The only thing Tony Swan loved more than driving cars was writing about them.
The legendary automotive journalist, who worked at newspapers and magazines across the country, including as executive editor for Car and Driver, died Sept. 27 after a long battle with cancer. He was 78.
His friends and family remember him as a passionate journalist who always took the time to meticulously study his subject, ask hard questions and write with a wit that made his work as entertaining as it was essential to car lovers.
“He loved what he did, and he did what he loved for his whole life,” said his wife, Mary Seelhorst. “I think that’s a rare thing.”
Swan grew up in Mound and started his writing career at the University of Minnesota, where he worked as a reporter at the Minnesota Daily and later became sports editor. The Daily was also where he first developed a lifelong friendship with John Gilbert, another renowned Minnesota car journalist.
“We hit it off well, I think because we both have kind of a sarcastic wit,” recalled Gilbert. “We can crack each other up from the start.”
Swan took a sports writing job at the Pioneer Press, and Gilbert worked for the rival Star Tribune. Despite a fierce competition between the papers, the two would travel together — unbeknown to their editors — to cover out-of-town hockey games, laughing the whole drive.
Swan’s talent and tenacity brought him to the biggest auto publications in the country: Autoweek, Motor Trend and Popular Mechanics. He worked as the auto critic for the Detroit Free Press and contributed to national publications like the New York Times. He remained vocally proud of his Minnesota roots in a journalism world dominated by coastal writers.
Friends talked endearingly about Swan’s stubborn personality but were always quick to qualify with a story about his charitable spirit, whether it be helping out an aspiring writer or persuading his magazine colleagues to get into a racecar for the first time.
Swan became a skilled competitive racer and drove for decades. His fortitude persisted even after doctors diagnosed him with cancer, which never stopped him from doing what he loved, said Seelhorst.
“I think Tony was like a shark. They have to keep moving to stay alive,” she said. “He needed to keep racing. And he had a lot of speeding tickets when he was off the track.”
His last race was just this summer: the “24 Hours of LeMons” race in South Haven, Mich., an endurance contest for “lemons” — cars valued at only $500. Next year, his fellow drivers are naming the races in tribute to their friend: “The Tony Swan Never Say Die Memorial Race.”
“I think Tony would be amazed, and a little embarrassed, but also flattered,” said Seelhorst.
Swan is survived by Seelhorst; son Austin; daughter Hillary, and six grandchildren. His family and friends held a celebration of his life on Oct. 6 in Ypsilanti, Mich.