December 10, 2012 | by John Masson
Eddie Alterman took over Car and Driver magazine in March 2009, about a month before Chrysler declared bankruptcy. General Motors followed suit soon thereafter. Frozen credit was squeezing an already gasping industry, and the entire financial system, borne down by the housing crisis, remained on the verge of collapse.
Alterman stepped up "right in the middle of that," he says ruefully.
If you enjoy the occasional understatement, you might say it was a challenging time in both of his favorite industries: publishing and cars.
But the hydra-headed economic crisis—and the government-mandated shrinkage of the American automotive industry—ultimately helped reorient the American car companies toward their core business: engineering and manufacturing superior vehicles. Alterman and his staff of mechanically inclined scribes have been perfectly positioned to chronicle the progress.
Alterman, who earned a degree in English literature at LSA in 1994, has concentrated on refining one of the mightiest brands in automotive journalism. Car and Driver is a 1.2 million-subscriber juggernaut with a trademark blend of acerbic wit and engineering knowledge that makes it the first place car enthusiasts turn for frank assessments of automobiles from all over the world.
He has some advantages over his colleagues in beleaguered general interest publications like newspapers. For one thing, his staff does the kind of testing that isn't available anywhere else.
"We spend serious dollars to get this information, and so that helps to put a little moat around our business," he says.
Alterman's prior experience at the helm of web-based automotive publications has helped him refine delivery of material tailored to both electronic and print media. And along the way, he's been careful to reinforce Car and Driver's quirky, quixotic, and unique take on car culture.
He has led the charge, for example, to save the manual transmission. Apart from the unbridled joy of putting a car through its paces, he figures a good old-fashioned six-speed is one way to eliminate texting and driving, which he argues is as dangerous as drunken driving. Car and Driver has created a full line of mainly tongue-in-cheek accouterments to go along with the manual-transmission campaign: a web site, Facebook page, and t-shirts and other tchotchkes to reward participation.
And he and his staff have approached with healthy skepticism efforts to take automotive safety to its logical conclusion by eliminating driver input completely, through experimental safety features such as car-to-car communications systems designed to prevent accidents.
"It's kind of an existential question for a car magazine editor, whether people are going to be able to drive their own cars," he says.
No one is arguing that fewer accidents would be a good thing, Alterman says. But the inevitable resulting death of the American love affair with the open road, brought on by Big Brotherly surveillance? Less so.
"The American romance with the car is so real and so evident—the car is the place you can get in anytime you want and go wherever you want.” However, he says, an over-dependence on safety technology, which may or may not have a sinister, surveillance-state underbelly, threatens to destroy all that.
"First we turned the phone into a tracking device. Now they're doing that to the car," he says. "This would mean the romance of the car could die—just get into your pod and read your newspaper and do your texting. And that's just un-American."
A Detroit Native Returns
Alterman’s automotive publishing journey began shortly after he arrived in Ann Arbor as an undergraduate.
"I did the whole East Coast college tour, and then I thought, 'What the hell am I doing? U-M is at my doorstep,'" says Alterman, who was born and raised just outside Detroit. "One of the things that I'll admit drew me to U-M is there were two car magazines in Ann Arbor: Car and Driver and Automobile."
He soon found himself working part-time at the latter publication, even as he played drums in a touring rock-and-roll band and continued with his studies.
"I loved the English department," Alterman says. "I feel like there was a tremendous emphasis placed on critical thought around writing… Mine is a fairly commercial enterprise. It's not the Great American Novel. But certainly some of the bedrock skills are the same."
Years later, those skills helped him land the very job he dreamt of as a student—which he argues is one of the most satisfying imaginable.
Studying the industrial might that exists even in a diminished domestic car industry is endlessly fascinating, he says. There may be more than one way to generate wealth in a society—you can extract resources like timber, coal, steel, and oil from your surroundings, for example.
But the real magic lies in the next step: "Taking all that stuff and turning it into a $25,000 Chevy Malibu."
Photo (top): Courtesy of Eddie Alterman