Don J. Brown: In Memory


Thursday, March 25, 2010

The motorcycle industry has lost its oldest, dearest analyst. Don J. Brown, whose work spanned decades, died yesterday at home. He was 80 years old.

Don’s full biography can be found (where else?) at the website of the AMA Hall of Fame. I just want to share a few personal reflections.

For the past few years I’ve edited Don’s pages in Dealernews: “State-by-Statement” and “ATV/Dirtbike-by-State” — in which he predicted, by state, how many units dealers would retail that year — and “DJB Composite Index,” his by-brand national predictions for the year.

By-brand is the key word. Because of Don, our magazine has been a dealer’s only source for annual retail sales of all the major brands. Some companies like Harley-Davidson divulge retail sales in their financials, but not many. And we’ve had them all.

Yeah, I know. The Motorcycle Industry Council also gets this information. But it shares only with its 300 or so members, none of which are retailers.

In discussing Don’s methods, I have to tread lightly. It won’t be hard. He never told me exactly how he received monthly unit sales numbers. All I know is that it depended on relationships formed carefully over the years with the OEMs. But whatever the procedure, he did get monthly numbers. The MIC and Don — they knew the big picture before anyone else.

Somebody once asked me, “So then why doesn’t Don just share the monthly retail numbers — the real numbers? That would be more valuable than predictions for the whole year.”

Don was on board with the idea. The OEMs, not so much. In fact, Don said he created his forecast models as a bargaining chip. The bike makers may have been uneasy with providing a live feed to retail numbers, but forecasts were palatable. So Don created a scientific model into which he fed the current numbers to predict what would happen.

An executive for a big brake brand once told me that he used Don’s predictions every month in deciding production volumes.

Note that Don’s tables did contain lots of “real” numbers: namely, the by-brand retail sales estimates for the previous year. So for a long time, dealers could pick up nearly any issue of Dealernews and see the market shares of the major brands (Don never tackled the Chinese or other “New Asian” imports). Before the market crash of 2008, the previous year’s sales figures and Don’s warm predictions seemed to suffice.

His most recent predictions, of course, were far from warm. More like frigid. These upcoming years are in special need of a seasoned prognosticator — making us feel the sting of Don’s death that much more.

I’d already been missing Don’s yearly recap and prediction feature articles. I reread one today from January 1989, when a head shot of Don was the Dealernews cover. As Don’s health declined, he stopped writing the longer pieces.

“And what about Don himself?” you’re asking?

Personally, I knew Don only a little, but I valued him highly as an industry colleague. As Dealernews top editor Dennis Johnson noted when he broke the news of Don’s death last night, Don was our in-house sage. Heck, I’m only 33 years old. Don wrote that 1989 feature story when I was still in middle school — and even then he was a respected industry veteran.

Over the years, Don told me several interesting stories over the phone and through e-mail. I printed out a few my old e-mails this morning. One of the shorter insights involved the Triumph TR6 vertical, known as a “McQueen Special.” Here’s what Don had to say: “As a former desert racer, that bike is beautiful. But I had to stop racing when I joined JoMo [Johnson Motors, the original Triumph importer] in 1956. I raced 1950 through 1956. Catalina was my last race. I finished third in the 350cc class on a Velocette. As for that Special, I sold Steve McQueen the first motorcycle he ever owned. It happened to be a 1959 TR6 Special.”

He casually said and wrote stuff like that.

Now, I was Don’s editor. That’s to say things between us weren’t always rosy. There were fights, all editorially related, of course — and real geeky stuff, too, not matters of industry knowledge. I remember a long e-mail exchange over the initial-capping of the word baby boomer. Don also liked to italicize phrases and whole sentences for emphasis. Too much, I thought. We eventually found a happy medium. Sometimes I cut or reworded his article to his displeasure.

I remember one time Don was so mad (about what, I don’t remember), he shocked me by saying, “I don’t give a damn,” emphasizing the last word with a shaky voice. That was as close as he ever came to swearing. And damn is hardly a cuss word. Bart Simpson says it.

