In late May, Tom Strongman wrote reviews and vintage car stories at a fairly high volume. He wasn’t operating like a person who knew his retirement was a little more than a month away.
Strongman wanted to make sure his required stories for the Drive section in The Kansas City Star appeared each Saturday in June.
“I’ve written 10 pieces in the last two weeks to get ready so that while I am gone things will go on as normal,” Strongman said in late May. “I don’t think I have ever missed a week, maybe with one or two exceptions if I was going to be out of the country. I had something every week for 25 years.”
His dedication elevated Strongman to become one of the preeminent reviewers of cars in the country for a quarter of a century. He not only tells the story through words, but also the artful way he takes photographs.
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“He has got the eye,” said Bob Brents, who has known Strongman since the 1970s. “He can see a photo without looking through the lens.”
Strongman’s work in the automotive industry has touched thousands of readers in Kansas City and across the country.
“He looks upon cars from several different perspectives,” said Gary Krings, who has known Strongman for the last decade. “One is the perspective of design. The other is the perspective of how the public will perceive it.
“It is a huge loss that he is retiring. There is no one nationally and obviously, no one locally who has his eye for design and his passion for automobiles.”
And that passion was again on display in May. Strongman knew he was going to be out of the country, but readers never knew he was on vacation.
In early June, Strongman and his wife, Susan, took their granddaughter, Grace Strongman, to Paris. It is something they have done with two of their other grandchildren. Four years ago, they took their oldest grandson, Andy Swanson to London and Paris and two years ago they took their granddaughter Ellen Swanson to Italy.
“My oldest grandson, Andy, and I went to Jay Leno’s Garage in California last year,” Strongman said. “He goes to Shawnee Mission East. He says he might be interested in automotive engineering.”
Family means a lot to the Strongmans. Their daughter, Kristen Swanson, her husband Steve Swanson and their two children live in Leawood. Strongman’s son, Jon Strongman and his wife, Laura Strongman and their three children, Grace, Tyler and Benjamin, live in Prairie Village.
Family is also what led to Strongman’s passion for cars and photography. Born and raised in Decatur, Ill., Strongman used to follow his dad, Robert Strongman around at University of Illinois football games. Robert was the chief photographer for the Herald Review newspaper in Decatur.
Strongman remembers taking notes and writing captions for some of the photos. Strongman’s dad also loved cars.
“He had a friend who started selling sports cars,” Strongman said. “I was less than 8 years old when I got to ride in a Jaguar XK120 sports car. My dad would periodically have a car for an afternoon. The car dealer would say, ‘This car needs some miles on it, why don’t you drive it for the afternoon.’ So I got exposed to sports cars that way.”
Strongman’s older brother also played a role in his love for cars. He was almost 10 years older than Strongman. One day he came home from the Navy when Strongman was 11 and said they should build a sports car together.
“I thought it was a perfectly fine idea,” Strongman said.
His brother bought a Crosley station wagon.
“We threw everything away except the frame,” Strongman said. “And then we put a Ford flathead motor in it, put a ’29 Ford Model A body on it, which we had to shorten and narrow.
“We had it in a little garage and would go over two or three days a week and work on it. I didn’t know anything, but just hanging out with an older brother and working on a car was how I got interested in car things.”
Strongman took his love of photography and cars to the University of Missouri and graduated with a degree in journalism in 1966.
After college, Strongman worked as a reporter and photographer for the St. Francois County Daily Journal in Flat River, Mo. In November of 1967, he moved to Colorado to work for the Colorado Springs Free Press (later to become the Colorado Springs Sun.) He was the chief photographer for the Sun until 1974 when he moved to Denver to work as a staff photographer for the Denver Sentinel Newspapers, a chain of suburban weekly papers.
Strongman arrived at The Kansas City Star as a staff photographer in late 1978. He was assistant photo editor, art director of Star Magazine, director of photography and assistant managing editor of graphics before switching gears and becoming the automotive editor in 1991.
“I started writing reviews in 1984,” Strongman said. “Mike Waller became the managing editor of the (Kansas City) Times, and the Times had an automotive section on Saturdays. It was just a little thing. I asked if I could do car reviews on the side. At the time, I was director of photography.
“Mike was a little hesitant at first. He said maybe you can try one. I wrote a couple of them in the evenings. I think it was sometime in the ’84-85 time frame that I started doing a car review a week.”
It was in 1991 that Strongman’s ultimate dream came true.
“I described it as a dog chasing a school bus and catching it,” Strongman said. “Oh my gosh, now that I have it, what do I do? It was not quite panic, but I was pedaling deep and fast for a while until I got the hang of editing the section and the rhythm of the week.
“I have been extremely lucky to literally visualize a job and then be able to make it come true. When I was young, I used to think, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if some day I can actually write about cars?’ Miraculously, I’ve been able to do that.”
Strongman, though, always had one thing in his favor as he navigated the world of car reviews.
“He is genuine,” Brents said. “He is a real person. He doesn’t try to make you like him. He comes across as really caring. When you are talking to him, he is looking right at you. He is really listening to you.”
It is an essential trait to have when reviewing cars. There is a responsibility to tell the good and the bad about a car that somebody might buy because of a review.
“If you dwell on that too much, you begin to feel like you don’t know what to say,” Strongman said. “I try not to think in those terms and I try to be honest with myself and tell people about the cars and whatever happens, happens.
“I think it is a little bit of a delicate balance. Cars have always been something I like. By my nature I tend to see the value of them.”
Strongman tries hard to see each car for its intended audience.
“One week I might drive a very expensive car and the next week a small inexpensive car,” he said. “The tendency would be to make comparison between the two, but I really try not to.
“Many people think I am too positive, that I like every car. In some ways, I suppose there is an element of truth there, but it is not an intentional, ‘Gee, I don’t want to say anything bad.’ I come from the perspective trying to tell people the information about it and secondly, what is good about it and third, what I don’t like about it.”
In 2001, Strongman took a buyout from The Kansas City Star, but continued on as a freelance writer.
He said it has been an unbelievable ride. He was able to do things he once dreamed about.
“I have gone on programs where new models are introduced,” Strongman said. “I have driven cars on race tracks. I have ridden with famous drivers who were my instructors for the day.”
And none of those opportunities changed his approach in how he treated people.
“So many people in that area think they are bigger than what they are doing,” said Aristocrat Motors marketing director Robert Hellweg, who gave Strongman a Porsche 944 to review in 1984. “Tom is always one on one with you. He is down to earth and you know it is going to be fair. He is one of the really good people.”
Strongman, who will turn 71 in November, is not completely retiring, but he felt the time was right to ease his workload.
“I thought about it off and on for a number of years and would say maybe next year,” Strongman said. “Finally, I will take step one, and stop working for The Star and see how that feels. I will continue to do reviews for my syndicated papers.
“I have been blessed with the opportunity to do lots of different things within The Star. It is not often you can visualize something and actually have it come to pass.
“What I see about journalism is the ability to touch people’s lives by telling their stories to other people.”