About This Jonny Lieberman Stupidity
America's least respected autowriter reaches the final frontier of failure: driving in a straight line, badly
I don’t enjoy saying this, but the light of truth should never be hidden beneath the bushel of vanity, so: Every year I respect Motor Trend supremo Ed Loh just a little bit more. Fifteen years ago, when I first became aware of his existence, I wrote him off the same way Quincy Jones did the Beatles: as a “no-playin’ motherfucker”. Objectively speaking, both Quincy and I were right; the Beatles were not brilliant instrumentalists, especially not in their early years, and Ed Loh is neither compelling nor even competent as a writer, editor, vehicle tester, you name it.
Sometimes, however, none of that is particularly relevant. The Beatles were brilliant songwriters— 75 percent of them, anyway — which is a rarer and more precious skill than mere technical proficiency. Ed Loh, meanwhile, has managed to keep Motor Trend on at least some kind of war footing, however unsteady, while the rest of the print-journalism game has tumbled down the rabbit hole of consolidation, bimonthly publication, embarrassing Editors-In-Chief, lifestyle-journalist fetishization, and every other mistake one can imagine. Yes, circulation is less than half of it was when Ed took charge, but the declines at competitors have been far worse, and MT has managed to build a solid presence online in the way that its competitors at Hearst and elsewhere have not.
(It’s been widely said that the magazine with the highest circulation in the business is now my old authorial home, Hagerty Drivers Club Magazine, but it should be noted that the way you “subscribe” to HDC is by purchasing a very affordable roadside-assistance package; the magazine is an included benefit. By that standard, Via Magazine, the quarterly publication of the California AAA, is five times as big as the Hagerty magazine; even the Ohio AAA magazine. Home and Away, is in the same ballpark of “HDC”.)
Ed’s approach to journalism is a lot mentally healthier than mine. I have spent dozens of sleepless nights obsessing over the quality of what I was writing, how memorable it would be, how history would compare me to Bax or Bedard, and whether I was doing everything possible to be a thoughtful advocate for the people who actually buy cars with their own money. Ed isn’t bothered by that. Judging by what I’ve read in MT, he just tosses some barely literate trash from mentally defective randos into the Content Management System, much of still showing the seams of the press release from which it was borrowed, lets the proofreaders fix the spelling about 80% of the time, then goes surfing before the waves die down.
This who-gives-a-shit approach to magazine leadership, combined with a keen eye for what 90-IQ idiots want to consume online, plus what I’ve been told is a considerable amount of political savvy, has made Loh eternally powerful in a strange way. He is the David E. Davis, Jr. of driving free Bentleys, incoherence-in-prose-as-a-standard, and lapping-30-seconds-off-the-pace.
(Come to think of it, David E. Davis, Jr. was also the David E. Davis, Jr. of driving free Bentleys, incoherence-in-prose-as-a-standard, and lapping-30-seconds-off-the-pace. But I digress.)
I’ve also been told he is a decent and loyal person, which is perhaps why he continues to put up with Jonny Lieberman. Alternately, it could be raw admiration. There is something strangely majestic about Lieberman’s perfect vacuity, combined with his Axl-Rose-esque ego and paper-thin skin. Never before in autowriting — scratch that, perhaps never before in writing, period — has someone mustered quite this combined volume of ineptitude, self-satisfaction, and combativeness. He’s a bad writer, he’s a terrible driver (in the original sense of the word), and he seemingly has no idea that such is the case, even though hundreds of people point it out on a weekly basis through Motor Trend’s social-media comments. Next to Lieberman, “Fat Brad” Brownell looks like the gene-spliced clone child of Michael Schumacher, Mark Twain, and Mikhail Baryshnikov.
The greatest part of Jonny’s gift is that, like fictional newscaster Ron Burgundy, he will repeat anything put in front of him, and perform any task handed to him, without the slightest pang of shame or self-consciousness. Perhaps it’s something he acquired from his wife, a self-described “circus freak”, or maybe he was born with it. Regardless, it is a talent of a sort, and his boss uses it in very savvy fashion. Ed Loh realizes that “engagement” is amplitude-modulated, not frequency-modulated; a thousand Facebook comments telling you what a piece of shit you are look, to the advertising algorithm, just like an adoring crowd.
Therefore, Loh has fallen into a pattern that goes something like this:
Put Jonny in a situation where he will fail;
Get him to write about it like he’s just won the World Series;
Count the hate-clicks that result.
This was certainly the idea behind Lieberman’s “Pikes Peak Race”. The short version: Lieberman was given a free $229,900 Porsche Cayman GT4 Clubsport, plus a full Porsche support staff, and was “trained” to “race” by Randy Pobst. The results were predictably awful: Lieberman finished 53rd of the 61 entries that didn’t break on the way up, one hundred and thirty-seven seconds behind the winning (and identical) GT4 Clubsport and just three seconds faster than a rookie driver in a Nissan Leaf running A COMPLETELY STOCK POWERTRAIN. There aren’t words for how bad this is; it’s the equivalent of being given a championship-winning Spec Miata and going around Mid-Ohio in just over two minutes and three seconds, compared to the SM lap record of 1:41.