Please, please don’t get me wrong. We didn’t fight very often. Usually we were warm with each other. He always asked how I was doing, and sometimes talked of his beloved family, a lot more than I did of my own.

Fact is, Don was a classy guy, a professional, a beaming example of the Greatest Generation. Back in the day, he probably wore a suit to the office.

And Don showed appreciation — too much, I think — for my editorial help, especially during the last two years, when he started calling me “Eagle Eye.” I was just doing my job, but it’s always nice when people appreciate what you do for them.

Don had a sense of humor. My phone rang one day. I picked it up and could hear only heavy breathing. Apparently, Don had dialed my number, then experienced some sort of physical ailment. He regained himself in about three seconds and, without missing a beat, said, “Don’t get excited, Arlo. This isn’t your girlfriend calling.”

Now maybe I’m sharing too much. I’ll wrap up.

Even though Don and I occasionally “fought” — in the heat of editorial battles, crazy old man may have even crossed my mind — what I remember most the day after his death is: Knowledgeable Don. Smart Don. Sweet Don. Funny Don. Family Don. And, of course, the best analyst the industry has ever had.

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15 Responses to “Don J. Brown: In Memory”

  1. Dave Koshollek Says:

    Don Brown was the consumate gentleman. Always respectful, a great supporter of our industry and loved by all who knew him. He set the bar of professionalism. I’m lucky I had the opportunity to know him.

  2. Stu Segal Says:

    I didn’t know Don personally, but what I do know is . . . every month when I get my Dealernews I turn immediately to Don’s 3 pages. I have been wondering why it hasn’t appeared in recent months, and now I know.
    Don will be missed, not only by friends and relatives, but by many of us in the industry who came to rely on his work to help us steer our course.

  3. tom rudd Says:

    I only spoke with Don a couple times. A very intelligent, caring man indeed. His insight was always of interest to me. He earned tremendous respect during his career. He will be missed.

  4. Tom Seymour Says:

    Don Brown was an amazing man with a tremendous imapct within our industry; always a true professional. He will be greatly missed.

  5. Bob Roper Says:

    I am saddened to hear of Don’s passing. For those of us whose working lives and/or hobby is motorcycling, losing Don leaves a very big void. I cannot think of anyone in motorcycling who has had as full and long life, leaving a very large mark in the business.
    A few years back, I had a correspondance with Don about his book, “How To Ride And Win”. I had a photo of Don on a visit to New York in 1955 or 1956 with Don Brown, Don Pink, Jim Fennell, Tom Svack,Gene Baron, and Leslie Pink. Don Pink (who at one time employed me at his H-D dealership)had written a chapter in the book, as did Bud Ekins, Chuck “Feets” Minert, and John McLaughlin. I sent the photo to Don Brown, along with some promotional material from magazines of the day. Don did not have that photo, and it pleased me to be able to bring a few memories back for him.
    There is lots of info on Don available through the AMA and the internet, but His book seems to only receive passing notice, so I thought this story might be of interest to others who have gained information and insight from Don over these many years.
    Bob Roper

  6. Dick Hamer Says:

    I too am saddened to hear the news of Don’s passing. Even before holding a formal position on the DealerNews staff, Don was a regular contributor of knowledge, analysis and opinion to the editorial product and direction of the magazine. As a long-time close friend and former racing colleague of Larry Hester, co-founder of DealerNews, it seemed he was never far removed from the workings of both the magazine and the trade show epicenter of the motorcycle industry. I was privileged to be there for much of that period from the early 70s through the mid-80s, first as an advertising salesman, then ad manager and eventually as Publisher of Dealernews. Always a classy, professional but most amiable and accessible guy, Don was widely respected and appreciated. I enjoyed his company, his wisdom and experience and in particular, his perceptive sense of humor.

