July 1925 - December 1970
Gus Wilson's Model Garage
The Last Martin Bunn
Note: Sadly we got word of Ron's passing this May, 2014 - His obituary. Rest in peace, Ron.
Confessions of the Last Martin Bunn
By Ron Benrey
I joined Popular Science Monthly in 1964 as Electronic Editor. Although I had a degree in electrical engineering, I saw myself as a writer. I had “written my way” through engineering school, earning my tuition by working summers on Electronics a McGraw-Hill trade magazine and writing freelance articles for Electronics Illustrated, Popular Science, and other consumer magazines.
Pop Science was a fun place to work, but I had taken the job assuming that I would eventually move on to corporate writing. During my four years at the magazine I wrote about many different topics, from how-to-build a do-it-yourself laser, to how to choose the best color TV, to how rooftop TV antennas work. In time I developed two writing knacks:
1. Explaining how things worked in “simple” language
2. Writing interesting words about dull subjects (a skill related to Knack 1).
At lunch one day (it was late in 1967), I heard Ken Goodwyn, the magazine’s managing editor, complain for the umpteenth time about the difficulty of producing a good Gus Wilson story each month.
Writing a Gus Wilson story was challenging because the author would be given a pair of unusual car problems that he would have to weave into a short story that honored the readers’ expectations about Gus, Stan, the Model Garage, and the various other characters that appeared more-or-less regularly along with Gus and Stan.
There were two primary sources of car problems: car company service bulletins and ideas submitted by readers (I believe the magazine paid $25 for a problem worthy of Gus). From time to time, writers used problems based on their own experiences.
I remember Ken saying, “The stories are fun to read but hard to write. For starters, the author needs to understand automotive technology and be able to write short stories. It’s tough to come up with fresh ideas for a ‘real’ story each month. The writer has to invent a credible plot that dramatically showcases two car problems. After a while, the current ‘Martin Bunn’ throws in the towel.”
In the 1960s, “Gus Wilson and the Model Garage” was about 40 years old — which meant that upwards of 500 stories had been written. “Martin Bunn” was the nom-de-plume for many different writers — some on the staff, some freelancers. I believe there were some two-dozen different “Martin Bunns,” over the years.
That’s when I volunteered to try my hand at writing a Gus Wilson piece. Ken was desperate enough to give me a chance. It took me a couple of tries to produce a usable short story, but once I did, I joined the ranks of regular “Martin Bunns.”
When I began writing Gus stories, I didn’t realize that I would be the last Martin Bunn. After all, everyone expected Gus to go on forever. Back then, the magazine conducted monthly readership surveys to ensure that readers liked the magazine’s content. “Gus Wilson and the Model Garage” was almost always at the top of the popularity list.
If I recall right, more than 90 percent of readers would read Gus Wilson each month. In those days — again if I recall right — Pop Science had a monthly circulation of about two million copies, but because these copies were passed on to other readers the total monthly readership — mostly male — exceeded six million. This meant that well over five million men would read about Gus Wilson each month. If the Gus Wilson stories weren’t the world’s most popular short fiction, they were surely among the top five.
Alas — and this may surprise you; it definitely surprised me in 1968 — although Popular Science had a large circulation, its millions of readers were not especially attractive to major advertisers.
I remember a one-liner told by a comic on one of the late-night TV shows: “I sold the story of my life to Popular Science. They made a coffee table out of it.” Advertising agencies shared this jaundiced view of Pop Science. Their market studies showed that the men who read the magazine (and faithfully saved each issue) tended to be older, more rural, less affluent then average — in short, a readership less likely to buy expensive items (such as color TVs, luxury watches, pricey furniture, top-of-the-line appliances, and fancy cars). The bottom line: Popular Science was not considered a good “advertising vehicle” for reaching men who spent lots of money on new products.
This fact became important because the ownership of Popular Science had changed during the mid-1960s. A large media corporation bought the magazine from the family that had owned it for decades. The new owners, determined to make the most of their investment, wanted to attract a younger, wealthier male audience. They set out to transform Pop Science into the “New Products” magazine. One aspect of their approach was to change the physical size of Popular Science — from 6-½ by 9-⅛ to 8-¼ by 11 (the size of other male-oriented magazines). Another was to eliminate “old fashioned” editorial content. Gus Wilson became an obvious target for elimination.
I left Popular Science in April 1968. However, I continued writing articles — and Gus Wilson stories — as a freelancer for nearly three years.
Gus Wilson was put out to pasture in mid-1969. He made a brief reappearance in December 1970, but by then, the “evolution” of Popular Science was in full swing. Gus no longer fit the “new, improved” magazine.
I wrote the following Gus Wilson stories:
After many years as a writer of executive speeches and corporate communications materials, I returned to writing fiction — this time cozy mystery novels (co-written with my wife, Janet). I cheerfully admit that I count my Gus Wilson stories among my favorite writings. I loved to read about Gus Wilson — and I loved to write about him.