MMR Blog

Andrey and Fitch

Posted on November 14, 2012 Comments (1)

The recent passing of Gaston Andrey and John Fitch has me thinking about them as racers and people and some of the things they had in common.

As racers, they were both very talented, both winners, and, unlike many men of youthful achievement, they had moved on. Neither dwelled much on the past.

Gus Andrey was one of the most charming people I ever met. Attractive, with curly unruly hair, quick bright blue eyes and a movie star smile, he always seemed in motion and was the center of attention in any crowd. He had what people call “presence”. He appeared physically fit, neither tall nor short, never fat, he always “looked” the part of a racing driver.

Gus was a pragmatist and notoriously careful with a buck. He once received a call from a major manufacturer to drive a car at Sebring. This was an opportunity any driver of the day would have sacrificed anything to get. Gus said to the caller, “How much do you pay?” The answer wasn’t to his liking and he replied, “I have a wife and two kids here, and I have to feed them and that is not enough”. He didn’t drive for them. He also told me that at some point he shared a car with a young man he had heard about but never met, Dan Gurney. They had agreed upon a maximum rpm they would use and Gus was angry when he saw his partner’s time was much quicker. He confronted the younger man who swore he hadn’t exceeded their agreed upon limit. Gus said he knew at this point that “this young guy was very special”. I also sensed that this was the moment he learned he wasn’t very special any longer, and perhaps never was quite that special. It happens to every driver.

Gus was a successful business and family man. He parlayed his personal charm, aided in no small part by his beautiful and charming wife Mary Ann, from a foreign car repair garage into a series of foreign car dealerships culminating in his ownership of the Ferrari franchise in New England. As one of his contemporaries said, on learning of his passing, “he loved his racing”. And he was bloody good at it.

In his day, John Fitch was a top sports car driver for the then all conquering Mercedes factory racing team. At a time when the safety of drivers and spectators was never a consideration, he won many important races. High speed road races like the Pan-Americana in Mexico, the Targa Florio and Mille Miglia in Italy, and LeMans were exceptionally dangerous. Fitch was there and he won a lot of them. He also raced for American sportsman Briggs Cunningham and helped technically prepare a Chevrolet assault on Le Mans and Sebring. In his seventies, car failure foiled his attempt to break the speed record for its class in a hotrodded Mercedes 300SL on the Bonneville Salt Flats.

On a visit to his home near Lime Rock Park in Connecticut, three years ago, I was struck by his amazing agility. Though slightly stooped, he still moved gracefully and reminded me of a tall bird. At one point I dropped a business card I was handing him and before I could bend down and retrieve it, he had it. At that point he was thirty years my senior.

Like Gus Andrey, he was much more than his racing resume. He was a family man, a WW2 fighter pilot, a writer, and a track designer. He built his own car, the Fitch Phoenix, and successfully marketed Chevrolet Corvair road and racing parts and accessories in the sixties. Once racing had moved from the streets to dedicated road courses, he was a sought after track designer and safety consultant. He designed Lime Rock Park and laid out Le Circuit Mont-Tremblant among many others. Both on and off the track, John Fitch was always a road safety advocate.

If you haven’t seen it, Chris Szwedo’s film “Gullwings at Twilight” is a remarkable picture of the ever-undeterred Fitch. The general public will probably know him more for the large yellow crash barriers that line highways across the country and have saved countless lives. Oddly, the man who knew no barriers will be best remembered for the Fitch Barrier.


Urban Outlaw from Tamir Moscovici

Posted on October 19, 2012 Comments (0)

URBAN OUTLAW is a portrait of Magnus Walker, the rebel Porsche customizer who turned a hobby into an obsession, and an obsession into a successful business. From a workshop in downtown Los Angeles, Magnus obsessively harvests fragments from donor 911s, grafting them onto vintage frames to create one-off automobiles with the spirit of Ferdinand Porsche but an ethos entirely his own.

Watch the full-length film from Tamir Moscovici on Reelhouse.


