Murdoch assumed unfriendliness from "the liberal establishment press" and he surely wouldn't care about my unlikely conversion, which was inspired by his large, unrequired check to someone else.
In the summer of 1985, a late pal of mine named David E. Davis, had noisily resigned as editor and publisher of Car and Driver after "the suits [CBS] bought it," to avoid being handcuffed to the nearest cost-cut. He was the most influential journalist covering the world's largest industry, and had every reason to expect supplicant publishers to trample the grass to his door. Instead, "I mowed the lawn three times a week," as he described months of joblessness.
When his home phone finally rang one morning at 7.30, he told me, a soft voice said "'Good morning Mr. Davis. I'm calling for Rupert Murdoch. Mr. Murdoch wants to start a magazine about automobiles and would like you to be editor. Would you consider meeting him in New York at 10 tomorrow morning?'"
After 30 minutes with Murdoch, Davis called Jeannie, his wife and business manager. "'It was the shortest meeting of my life,'" she remembers him saying, "'and I'm not sure but I think we have a deal.'" The contract, a few lines on a single page, including this unforgettable passage:
"'If the magazine loses one million dollars in its first year, you will be fired. If it fails to earn one million dollars in its fourth year, you will be fired.'" Other than that, Davis had been told, he would hear very little from Murdoch.
Automobile became a New Yorker of automotive journalism. Instead of traditional gearhead engine specs, it carried narratives by the likes of Jim Harrison, David Halberstam, P.J. O'Rourke and Bruce McCall. Davis was a brave editor. The National Automotive Press Association drew a collective gasp when Davis concluded a keynote address with, "Ladies and Gentlemen, we stand on the shoulders of midgets." He was speaking of the industry, but few missed a reference to then-GM Chairman Roger Smith, who symbolized Detroit's decline and stood five foot, six inches tall. Canceled GM advertising cost the magazine $500,000. Murdoch said nothing.
Automobile had been showing healthy profits (10 percent went to Davis) on a circulation of 500,000. News Corp, however, had stumbled into a liquidity ditch and to stay afloat sold its magazine division. Nothing in the one-page contract mentioned this eventuality, yet Davis did nothing -- not even after being asked to speak for the division at its farewell dinner at New York's 21 Club.
As the Davises dressed for the event, the division chief called. "'Just so you don't have a heart attack on stage,'" he said, "'I need to tell you beforehand that Rupert's going to hand you a check for a million dollars tonight. He doesn't think that having no provision in your contract should stop you from getting from the sale of Automobile what you got from its profits.'"