Doug Guthrie goes for a spin during open track day at Waterford Hills Race Course in 2009. (Steve Perez / The Detroit News)
They don’t make many like Doug Guthrie.
Here was a car nut and a dogged reporter, a nice guy and a hard worker, a student of the auto industry and a teacher of his journalistic craft. He died suddenly Wednesday of natural causes, leaving The Detroit News, its readers and so many who knew him stunned and saddened that this shimmering talent has been extinguished way too soon.
To talk cars with Guthrie, The News’ auto critic, was to experience an inexhaustible stream of passion — about the latest vehicle he’d just driven, about a race he’d worked, about the review he’d finished at midnight, about the interview he’d landed with the likes of Mark Reuss, president of General Motors North America.
“He’s one of those guys who did things in-depth,” Reuss says, describing a pro whose ambition was to get the story by learning the industry and its players, not feeding the maws of Twitter and Facebook. “Those guys are rare. Highest regard for him. He loved what he was doing.”
But Guthrie, 60, didn’t do it nearly long enough. He didn’t get enough laps as a professional car critic to walk the pits again at the Indianapolis 500, as he did with Reuss last year. Or to work Daytona and the State Fair of Texas again. Or to join one of GM’s top gearheads at the Detroit Belle Isle Grand Prix, where he and Reuss strengthened a bond abruptly cleaved.
He didn’t get another chance to cover Detroit’s signature North American International Auto Show. He didn’t get another shot to work till 4 a.m. on The News’ consumer guide after a full day on the floor. He didn’t get more time to become better acquainted with the real people who design, engineer, build and market the metal that moved Detroit and his heart.
Guthrie was a relative newcomer to the car critic gig, however much he spent his whole career somehow preparing for it as a racing writer, car enthusiast and meticulous reporter. The license plate ring on his Nissan 350Z read “Friends don’t let friends apex early,” and he could talk in detail about the tracks and drivers that fueled his passion and informed his reviews.
His appointment last year to car critic after years on the Metro desk was Guthrie in full, truly a dream come true. He quickly distinguished himself with industry brass, evincing in equal measure the knowledge, enthusiasm, curiosity and reporting chops honed by years covering cops, courts and so much else for The News and the Grand Rapids Press.
“To say he will be sorely missed is an extreme understatement,” says Rick Deneau, head of product communications for Chrysler Group LLC. “He was like a kid at Christmas when he would talk about cars: His eyes would light up, and he was so positive and energetic.”
Adds Curt McAllister, Toyota Motor Corp.’s Midwest PR boss: “Doug was the consummate professional. He approached his vehicle reviews in fresh and creative ways, not just the regurgitation of press release content and technical specifications.”
He took his job seriously, aware of the privilege and power possessed by a car critic for one of Detroit’s dailies. Where others might rehash product press releases or borrow the assessments of others, Guthrie would do his homework and spend plenty of time in the proverbial saddle testing cars and trucks.
In April last year, Chrysler invited a media horde to Austin to test the new Dodge Dart. Guthrie grinned from ear-to-ear as he slipped into the seat of the new compact for the first time and pushed the car to its limit amid the dips and twisties of Texas hill country, recalls Bryce Hoffman, an auto writer for The News and author of “American Icon,” who rode alongside.
Guthrie drove the Darts. He drove the competition, barking “the Ford Focus handles great” as he slid to a stop next to a Honda Civic. He was grinning even more when he returned from one loop with a speeding ticket and a story only he could tell: He refused to let the Texas state trooper let him off just because his son, Geoffrey, was a Michigan State Police officer.
“I can’t remember the last time I saw a writer take the job this seriously,” Hoffman remembers a veteran Chrysler PR man saying as they waited for him to finish his drives. “It’s refreshing.”
In the hours after news of Guthrie’s death became public, friends, colleagues and competitors talked of his work ethic and his kindness, his helpfulness and his humility. His devotion to his work and his patience fielding questions from would-be car buyers inside the newsroom was exceeded only by his pride in his wife, Kelley, and children.
“He was a true professional who you just knew had a proper perspective about life and what was really important,” Christian Bokich, manager of product communications for Mercedes-Benz USA, posted on Facebook, a day after Guthrie finished a two-day driving program with Mercedes AMG in Southern California and returned to Detroit.
“He loved the car business but the conversation would always turn toward an upbeat sidebar on his wife, kids and overall life experience. He was a great storyteller who loved life and seemed to have lived it to the fullest.”
Guthrie, born the same year as the iconic Chevrolet Corvette, was the real deal. He will be missed. RIP.
Detroit News auto writers Melissa Burden and Bryce Hoffman contributed.