Sandy on Assignment:
Conversations with Vic Elford

Posted on September 22, 2012 Comments (1)

Last April, clutching my Amelia Island program with the dreamy race car driver on the cover, I hung onto every word at the Great Endurance Drivers seminar. In August, at the RM auction in Monterey, I was blown away at the $10M hammer price for the Le Mans’ camera car, the Ford GT40 Gulf racing car, used for the high-speed close-up action driving in Steve McQueen’s epic racing film. The other day, I came across the Porsche High Performance Driving School brochure and added it to my bucket list.

Vic Elford

When the call came from Miss Amy inviting me to the Porsche Club’s Concours at Larz Anderson and dinner with the guest speaker, I was honored. When she said it was Vic Elford, I was ecstatic. It was a young Vic Elford on the program cover being honored at Amelia this year. It was Vic driving the camera car and it was Vic who started the Porsche High Performance Driving School. I was about to be treated to an experience of a lifetime…conversations with Vic Elford.

It’s easy to Google someone famous like Vic Elford and get his race stats. I was curious to learn what was between the lines. What inspired him to race? Why did he start so late in life? Was his goal to race Porsches? Was racing stressful? What was the secret to his rally success? What makes a great driver? Vic was most gracious, sharing his racing career and personal life stories over his two-day visit to Boston.

“Kids today are in go-carts at six. People forget there was a war going on when I was growing up in Britain. My father was away much of the time”, related Vic, when comparing his exposure to racing and today’s generation of racecar drivers. Then his face lit up, as he shared the single event that shaped his life. In 1949, already 14, his father took him to the races at Silverstone. “I was passionate from the moment I saw the drivers racing on the track and knew that’s what I wanted to do”, recounts Vic.

Vic Elford joins Sandy Cotterman for kickoff dinner to Northeast Porsche Club weekend Boston

Despite his strong passion, Vic said he knew he needed to make a living, so he took his keen interest in math and pursued a degree in civil engineering. How he applied that analytical side shines through in all you read about his accomplished rally and race career. With a “trust me” attitude, he pushed through design changes on the cars he raced.  He capitalized on his photographic memory, giving himself an edge in strategizing both rally and track courses. During his early rally driving, he mastered dictating pace notes, rally shorthand used to document everything and anything, yard by yard, during a practice rally run…shadows, fallen limbs, curves...anything. Sounding like a Jay Leno monologue, he recounted the scene with his team navigator shouting back the notes during the rally, to the point where he could almost anticipate the course with his eyes closed!

Vic’s stories on and off the track held me spellbound. I couldn’t help but think: How stressful. When I finally asked if it was, both Vic and Amy exclaimed, in unison, “No, not at all!”  Like anything, when you know what you’re doing, you’re in control. Vic went on to share what the moments were like before a race, waiting for his turn to drive. “Some drivers liked to talk to reporters and fans, but I would go off to a corner, not even noticing a person walking by, and relax and have a smoke.”  

Vic Elford's Top Favorite 1965 Porsche 911

So why Porsches? Vic said he actually asked Porsche if he could rally with the 911 in the Tour de Corse at the very beginning of his rally career. Vic was confident in what he could do with the car. Rallying was a new experience for the 911, and driving the narrow streets in the 911 was a challenge for Vic. As for the other Porsches in his life, as the opportunities to race came, he just accepted them. I guess it’s no surprise that Vic was asked to develop the High Performance Driving School after he retired from racing and moved to the States. Quick to tell me, Vic said I would learn everything I needed to know from his Handbook, now in its second edition, when I take the course!

On the grounds of Larz Anderson that sunny afternoon, Vic Elford was walking among the Porsche Concours cars, looking for his “favorite”. Starting to dabble a little in judging myself, I was curious what criteria Vic was using. “I’ll know it when I see it. I’ll just like it”, commented Vic. When he announced his favorite over the loudspeaker, I was thrilled.  It was mine too! The shiny red 1965 911 in the back row had caught my eye. Milling around the car at the time I walked by was the owner’s daughter. I asked her to tell me about the car. She said her Dad bought it before she was born, 32 years ago, when they lived in Colorado. Originally an “awful green color”, her Dad had it painted red. The black and white plaid seats are the original design. So how many miles on the car?”, I asked.  She laughed and said, “A gazillion”. Up at the winners stand, Vic was presenting Rob Nadleman, the owner of the 911, with the poster he had commissioned by Nicholas Watts of his 1970 Le Mans victory in the 917. Before Rob could slip away, I asked him how many miles on the car. “Somewhere over 400”.  “400,000?” I asked. He nodded.

