Paul Brian, automotive journalist, host of 'Drive Chicago' on WLS, dies at 73

Mr. Brian knew everything about cars — except how to fix them.

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Paul Brian, wearing a jacket and open collar shirt, stands in front of a body of water.

Paul Brian

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Paul Brian’s signature baritone was a fixture to millions of radio listeners in Chicago for decades. He mostly talked about his favorite thing — cars.

As the host of the Saturday morning program “Drive Chicago” for more than 20 years on WLS-AM (890), he took listener calls and discussed everything from hubcaps to automotive nostalgia. He stayed away from trouble shooting car problems — he wasn’t good under the hood.

Mr. Brian died June 11 after a short illness. He was 73.

“If you grew up in Chicago, you know my dad’s voice,” his daughter, Lesley Durkan, said.

While at WLS, his colleagues Steve Dahl and Garry Meier occasionally imitated Mr. Brian’s famous voice on their show to great comedic effect; sometimes Mr. Brian joined them.

Mr. Brian drove a different car every week for years because manufacturers constantly delivered various models to his Medinah home to test out and hopefully talk about.

As for personal vehicles, for a long time he was a Corvette guy, but in recent years, he motored around in Helga — the name he gave his red Porsche 911 Carrera. All his cars got names, and German cars got German names.

Paul Brian Warhanik (he dropped his last name for radio) was born Feb. 6, 1951, in Chicago to Vernon and Dorothy Warhanik. His father commuted from Western Springs to a pharmacy he owned on the near Southwest Side. His mother was a homemaker.

Both his parents owned hot rods. Mr. Brian realized the allure and effect cars could have at a young age.

“I think it was that cars offered me equal footing to the jocks when I was a kid, to be honest,” he told media journalist and former radio producer Rick Kaempfer in a 2008 interview.

When he was 16, Mr. Brian’s older brother drove to Florida to visit a girlfriend. Mr. Brian hitched a ride so he could check out the time trials at the race track in Sebring. He brought his camera and a press pass that he obtained from his hometown newspaper after pitching them on a story about racing.

Shortly after he arrived at the track, a guy came up and said, ‘Kid, I just lost my photographer. If I feed you, give you a track suit and lodging for the week with the rest of the crew, will you shoot me and my team?’”

The man posing the question was famed automotive designer and race car driver Carroll Shelby. Mr. Brian took the deal and came to view Shelby as a close friend and mentor, his daughter said.

The encounter also sparked his love for automotive journalism.

Mr. Brian bounced around the media landscape. Before working at WLS, Mr. Brian worked at WGN-AM (720) in a variety of on-air positions. One was covering pre-game shows from Soldier Field during the Bear Super Bowl championship season.

“The coldest I’ve ever been in my life was sitting on some concrete slab for the Super Bowl Championship celebration in Grant Park doing the remote on what had to be the coldest day of the year,” Mr. Brian said in the interview with Kaempfer.

For several years in the early 1980s, he left radio and traveled the United States as communications director for the Alfa Romeo IndyCar team. He had an office at the company’s headquarters in Milan and took cooking classes in Italy.

He put his skills to use while traveling with the team in the United States, where he served as team chef, regularly having wheels of cheese and pounds of meat sent to racetrack towns around the country that lacked decent Italian restaurants.

Mr. Brian also headed up communications for the Chicago Auto Show from 1994 to 2012 and loved serving as a guest announcer for races held at Road America in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin.

Mr. Brian graduated from Elgin Academy and studied journalism at Drake University before enlisting in the Army. He served for four years in the Panama Canal Zone as director of communications for the Armed Forces Network, which oversees television and radio for American service members.

One of his first jobs after he was discharged was with WYEN radio in Des Plaines, which ended abruptly after he told an inquiring listener on air that the station’s call letters stood for “Where You Earn Nothing,” Mr. Brian said in the 2008 interview with Kaempfer.

For nearly the past 10 years, Mr. Brian served as regular co-host of “His Turn — Her Turn” a car-centric show on YouTube alongside automotive industry expert Lauren Fix.

“One of his favorite lines was: ‘Always entertaining and sometimes actually informative,’” said Fix, who test drove cars around the world with Mr. Brian, including in Iceland and Portugal. “He was a legend in the industry, and he helped a lot of other people along the way, including myself,” Fix said.

“He just knew everybody. He had 9,000 contacts on his cell phone,” said his daughter, who received a call of condolence Thursday from racing legend Bobby Rahal.

Another of Mr. Brian’s passions was helping veterans. He was a founding member of the Allen J. Lynch Medal of Honor Veterans Foundation.

“Paul was always asking, ‘How can we do more?’” said Lynch, a Medal of Honor recipient who served in Vietnam and lives in Gurnee.

Lynch recalled a time the foundation received a grant request from the wife of an active service member who was deployed. She needed help fixing the car she used to shuttle around her three kids who were under the age of 5. Lynch told Mr. Brian, who responded, ‘Give me a minute.’” A dealership Mr. Brian had connections to on the Southwest Side quickly deemed the woman’s car junk and offered a good deal on a used car. The foundation bought the car for her.

“He lived a full life,” Lynch said.

In addition to his daughter, Mr. Brian is survived by his granddaughter, Quinn Durkan.

A private memorial is being planned.

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