When I decided to start recognizing the badass women in the automotive industry, there was no question that I had to start with Jean Jennings. That’s not only because she shares a name with a porn star. Or because a post could mean that if one would enter the words “badass” & “automotive” into Google, the results may show “Jean Jennings” and “Motorhead Mama.” But because she is the OG Badass Woman Of Automotive.
Who’s Jean Jennings anyway? To me, she’s that fearless woman who runs around car shows in a hat and knows everyone. She’s also the first female writer I read in Car and Driver. The one that made me think ‘Cool, girls can write about cars.’ More recently, Jean introduced herself to me by saying “Hey Motorhead Mama, you’re funny”..a moment I’ll never forget. After starting her career as a Chrysler welder, mechanic and test driver, Jean got into automotive journalism at a time where men unquestionably owned the game. She also started a little rag called Automobile Magazine where she was editor-in-chief. Maybe you’ve seen here on Good Morning America. Maybe you’ve read Jean Knows Cars …must I go on?
So to kick of this series, here is my interview with the one, the only, Badass Ms. Jennings:
When you’re at a cocktail party with non-industry people, what do you tell people you do?
I tell them that I write about cars, videotape stories about cars, consult car companies, and have adventures in cars. Then I tell them that I hate to write, but like many writers, I love to have written.
What do they ALWAYS ask?
- What is my favorite car, as if.
- What is the fastest I have ever gone, which is somewhere in the 170-mph range
- How do they get my job, which of course is to be better than I am and/or wait until I am fired. Oh, wait…
What’s the biggest misconception about your job?
That it’s a 24-hour party. It’s not. It would be if I didn’t have to write. It ‘s like living a jet set life on pauper’s wages. I go to castles in Germany, chateaus and 5-star restaurants in France, and then I come home and remove the mildewed laundry in the washer and wash the crusty dishes.
Did you get into this business by choice or by accident? How?
I never read car magazines. I didn’t graduate from college. But my dad was editor of Automotive News (with a masters in journalism from Northwestern), and my brother Paul was then managing editor of AutoWeek. I, on the other hand, was owner/operator of a Yellow Cab in Ann Arbor, taught myself how to do tune-ups and brake jobs with a Chilton’s Manual, and wrote stories about the cabbies in a notebook.
My brother got me an interview with the head of the Chrysler Proving Grounds that resulted in me testing cars there and eventually working in the Impact Lab as a mechanic. I never fixed anything. I broke shit. Crash days were happy days.
What’s the wackiest thing you’ve ever done on the job?
I drove a Bugatti Veyron across the Florida panhandle from the Amelia Island Concours d’elegance to Vernon, Florida, the subject of an obscure Erroll Morris documentary.
Vernon became known in the insurance industry as Nub City because of the large number of residents who shot or whacked off a limb to collect insurance money. In many cases, when the money ran out, an opposing limb was also sacrificed.
I never saw any nubbies, but I DID meet one of the characters in the documentary, drove through Bike Week surround by bikers, and was flashed by numerous Spring Break revelers hanging from balconies in Panama City.
Now, that was a story to remember.
What’s your proudest achievement on the job, it’s ok to brag…
I had a dream to put on a car show for Caden Bowles, a young patient at CS Mott Children’s Hospital in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Caden waited all summer for a heart transplant that never came and he died on September 11 of his eleventh year.
This past August, aided by the staff at the hospital, by automotive journalists, by the greater car industry, by enthusiastic car owners, and by friends, we put on our fourth annual Caden’s Car Show starring the real Optimus Prime among 70+ vintage and exotic cars in attendance.
Hands down, my proudest achievement and still the best thing I do with my otherwise ridiculously privileged life.
If you weren’t in the car business, you’d be…
… a kindergarten teacher.
Hahahaha just kidding.
What’s your automotive pet peeve?
Dumbass drivers who disrespect others, who overestimate their driving skills, and who haven’t a clue that they are idiots.
And then there are the texters. WTF, I ask you?
For more on Jean, please check out her new series on Autoblog.
I also highly recommend her hilarity on Twitter.
Oops, sorry. Here’s the link:
I was steered to your blog by Wikipedia after reading their entry about Jean this evening, and I’ve had the privilege of meeting her as well. Jean guest hosted a National Writers Series event at the City Opera House in Traverse City, MI, on Monday, September 15, 2014, and I’ll include a link to the video of it at the end of my comment. I had come up with a plan to write about the Empire (MI) Hill Climb Revival that would be taking place on September 20, 2014, and waited until I was the last audience member in front of her.
She was every bit as gracious and funny as I’ve read, and I was kinda freaking out in a rockstar sense about being face to face with her. David E. will always be David E. L.J.K. Setright was another quite singular presence in automotive journalism, and for different reasons, was just as polarizing as David E., but nowhere near as influential across that entire spectrum.
Jean told stories. They were always entertaining, more funny than not, and those stories have always felt like she was telling them directly to me from across a table; kitchen, dining room, living room, dining room table in a restaurant, booth in a dive bar, whatever.
It is so very good not that you just enjoy writing, but like Jeff said above, have a very similar take to Jean in your writing. I’ve found I feel much like Jean when it comes to the process, and that the process goes somewhat easier if it is put this way: “Tell stories.” You’ve now got my email address; if you’re interested, I will share with you there the story about the Hill Climb and pitching that story to Car and Driver’s then editor-in-chief, Eddie Alterman, another David E. Davis, Jr. University alumnus.
I sorely miss her regular presence in this world of ours, and had to cackle when I read before composing this missive Jean’s entry at Autoblog from December 11, 2020, about the passing of Chuck Yeager. I thought she was looking at me with some suspicious curiosity while I sat there in the Opera House, waiting for the line in front of her to go away. It turns out she most likely was. LMAO! 😀
Thank you so much, Jeff. Jean is indeed a treasure. Having her as a role model is such a privilege. Thank you also for your kind words, I love writing MHM! Cheers.
Thank you for sharing Jean. Waiting for the mailed car magazines to arrive each month was a nice but jumping to her articles first was just the best! You knew it was going to be informative and a fresh take, but most importantly it was going to be FUN! Her enthusiasm is contagious. It was/is as if your really bright friend shared something really cool about a shared passion. I loved seeing her career advance with David E. Davis as AUTOMOBILE magazine took off. (I never knew if he was truly as pompous as he seemed, but his respect for Jean told that he had a good side). Thanks to you, I learned much about Jean I didn’t know. (i. e. Family history). You seem to have a similar clever wit and lighthearted intelligent take in your writing. Thanks again for a nice escape through the magic of words. I hope to see more of it.