The Man Who Invented Zero to 60
‘Uncle Tom” McCahill invented the benchmark 0-60mph acceleration test. British motoring magazines like The Autocar and The Motor performance tested cars over 20-years before Thomas Jay McCahill’s road tests appeared in the long defunct American magazine Mechanics Illustrated, but it was the American who made ‘nought to 60’ meaningful.
Along with irreverent, vibrant words that made the car live for the reader, Tom provided a brief specification panel that included the car’s all important 0-60mph time and top speed. Something about 60mph and the time taken to reach that speed captured the public imagination. It was a simple and easy to understandable test and the figure allowed for easy comparisons. McCahill relied only on his stopwatch and measured miles he’d staked out in New Jersey, Florida and California, marking them with splashes of white paint to keep their locations secret.
Before long 0-60mph became the benchmark figure in road tests – and car advertising – around the world and took on a significance way beyond its true value. Today, more than 75 years after Uncle Tom’s (as he was always called) first road test, 0-60mph (and the equivalent 0-100km/h) is still the most read and quoted figure in any road test.
Beyond this elementary figure, McCahill entertained his readers (I was one during the late 1950s, before I discovered Road Track, Motor Trend and Car & Driver, magazines devote only to cars), combining a quick if sometimes corny wit, exaggerated metaphors and similes with a stimulating and original writing style with serious foundations. Importantly, you always knew if a new model met with his approval. This was not formal journalism (like the Pom journals), requiring much reading between the lines. Tom didn’t believe in hiding behind euphemisms. Of the then Dodge Gyro-Matic transmission, which advertising claimed was the greatest improvement in 39-years of Dodge history, Tom wrote ‘it’s a dog”.
Only Tom could write of the Jowett Javelin’s ashtray, “It looks like it was invented by Lord Whiffenpoof after he was shot in the rump during the Boer War. Like the cup your favourite dentist asks you to spit your teeth into, it hinges out but spends most of its time just rattling.”
Of Aston Martin boss David Brown he wrote, “Owns everything in Blighty except the crown jewels, and we all know they’re made of paste anyway.” The then all-new 1951 Packard was described as “…familiar to a guy locked in an attic since 1912.” A Morgan roof was a “cross between a bikini bathing suit and Sherlock Holmes’ old mackintosh”. An MG TC was “as classic as Churchill’s jaw line.” The quality of the XK120 Jaguar “would have been better if they had just shovelled the unassembled parts into an old bag and shipped them parcel post.”
On the 1957 Buick’s handling “Like a fat matron trying to get out of a slippery bathtub.” After Packard finally switched from generations of straight eights to V8s in 1955 “Changing to a V-8 was like Harry Truman voting Republican.” On the 1957 Ford’s build quality “Rugged as an Irish riot in a Russian saloon.” On the efficiency of the 1958 Imperial’s air conditioning “Cold enough to blue the lips of an Eskimo blubber collector parked inside a blast furnace.” On the 1956 AMC Rambler’s size “As short as a Sing Sing haircut.”
So it went. McCahill also had his own terminology for individual cars and colours, with the outcome of “nitroglycerine stuff (1951 Studebaker V-8),” “geranium pot (Triumph Herald),” “redder than a wino’s nose,” “manhole black” and famously, “moose-nose brown.”
After driving the 1948 Oldsmobile 98, Tom concluded that stamping its accelerator was “like stepping on a wet sponge.” Neither Oldsmobile nor its dealers were thrilled. His remark was not the only impetus, but it encouraged Oldsmobile to drop its new ohv V-8 into the 76 body, creating the model 88 and, arguably, the first postwar muscle car.
In reply to a reader who needled Uncle Tom in his very popular MI Mail for McCahill column, saying “I suppose you consider yourself the best automotive writer in the world,” Tom wrote, “I certainly do not and no other automotive writers can consider himself the best as long as Terwilliger Muffinpuss is alive. There is a writer who gets to the soul of things.
