Car and Driver (C/D) contributing writer John Phillips has been around the block a few times, and the test track. After he spent three years at Ohio State, he finished his education at Oxford in England.
Since his time in England, he has had a career that looks to be the envy of upcoming automotive journalists like myself. After working for three years at CAR weekly in Ontario, Canada, he worked for two PR firms and wrote press materials for General Motors and Ford Racing. Before coming to C/D in 1989 he wrote for the California based car-racing tabloid, On Track.
To add to my envy, besides driving $100,000 cars for a living, Phillips has written two books, contributed to Sports Illustrated, Elle, Harper’s, Conde Nast Traveler and several different newspapers.
I will admit that I had not heard of Phillips before I read his article, “The Ultimate Antivenom: The Viper’s Dying, and I Won’t Miss It” on MSN News. And I have never driven, or even rode, in a Viper in my life. I have seen one, I think.
Phillips’ words and style stood out to me. Not only did I learn something about the Viper, I had a good laugh and wanted to know more.
One thing a college student does most often is check out other people’s facts, opinions and numbers. It seems a bit of a mystery to me how reporters in the real world find out facts like production numbers and the end of a series.
“I get industry news on model production from Automotive News, which is a bi-weekly trade publication.” Phillips said in an on-line interview. “In case of the Viper, Chrysler wasn’t releasing production numbers because they had become insignificant and embarrassing. So I called a Chrysler PR guy…and he told me the exact number.”
Numbers are important. According to Road and Track, only 676 Vipers were sold in 2105, and according to Phillips, only 2687 fifth generation units sold in total. This could explain why Fiat Chrysler is not making them anymore, and that the fact-checking that one does in college never ends.
“Getting (a) number right is crucial,” Phillips said, “Because the fact-checkers at the magazine will demand to know where it came from, so they can double check it. Never get your fact-checkers angry. If they lose faith in your credibility, you’re screwed.”
After reading the article, I accused Phillips of being a bit snarky, or having a rudely critical tone. Not that I would blame him, but saying that the Viper was “like using a Louisville Slugger to play ping-pong” after he cooked bacon, eggs and then popcorn on the car is not normal civil behavior. But he rattled off a list of bad experiences that he had around the car, like food poisoning, accidents and being banned from all Mopar machinery, that added to his “bad juju” that surrounded the car.
Phillips said that he screwed up if the column came out that way. He hates to hear journalists whine about getting a free ride in cars they could probably never afford. The column is just a representation of his writing style and he doesn’t think it could change without him grinding to a complete stop, and it is the style C/D has used for the last 60 odd years. There is an implied obligation for first-person columnists to agitate to provoke comments and rebuttals.
Which brings us back to cooking breakfast foods and late night snacks on a modern day muscle car. Often enough, college students are taught to show, not tell. It is a real world example of this theory at work.
“I cooked food over the hood of the Viper because that huge V-10 produced so much heat,” Phillips said. “It was one thing to tell readers how much heat was coming into the cockpit, making it miserable in there, but it was more dramatic to show them how much heat it was. To do that graphically, it seemed fun to cook food atop the car just after a spirited run at the test track.”
According to Phillips, the Viper is an unwieldy monolith with 1960s technology that is just too hot to drive and makes driving a real workout. He also said that other cars in its price range of $90,000, like Corvettes and Audi R8s, could double as daily drivers. The Viper could be used for that, as long as it was being towed there. It all added to the snarky feel of the piece, even if things like food poisoning were not the car’s fault. Having hot exhaust where a woman could burn her leg just for getting in the car, however, is.
“It’s easy to criticize specific cars,” Phillips said. “Anybody can do it. But my point was to call into question Chrysler’s overall notion of the car, which hasn’t changed since the first Viper came off the line. I wanted the reader to know that my peevish criticism of the car specifically wasn’t as much the point as Chrysler’s having lost its way – and its enthusiasm. Because of that, the company is being punished by poor sales, which perhaps they should have seen coming if they kept repeating themselves.”
Lee, Kristin. “13 Great Cars that Nobody Bought in 2015.” Road and Track. 23 Feb. 2016.
MSN News. Web. 7 Mar. 2016
Phillips, John. , “The Ultimate Antivenom: The Viper’s Dying, and I Won’t Miss It.” Car and
Driver. 19 Feb. 2016. MSN News. Web. 7 Mar. 2016
Definition of “snarky.” Dictionary.com. Web. 7 Mar. 2016. http://dictionary.reference.com/