John Lamm – “The Car Guy's Car Guy”

Remembering our friend and contributor

John Lamm, award-winning automotive author and photographer, passed away on October 5, from complications from lymphoma. He was seventy-six.

Modest, talented, and highly respected, John’s work was known all over the world. He studied photography at the University of Wisconsin, after which his working career began at Petersen Publishing in 1970. John often said he was the “…worst managing editor in the history of Motor Trend.” After six years, he transitioned to Road & Track, where he served as a valued senior contributor for thirty-seven years.

John Lamm in action. Photo: Courtesy

Many people felt that John’s superb images for R&T visually defined the magazine. I’d say his writing was a close second. John’s long and very close friendship with 1961 Formula 1 World Champion and restorer Phil Hill yielded countless insider articles and memorable photographs. John’s stories with Phil made us all feel we had two iconic friends that we could turn to, nearly every month, for keen insights and driving adventures. They brought out the best in one another.

Not many people are equally talented as writers and photographers. John had mastered both arts. Over his fifty-year career, he wrote countless articles, authored twenty books, and, along the way, won the coveted Dean Bachelor and Ken Purdy Journalism Awards several times. After R&T, John worked for Car and Driver and later for Automobile Magazine. He also contributed to Car Graphic, in Japan, and Wheels, in Australia, to name just two.

Stated simply, John was the hardest-working guy I ever knew in the automotive press cadre.

2013 Rolex Motorsports Reunion. Photo: John Lamm.

He never made excuses for the lack of light or the paucity of backgrounds. He found a way to make things work. And he worked quickly and efficiently, always seeing the image in his mind before gathering up his cameras, usually one on each shoulder, and lining up his subject.

Whether it was a salon portrait of a classic, an action shot of a fast-moving race car, the perfect image of a famed driver, or a minute detail on an engine, John could capture it. He never wasted a moment, either. He could spend half an hour setting up a shot, but if after one quick look through the lens he knew he wasn’t going to achieve the image he wanted, he’d move on.

John’s writing was never flowery. He wrote clearly and simply about what he saw and experienced, as though he were standing alongside you, explaining patiently (and never pedantically) exactly what was going on. He was a great listener – the mark of a skilled interviewer.

John Lamm. Photo: Richard Baron.

When digital cameras arrived, John quickly and seamlessly made the transition from film to computers. He taught himself videography and he was (naturally!) great at it. John would be the first to tell you he wasn’t a racer, but he did race a few times – and he could drive a fast car or truck for a road test with the best of them. As you’d suspect, he had a great eye for detail, and he didn’t miss a nuance. John was not a clock-watcher. He never quit until he was satisfied with his work, and for some that meant late hours. But he never complained.

John and I worked for years with Jay Leno for Jay’s column in Popular Mechanics. That meant John had to travel from San Clemente up to Jay’s sprawling Big Dog Garage in Burbank and wait patiently while Jay was multi-tasking on a dozen things until there were just a few precious moments when John could get his shots. He captured Jay’s humorous visage and goofy antics perfectly. Jay will tell you himself how much he enjoyed working with John.

Along with his close bond with Phil Hill, John worked with and enjoyed the respect of many automotive legends and friends, from Carroll Shelby and Dan Gurney to Mario Andretti, René Dreyfus, Bill Warner, Murray Smith, Chuck Queener, and Dario Franchitti.

John Lamm said, "Of all the photos I took of Phil Hill, this is my favorite... the Ferrari 250 Testa Rossa he co-drove to win Le Mans in 1958, Herbert Johnson helmet, polo shirt, leather gloves, typical stance." Photo: John Lamm.

John had wonderful stories about many of the characters he covered. Here’s one of my favorites:

John was in France with René Dreyfus to shoot the 1932 Bugatti Type 53 four-wheel-drive racer. There was a hotel room mix-up so René kindly offered to share his room. René was a fastidious person and John recalled in detail how René carefully dressed for dinner that first evening, checking his hair, smoothing his jacket, buffing the shine on his shoes. As they were about to leave the room, René exclaimed, “Ah, I must bring my cigarette lighter.” John said, “But René, you don’t smoke.” “Yes,” Dreyfus replied, “but there may be a lovely lady who does.”

We could be traveling almost anywhere in Europe and, long before electronic navigation, John would remember the location of a restaurant he hadn’t seen in years – or a mountainside or historic building that was perfect as a background – and he could drive right to it. He had an unerring sense of direction and a keen eye for a location, even if we were driving quickly.

John was a decorated Vietnam veteran – we had that in common – and we visited American military cemeteries whenever we traveled in Europe together. John and I climbed Monte Cassino in Italy to see the graves of soldiers who died there; we went to the site of the Malmedy Massacre (and explained to our younger colleagues the tragic events that occurred there during the Battle of the Bulge); we walked Belleau Wood, and we often found ourselves in tears reading inscriptions on headstones. “We’re lucky,” he’d often say. And we were.

John’s untimely passing leaves his lovely wife Scherie, his family, and countless friends who were fortunate enough to know him. He also leaves a meticulously organized archive of more than a million images, along with videos, recordings, and memorabilia.

John was one of the good guys. He was a dear friend. And I will miss him terribly.

From the Collier AutoMedia article, "Alfa at 110." Photo: John Lamm.

