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RIP old friend: David W. Brownell passes

Old Cars' first editor, David W. Brownell has died.
Dave Brownell enjoyed sitting behind the wheel of this vintage racing car at the Mercedes-Benz Old Timer Center. In the car next to him is West Peterson of the AACA.

Dave Brownell enjoyed sitting behind the wheel of this vintage racing car at the Mercedes-Benz Old Timer Center. In the car next to him is West Peterson of the AACA.

June 19, 1971 was a memorable day. It was the last Father’s Day that wasn’t an official United States holiday (this was changed by President Richard M. Nixon in 1972). It was also show day at the 15th Annual Newport Motor Car Festival held at the Portsmouth Abbey School, overlooking Narragansett Bay, in Portsmouth, R.I.

Classic car enthusiast Dave Brownell loved the festival, which dated back to 1956 and was known for its large turnout of Brass Era cars. Brownell—who had started writing stories about antique cars while in high school—had exciting news for his East Coast hobby friends attending the show. He told them that he would be moving to Iola, Wis., to be the first editor of a new tabloid called Old Cars that Krause Publications was launching.

Among the friends wishing Brownell luck in his new job was Ashley Clark, of South Dartmouth, Mass., who shared a passion for antique Cadillacs and LaSalles with Brownell’s father. Ashley and Dave had also appeared together to promote the old-car hobby on George Allen’s TV talk show. 

“My father was very excited that Dave was going to move to Wisconsin and help start a new national publication for old-car collectors,” Clark’s daughter Linda recalls. “We were all impressed and happy for him.”

In 1967, Dave Brownell (l.) and Ashley Clark (cntr.) talked to host George Allen (r.) on his TV talk show in Providence, R.I. about car collecting.

In 1967, Dave Brownell (l.) and Ashley Clark (cntr.) talked to host George Allen (r.) on his TV talk show in Providence, R.I. about car collecting.

Brownell—who went on to give the publication you’re reading its initial exposure and direction 50 years ago—passed away on November 15, 2021, in Bennington, Vt., at 80 years of age. Brownell had suffered a serious stroke years earlier. It halted a lengthy career that included some expert car collecting, additional editorial jobs, vintage car appraisal work, judging at concours d’elegance-type events, involvements with automobile and automobilia auctions, extensive travel and other old-car hobby pursuits.

According to Linda Clark, as a teenager, Brownell spent summers with his aunt in New Bedford, Mass., and often cluttered her home up with vintage car parts he found at local junkyards. He purchased his first old car—a 1936 La Salle convertible—for $25. Over the course of his life, he owned over 50 cars, ranging in years from 1913 to 1960s models. Cliff Mishler—a former President of Krause Publications—recalled that when he picked up Brownell at the Green Bay airport for an interview, Dave’s big concern was where he could get his Morgan roadster serviced in rural central Wisconsin.

In 1984, Brownell was able to purchase his long-time dream car—a 1924 Bentley 3-Litre touring—from Old Cars columnist Henry Austin Clark, Jr. Dave had been friends with “Austie” since the two met, in 1967, while trying to purchase the same automotive artwork at a New York City auction. Brownell later asked Clark to write a column called “Young Nuts and Old Bolts” that was a popular feature of Old Cars in its early years.

In this 1997 photo taken at the Mercedes-Benz Old Timer Center in Stuttgart, Germany, shows Dave Brownell (third from left standing) with other automotive writers.

In this 1997 photo taken at the Mercedes-Benz Old Timer Center in Stuttgart, Germany, shows Dave Brownell (third from left standing) with other automotive writers.

To well-known writer Richard M. Langworth, Brownell was an old pal. 

“We used to communicate in the style of Denis Jenkinson's race reports to Bill Boddy at MotorSport, using their patented salutations,” said Langworth. “I’d write, ‘My dear (D)WB’ and he’d write ‘My dear DSJ’ (Distinguished Sunbeam Jockey). Dave actually interviewed for, but then turned down, a job I took as associate editor of Automobile Quarterly. “Almost immediately, Dave signed on as (the) first editor of Old Cars.”

