might have had a career on Wall Street. What were your thoughts
when you went to work at Cycle in 1967? Was it a lark from
which you could fall back to a "real profession" if it
did not work out? Or did you see it then as an opportunity
for your life's work? How did your family view the decision?
Cook Neilson: Wall Street was always in the back of my mind until I went to New York City and had my first meeting with then-Editor Gordon Jennings and the rest of the Cycle Magazine staff, not to mention the Car&Driver guys, with whom I worked part-time for the first year or so. Ziff-Davis had bought Cycle from Floyd Clymer in 1966, and they hired Gordon away from Cycle World. Back then, as far as I was concerned, Gordon Jennings was The Man: funny, acerbic, smart, a wonderful writer, great with people, and more technically attuned than anyone I had ever met. I loved working for him.
After I had been there a while, the Ziff-Davis people asked me to do the first issue of "Invitation To Snowmobiling," which was going to be an annual. I agreed, with a couple of conditions: I didn't want to split my time with Car&Driver any more, I didn't want to do another snowmobiling annual, and I wanted finally to go back to Cycle as the Managing Editor for Jennings. Gordon was a genuine hero of mine in a million ways, but he needed to be able to step away from the day-to-day detail work of running a magazine and spend more time creating story ideas and writing. I thought I could help get things running a little more smoothly than they had been, but on the best of days, doing a magazine about motorcycles out of an office on Park Avenue was never something you could describe as "smooth."
In November, 1969, Neilson
became Editor of Cycle.
Then Car&Driver ran into the ditch with too much sociology
and not enough enthusiasm for and about cars, so they stole
Jennings to be C&D's Editor, and there I was, 26 years
old, frozen in the headlights as Cycle's new Editor. Jennings
finally got sick and tired of dealing with cars and left New York
for Oxnard, California. When Ziff finally let me take Cycle
to California, the first guy I hired when I got out there was Jennings.
For the first year Gordon and I shared an office. The fact that
he was working for me, instead of the other way around, was never
an issue for either one of us. And every time it looked like I was
headed for trouble, Gordon was there to grab me and get me straightened
out. I owe him a lot; the whole motorcycle industry owes him a lot.
So the short answer to your question is, once I found myself in
the company of Gordon Jennings, Wall Street never re-entered my
As far as my parents were concerned, my working for Cycle was just fine with them. In fact, Mom and Pop were bikers too. After I took them on rides on my Sportster, they went out and bought their own bikes. Mom had a little Honda 90, and Pop got a Honda CB160. Then he traded up to a Suzuki X6 Hustler, which he ran into the side of a bread truck and switched over to a Hodaka. My sister Madeline got the bug too, and rode in New England enduros for years, with much success.
Editorial sidekick and ace tuner
warms up Old Blue at Laguna Seca in 1977.
had you known Phil Schilling before recruiting him to Cycle?
CN: I'm not exactly sure how I found out about Phil. I think he submitted some work to us in the late sixties because he knew Jess Thomas, our Technical Editor. Then he did some other pieces, and it didn't take a genius to see that he was a brilliant talent with an enormous background. When I found myself sitting in the Editor's chair in the Fall of 1969, I called him up and asked him what he was doing by way of self-abuse, and that if he felt he was falling behind in this important area, he should join me in New York and become Cycle's Managing Editor. He gave in pretty quickly; he must have known I would make his life a living hell until he said yes. We were together from that date until I left Cycle in the summer of 1979, then he ran Cycle for another decade or so. I know there were other Editors after Phil retired, but I still think of Cycle as a magazine led by three people: Jennings, me, and Phil. Of the three of us, Phil was hands-down the best. In fact, Phil was not only the best Editor the internal combustion press has ever seen, he was also its best writer. I treasure our friendship; every time I see him or talk with him I am reminded how lucky I was that the two of us were able to spend so much time together, at such an exciting time. We saw Cycle's circulation crest at about a half-million, we saw the advent of the first real Superbikes, we had a huge amount of fun building and racing Old Blue, we were a pair of young guys living and working in Southern California about a 20-minute ride from Malibu Beach. We had it all. We didn't waste any of it.
MH: Did you
"feel your way" into what Cycle became, or did you start
the job with a clear view of what motorcycle journalism should be?
Motorcycle journalism changed when
Cycle Magazine began to pit brands
against one another in comparison
tests. Pictured here is the famous
“Big Seven” issue from March, 1970.
CN: I think I always knew where I wanted Cycle to go. I had participated in a couple of Supercar Comparison Tests with Car&Driver, so it seemed to me that we ought to do the same thing with bikes. So one of the first things I did was exactly that: “The Big Seven,” back in I think March of 1970. Get a bunch of fast bikes together, determine performance parameters, test, check for legality and pick a winner. But I'm not sure this was exactly ground-breaking; it was simply an extension of what I'd learned from Car&Driver and from Jennings, and it had to do with telling the truth, and with the understanding that our constituents weren't the members of the motorcycle industry, our constituents were our readers. I think we in the motorcycle press were moving in that direction anyway, but not without some moss-backed opposition from certain individuals in the industry. Back then, Cycle only had a handful of major advertisers: Harley, the Brits, the Japanese Big Four, BMW. Somebody was ALWAYS irritated with us; somebody was ALWAYS pulling their advertising. Ziff-Davis came to understand that that was simply one of the costs of doing business. My boss, Tom Sargent, wasn't always thrilled with what we were up to, but as mad as he often got with us, he never sold us out. If we dumped on Kawasaki, for example, he wouldn't necessarily be happy, because that made things difficult for him and for the ad sales people, and it would hurt the bottom line, for which Tom was responsible. But at the same time he understood, and convinced his bosses at Ziff-Davis, that we were dealing with exceptionally dangerous devices, and that we had to be treated differently than the staffs of, say, Modern Bride or Popular Photography.