Vic presents the Nicholas Watts print of his 1970 LeMans victory

So what does it take to be a great racecar driver? Balance in the control of the car and excellent eyesight, per Vic. I knew it, at least on the eyesight. There’s hope for me yet!  Vic headed back home to Florida the day after the Concours. I hope I can tell him I checked another item off my “bucket list” and have read his Handbook, cover to cover, the next time we meet. 

Sandy Cotterman
Motorsports Enthusiast


Sandy on Assignment: My Best in Show

Posted on August 29, 2012 Comments (0)

With official media credentials in hand, I was back in Carmel for what can only be described as non-stop magical adventures.

Monterey 2012 Rolls Royce Line-up

For those who remember, I started last year’s Monterey week, in the dark, tip toeing among the transporters, to watch the Concours cars unload and line up for the Pebble Beach Tour d’Elegance. This year I slept in.  Arriving around 8am, the cars were about to start. The Tour is the kick-off event for owners and a chance for them to pick up brownie points by finishing, should there be a tie during Sunday’s Concours judging. With over half of the 184 registered participants in pre-war vehicles, completing the 70 mile drive is quite an accomplishment. The finishers then roll onto Ocean Avenue in Carmel for an owner’s luncheon and cars & coffee style street show.

I ran into Ruben Verdes of The Rolls Royce Owners Club, and, gracious as always, he invited me to look at a special car he knew well.  Listed as the 1930’s Rolls Royce Phantom I Springfield Brewster Tourer, I learned that its chassis number actually identified it as a 1929 production year car. But the complex build order, specifying the way the car was to be finished, meant it wasn’t delivered until almost a year later, in 1930.   It was cool to stand before an American Rolls-Royce, built in Springfield, MA. Similar in design, but not identical to the British-made Phantoms, there were only 30 examples made of these Ascot Tourers, sometimes also called Phaetons. This was one of the Brewster Company’s most elegant and rare coachwork designs.

I leaned forward to take a peek inside and asked Bob Matteucci, the owner, if he would kindly share a little bit of information about his beautiful car. He replied, “please join us for the Tour”. Speechless, I looked to Ruben for guidance. In a whisper he said, “you were invited”. There was a short discussion about who would sit where. With three pedals on the floor, two center sticks, an ignition advance on the steering wheel and a governor to control the throttle, there was no doubt I would be up front so as to allow a wide driving field for our driver, Richard Gorman, the car’s restorer and owner of Vantage Motorworks.

Monterey 2012 Heading out on the tour

We were off in a flash, heading under the Rolex arch.  Bringing up the rear, sandwiched between the motorcycle police escort on our tail and the safety car in front, we held our own, sputtering up the hills on the 17-mile drive. We passed the first tow truck casualty.   The sputtering increased, then a few stalls. I learned later, water in the gas tank was the culprit. We made it to Route 1 where Bob and Richard made a judgment call to turn around.  It was downhill in race car mode back to the start.  Tires squealing, Richard’s hands and feet were taking control. We didn’t need to drive the tour, this was far more exciting!

Monterey 2012 Smiling in the Rolls on tour

On Sunday, I had the pleasure of admiring the Phantom as it drove smoothly up the lawn at Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance, earning third place in this most prestigious event.  It’s all a magical memory for me.

Sandy Cotterman
Motorsports Enthusiast


What makes for a World Class concours?

Posted on July 22, 2012 Comments (0)

Clue: They have original cars, not replicas.

Concours

By Wallace Wyss

There is quite a bit of talk in concours circles about which Concours d’elegance deserves to be called “the Pebble Beach of (you fill in the blank).” I know the Palos Verdes concours is a contender to be the “Pebble Beach of the South.” At their event, they have the same ocean to look out onto, like Pebble Beach, learned judges, high quality cars, a nice clubhouse where you can dine fancy or just buy some snacks at the window.

