Talking Shop With Automotive Expert and Media Maven Jean Jennings

Jean Jennings at McPherson College in the Peerless Green Dragon with Jonathan Klinger from Hagerty
Jean Jennings at McPherson College in the Peerless Green Dragon with Jonathan Klinger from Hagerty | Source: Jean Jennings

At the end of the day, we all need role models in life. Somebody to look up to. A person who’s seen it all and lived to tell the tale. In my case, one of my biggest inspirations outside of the late car enthusiast, actor, and all around badass Paul Newman happens to be an automotive journalist named Jean Jennings.

Over the past 30 years, she has driven more cars than most people can list in one sitting, befriended countless celebrities and race car drivers, and helped launch and run brands like Automobile Magazine. Always looking for something new to review, Jennings has achieved something of celebrity status in what is largely a male-dominated profession.

She’s a real black sheep amidst a flock of male journalists, and the only thing more overabundant than her automotive knowledge and impressive resume is her hat collection.

After meeting Jennings at an event last fall, I was able to get a list of 15 questions off her way in order to show what makes one of the world’s most infamous car critics tick. While she’s been known to be modest (on occasion), this quote pretty much sums up Jennings and her career:

“I’m getting a lifetime achievement award at the end of the month from the New England Motor Press Association. And I’m not even dead yet!”

Jean Jennings with GMC Canyon
Jean Jennings with GMC Canyon | Source: Paul Dzendzel

The Cheat Sheet: What was the biggest influence on you as a child or young adult outside of your father being the editor at Automotive News?

Jean Jennings: I went to Catholic school with a heavy emphasis on reading, Latin, and the pursuit of nothing less than perfection. Also, I worked on a disruptive underground newspaper, which was pretty heady stuff. Last, and certainly not least, I lived on a dirt road in the middle of nowhere, learned how to drive when I was 14, and was hell bent on blowing that cowtown. So… cars+pursuit of perfection+disruption = listen to my brother’s encouragement to interview for an open position at Car and Driver magazine.

CS: What is the coolest car you’ve ever driven, and why is it still your No. 1?

JJ: Hard to pick one, so there are three: Ralph Lauren let me drive his priceless 1938  Alfa 8C 9000 Mille Miglia. Second is a 1916 Benz 18/45 open touring car from the Mercedes-Benz factory museum I was invited to drive the week-long 1993 Pan-Pacific Rally across New Zealand’s North Island. Most incredibly, Dan Davis invited to me to drive his entire collection of exceedingly rare Miller racing cars during the annual Miller Meet at the Milwaukee Mile.

Race car quality time | Jean Jennings via Facebook
Race car quality time | Jean Jennings via Facebook

CS: You started driving a taxi at age 18 after modifying a car to meet “taxi standards.” Tell us more about that, and the wildest fare you had.

I dropped out of the University of Michigan after three incomplete semesters before they flunked me out. I lied and told my dad that I wanted to drive a cab and see the world. “No you don’t,” he replied. (He had a point.) So I had to drive a cab to make good on my story. Being driven like a northeast wind, I quickly realized that I needed to own a cab, so I bought a used Plymouth Satellite with 318 V8 and 56,000 miles on the odometer. I tried to install the meter without help, gave up after drilling three huge holes in the top of the dash, and took it to Chet’s Meter Shop in downtown Detroit. Chet carried a gun in his waistband.

Once on the road, it was as you would expect. Old ladies wanted me to drive slowly, special needs kids wanted me to drive as fast as possible and honk the horn a lot, and out of town conventioneers told me rape jokes while sitting directly behind my head as I drove them to the airport.

Once I picked up a guy who made every hair on my body stand up when he got in the back seat. I secretly opened the mic button and talked for my life all the way to his (bad neighborhood) destination. The next day I read in the paper that he’d escaped from the State Hospital, murdered his wife, then he called a cab. Mine.

I took a bank robber to a local town to rob a bank. I picked up the actor Jason Robards. I carried a drunk whose head was covered in blood from a bottle fight over my shoulder and into his house. I propped him on the toilet and cleaned him off with alcohol while he screamed bloody murder.

Fiat 500, Song Millinery hat, and Jean Jennings
Fiat 500 and Jean Jennings | Source: A.J. Mueller

CS: You left Car and Driver to help start Automobile Magazine in the 1980s. What made Automobile special in its early days, and what were you looking to gain from launching it?

JJ: It was the first American car magazine that was perfect bound (not stapled) and printed in four-color. David E. did not want “the cold, dead hand” of car test results to sway our opinions about cars, so there was no fifth-wheel performance testing. He wanted long-form essays by the finest writers of the day, including Jim Harrison, David Halberstam, and P.J. O’Rourke, among others. Then Automobile Magazine was so ground-breaking that within a year or so, the three major car magazines at that time changed to perfect binding, full color, and hired new editors and art directors.

