Alterman’s Wheelhouse

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Eddie Alterman is about as sentimental as an accountant. So when he waxes about the days when cars were more than armored “appliances” that safely transport us from home to work and back, he is calculating a challenge: how to make safe sexy for a new generation of auto enthusiasts.

As the latest editor of Car and Driver — a magazine with a readership of 1.3 million — Alterman doesn’t need to save a dying brand. As he sees it, his job is to keep the content fresh and relevant and to introduce a new generation to the joys of the open road.

This 39-year-old Franklin resident, who arguably heads the most influential consumer magazine in its genre, is the type of unassuming guy who could be mistaken as a mid-level corporate manager on a casual Friday.

Yet, his enthusiasm for his job runs deep, and why wouldn’t it? He doesn’t need to own a car because he drives a new one almost daily. He’s been wined and dined in Tokyo, Oman and Shanghai. He’s gunned a million-dollar Bugatti Veyron on the California coast and been behind the wheel of nearly every other sick car you and I have never heard of.

And yet, for all his taste making and globetrotting, Alterman is most proud when his actions are referred to as being mentshlichkeit.

HOT WHEELS TO HOT RODS

On the road for his job nearly 15 weeks a year, his home life could be under a lot of strain. But Alterman says he and his wife, Kari Alterman, the very busy director of the Detroit chapter of the American Jewish Committee, make it work, partly because their parents are around to help them with their two young daughters, both students at Hillel Day School in Farmington Hills.

“This is the greatest job ever. I can’t believe I get to do it. Just to be able to create something is the highest satisfaction,” Alterman says. He’s not the first Jewish editor of Car and Driver — a guy named Leon Mandel headed up the magazine for a moment in the late 1960s — but he says he’s the first “openly Jewish” one.

Growing up in Huntington Woods, he remembers his dad and the other men in the neighborhood spending weekends tooling under the hoods of their Jags and Porsches, exotic and rarified things that were rarely rolled out of the garage.

Alterman’s dad Mickey, a former car salesman, shared with his son an appreciation for automotive engineering that clearly left its mark. Alterman avidly read his dad’s copies of Car and Driver — even if he didn’t understand everything. As a kid, he already appreciated the literary sophistication in its pages. It set him on a course he followed into adulthood.

“I felt I was getting a glimpse into the adult world,” he says. “The level of writing in Car and Driver was extraordinarily high.” One of the lauded writers who graces the pages is P.J. O’Rourke, a humorist and car lover who brings a broader, sociological take on the car.

While he was a student at the University of Michigan in the early 1990s, Alterman offered himself as a gopher at Automobile magazine, washing and gassing up the cars of its staffers and eventually getting a shot at writing copy. It was heaven: He could imagine himself shaping the way people thought of the automobile, the thing that truly shaped the 20th century.

“I thought, ‘My God, I could one day give my opinion about it,’” Alterman says.

In the meantime, other pursuits crowded out college. He became the drummer for a grunge band called Slot, touring in a horrible Dodge van and playing the music-festival (Lollapalooza included)and club circuit around the country.

“I found that the less I went to class, the better I did,” Alterman laughs. “I honed my bullshitting skills.”

Alterman somehow graduated with a degree in English lit, briefly entertained the idea of law school and then went back to work at Automobile, this time as “king of the gophers,” the guy who organized cars for testing. He moved back into the editorial ranks, becoming associate editor and finally senior editor. Chaucer and Shakespeare can pay off, apparently.

That horrible van? It wasn’t trashed too badly during Slot’s final tour — the group donated it to JARC.

THE ROAD TO QUALIFY

Alterman remained at Automobile until 2004 when he and a few journalist buddies launched a new magazine called mph. Despite enjoying critical praise and a loyal following among diehard gearheads, the book failed to gain traction.

In spring 2006, American Media, publisher of the National Enquirer, Star and Men’s Fitness, shuttered mph alongwith two other titles. Alterman tried but failed to extricate the rights to mph from his former bosses. Subsequently, he began freelancing for various publications.

Then, in 2009, he heard that Car and Driver, which has been based in Ann Arbor since its inception as Sports Car Illustrated in 1955, was looking for anew editor. He shmoozed his way in and
ended up getting the job.

In his first year at the magazine — known for its irreverence, wit and near worship of esoteric cars — Alterman and staff have modernized the look of the book with kickier graphics and a less stodgy typeface.

“If I can bring anything here, it’s a spirit of collaboration and unleashing all the incredible talent in this place,” he says. Alterman manages an overwhelmingly male staff of 24 full-timers who range in age from 25 to 70.

Dressed this day in a plaid button down and newly minted jeans, the boss informally walks around the cubicle maze of his domain, chatting with staffers who are casually texting and tapping away on their Macs. “Save the Manuals” buttons are stuck on filing cabinets and on the T-shirt of a dummy sitting in the office’s waiting area.

The campaign to promote the manual gearbox (or stick shift, to the layperson) is partly tongue in cheek, mostly serious. Having to shift gears makes driving far more entertaining, Alterman says, and you can’t text when you’re driving.

The dangers of texting and driving, incidentally, is an ongoing story Car and Driver “broke” that landed the magazine on an episode of Oprah last year. It began with a real-world comparative test of response times of drivers who texted and drivers who were drunk (Alterman tried both).

It turned out the texting drivers actually took longer to brake than the drunk ones to avoid rear-ending the car in front of them. Car and Driver re-created the test for Oprah, who subsequently made banning texting while driving one of her pet causes.

Car and Driver tests nearly 300 cars each year at Chrysler proving grounds in Chelsea and in California. The staff has more graduate engineers than any other car magazine “so when we write something, it’s not from the hip,” Alterman says.

“We have very smart readers, and they might know or think they know more about a car than we do so we have to completely be on our toes,” he says. “One of the hallmarks of this brand is its honesty and ability to tell it like it is. If facts aren’t right, it erodes our credibility.”

Car and Driver’s “Best Of 2011” issue, a dense bible of fact, opinion and analysis, reflects the magazine’s exacting standards and intellectual honesty. Its choices are both eclectic and surprising: Alongside the Cadillac CTS-V and BMW 3-Series/M3 are the Ford Mustang GT and the Chevy Volt, a car Alterman really respects. None of the cars would’ve made the cut if they couldn’t perform, he says.

He’s optimistic about the American auto industry, calling the Ford Fusion a “fantastic” car and admiring the stylishness of the new Buicks.

Alterman says he’d like to expand the definition of performance beyond acceleration speed while he’s at the helm of the magazine so concerns like gas mileage become a ranking criterion. He knows how to roll with the changes the years have brought but at heart is just a romantic: Car and Driver will always reflect an enduring love for the automobile.

“That we can get into a car and drive wherever we want should be celebrated,” he says. “That we have such freedom to express ourselves in terms of where we go and how we express ourselves is fantastic. It’s the American dream.” RT

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