Why Dan Neil won a Pulitzer

He’s the L.A. Times car critic who must’ve caused furrowing of brows among the Capital-J Journalism crowd. Who wants to encourage people to think cars might, you know, occupy a place in our culture or anything?

I got around to reading some of his reviews this morning … gotta say the guy can write like the blazes. He takes the usual “this is what the car does” and bumps it up a notch to put the car in the context of the lives of those who drive. He’s also hip and sassy, sort of a Wonkette for the passing lane (I realize he was writing before Wonkette existed but hey, logic can be set aside on a Saturday.) An extended passage from his review of the 60-mpg Toyota Prius pretty much defines why Dan deserved the P:

Have faith, America, and take another toke off your asthma inhaler. On some as-yet-unspecified date, on the golden horizon of the hydrogen economy, Detroit will deliver the ideal car, clean and powerful, trailing only clouds of noblesse oblige.

Forgive me if I’m skeptical. The most optimistic estimates put the mass marketing of fuel cells more than a decade away. It makes zero sense to give Detroit a pass on improving emissions and fuel economy now for some promised land of milk and money in the future.

Freedom CAR replaced the Clinton administration’s fig leaf of hypocrisy, the Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles, which doled out $1.5 billion to a consortium of automakers, universities and suppliers for nearly a decade and likewise was used to stall efforts to increase mileage standards. The Bush administration pulled the plug on the partnership last year, citing its failure to reach its goal: developing an affordable family sedan that gets 80 mpg.

Well, the Prius (pronounced PREE-us) gets 60 mpg — the highest fuel mileage of any mass-production car sold in the United States — and Toyota did it without subsidies from the federal government and much less posturing than the Big Three’s promising to save the world when they get around to it.

This is what my exec. editor would call “sophisticated” writing: it touches many bases — politics, industry, society — and sounds authoritative even when it’s breezy or preachy. Only the best of the best critics can pull this off.

Reading Neil’s pieces reminded me most of reading Car and Driver back in the late ’70s, when P.J. O’Rourke was in its stable of writers. They were all smart-alecky car nuts who wrote with the same verve and authority Neil exudes.

It sorta bugs be that cars have been around for a hundred years and good car writing has been around all of my adult life, and the Pulitzer people are just now getting around to recognizing a car writer. But the issue isn’t so much that the Pulitzers are late to the game. It’s mostly about the newspaper industry being in the pockets of local car dealers who take a dim view of car criticism because it gets so doggone critical. If writers of Neil’s caliber were welcome on the auto beat at most newspapers, Pulitzers would not be so scarce.

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