CS: You were Good Morning America‘s automotive specialist for six years in the 1990s. What’s it like to be a TV personality vs. a print journalist?

JJ: In the case of GMA, it was 99% live. There is no copy editor on live television to save you when you fumble. Then again, live TV is finished when you finish talking. Thank God. TV is the shallowest thing you can possibly do with what you know. I loved it.

Old ladies recognized me on the street, [and] our UPS guy told me one morning that he’d heard my voice on TV while shaving, ran out into the living room in his underwear, pointed to the TV and told his wife, “I know her!”

“Sure you do,” she answered.

CS: Tell us about what you currently have in your garage, and your favorite cars from the past.

JJ: Current stable: 2007 Chevy Suburban, 2004 Mazdaspeed Miata, 2015 Golf Sportwagen TDI with a six-speed manual, an old 1987 Jeep Wrangler, some vintage Honda bikes, and the odd Kubota or two.

Past faves: 1970 Fiat 500, 1971 BMW 3.0 CSi, 2013 VW Jetta Sportwagen TDI with a six-speed manual, 1985 Audi Coupe GT, a duo of late 1970s Dodge Power Wagons, 1976 Ford F150, 1973 Plymouth Satellite taxi, 1975 Plymouth Fury taxi, 1955 Chevy, 1956 Chevy, 1957 Chevy, and a 1960 Volvo 544.

CS: Who is in more trouble right now: Takata, Fiat-Chrysler, or Volkswagen? Why?

JJ: Takata is toast. Their crisis is safety-related, it is industry wide, and it has affected millions upon millions of cars with no end in sight.

Automotive Expert Jean Jennings | Jean Jennings via Facebook
Jean Jennings and a Rolls-Royce | Jean Jennings via Facebook

CS: What is the ugliest car of all time?

JJ: There is no such thing. Oh wait… the Hanomag Kommissbrot. Then again, the low budget wicker Hanomag Korbwagen was pretty bad too…

CS: Of all the automakers, who do you think is set to dominate in the coming years? Why?

JJ: I’m a terrible prognosticator. Really terrible. In 1981, I said Chrysler would go out of business in five years. One week before Fiat bought into Chrysler, I said they would be out of business within that year.

CS: Who was the coolest celebrity or race car driver you’ve ever had a drink with? Who was the worst?

JJ: In 1989, I raced across the Alps in the 2000-mile Pirelli-Classic Marathon in an 1965 MGB with Stirling Moss. I spent 9,000 miles in the first One Lap of America with Parnelli Jones in a panel van disguised as a Stroh’s Brewery truck. I was close to [auto writer and racer] Denise McCluggage for 30 years, mooned [race car drivers] Dan Gurney and Phil Hill, drove to the top of the world with [Swedish rally driver] Erik Carlsson, and rode to horse jumping events in the horse box with [female rally driver] Pat Moss.

But the most amazing experience in my life was spending a day in 1990 with champion Bugatti driver Elisabeth Junek at her apartment in the Swedish embassy in Prague, right after the Berlin Wall fell. She was just shy of her 90th birthday and spoke for four hours without stopping, alternating between German, Czech, and English, then pulled out a bottle of Johnny Walker Red and poured us shots. She poured herself a double. She died in 1994.

CS: What’s an extinct automotive component and/or styling cue that you want see resurrected?

JJ: Tail fins, of course!

CS: It seems that every year fewer and fewer cars are being purchased with manual gearboxes. What’s the best manual gearbox you’ve ever encountered?

JJ: Ferrari Testarossa. It has an external shift gate that seems to terrify most drivers. It made me feel like a goddess.

Buick Cascada and Jean Jennings
Buick Cascada and Jean Jennings | Source: Jean Jennings

CS: Most Americans still don’t know that companies like Volvo is owned by the Chinese, Jeep is owned by the Italians, and Jaguar/Land Rover is owned by the Indians. Do you think these “outsourced” ownerships are helping or hurting?

JJ: Totally helping! Pour that money in and leave them alone. (Jury is out on Fiat.) Best Volvo yet. Best Jags. Best Land Rovers.

CS: Is there a car you have been dying to get behind the wheel of and still have yet to do so? What makes it so special to you?

JJ: Running Automobile Magazine meant that I sent many others to drive cars that I would liked to have driven myself. The short list are all Ferraris: F50, Ferrari Enzo, etc.

CS: The automotive realm is still a male-dominated industry. In your opinion, what needs to change in order to make it more inclusive?

JJ: Not just males, but white, heterosexual males. So… [maybe] follow the lead of the PM of Canada [Justin Trudeau], who installed 50% women in his cabinet posts to reflect real life. But be braver than that. Mentor women, LGBT people, people of color. Take a deep breath and back the fuck off the big competitive testosterone thing that men do in this business. Share the wealth that comes with this, the absolute best job anyone could ever hope to have.