JULY 3, 2009 EDITORIAL:Tom McCahill…A god among car guys-the legendary MI guy



There are many great reasons to be happy to be a Baby Boomer.


We may be getting old but we misspent our youth in some great decades.


We had the iconic cars and lots of drive ins for a custom fit with an increasingly relaxed moral code.


‘Maybe we only had AM radio but we also had the best music ever heard on a car radio. But mostly we (or at least I) had Tom McCahill.’


Tom McCahill was a god to me.


Here was a guy who made me glad that I learned how to read. Tom appeared in my home every month as a feature writer and test pilot for Mechanix Illustrated where he drove every car like he just stole Don Corleone’s personal ride.


Very little was off limits to Uncle Tom when it came to test drives because he put the cars through a hellacious torture session which tested the engineering mettle of over 600 cars from several decades. And then he lived to talk about it.


McCahill never met a metaphor or simile he didn’t like and, unlike Dennis Miller, we could always interpret Uncle Tom’s ramblings. His writing style made him famous but testing cars made him a decent living and he liked to live large.


Tom McCahill was a pioneer in the car test world who basically bluffed his way into the concept under the pretense of a car photo shoot that had an accompanying description of the car. We can consider ourselves lucky that Uncle Tom had superb description skills and thus began the legend.


I remember an issue with a cover story that read, “Tom McCahill Rolls a Renault”. This kind of headline (where he wrecked a car and survived to write his typically sardonic account of the experience) was huge to me.


Not when I found my older brother’s Playboy huge– but definitely in that neighborhood of huge.


I guess the best part of a Tom McCahill car test was the time period of his tests. The language of a typical car trade magazine did not include even mild profanity like “hell” but a McCahill piece often pushed through this barrier even in the fifties-you never heard that word on 1950s TV.


A lot of his test vehicles were only a few decades removed from the technology of the Model T, so a Tom McCahill hell- drive typically put these dinosaurs at the very edge of period performance. Or, in some Uncle Tom tests, well over the edge.


One of the funniest McCahill tests involved a 1966 Dodge Coronet 426 Hemi convertible that Uncle Tom coaxed to 144 mph on an oval track. He pinned the car despite a promise to keep his foot out of the test. The fabric roof looked like a pup tent during prime time Katrina at the “pedal meets floorboard” pinnacle of his test flight. I still remember McCahill’s only regret was that a non-metal roof slowed him down from even more insane speeds. The man had brass and balls in no particular order.


One of my favorite McCahillisms was the term “idiot lights” which was his derogatory term for Detroit’s cheap replacement for actual gauges to show high water temperature and low oil pressure in yesterday’s cars. A lot of them had plenty of both problems, and idiot lights usually came on shortly before the patient died.


Perhaps the most famous Tom McCahill automobile test feature was the iconic 0 to 60 test for cars, some of which he  measured with an hourglass on a few of the dogs from the past. We still measure performance by the McCahill meter to this very day.


He wrote during an era of big cars that became even bigger cars and I always liked his measurements for roominess that included sticking his large hunting dogs or his trusty photographer in the trunk for a photo shoot.

His November 1959 MI preview of the 1960 cars illustrated his belief in the big boys, despite the birth of Big Three compacts in that model year. Uncle Tom felt that “America is basically a big car country with big car needs.” The recent success of Escalades and Navigators until big buck gas and a recession proved the man right for a long time.


His personal favorites included a series of late 50s and early 60s Chrysler Imperials which presumably provided a few acres of room for Uncle Tom and the mutts.


It seemed obvious that Uncle Tom had an affinity for Mopar particularly during the torsion bar period where Chrysler’s legendary letter cars moved muscle and mass with surprising agility for the era.


Eventually every Mechanix Illustrated came equipped with an added feature called Mail for McCahill. This was an information Q and A hosted by the always-quotable Uncle Tom. Every now and then some bozo would poke the lion with a sharp stick and aim a cheap shot at Tom.


The net result was always the same: Tom would take the guy apart and immortalize him forever as another idiot run over by a fast moving McCahill one-liner.


As a car guy, Tom McCahill will always be my favorite non family-related Uncle Tom. Detroit didn’t really love the guy, but they had to listen to him when he complained about handling and performance issues. Why? Because the man preached from a very big pulpit in car world.


And we loved the sermons. 

Jim Sutherland

c/o mystarcollectorcar.com