- Bruce McCall, the legendary humorist and longtime contributor to Car and Driver, has died.
- McCall was equally prolific as an illustrator as a writer.
- His work was particularly adept at skewering the over-the-top style of mid-century American advertising.
Bruce McCall, one of the funniest men to ever write about cars—and also sketch, draw, and paint them with inimitable style—died yesterday at 87, owing to complications arising from Parkinson’s Disease.
Though known to the non-enthusiast reading population for the more than 80 covers he created for the New Yorker and the many illustrations and humorous essays he contributed to that toney East Coast periodical, as well as to the madcap 1970s comedic juggernaut, The National Lampoon, McCall distinguished himself to the car-loving world with his often acerbic and always hilarious work for Car and Driver and Automobile Magazine. His illustrations, which showcased the automotive and aeronautical themes that first captured his interest during what he would describe as a resolutely grim Canadian boyhood, defined a genre he’d come to call “retro-futurism,” a self-created style that at once mocked and celebrated the over-the-top enthusiasm and huckster’s bluster that characterized mid-20th century American marketing, nowhere more shamelessly than in the sale of new automobiles. Overlaid with an Anglo-Canadian’s love and loathing of all things British, the genre he helped carve out would become an enduring pillar of American satire, leading even to a short-lived stint in the 1970s as a writer for Saturday Night Live.
A 2020 piece in the New Yorker, “My Life in Cars” detailed McCall’s lifelong fascination with vehicular transport, a topic he’d chronicle still more thoroughly in his addictively readable 2011 first autobiographical volume, “Thin Ice: Coming of Age in Canada.” (A second volume, “How Did I Get Here? A Memoir” was released in 2020.) Glorious showcases for McCall’s unique blend of melancholy and coruscating wit, the volumes together told the story of how a slight, shy youngster born to dour Scots-Canadian parents (his civil servant father once a PR director for Chrysler of Canada, his mother an alcoholic) spent hours in the bedroom he shared with his brother (one of five siblings), refining an innate artistic ability to the point where he would go on to find gainful employment in Windsor, Ontario, illustrating car brochures. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, cars were not often photographed for ads and brochures but were drawn and painted, and the artists who illustrated them were encouraged to make new model cars look even larger, lower, longer, and wider than they were in real life. This skill would redound to McCall’s benefit in later years, with much of his magazine work lampooning the exaggerated style and Space Age promise of the ads that once paid his rent.
As McCall often related, a meeting of minds with the yet-to-become Car and Driver editor (and later Automobile Magazine) founder, David E. Davis, Jr., led to his employment at the venerable Detroit ad agency, Campbell-Ewald, where Davis worked on the Chevrolet account. Davis encouraged the reticent McCall to think bigger. A relocation catapulted the young illustrator from what McCall related as a dreary and largely introverted life into one of color and accomplishment, a success story that would not be complete until Davis encouraged him in the later 1960s to follow him to New York, where Car and Driver was based at the time, and where McCall’s magazine career flowered. First, stints writing copy for Ford and Mercedes-Benz at J. Walter Thompson and Ogilvy & Mather raised his standard of living—the Mercedes job would take him for a time to Stuttgart where he was put in charge of the stuffy company’s advertising. A chance collaboration for Playboy with C/D‘s Brock Yates saw him make the most of his boyhood skill for drawing World War II fighting aircraft, along with his fertile imagination and lifelong penchant for absurdist histories, in an illustrated piece called “Major Howdy Bixby’s Album of Forgotten Warbirds,” which won the magazine’s annual humor award and featured such imaginary planes as the Kakaka “Shirley” Amphibious Pedal-Bomber.
“The originality of Japanese aircraft design was never in question after the Shirley wobbled onto the scene, albeit briefly, in the closing months of the Pacific war. This light (75 lbs.), cheap ($1.49), last-ditch gesture of a desperate Japanese High Command was in fact little more than a bicycle of the air, its propeller turned by pedal power from the pilot. Towed behind a torpedo boat, the Shirley would sooner or later rise and fumble skyward, staying aloft exactly as long as its pilot’s stamina held out and his sprocket chain stayed intact.”
By turns, self-deprecating, humble, and keenly aware of his own talent, McCall would take his young Canadian obsession with popular marketing and American-style excess to a whole new audience with an early ’70s spread in the National Lampoon that purported to be a sales pitch for the Bulgemobile. It hawked a mythical American land yacht circa 1958, a chrome-festooned behemoth that seemed to possess every excess and styling dead-end that tailfin-obsessed Detroit ever hatched, with models named Fireblast! Flashbolt! Blastfire! Firewood! As Hemming Motor News’ writer Daniel Strohl observed in a piece celebrating Bruce’s contribution to automotive satire, an antecedent for McCall’s work lay in some whimsical drawings from the pen of Milwaukee-based designer Brooks Stevens, whose 1955 illustration, “The Detroit Dilemma or the Battle of the Bulge” “managed to skewer just about every one of the Detroit Big Three by tacking together all the excess of the mid-Fifties into one design. There’s chrome gravel shields, chrome trim, chrome spears, chrome hood ornaments, chrome wheel covers, big chrome bumpers, chrome fins, septuple-tone (or maybe octa-tone) paint, wraparound glass, and more.”
But it was McCall who took the theme and ran with it. Reprising the “Major Bixby” formula, McCall’s 2001 collection, “The Last Dream-O-Rama – The Cars Detroit Forgot to Build, 1950-1960,” summed up his all-too-accurate take on the post-war American automotive scene in its characteristically deft, biting, and eloquent introduction. “When the postwar economic boom fostered such prosperity that easy credit allowed even hourly workers to plunge themselves hopelessly into debt, a brand-new car became an attainable dream for millions in the 1950s. And soon came dream cars to further stimulate their automotive saliva glands. By mid-decade, every American carmaker was parading its glittering glimpses of four-wheeled futurism before a dazzled public—flights of styling fancy and functional wonderment blaring ‘Headed for your driveway soon!’ while mumbling, sotto voce, ‘Don’t hold us to it.’ “
McCall, who lived in New York City across from Central Park, is survived by his wife, Polly, daughter, Amanda, and, we imagine, a thousand score or more heartbroken Car and Driver readers. Ourselves, we can’t imagine the popular episode of The Simpsons, with its satirical ad for a gigantic mythical SUV, the Canyonero, (“Smells like a steak and seats 35”) without thinking of Bruce. He made us laugh at what we were and what we’ve become.
Jamie Kitman is a lawyer, rock band manager (They Might Be Giants, Violent Femmes, Meat Puppets, OK Go, Pere Ubu, among his clients past and present), and veteran automotive journalist whose work has appeared in publications including _Automobile Magazine, Road & Track, Autoweek, Jalopnik, New York Times, Washington Post, Politico, The Nation, Harpers, and Vanity Fair as well as England’s Car, Top Gear, Guardian, Private Eye, and The Road Rat. Winner of a National Magazine Award and the IRE Medal for Investigative Magazine Journalism for his reporting on the history of leaded gasoline, in his copious spare time he runs a picture-car company, Octane Film Cars, which has supplied cars to TV shows including The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, The Americans, Halston, and The Deuce and movies including Respect and The Post. A judge on the concours circuit, he has his own collection with a “friend of the friendless” theme that includes less-than-concours examples of the Mk 1 Lotus-Ford Cortina, Hillman Imp, and Lancia Fulvia, as well as more Peugeots than he is willing to publicly disclose.