And yet, as you’re about to see, Jonny is very proud of his Leaf-eating achievement.
Last week, the Loserman was given yet another one of the golden-ticket experiences that have come to define his life with mind-numbing regularity: he was flown to Bahrain to drive the $3M Aston Valkyrie “hypercar”. The article is worth reading, if only to underscore how spoiled he is, but here are the highlights:
Out of inattention or ennui, Jonny missed his free business-class flight to Bahrain, something that would cost you or me approximately $14,600.
He was then given a free coach flight to Bahrain on short notice, something that would normally cost a relatively paltry nine grand. And, of course, the first-class hotel was still available for despite it being adjacent to the F1 weekend. God only knows what that cost.
He was given a Valkyrie and a coach, who told him how to maximize the car’s straight line potential.
He was also told that “Supercar Blondie”, an odd-looking and vapid bloggingcreature who is almost irresistibly attractive to toad-faced media-organization presidents, defective advertising campaign managers, and the like, had managed to do 202mph in a straight line.
He got the Valkyrie up to 190-ish but missed his braking point by quite a bit…
…and drove the car to the end of the generous F1-track runoff.
At which point he blames the tires.
I’m not kidding about that.
He blames the tires.
Because with “R” tires, he could have made the turn.
(The supplied tires were 50-treadwear MPSC2s, used for some race series.)
Then he says that “Supercar Blondie” was just a passenger for her run, so it didn’t count. Or he says that someone might have told him that, maybe.
Why was Jonny 13mph slower than Supercar Blondie, even failing to adjust for the fact that she slowed down in time for the next corner? Turn 14 at Bahrain, which started their high-speed runs, is about a 58mph turn in a Porsche GT3 Supercup car. The Valkyrie doesn’t have the same level of grip, so let’s say that Supercar Blondie (or her pro) would have been struggling to get around at 50mph. I think that’s generous, frankly. It might have been less.
It’s axiomatic, although not always mathematically correct, that if you lose (or gain) one mile per hour coming out of a turn next to an identically powered car, you will have that advantage all the way down the straight. So Jonny was 13mph down coming through Turn 14, which means he was doing maybe… 37mph at the apex?
Another way to look at it is that he was just a bit better than two-thirds as quick as the other drivers. That’s even worse than Pikes Peak. It’s a big deal in track driving when you’re 2mph slower than someone else; over the course of a 10-lap session, that will put the leading car more than half a minute ahead of you. Jonny’s gap was, uh, more than six times that? That means you get lapped.
In ten laps.
Any self-aware person would be humiliatingly conscious of this. Not Jonny. When his friend, noted bon vivant and recreational competitor Bill Caswell, attempted to gently suggest that he get some additional training or help, Jonny responded thusly:
Jonny’s right about one thing: he didn’t race at Pikes Peak. Because when you’re running at 120% of the winning lap, you’re not in a race. SCCA Majors rules state that:
QUALIFYING: A driver not qualifying within a maximum of 115% of the recognized track record of his/her class must obtain permission from the Race Director in order to race. In the case of unusual circumstances, the Race Director can waive this rule for the entire event.
Not the leading car of the day: the track record. If you can’t get there, you aren’t fit to compete.
To put this in perspective, the Mid-O lap record for SCCA STU class is 1:35.5, set by an infamous, Runoffs-winning, 200-plus-horsepower, 1800-pound Civic that blew up from overstress more often than it actually completed a lap. My wife qualified at 1:41.8 in SCCA STU during the Majors last year, driving a battered MX-5 that has 166 horsepower for 2650 pounds, and I had to basically pep-talk her out of going home. At 106 percent of the record in a car that wasn’t prepped close to the limit of the rules, she wasn’t all that comfortable racing. Because she worried what people would think about her as a driver.
Lieberman runs worse than 120 percent of — not the track record, just the fast time of the day in an IDENTICAL car — after “dozens of driving schools, thousands of laps on track, and countless track days”, and thinks Caswell should be humiliated for suggesting that he get some additional coaching. If I had a public racing performance like that, I’d write a suicide note and deep-throat a Mossberg, not suggest that it puts me above criticism!
Alright, so Jonny is a bad driver and also an unpleasant person. Does it matter? Only in the sense that Motor Trend is now the leading car magazine in the country, and he is basically the lead writer, the marquee dude. This is the person who decides what the country thinks about each and every new car.
