The Auto Industry Remembers John Lamm: Friend, Colleague, Icon

Longtime automotive writer and photographer John Lamm passed away this week at the age of 76. His considerable legacy and talent live on in the words he penned, the pictures he took, and the people he influenced over the course of his lengthy and deeply impactful career, during which he worked for all four major American car magazines. One of the truly nice guys in his—or any—industry, John was incredibly generous with his time and knowledge, and his passing has left a huge void in the hearts of his friends and colleagues. Here, we’ve collected tributes and remembrances from just a few such personalities from all over the automotive world. Rest in peace, John.

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Jim Farley, President and Chief Executive Officer of Ford Motor Company

I met John at my first media drive for the 1992 Toyota Camry. I was the know-nothing product planner for this product. We hit it off as we were both Phil Hill fans—I was a custodian for Phil Hill at his restoration shop to help pay for my school. He told me he had a Lancia Aurelia, not just any, but a Series 4. We talked about the car over the next 20 years. In 2010, I bought the car from him, restored it over several years with his help and the original owner, another journalist, Larry Crane. John had driven the car on the California Mille, Larry had raced it at the first Monterey Historics in the 1970s. It took me eight very long and expensive years. I had just restored it as a driver, but on a lark, applied to Pebble and was accepted.

As a surprise, I asked John to take the car (along with Ken Gross and their respective wives) to drive the car on the Pebble Beach Tour d’Elegance and drive the car with me onto the lawn. I was an honorary judge as well, so my family stood by the car for the judging. We won a class award. Larry, John, and I (the only three owners) were there together. There were some tears and lots of toasts for this car that brought us all together.

I loved John Lamm. He was such a rock star and fueled my love of cars. I would not be the CEO of Ford without John Lamm and will work every day to honor him. 

Ken Gross, Award-Winning Automotive Journalist and Historian

Stated simply, John Lamm was the hardest working guy I ever knew in this business. He never made excuses for the weather, the lack of light, or the paucity of backgrounds. He always found a way to make things work. John was quick and efficient, and he was always upbeat and generous with his time and advice. He’d see the image in his mind, before gathering up his cameras—usually, one slung over each shoulder—and settling down to work.

Whether it was a salon portrait of a storied 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 perfectly. He might 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.

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John 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. 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. He had a keen eye for detail, and he didn’t miss a nuance. John never quit until he was satisfied with his work, and that meant for some late hours. But I never heard him complain. 

We could be traveling almost anywhere in Europe, and long before electronic navigation, John would remember the location of a special restaurant he hadn’t seen in years—or a 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.

 Year after year, the Monterey weekend was John’s favorite assignment. He’d trudge all over Laguna Seca, uphill and down (he knew all the right spots), and even in his 70s, he’d be seemingly everywhere on the lawn at Pebble Beach, tirelessly capturing images, until the pyrotechnics went off for Best of Show. John never stopped, until Sunday night—when he’d finally have one of his classic gin and tonics and reminisce about all he’d seen.

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John was a decorated Vietnam veteran—we had that in common—and we made a point of visiting American military cemeteries whenever we traveled in Europe. John and I climbed Monte Cassino in Italy to pay our respects at 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 the thick forest at Belleau Wood. 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 Scheri, his family, and countless colleagues and friends who were fortunate enough to know him. He also leaves a meticulously organized archive of over a million images, along with videos, recordings, and memorabilia. We’ll not see his like again…

Godspeed John, we’ll miss you.

Michael Lamm, Former Managing Editor of MotorTrend

All I can say is that John was excellent in every way: as a person, as a photographer, writer, editor, and in every other activity he became involved in. He had a great sense of humor, and everyone who knew John liked him. I certainly did, and I was very sad to hear he’d passed away.

