Swan Song: Tony Swan, Detroit’s Hardest-Charging, Longest-Lasting Auto Journalist, Dead at 78

A personal remembrance of the inimitably crusty, ever-speedy Swan, including that time I took his newspaper job.

byLawrence Ulrich|
People photo

Fittingly, I was driving home from Newark airport on Friday in a Ram pickup, straight from a Jaguar I-Pace eTrophy drive at England’s Silverstone circuit, when I learned that eminent auto journalist Tony Swan, 78, had died after a nearly decade-long bout with cancer. I say fittingly, because I wouldn’t be surprised to find that Tony had outmaneuvered Death one last time, likely through a revolving airport door, and that I’d bump into him next Tuesday in a Barcelona hotel lobby or another stop on our lifelong pilgrimage of covering cars around the world. I think Tony would have liked the Ram. I think he may have had a few choice words for the Jaguar. But I’ll never know.

Swan was a real auto journalist, from a time when that meant something. He was a colleague and a friend. The friend part came as something of a surprise, seeing as how I first met Tony by taking over his plum job as chief auto critic at The Detroit Free Press. (For Gen Z readers, the Freep was known as a “newspaper”). Among his myriad publishing outlets and titles, Tony served as editor-in-chief of Motor Trend and executive editor of Car and Driver, and he continued to write for Car and Driver until his last days. Swan was also a founding member of the North American Car and Truck of the Year Awards, for which I’m a juror. He leaves behind a remarkable wife Mary Seelhorst, two children, Austin and Hilary, and six grandchildren.

True to his name, Swan was an elegant, free-flowing writer. But he saved some of his best work for racing and testing cars. Swan was proud of his three SCCA divisional championships, his participation in 35 24-hour races, and his regular go-rounds in the grueling One Lap of America. Swan learned to drive, quickly, in and around his hometown of Mound, Minn., including in a '46 Ford sedan with “its immortal flathead” V8, in which a teenage Swan mistakenly tried to outrun a Nash-driving police officer. He started his journalism career as a sports writer at the St. Paul Pioneer Press before moving to Detroit. The auto bug had gripped him earlier, around age 7, as Swan once recounted:

“The first manifestation of impending automania was when my Mom got me a scrapbook. Her idea, very traditional, was for me to fill the book with snapshots, family memorabilia, and similar bric-a-brac. So she exhibited a certain amount of dismay when I immediately began filling the book with photos of contemporary cars, clipped from magazines.”

Tony was much older, about 60, the first time I partnered with him behind the wheel on a new-car launch. I wish I could recall the make of the car. But I definitely remember Tony urging me to tailgate and flash a tractor-trailer on a winding mountain descent, so that the driver would slide over and let us pass. I was an aggressive pilot on public roads in those days, and I’d already been driving hard enough to squeal tires through corners—but apparently not hard enough for Swan.

“You’ve got to push these guys if you want them out of your way,” Swan said in his gruff-Minnesotan fashion, clearly impatient with this newbie he’d been paired with. Tony always did a great slow burn. Not surprisingly, he wasn't one to suffer fools, meaning, in his mind, most any auto executive. He was notorious for calling bullshit and interrogating exasperated PR execs at press conferences, something a current generation of servile auto bloggers, shameless "influencers" and other wannabe journos would do well to emulate. 

Now, I realize that to say a person “battled” cancer is a cliché and misstep, because it can suggest that people who succumb quickly are cowardly or weak, somehow inferior to those who manage to hang on. But Jesus, Tony battled cancer like no one I’ve ever seen, over nine years and nine months of remissions and relapses, treatments and surgeries that kept whittling pieces of him, but somehow never snuffed his spirit. That spirit could be cantankerous—picture every Ben Bradlee, crusty-editor type you’ve ever seen in a Hollywood movie—but eventually I came to realize that, underneath, Tony was also a big ‘ol softie. That became more true after his second-act marriage to Mary Seelhorst, who clearly helped Tony buff-and-wax those rougher edges.

Detroit Free Press

Nearly 20 years ago, when I first joined the Free Press as an auto-industry reporter, I had felt a bit intimidated by Swan before I actually met him—and more so a year later, when Swan’s boss, the aggressively wired business editor Mike Sante, called me into his office and said I’d be taking over as the paper's chief auto critic. I had been the longest of long shots for the job, for which dozens of bigger-name auto writers had applied. Swan was working a simultaneous gig with Car and Driver, and also campaigning a showroom stock SCCA racer, a Honda S2000, as I recall. Editor Sante had become infatuated with the idea of putting a relative outsider in this high-profile position, someone who would really stick it to The Man. After I’d shown such proclivity as part of a crack reporting team for the deadly Ford Explorer/Firestone tire scandal, Sante decided I was that guy. I didn’t have the heart to tell him he was making a mistake. But it was my big break in this business, and in some ways it came at Swan's expense.  

Sante had basically pushed Swan out of the sweet gig he’d held for five years. Swan, had he chosen to view me as an undeserving upstart—or worse, a backstabbing upstart— may have felt every right to ignore, dismiss, or undermine me the first chance he got. To my amazement, it turned out to be the opposite. Rather than making me feel lousy about my big break, or giving me grief, Swan steadily became a mentor and guide. A few months in, he made a point of telling me—probably when no one else was looking— that I was doing a good job at the Freep. When I mentioned there was already some pushback over my, um, opinionated takes, from both editors and whining Detroit automakers, Swan urged me to stand my ground, and to keep calling 'em as I see 'em. He boosted my shaky confidence and shared his hard-won industry wisdom. He didn’t need to do any of that. But he did, like a veteran quarterback who’s asked to make way for a raw rookie and accepts it with grace and class. I never thanked him, of course, because that’s not what guys do, let alone auto reporters. For what it's worth, I'll say it now: Thanks, Tony. I owe you. 

Even as cancer chipped away at him, Swan remained fast as hell behind the wheel of an automobile. Seelhorst says that Tony's last race was in mid-July. 

"It almost killed him, but his lap times were still great," Seelhorst said. "And no black flags!"

From age 7 to 78, that commitment to the cars and speed he loved is Tony in a nutshell. To this industry’s collective amazement, he just kept working through it all: Driving and testing, traveling and writing, holding his own at multi-hour media dinners that, for us auto writers, are often the closest things to family get-togethers. Even as he grew ever more wizened and frail, in that excruciating, pitiless way that makes cancer scare living hell out of every human being, the guy just would not, could not, stop living. Swan never wanted your pity or kid-glove treatment—he’d have sooner told you to go fuck yourself—and somehow his energy rarely seemed to flag in public. I’m telling you, it was incredible to witness, and inspiring. Swan was the guy who always made me wonder how I would deal with cancer myself; that blackly unjust roll-of-the-dice that’s hitting far too many people I know, including my own birth mother who’s in hospice care in Maine as we speak. If I could handle that awful disease with even half of Tony’s courage and grace, I often thought, I'd be doing OK.

So here’s to you, Tony Swan; a fast drive and a champagne toast in your honor. On the car-company tab, of course. Wouldn't want to mess with tradition. 

Lawrence Ulrich, The Drive’s chief auto critic, is an award-winning auto journalist and former chief auto critic for The New York Times and Detroit Free Press. The Detroit native and Brooklyn gentrifier owns a troubled ’93 Mazda RX-7 R1, but may want to give it a good home. Email him at Lawrence.ulrich@gmail.com