Langworth added that thinking about Brownell brought back memories of Hershey, New York City, Le Chanteclair (a restaurant owned by French race driver Rene Dreyfus), Henry Austin Clark, Jr., the Vintage Sports Car Club of America, the Mount Equinox Hillclimb and Brownell’s Bentley. “They were the glory days,” he said. “RIP my old friend.”

During 1976, Brownell left Old Cars to become the editor of Cars & Parts magazine in Sidney, Ohio. Terry Boyce, who had joined Old Cars as an administrative assistant in 1974, became the second editor of the publication before the start of 1977. 

 “I think the single most important thing Dave did for Old Cars was to assemble a tremendous cadre of entertaining and knowledgeable columnists for the paper, right from the start,” Boyce said of Brownell. “He achieved this by utilizing his many connections in the collector-car hobby and through his discernment of quality writing. While he might have personally preferred brass-era antiques and his beloved Morgan sports car, Dave brought a wide range of content to the paper, which gave it broad reader appeal. He was the perfect founding editor for Old Cars and I know Chet Krause and many others would agree.”

About a year after leaving Old Cars, Brownell left Cars & Parts and joined Hemmings in Vermont. He became editor of Hemmings Motor News, as well as editor of Special-Interest Autos, a bi-monthly magazine with a heavy historical slant. Brownell also created the Vintage Auto Almanac, an indexed guide to the products and services supplied by old-car hobby suppliers. Brownell’s name was on the masthead as editor in most of the 14 editions of the Vintage Auto Almanac that were published.

Dave Brownell is on the far left in this photo taken during his trip to Germany in 1997. Fourth in from the left is Dieter Zeitz, who later ran Chrysler in the United States.

Dave Brownell is on the far left in this photo taken during his trip to Germany in 1997. Fourth in from the left is Dieter Zeitz, who later ran Chrysler in the United States.

While at Hemmings in the 1980s, Brownell attended several National Automotive Journalism Awards conferences at the Imperial Palace Auto Collection. He also participated in hobby events giving talks, selling magazines and judging at car shows. He was a longtime member of the Veteran Motor Car Club of America and also belonged to the Antique Automobile Club of America and the Society of Automotive Historians.

In 1994, Brownell partnered with automobilia collector Jerry Letteri of Rocky Hill, Conn., to form Automobilia Auctions, LLC. He also became a vintage car appraiser and the Eastern Representative for Gooding & Co. auctioneers and the Vintage Car Brokerage. In 1997, he was a member of the Meguiar’s Award Committee. That same year he joined 16 other writers who made a trip to Stuttgart, Germany, to visit the Mercedes-Benz Classic Center, the Mercedes-AMG GmbH “tuner” facility and a Robert Brooks auction of cars from the Mercedes-Benz Museum. Brownell won the prestigious “Friends of Automotive History Award” from the Society of Automotive Historians in 1999.

In the 14th and last edition of the Hemming’s Vintage Auto Almanac, which had a 2000 publication date, Dave Brownell was listed on the guide-book’s masthead as Technical Editor. Between 2002 and 2004, Brownell worked as a free-lance contributing writer for Keith Martin’s Sports Car Market magazine. His column appeared in most or all issues of Martin’s magazine during that period of time.

Brownell was married twice. His first wife, Mary Brownell, and his second wife, Marian Savage, preceded him in death, with both passing away during 2016. Following his stroke, Brownell dropped out of the public eye and Marian kept things quiet. Many of the car collectors that he served so well over five decades wondered what had happened to Dave, and those who found out about it were saddened to hear of his passing.

(Thanks to Tom Warth of Marine-on-St. Croix, Minn., for alerting us to Dave Brownell’s passing. Other information for this obituary was supplied by Linda Clark, Terry V. Boyce, Richard M. Langworth, Angelo Van Bogart, Bill Hebal, Clifford Mishler and the Automobilia Auctions LLC Website.)

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