rest in peace, Mr. Callaway.