Longtime Forbes columnist covered Detroit for 52 years.
HUDSON–Forbes columnist Jerry Flint, who covered the automotive industry for more than half a century, died August 7, in Hudson of a stroke. He was 79.
A Detroit native, Flint was considered the dean of automotive reporters. Although he had recently celebrated his 79th birthday, he showed no signs of slowing down and was still contributing his biting critiques of the industry for Forbes readers.
“I’ve been covering the auto industry forever; you could call me The 2000-Year-Old Auto Writer,” Flint liked to joke. While he had been at it forever, he never lost his fastball and was still considered the preeminent reporter on the beat.
Throughout his career, he blasted away at the failings of Detroit automakers, while rooting for their ultimate success. The hallmark of his writing at Forbes was a blunt, curmudgeonly style. He’d seen it all, and he had no problem telling readers when he thought something was a complete waste of money, as was the case with his 2003 take on hydrogen fuel cell research.
“With government funding, a good part of the money goes to folks who can’t do anything: research centers, professors, anyone with the knack of filling out a government grant application,” he wrote. “This pays for lots of assistants, secretaries and copying machines. It doesn’t seem to get to people who know anything about cars. The money that goes to the people who can do something, the auto companies or a few specialized outfits, pays for research they were doing anyway but allows more rides into blind alleys that they otherwise would have skipped.”
Or this November 2009 take on why Americans never learned to love small cars, and probably wouldn’t anytime soon: “This doesn’t mean Americans don’t want fuel economy; it may mean that vehicles that were small, unappealing, underpowered and uncomfortable two years ago are still small, unappealing, underpowered and uncomfortable. It’s nice to get 30 miles to the gallon, but it’s definitely miserable, even dangerous, to need 12 seconds to get up to freeway speed from the ramp.”
He loved “car guys” and smart designers, detested accountants and bureaucrats and bumblers. The business was challenging, but simple. Build exciting cars. Market them right. Avoid financial engineering. He was right more often than not, and he enjoyed the respect of the industry, and his peers in the press, for decades. Readers loved him, too. Last month one of them mistakenly thought Flint was on hiatus and wrote in looking for a new column. “A month without you,” the reader wrote, “is too long.”
He won numerous awards for his work, including the Gerald Loeb Award for Distinguished Business and Financial Journalism in 2003 for his Forbes column “Backseat Driver.” Business News Reporter named him one of the 100 most prominent business reporters of the 20th century. He almost made it into outer space. Flint was one of the final 40 considered to be the first Journalist in Space before NASA cancelled the program after the Challenger crash.
Flint was born June 20, 1931, in Detroit and graduated from Wayne State University there in 1953. After serving in the Army for three years in a European intelligence unit, he joined The Wall Street Journal as a staff writer, and spent 11 years there covering business and finance.
In 1967 Flint moved to The New York Times as its Detroit bureau chief. Not only did he continue to focus on the automotive industry, he also reported on the 1967 Detroit riots and the 1968 presidential campaign.
Flint moved to New York in 1973, working as The New York Times’ chief labor reporter, assistant to the national editor and assistant to the financial editor.
He joined Forbes in 1979 as its Washington bureau chief. He ran the D.C. bureau for Forbes for four years before returning to New York and Forbes headquarters where he held several senior positions including assistant managing editor and senior writer. While he officially retired from Forbes in 1996, he continued on as a columnist until his death. He was also a contributor to Ward’s AutoWorld.
Perhaps the secret of his long career was that he simply loved cars, fast machines and the freedom they represented. In his 1976 book “The Dream Machine” he looked back fondly on what he considered the golden age of American automaking–1946 to 1965. After that, he wrote, “engines got bigger, not better, the paint became wilder and the knobs fell off the dash.” There will always be cars, he added, “but they won’t be quite as much fun.”
A resident of Manhattan and Stuyvesant, Flint is survived by his wife, Kate McLeod; four children from a previous marriage: David of New York; Perry of Kensington, Md.; Douglas of Alexandria, Va.; and Joseph of Los Angeles; a granddaughter, Laura; grandsons Ethan, Jonah, Joshua and Philip; a sister, Faye; and a niece in Michigan.
In lieu of flowers, please send donations in memory of Jerry Flint to the Overseas Press Club Foundation, 40 W. 45th St., New York, N.Y. 10036.
Joe Flint is a staff writer for The Los Angeles Times.