The Dana Point Concours, roughly 50 miles to the South, ironically, has a beautiful golf course location as well, but oddly for a place on the ocean, you can’t actually see it. However, at least you have ocean air and learned judges.

And then there’s the Meadowbrook, in Michigan, which next year will be at a new location.

And the Santa Fe concours (they call it “Concorso”) which, for the newbie on the block, is coming along quite strongly in its third year, also being based at a nice resort with clubhouse, and proper amenities. Their event will be held in September and they plan to distinguish themselves this year by having some restored airplanes (which makes me wonder, why don’t all of the concours on the water also have restored boats?)

I shouldn’t forget the La Jolla concours, held in a park right down by the water. I enjoyed looking over and seeing classic cars and right beyond them, waves crashing against the rocks.

Now that I said all this happy stuff, you just know I’m gonna take off my "Mr. Nice" hat and get straight to my beef—at the La Jolla concours and at the Dana Point concours I spotted, mixed in among genuine in-period built and original-era classic cars, replicas! At one show, the ringer was a GT40 and at the other show it was a Cobra.

Now don’t get me wrong. I would be happy owning a replica of either, and admire how faithfully some replica makers have copied the originals (particularly the Safir GT40). But if I were a customer paying $30 to 40 to attend a concours, I do not want to see original 1962–67 Cobras and mixed in among them, a replica built in 2007. I don’t mind if the concours organizers have a separate section for replicas and put them there labeled as such, but to me it’s an insult to the owners displaying their cars who may have painstakingly restored a “barn find” car at a cost of maybe hundreds of thousands, only to have a replica Cobra pull up next to them, maybe something bought a week ago off Craigslist for $25,000.

I think the organizers of concours who allow such mixing forget that one of the fundamental purposes of concours is to present history. Some fans—ones investigating the details of a restoration, say—go to concours to take pictures and make notes on the originals to help guide their restoration. If the car they photograph is a modern replica, who knows how many original parts the builders didn’t bother to reproduce, instead using a near facsimile? (For instance, on many Cobra replicas it's easy to spot wheels held on by lug nuts instead of a center knock-off.) The same goes for model car builders. They hanker to see originality. Mixing together look-alike clones almost 40 years newer in date of manufacture isn’t paying much attention to history. It’s trashing history.

When I first broached this subject on a forum on a Cobra website, one reader sneered at my critique and branded me an “elitist.” Well, golly, so be it, I accept that title if you define it as someone who wants cars at concours to be properly labeled and displayed accordingly. I think it is a major sin against history that the California DMV allows builders of replica cars to label their Cobra replica built in 2012 a “1965” when only the engine block might have been made in that year. It seems that even a government organization is willing to mess with history to make a buck.

And then there are the concours judges. I really can’t see why they don’t resign their commission! (I can picture the scene in Maj. Dundee where they rip the epaulettes off Charlton Heston’s uniform, only the Judges all toss in their straw hats when asked to judge a replica amongst the real cars!) They would be, in effect, perpetuating a fraud if they don’t ask for the offending car to be summarily moved to a replica section.

GT 40

Now I am not saying this dividing of real cars from replicas should apply to all events. I go to plenty of free cars ’n’ coffee events and Supercar Sundays where there are no rules, no classes, no judges; you just show up, meet car fans and kick tires. There the presence of look-alikes, clones, wanna-bes doesn’t offend me because most of the old cars there are, in many ways, replicas. It’s just that for someone to travel hundreds of miles to a major event, (it costs me anywhere from $500 to $1000 to drive round trip to some of these far-off events, once you add in hotel, meals and gas) only to find that the organizers chose to “fill out the field” and let the viewers sort out the real historical cars from the look-alikes.

Happily, you can't help notice at events that are classy like Pebble Beach, the Villa d'Este, the Colorado Grand and California Mille, the cars entered are genuine and not replicas, (as far as I know).

So returning to where I started, what other concours will, in my opinion, soon be considered second in prestige to Pebble Beach? The only logical answer: the one that refuses to allow replicas to be displayed anywhere near the authentic, restored, truly vintage cars.

Well, that’s my opinion. Call me curmudgeon…

WALLACE WYSS is the author of the “Ferrari Hunter” mystery series.