and Schilling had a perfect week at
Daytona in 1977, tuning Old Blue to two seconds
per lap faster than the factory teams and winning
the Superbike race. A legend was born.
And what we were doing WAS dangerous. It seemed that we were always a staffer or two short; it seemed that we had a charge account at the Westlake Village Hospital. We lost Dave Hawkins for a good long while; same with Dale Boller; same with me. I remember one time, after we'd published a particularly scathing road test of an H2 Kawasaki 750, I decided that I'd show the Kawasaki people exactly what I was talking about with regard to handling instability. There was this one corner on Mulholland Highway that was perfect for testing: fast and bumpy (it was on a section of that highway that became known as Racer Road). The Kawasaki guys showed up; I showed up. So I was whistling this 750 through this one very high-speed turn when it started to wobble. When that happened, the suspension started to oscillate, then the muffler on the left side started banging off the ground, then it high-sided me through a barbed wire fence and I ended up in the hospital ("Charge it!") for a little while. I certainly hadn't intended to be that dramatic, but the point was, as far as I was concerned, Kawasaki was selling a bike to the public that was fundamentally unsound, and we wanted them to either fix it, or get rid of it.
Over time the dynamic between Cycle and the industry changed. It wasn't that Kawasaki/USA didn't know the H2, for example, was dangerous; their problem was trying to convince the manufacturer that changes had to be made. I was told by several Americans working for different Japanese companies that seeing certain deficiencies discussed in print had a way of focusing the minds of the manufacturers in a way that was quite useful to everybody, especially the buyers. And it was the buyers I always felt we were working for. I know that sounds self-serving, trite, obvious, banal, pious. So be it.
Tom Sargent respected the firewall between Advertising and Editorial, he went to bat for us (frequently) when he had to, he was alternatively proud of us and furious with us, he was an extraordinarily hard worker, and he was a man of exceptional integrity. We got along really well, which was something of a miracle, considering he was one of those goddamned Yalies. Not to say that we didn't have fights, but he always fought fair. Besides, he went along with my desire to move Cycle out of New York, despite the fact that he was a devout East Coast guy and would be leaving behind all of his friends and family and business acquaintances. Moving to California was easy for me. It was hard for Tom, but he knew the move was essential to Cycle's success, and he supported it. Bang! Tom looks up, the Editorial staff is in Westlake Village. Bang! So's Tom, right there with the rest of us. The Publisher of Car&Driver when I got to New York in 1967 was a guy named Jim Claar. He had this sign thumbtacked to his cork board: "Truth is Trouble." Tom understood this to be the case. But Tom never lived by it. There is no higher praise that can come from an Editor to a Publisher.
Thanks to its superlative performance
the 1977 season, Old Blue was on its way to
becoming one of the most famous Ducatis on Earth.
MH: If you
can recall, what was its circulation when you began? What
was its highest level during your tenure, and where was it when
you departed the magazine?
CN: I'm a little hazy on the exact circulation numbers. It seems that we were at around 196,000 when I got to be Editor, and around 500,000 when I left. But you have to remember that motorcycling in this country was in the middle of a significant expansion during that time. We saw the coming of the Honda CB750, the BSA and Triumph 3-cylinders, the isolastic Nortons, the Kawasaki H1, H2 and Z1, later on Suzuki's first four-stroke, not to mention the Yamaha XS11, not to mention fast BMWs and Laverdas and Ducatis and Moto Guzzis. The Japanese were also getting revved up about enduro stuff, and motocross in this country was just beginning. I'm sure the other motorcycle magazines saw comparable jumps in their circulation numbers.
The only real difference is that we were a Ziff-Davis publication. Not too many folks have ever heard of Ziff-Davis, so let me give you an idea of some of their publications: Car&Driver, Popular Photography, Popular Electronics, Modern Bride, Boating, Skiing, Popular Psychology, Flying --plus they owned a bunch of non-consumer, trade publications, each of which was a giant in its field. Bill Ziff wanted each of his titles to be the circulation and ad lineage leader in its particular niche. I think they all were. What this meant to Cycle was that Ziff-Davis had the best circulation, production, and advertising sales departments in the civilized world. Failure therefore was not an option for us. When Ziff finally sold the consumer publications to CBS, the price was something beyond a billion dollars, plus he kept the trade magazines and the computer magazines, which were then coming on strong. Ziff had three sons. Each is currently worth well over a billion dollars. Phil Schilling is the BEST guy I ever knew; Bill Ziff is (or was) the SMARTEST.
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