It's largely told through the eyes of his daughter, Lisa Brennan-Jobs. (She has a new memoir.) I've written before about the five words she recalls him saying to her on his deathbed, and why they will be remembered as an important part of his legacy--albeit an unflattering one.
But she also describes an earlier ugly exchange, which seems like it might have resulted from a childhood misunderstanding of her father's odd habit of getting a new car every six months--a habit he apparently followed for three decades.
Here's the story and our reconstruction of Jobs's car-replacement habit, along with why he did it--and ultimately, why the trick he figured out won't work for anyone else, ever again.
"You're not getting anything"
Quick background: Steve Jobs had a complicated relationship with a woman named Chrisann Brennan. They first met in high school, and ultimately had a daughter together: Lisa Brennan-Jobs, born in May 1978.
Jobs initially denied he was her father until a DNA test proved it. By 1984, he was involved enough in her life that she occasionally spent the night at her father's house.
Around that same time, Brennan-Jobs overheard her mother telling a boyfriend how often Steve Jobs replaced the black Porsche convertibles he favored at the time.
"I heard when it gets a scratch," her mother said, "he buys a new one."
Brennan-Jobs believed the story and internalized it as a 6-year-old might. So one night, when her father picked her up in his Porsche for a sleepover, she asked him if she could have the car when he was done with it.
Jobs snapped at her "in a sour, biting way," she recalls in the book.
"Absolutely not. You're not getting anything," he said. "You understand? Nothing. You're getting nothing."
The truth about the new cars
Wow. What kind of father talks like that to his 6-year-old daughter? I guess if we want context, it seems like this happened toward the end of 1984, just months before Jobs would be fired as Apple's CEO.
You can imagine he was under intense pressure at that point. But still, what a thing to say--and it's sad that it's apparently one of the lasting memories Brennan-Jobs has of him.
However, almost 35 years later, it turns out there was a nice-size grain of truth in the story Brennan-Jobs heard from her mother about Jobs replacing new cars at a breakneck pace.
It wasn't about being unable to stand driving a car that had a scratch, however. Instead, it was about Jobs's unusual penchant for driving cars that didn't have license plates.
California law said that if you bought a new car, you had roughly six months (depending on a few factors) before you had to put license plates on it. So, Jobs apparently worked out an arrangement to lease a brand new car every six months.
In the 1980s he drove Porsches; by the 2000s he was driving Mercedes SL55 AMGs. By replacing each car with a nearly identical one twice a year, it meant he never had to have a license plate.
'Not a lot of money for a billionaire'
This explanation has been floating around the internet for years, since David Heath published an interview he'd done with Jon Callas, who's worked twice in security at Apple.
I reached out to Callas to confirm the story today, and he did--but with the caveat that it's something he heard from other people at the time, not something he was involved with handling himself.
Callas also didn't know exactly when Jobs started this habit, but he agreed it was plausible that Jobs had already started doing it in the early 1980s. Then, the habit sparked the rumor that Chrisann Brennan heard and passed along to their daughter.
"Not a lot of money for a billionaire to have no plate," Callas wrote. "He's paying less than a thou per month--let's call it ten grand a year, to have no license plate."
We don't know why Jobs was so into driving cars without license plates. Maybe it was aesthetics, maybe it was for privacy, maybe he just liked the idea of getting away with something.