Or maybe not. A lot of the commenters on social media expressed a preference for “CARWOW”, a British YouTube channel, which also drove the Valkyrie. Others mentioned Henry Catchpole, who drove the car for Hagerty because, you know, the staff of multiple race-winning drivers I built from scratch didn’t have anybody who deserved a chance at it or something.
(Too bad they couldn’t have sent me! The Valkyrie is better in a straight line than my Radicals but pretty weak soup in all other respects. I’d have spanked that bitch, as Sniff Petrol likes to say.)
I didn’t read any comments on Instagram that took Jonny seriously, or thought his opinion on the Valkyrie (or anything else) was worth anything. Looking back through MT’s social, that’s the rule, not the exception. The readers appear to despise Jonny. But a bad click pays like a good one, and it’s easier to get. It’s a great business model, with one problem: you need to find someone so obtuse they will generate millions of bad clicks without deep-throating a Mossberg after reading the comments.
Which, if you think about it, is a much rarer quality than just finding someone who can drive, or write, or both. I know dozens of people who fit that loose requirement. So Jonny Lieberman isn’t just a self-assured idiot who fails continually in public; he’s actually like Ringo Starr, someone who can take all the critical abuse and keep smiling through it. He’s genuinely special.
If that is true, and I think it is, we must then conclude that Ed Loh is a genius for creating, mentoring, and exploiting Jonny’s special talent. It’s not the kind of genius I’d want to have, or be remembered for. But it’s real, and it pays the bills, and it gets you out to the surf before the waves die down.
A long time ago, Loh and I had a silly little online scuffle that he concluded with “Ganbatte!” It’s a Japanese word meant to encourage someone who is struggling. “Do your best!”, in other words. He meant it sarcastically, but he had a point. I don’t know if I have always done my best, in anything; I wasted too much time focusing on the next race, the next woman, the next experience, the next confrontation. My favorite professor once said I was “a poor steward” of my talent. That I could have done so much more with what I’ve been given. Nobody will say that about Ed Loh. Rather, they will say that he did his best, and that it has been more than enough. Awfully respectable, when you get right down to it. Ganbatte!
A few things:
0-Jonny wrote two articles for Motor Trend; one is the main review, and the other is the explanation for running into the T1 runoff. He is VERY proud of being the only American invited to drive the car, but he conveys in one (or both, can’t recall offhand) articles that he begged his way into the invitation. Supercar Blondie’s VMAX occurred as a passenger in the track only version of the car (which shares only the V12 and the headlights with the road car).
1-Jonny also “created” a video memorializing his time with the car. I watched all English language videos that hit YouTube when the embargo broke. His was dreadfully poor (and only 6 minutes long). Jonny didn’t fit into the Aston branded fire suits that the manufacturer brought along, so they let him perform his assessments in a t shirt. During his video, he can barely breathe at times as he coasts around the track while sweating profusely. MT’s crack video department relied heavily on the B roll footage that Aston provided the reviewers - presumably footage of Darren Turner hammering the car.
2-For a time, Aston relied heavily on “influencer” marketing, particularly the UK crowd (Shmee150, Mr. JWW, etc.). This launch appeared to stray from that formula, likely due to the car’s extreme nature. It is probably the least road worthy ultra high performance car since the Jaguar XJR 15.
3-I can recommend the Hagerty, Chris Harris, and CarWow videos (in that order). The BEST discussion of the car comes in an episode of the Top Gear Magazine podcast - it includes a conversation between Chris Harris and Ollie Marriage (another TG staffer) on the flight back to the UK from the launch event. They go in depth beyond what’s captured in the video and also compare the car to the Mercedes AMG One.
4-Henry Catchpole’s invitation was likely not predicated on his recent Hagerty affiliation, but rather on his own reputation; he just happens to make videos for Hagerty these days (since the demise of CNET’s Carfection channel).
5-Jonny confessed during a recent appearance on The Smoking Tire podcast that he had an unexpected $20K tax bill stemming from “sponsorship” for his Pikes Peak effort - whoops!
I confess. I ushered Lieberman into existence by re-writing his prose for TTAC. And by re-writing I mean there were articles were there wasn’t a single sentence left unmodified. Not one. Guys I was desperate for content.
And then something bizarre happened. Johnny wrote a perfect article. Seriously. I forget the car but he used the phrase “like a tornado eating an hurricane.” Or some such nonsense. It really was good.
And then it was back to the Gallactica, metaphorically speaking. I lost track of Johnny, until I saw him review a car on YouTube.
I can’t imagine a piece of automotive “journalism” more antithetical to the TTAC ethos. There are entire French bakeries who couldn’t begin to match that puff piece. It made me sad.
As for JL’s lack of humility or self-awareness or anything approaching shame, same as it ever was.
But I’ll give him this much: Mr. Lieberman understood from the beginning that being successful in the field meant jettisoning all ethical considerations. He has proven that talent plays second fiddle to obsequiousness in a world where he who pays the piper calls the tune.