Jerry Flint and I were contemporaries on the auto beat and sometimes fierce competitors, but always compatriots, buddies.
Flint died Aug.7, ending a 52-year journalism career, nearly all of it covering the auto industry for major publications including, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and Forbes magazine, where he rose to senior editor and continued writing an automotive column until his death. He was 79.
When he officially retired from Forbes in 1996, I invited him to write a monthly opinion column for Ward’s Auto World. We called it the “Contrarian,” because Flint was at his best when he opposed prevailing views.
His critics usually did not have much room to complain because Flint knew what he was talking about.
He wasn’t an intellectual, but he was smart and a master of automotive issues. And he was not afraid to skewer top executives. He once proposed thatshould fire Chairman Rick Wagoner because that’s what football teams did to underperforming quarterbacks.
But Flint also could dish out praise when it was merited. Auto and union executives seldom turned down his requests for interviews.
Flint loved to toss zingers at press conferences. Sure they added to his reputation as a curmudgeon, but they weren’t off the cuff. He was a whiz at research and a genius in ferreting out statistics to make his case.
One of his recent columns dealt with whether auto makers could make money on small cars. Fred Mackerodt, an East Coast automotive public relations executive and close friend since the early 1970s, recalls having lunch with Flint a week ago.
“He asked me if small cars could be profitable, and I said ‘Not in your lifetime or mine,’” says Mackerodt, adding with a laugh: “I didn’t know he’d take me seriously.”
Flint was a Detroit native and graduate of Wayne State University. He left Detroit for New York in the late 1960s and except for a stint as Forbes’ Washington Bureau Chief he had lived in the Big Apple ever since.
But his heart always remained in the Motor City, even when he was lambasting the Big Three auto makers for all manner of failings, but rooting for them to be successful. His simple mantra: Make high-quality cars that people want, and profits will stream in.
Flint gained legendary status not only through his reporting and stinging criticism, but also for his flamboyant personality. He wore a tam to cover his bald pate. He also was seldom seen without a white cravat. He wore white tennis shoes with dress suits.Chairman Lee Iacocca once upbraided Flint for wearing a white sport jacket after Labor Day.
Flint and the late Bob Irvin of the Detroit News were great pals, and the three of us always were trying to score a scoop on the others.
Flint’s escapades provided laughs for his legion of colleagues and admirers. One of his closest friends was Jim Dunne a staffer for Popular Science magazine and later Popular Mechanics, who also gained a wide reputation as an automotive spy photographer.
Dunne recalls how he and Flint once snuck into a secretpilot plant in Detroit to snap pictures of future Plymouth models.
“We were wearing suits and ties, and the guard approached and asked ‘Can I help you guys?’ And we said, ‘We’re from publications downtown,’” Dunne says, “and the guy let us in. I was carrying the camera body and Flint had the lens. They’d left the lights on, so we got some great pictures.”
Dunne once pressed into service by Flint shortly after he arrived in Honolulu for a press preview. Unbeknownst to him, Flint also was in town. Flint phoned him at 4:45 that afternoon. “I’m getting married (to his second wife, Kate McLeod) at 6 pm. Can you be my best man?” he asked Dunne. Stunned, Dunne showed up for the wedding.
Flint also became a top labor reporter as he traversed the auto beat. During one set of negotiations at the GM Building in Detroit, reporters were kept waiting hours for a verdict. Dunne says Flint had figured out what the outcome might be, so he took a piece of chalk, drew a big circle on the hallway floor outside the press room and invited his colleagues to join him inside the circle.
He then announced: “In Detroit automotive circles, they’re saying the UAW will get a 5% raise.”
Another anecdote from Dunne’s memory bank has Iacocca quoting from a Flint story during a press conference, then Flint telling Dunne as they were walking out: “Sometimes I quote Lee and sometimes he quotes me.”
Baron Bates, a former public relations executive atand Chrysler, dates his association with Flint to the early 1960s. “He was a giant in our business and an unforgettable character.”
And indeed, he was.
In lieu of flowers, please send donations in memory of Jerry Flint to the Overseas Press Club Foundation, 40 West 45th St., New York, NY 10036.