Tom Brownell, an accomplished automotive historian, author, editor and longtime columnist for Old Cars Weekly, died on May 2 at the age of 67 from complications arising from Multiple Systems Atrophy, a rare neurological disease that blends the symptoms of Parkinson’s Disease and Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (Lou Gehrig’s Disease). A memorial “graduation” service will be held at Windy Cove condominiums in Whitehall, Mich., on a date to be announced.
For more than 25 years, Brownell wrote the “Questions & Answers” column for Old Cars Weekly. He was founding editor of Vintage Truck magazine, and had been a syndicated columnist for Motor News Media syndicate. His writing received awards from the International Automotive Media Association. He was a member of the Society of Automotive Historians for 30 years, and until onset of his illness, was a presenter at every one of SAH’s biennial automotive history conferences. He was named a Friend of Automotive History, the Society’s highest award, in October 2008.
“I worked with Tom probably for about 10 years on ‘Q&A,’ and for me, Tom was kind of a role model because of his professionalism, his attention to detail, and his enthusiasm and curiosity over all things related to the old car hobby,” said Ron Kowalke, OCW’s technical editor.
“He always had interesting little tidbits, little things going on, that he would share. He was very much a world traveler. He and his wife, Joyce, travelled around a lot. And he’d bring me up to speed on his personal restoration projects — he had a Jeepster he was always working on. And he always had interesting insights into the world and the car hobby.”
Due to his failing health, Brownell was unable to attend the ceremony where he was honored by SAH — the same event where OCW was honored with the Richard and Grace Brigham Award for publishing excellence in the old-car hobby.
“We were honored at the same time Tom received his award. That was very special,” Kowalke said. “It was very fitting that we received our awards together … He was our ‘Q&A’ author and kind of our foundation of Old Cars Weekly.”
Brownell was born in Syracuse, N.Y., on June 6, 1941. He was named after the original Brownell ancestor in North America, who arrived in the Massachusetts Bay Colony on the ship “Whale” in 1638. Brownell was raised in the fruit-farming region of New York State along Lake Ontario, and was graduated from Dartmouth College and The Ohio University. Before pursuing his career as a technical writer and teacher of technical writing, he was employed by Pan American World Airways on the Atlantic Guided Missile Test Range in the Bahamas, by NCR Corp. in Cambridge, Ohio, and St. Johnsbury Academy in St. Johnsbury, Vt.
His educational studies took him through sojourns in law and graduate history, but his true interest was writing. He authored 18 books, mainly on automotive topics, and taught technical writing, automotive management and journalism as a tenured, full professor at Ferris State University in Big Rapids, Mich.
Brownell married Joyce while teaching in Vermont. They have two sons, Nathan and Anthony.
Gifts in his name can be made to the Ferry Memorial Reformed Church, 4687 Church St., Montague, MI 49437.
— Kit Foster significantly contributed to this story