Memories of C&SC's impish inspiration Mike McCarthy

| 29 Jan 2014

Sadly, I never met the recently departed Mike McCarthy when he was in his prime. By the time I joined C&SC in 1996, this legendarily passionate rascal already had a few strokes under his belt, fuelled by his enormous appetite for life and all its poisons.

Depending on how well his pills were working, this chain-smoking Old Motor and C&SC stalwart whose adventures I had been following for more than 15 years in those titles (and before in others) would have incredibly short but articulate outbursts or be barely comprehensible. 

Of course everyone regaled me with stories of what Mike used to be like (see our obituary and Mick Walsh's column in the April issue of C&SC for more of that), of his escapades and many dubious conquests, and Mike himself never bored of retelling his proudest moment, when he needled racing legend Phil Hill so much that the quiet Californian called him an "assle" (it's phonetic!).

As Mike's health worsened his time in the office reduced until he officially retired in 1999, though even then we would still receive a weekly visit, eventually diminishing to a quick monthly drop-in to pick up a new issue.

I concede that this portrait of a great man in decline may seem rather depressing, but on a positive note, even then there were ways in which the real McCarthy still shone through – he was still hilarious, he was still a menace on the roads and he was still a menace in print. His body may have been debilitated, but his mind was as sharp as ever.

As long as Mike could bash a keyboard (and boy did he bash them), he would burst out of his bodily limitations as if the tiger was released from its cage.

So at odds with his then physical presence, Mike's personality, passion and mischievous character dripped from every word he wrote.

Not quite as old-school as Jenks and Boddy, he was far more Phil Llewellin in his style, but with a huge amount of wit and irreverence. Mike's prose was effortless yet masterful and it was a privilege to read it or sub-edit it.

The 'real' Mike was epitomised by the very fact that, long after he had to stop driving cars for features, he remained equally gung-ho about writing them from a passenger perspective and just as fascinated by every aspect of the mechanicals and engineering.

He loved hamming it up as the passenger in a trio of chauffeur-driven Rolls-Royce Phantoms, but there was nothing faked about his terror when he took the tiller of the terrifying, towering Trevithick in one of C&SC's finest ever features.

Through his words, Mike was still that great talisman for motoring journalism. So, while I may not ever have personally met Mike McCarthy in his pomp, I at least enjoyed working with him while those words still allowed me to see – and him to be – the man he once was. 

People talk about life being lived to the full, well Mike brimmed it… and filled up a couple of jerry cans to boot.