  7. mike corbin Says:

    Talked to Don anytime I could at shows, because he really knew his stuff and was willing to share valuable insights..

    Our industry just lost some valuable smarts and passion..

    Travel Well Don..

  8. Lee Fleming Says:

    One of the greatest memories of my life was watching Don Brown and Pete Coleman interact. If somehow you two guys can read this don’t be to mad at me for what I just said. They were both special guys and now I miss them both.

  9. Craig Vetter Says:

    My first contact with Don was in April, 1969 when as Vice President, General Manager and Director BSA, he called, looking for an American designer he could hire to show the Brits what Americans wanted our motorcycles to look like. The result was the Triumph Hurricane. I knew it was a secret project, but I never realized until recently that it was so secret that only Don and I knew about it.* Don Brown was doing it on his own because management would not have understood or approved. The clandestine project cost him his job. He never complained… he just moved on.

    Few outside his personal associates knew that in 1974, Don Brown became paralyzed in a freak get off. He never complained. He just moved on and became a respected analyst for the motorcycle industry.

    Don Brown was a stickler for accuracy. Because of that, you could bank on his numbers. Often stories about our work together would contain some errors. Don was the first to let me know. The smallest inaccuracies had to be corrected.

    As time passed and the Brits learned that Don Brown was indeed the “Father of their Hurricane”, they were keen to have him to attend their functions. But it was too late. Travel had become impossible for Don. It became harder and harder for him discuss “old times”.

    Now Don Brown has moved on, again. His stories about Edward Turner, Steve McQueen, Marlon Brando have been told for the last time.

    I already miss him.

    Craig Vetter

    *Previously unknown chapters of the Hurricane story are pieced together in a joint effort by Don and me on:

  10. Don Brown, Industry Analyst and Icon Passes | US Rider News Says:

    […] Industry icon, motorcycle veteran and AMA Hall of Famer Don Brown has passed away at his home.  He was 80.  He spent years writing several columns for DealerNews that predicted the monthly sales of ATV’s and dirt bikes.  To read more, click here. […]

  11. Everything Motorcycles Says:

    We should all strive to leave a positive legacy behind, especially industry related. If we strive to to be remembered when our day comes, we will all be better off. RIP Don, we’ll see you in the 2 wheel track one day

  12. Rit Lefrancois Says:

    I had the pleasure to work with Don at Kawasaki in the early 70’s. I believe he was involved with the P&A group at the time and I was in Marketing Reseach. What I remember most was his penchant for numbers. He used to like to come by and talk about what we were finding out in our reasearch and forecasts of the market.
    We stayed in touch over the years and always talked numbers right up until a couple of months ago.
    God speed Don. You’ll be missed.
    Rit Lefrancois

  13. Scott Brown Says:

    Motorcycles have been an integral part of our family’s life – to say we didn’t breath, eat and live 2-wheels is an understatement. I miss my Dad more than words can describe – what will always be part of our Brown family is the colorful, rich and vibrant sole of the sport of motorcycling – the people, the stories and the support that our extended motorcyling family has brought to us during this difficult time.
    This evening, I quietly went into my garage and sat on my most chersihed memory of my Dad – my X75 Hurricane, raised a glass of wine in his memory and said, thank you, thank you for being my Dad, my friend and my mentor – God Bless, your son Scott

  14. Don Brown, Industry Analyst and Icon Passes | U.S. Rider News Says:

    […] Industry icon, motorcycle veteran and AMA Hall of Famer Don Brown has passed away at his home.  He was 80.  He spent years writing several columns for DealerNews that predicted the monthly sales of ATV’s and dirt bikes.  To read more, click here. […]

  15. Thank you, Don J. Brown « Dealernews Blog Says:

    […] With Don you got both historical reference and sage advice for modern times. Let him talk and listen, I learned. Trust me, I’ll never forget that name. Senior editor Arlo Redwine offers up his own very nice words about Don on the Dealernewsblog at […]

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