I found out that Jim Mateja had died when Dan Ammann—the 44-year-old President of General Motors—started speaking at the Economic Club of Chicago’s meeting and lunch at the Chicago Auto Show press preview on Feb. 9. Rarely do automotive journalists get that kind of industry recognition, but Mateja was long respected for his role as The Chicago Tribune’s automotive columnist.
His wife of 51 years, Sue Mateja, told the paper that Jim had collapsed at his computer on Monday Jan. 30, just after filing a story for the Tribune about the upcoming 2017 Chicago Auto Show. Later the same day, he died of cancer at Glenbrook Hospital in Glenview, Ill. Mateja was 71 years old and had been writing about cars for the Tribune since penning a story on the 1971 Ford Pinto.
Old Cars Weekly knew Mateja as a Corvette fan and collector who touched first base with the OCW staff at a Volo Auto Museum auctions years ago. Over the years we ran into him at the Chicago Auto Show where auto executives and government officials would snap to attention when they heard that Jim Mateja had entered the room.
Mateja was born on March 13, 1945. One day after graduating from Western Illinois University in 1967, he was hired to work for the Tribune’s business copy desk. He began writing about cars in 1970 when his boss promised that if he took the job and did well, he would be rewarded with a promotion in two years. Mateja semi-retired from the Tribune in 2007, after 47 years as the paper’s automotive columnist.
According to the Tribune, “His widespread knowledge of the industry and charming wit in distilling both marketing mumbo-jumbo and the mechanically complex endeared him to generations of readers, auto writers, dealers and executives.” In 1991, Mateja helped found the Midwest Automotive Media Association (MAMA), which marked its 25th anniversary last year.
Mateja’s writing won a number of awards, from a 1997 Lisagor award for outstanding work by an Illinois journalist to two International Wheel Awards for journalistic excellence specific to auto coverage. He was a hard and determined worker who not only attended the Chicago Auto Show’s press preview each year, but who also returned during other days of the show to see what spectators thought of the new cars on display. People who knew him agree that his conversational writing style appealed to both industry executives and consumers.
“During his long tenure at the Chicago Tribune, Jim set a standard for automotive journalism that inspired me and countless others,” MotorWeek’s John Davis posted on Facebook. “Plus, his wit and sense of humor always found a way to brighten and make entertaining even the most boring of vehicles.”
Jim Mateja wrote two books. One was called Used Cars; Finding the Best Buys and it was later updated and released as Best Buys in Used Cars. He also co-authored a third book with another author.