“I quote from his recent test of the Bentwater Biscuit Six, ‘Satisfactory mechanised transportation will be enjoyed by the owners of Bentwater Biscuit Six. Its lateral stability, negotiating rounds and its ascending properties on vertical curves, not to mention its get underway dash, are truly astounding.’”
One journalist described the Goggomobil as ‘taking turns at impossible speeds,” to which McCahill replied, “I agree, speed is impossible with the Goggomobil.”
McCahill loved cars and knew they were fun, but his words could make or break a new model. In 1956, Packard President Hugh Ferry told Tom, “We never really liked you, but we always respected you.” “It was, said Uncle Tom, “the finest compliment I ever received.”
Tom McCahill was born into a wealthy New York family in 1907. His grandfather had been an immensely successful lawyer and left both McCahill and his father a fortune. McCahill’s father had been a football All-American at Yale, and the son was determined to follow in his footsteps. A prep school injury, however, shortened one of his legs, leaving him with a permanent limp. While McCahill was admitted to Yale, he graduated with a degree in fine arts.
His father was manager of Mercedes’ local branch and there were always interesting cars around. Tom was given an old Winton when he was 14. After rebuilding the car he promptly bent it around a tree. He became a salesman for Marmon and in the mid-1930s opened a garage in Manhattan, and later in Palm Beach, specialising in repairing Rolls-Royce and other exotics. However, the Depression ruined the business so Tom took up freelance writing, turning out fiction (“A lot of people,” he said in a 1968 interview, “still think I’m writing fiction”) and articles for Popular Science and The Reader’s Digest, before getting the idea readers might like some facts and figures about new cars.
Selling the concept to MI was easy, getting the car makers to agree quite another matter. Several told him, “We test our own cars and aren’t interested in outside opinions.”
To get around the problem Tom pretended to be a photographer and borrowed the cars anyway. After the first few tests appeared the manufacturers co-operated and the career that was to make McCahill King of the Road Testers – at least in the USA – and Tom and his dog, Labrador Joe, a common sight at motoring events around the world, was launched.
His first test, on a 1946 Ford, appeared in the February 1946 issue of MI. He was one of the only journalists ever to drive the Tucker, having rung Preston Tucker on a dare, never believing for a moment that he would get to drive the car Detroit was convinced was a non-runner. McCahill was impressed. “The best performing automobile in America by far”, he wrote. “Despite some fantastic yellow journalism, the Tucker car was in production, the assembly line was moving, and they were building cars. I saw all this with my own eyes.”
Uncle Tom had a fondness for Nash and was once tempted to give a testimonial for the car. He was asked to say something about the Ambassador. The reply only came after a long pause. “It handles like the Queen Mary,” he announced. Amazingly, his insult sold cars. “Many people seemed to want a car that handled like the Queen Mary,” he said later.
In his early years, Tom was highly critical of bloated American cars and questioned the need for bigness for its own sake. He attacked poor brakes and super-soft rides and was sceptical of the early automatic transmissions, until the power losses were minimised.
He also led a rich and diverse life beyond road testing. He married four times. He raced cars (including a 1952 Cadillac 62, a Carrera Panamericana-spec Lincoln, and an early Thunderbird) in NASCAR’s Daytona speed trials. He was a duck-shooting champion, a fisherman and deep-sea diver and a director of the Daytona International Speedway. He also claimed to be the last living relative of the Scottish outlaw/ hero Rob Roy.
Mechanix Illustrated magazine never acknowledged McCahill’s death: fearing that readers would disappear without McCahill’s prose to entertain them. Instead, the magazine ran a column called McCahill Reports, which was ghost-written by Brooks Brender, his stepson from his fourth wife. Mechanix Illustrated faded in time; it was rechristened Home Mechanix in 1984, renamed again and finally disappeared in 2001.
Between 1946 and 1975, when he died, Uncle Tom road tested over 600 cars and, together with that other great car story teller Ken Purdy, helped make car fanatics of two generations, who still reckon a car’s performance is best demonstrated by its 0-60mph figure.