Jonny Lieberman, Senior Features Editor

We’ve lost a legend. John Lamm was a true double threat in the car biz: a gifted writer and a world-class automotive photographer. I know he’d deny both. Moreover, he was a wonderful man. Kind, intelligent, soft-spoken, but with a sharp sense of humor. When I informed former automotive journalist and 24 Hours of LeMons founder Jay Lamm (no relation, though Jay’s given name is John Lamm, and he had to write under Jay because of John) of John’s passing, Jay commented, “What a thoroughly decent guy. He should never have been a car journalist.” Amen to that.

Like everyone else, I started off in this business as a complete nobody. Some of my new colleagues treated me as such, but some didn’t. Some even treated me with a bit of respect, John being chief among them. He talked to me, it seemed, as he would any other writer. I could never tell if the glint in his eye combined with his signature half-smile meant he thought I was a bit much, or if he liked my enthusiasm. I’ll pretend it’s the latter. Once I started at MotorTrend, I’d pick John’s brain about what the magazine was like back in the day. The stories I could tell! Actually, the real good stories I can’t tell, but I’ll never forget John’s laughter as he told them.

My favorite story (that I’m willing to tell here) involved John being a judge for our 1972 Car of the Year award, which went to the Citroën SM. To say that the publishers were unhappy with that choice is an understatement. As John told it, no other car that year was even close to as good, and the funky, Maserati-powered French coupe was an obvious choice. While being yelled at for making such a poor choice, John reminded the yeller that the judges were told they were free to pick any car. To which John was told, “Any car but that car!”

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The last time I was able to spend some real-time with John was almost two years ago in San Diego for a Mercedes-Benz G-Wagen drive. After dinner, the two of us wound up drinking a bit too much craft beer with another equally mythological car guy, Ken Gross. What’d we talk about? The state of the world, the state of the industry, the damn kids, but most of all, cars. John and I got to bombard Ken with all sorts of suggestions for classes of cars he could showcase at the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance. I remember thinking I ought to spend more time with guys like that, and I should probably talk a whole lot less.

For decades and decades, nights like that were what John did. I’m eternally lucky to have spent a few with him, yet somber that there won’t be anymore. RIP, Mr. Lamm. I already miss you.

Ed Loh, Head of Editorial

One of my fondest memories of John was on my first Ferrari press trip, back in May of 2013. This wasn’t a driving event, but more of business and future product update with then Ferrari president (and arguably the most significant chief executive in the modern history of the brand), Luca di Montezemolo. He was holding court, in Italian, in front of a large audience of international fans and media. John and I were at the back of the hall, holding up the walls near the exit. He was giving me running commentary on Ferrari, others in the room, and rumored future products. After the speech, Luca came striding down the aisle, press and fans in tow, toward the exit. As he got closer his gaze shifted to us, or rather, John, at which point he stopped and said, in perfect Italian-inflected English, “John! Good to see you! How ARE you!? Thank you for coming!” As Luca waved and went out the door, a few members of the bewildered entourage looked at John, then each other, before dashing out the door. 

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I remember John tilting his head and cracking out of the side of his mouth, “Well, I have known Luca since he started at the company.” I later learned that Luca started at the company in 1973 and was Enzo Ferrari’s personal assistant. And yeah, John knew the Old Man, too. 

Kim Reynolds, Testing Director

There were many John Lamms. The photographer John who could repeatedly talk Ferrari’s byzantine public relations department into letting him shoot at the Fiorano test track for just “ten more minutes”—and somehow, ten more after that, because he saw the light changing and they understood his infectious passion for perfection. Or the writer who once, in place of the word that doesn’t exist, had a drawing of a bent car inserted into his copy to describe how a rally car handled. Or the John who could regale a dinner table of jaded car journalists until the wine was gone, and they’d say afterward, “Gosh, John knows EVERYBODY”. Yet, the people in those stories would be much more eager to say they knew him. The most important John, though, was the one I only heard about via bits and pieces of conversation with others, the one who’s quiet helping of friends going through very tough times would make you—honestly amazed—think, I wish I was half as good a person as that. 

John is survived by his devoted wife Scherie, children Christopher, Lisa and Holly, many grandkids, and godson Derek Hill. The Lamms have been strong supporters of St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital and City of Hope.

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