John Matras has freelanced since 1980. Currently vice president of IMPA he won that associations’ Ken Purdy Award and WAPA’s Golden Quill Award for his story about being diagnosed with epilepsy at 45 years of age and the repercussions of not being able to drive for six months (at which time he could be certified as “seizure free”).
Like many a young husband and father considering how to put a few more bucks in the family coffers, John Matras looked at magazines in the late ‘70s and naively said to himself, “I can do that.” But unlike most “wannabes” he went to the library and “read everything I could about the mechanics of freelance writing —query letters, submission formats, etc.—and started pitching stories.”
He targeted car magazines because, he said, “I was born with the car gene, and mostly picked up my “know-how” here and there, working on my cars (back when you had to—and could—work on cars) and dirt bikes. I guess it’s fair to say that I learned about cars like I learned about girls. Some from my old man, some from my friends, some from books and magazines and some from hands-on experience.”
“My first article was a one-page, three black-and-white picture article on a Baltimore custom auto show that I sold to Custom Rodder and was paid $50, a significant amount of money in 1980. I was hooked. When I had written several pieces for AutoWeek—my first was the first drive report on the Maserati Biturbo in the U.S. In July of ’81, I got a telephone call from some guy named Paul Leinert, then at AW, who asked me if I wanted to contribute to a new column in the magazine. I had to find interesting cars, drive them, photograph them, write about 1,200 words and send it in. Yeah, twist my arm… I wrote the second Escape Road column ever in AW, published in February of ’82.” And the rest, as they say, is history.” Albeit, he acknowledges, history abetted by mentoring from Paul Lienert, George Levy, and the late Leon Mandel, all at AutoWeek, and Csaba Csere, who guided him in his early submissions at Car & Driver. Also Kevin Wilson who pushed him to write the seizure story.
He went freelance full time in 1988. As he tells it, “My wife and I had our mid-life crisis together. After I was making a not insignificant amount of money writing in my spare time and after our girls were old enough to consider it, Mary Ann went back to school to get her doctorate while I continued working my government job. She accepted a professorship beginning the fall semester of 1988 at East Stroudsburg University of Pennsylvania. (Editor’s note: She is now a Distinguished Professor and Chair of the Mathematics Department there). With a steady paycheck and benefits in the family—I may be crazy but I’m not stupid–I left my gummint job in August of 1988 for freelancing and have never really looked back.”
When he decided to launch his blog he once again studied to learn everything he could about the then nascent art of self-publishing on the web – custom-made software, optimum sentence length for most computer screens, best type face, line spacing and more. (He generously passed on those tips to AWCom when this newsletter began).
He also was serious about not being too serious. Witness the titling of his web page: “CarBuzzard.com” Car reviews, news and stuff found on the side of the road.”
John said he gave it the unusual name, “because the marketing books said a brand name should be different and stand out.” The CarBuzzard landed after a few years when hackers disabled the server hosting it. The hiatus gave Matras a chance to step back and evaluate his return on the time and energy he was investing. He opted for, “a mercy killing.” And, there was the opportunity to be national automotive editor for the promising new Examiner with his stuff running in all markets served by the hyper-local digital newspaper. However, although Matras is tight-lipped about it, that promise seems to have faded and this past June, CarBuzzard.com’s wry mix of reviews, news and odd-ball (“Man Arrested For Buffing Car In The Buff At Car Wash“) took to the cyber air. This time he has spread the work. Nick Yost and David Boldt are on board and at this writing he is negotiating to add another veteran auto writer to the aviary.