A Tribute to John Lamm by Miles Collier:

I was saddened to hear of my friend John Lamm’s death. John was one of those characters in the motoring world who you were always delighted to see. Draped in cameras and equipment, he was a genial presence wherever he went. John had this way about him: punctuated by a conspiratorial smile, he always gave me the impression he had a secret so good he couldn’t wait to share it with just me … and the dozens of other car people who were drawn like BBs to his magnetic charm.

A gifted raconteur, John could make the most mundane bit of palaver into a story so packed with potential for humor that you knew a punch line was coming … even when one wasn’t. I am particularly reminded of several California Mille events with John and his wife, Scherie, in their old and much-loved red Lancia B-20 coupe. His pleasure in the fun he was having and in chatting up fellow drivers and passengers was apparent to all. And he let the other participants know he was enjoying them just as much as the driving and the cars.

From the Collier AutoMedia article, "The Ferrari 166 MM Barchetta: The Most Important Ferrari in History?" Photo: John Lamm.

John was, of course, the car guy’s car guy. Not only was he a vast trove of the most rarefied and useless automotive information, but he had actually been there collecting it in person at the time. As one who has a fatal attraction to useless automotive trivia, John was my kind of guy. Of course, if you wanted to know something important, John was also your guy. He had been a long-time friend of Phil Hill and they had had more than a few road-test adventures together. Naturally, John had a repertoire of Phil Hill stories where Phil had done the driving of some fabulously rare and exotic museum piece and John had been there to chronicle the words and shoot the pictures. I think few other automotive journalists were quite so evenly gifted with talent. John’s photographs were first rate, surpassed only by his prose. If you wanted to send someone behind the lines to get the story, John was your man. He inevitably returned with wonderfully informative words and beautiful pictures to boot.

It was a special pleasure for me to have John as one of Collier AutoMedia’s contributors. In the tradition of his beloved Road & Track magazine from the days of John and Elaine Bond, I like to think that Collier AutoMedia offered him a little of that same collegial feeling. I know that I will miss him deeply. The sun is a bit less bright and the breeze a little colder for his leaving us. But, of course, in a better world, John is driving some spectacular mechanical confection and swapping lies about what it was like out there with Phil Hill.

John. You will be missed. It will take time before I get over the expectation of turning around and seeing you with your impish grin, anticipating the funniest story you can’t wait to share. Ave atque vale. We’ll see you again down the road.

Jay Leno. Photo: John Lamm.

Jay Leno Remembers John Lamm:

I was very sorry to hear that John Lamm had passed. We’d worked together for many years and his work was so natural, I just assumed it was easy.

Once when John was shooting at my garage, I picked up my camera and followed him around.  I just did what he did.

My pictures didn’t look anything like John’s, and we were standing in the same place.

John had a natural ability. He made it look simple. And he was a true enthusiast. Whatever great car you could think of, he knew about it and he’d shot it. Whatever fabulous cover of Road & Track you remember, he’d probably shot that, too. I’d tell him about a cover or an article I liked and he’d say modestly, “Oh, I did that one.”

Jay Leno. Photo: John Lamm.

John had a way of making his subject feel so comfortable, you weren’t conscious of his presence and you almost didn’t realize he was working. One day he was shooting me in my buddy’s Chevy S-10 pickup truck that’s powered by an Allison 250-C20-B gas turbine power plant. I’d parked the truck under a tree alongside my garage, so we’d have a decent background. I was revving the truck engine, and flames were shooting upward from the twin exhaust stacks. In just a few seconds, the tree branches caught on fire! Never one to miss a great photo, John kept shooting a few seconds longer.

Then he got my attention, pointed to the sky, and said calmly, “Jay, you’d better move the truck, it’s lighting up that palm tree.”

He made sure he’d got the shot first.

That was John: calm, skilled, professional, and not without a sense of humor. I’ll miss him — we all will.

From the Collier AutoMedia article, "The Legendary Mercedes C111." Photo: John Lamm.

A Parting John Lamm Story, by Ken Gross:

John treasured his long friendship with Phil Hill. They traveled together extensively as Road & Track commissioned Phil to drive historic sports and racing cars around the world and write, with John’s help, his insightful driving impressions. On one of these trips, the two were passing through a small town in France where Phil remembered a very special restaurant.

“I think the owner will remember me,” Phil said.

As they drove up, the place appeared to be closed. John got out of the car and knocked on the restaurant door. After a few minutes, a woman answered and explained in French that they were not open. John tried to tell her, in English, that Phil Hill, the former Formula 1 driving champion, was in the car.

From the Collier AutoMedia article, "Going Once, Twice, Click – You Just Bought a Ferrari." Photo: John Lamm.

The woman shrugged. John tried harder.

The proprietor appeared and John persisted. “Phil Hill said this was a great restaurant. Is there any way you could serve us lunch?”

The man looked baffled.

John tried harder. “Phil Hill, Phil Hill,” he exclaimed.

Phil got out of the car – the restaurateur instantly recognized him.

“Feel Heel!” the owner cried. “Feel Heel!!!”

Phil walked over, exchanged a hug with the owner, and they were welcomed inside. What followed, as John remembered it, was a long, wonderful, wine-soaked lunch with the owner sitting with them in the empty dining room.

“Sometimes it pays to be Phil Hill,” John liked to say.