Cars We Love & Who We Are

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More than the polished parts and hard to find pieces, the special interest vehicles people collect embody the character of each owner. “Cars We Love & Who We Are” profiles individual special interest vehicles and the proud owner committed to its preservation.

Cars We Love & Who We Are #50

In “Betraying the Brand or Smart Business? Part I” Drivin’ News sought to explore the impact of BMW’s new oversized grill and new design badge on the BMW brand. In examining the nature of branding, Part I looked back at how Mercedes-Benz in the 1990s had responded to market forces for which its engineering focus had been deemed untenable. How they dealt with it required many broken eggs to create the new Mercedes-Benz brand omelet of the late 1990s. The resulting outcome, though painful, did seek to morph the brand into representing a more consumer oriented maker of luxury automobiles while preserving its iconic 3-pointed star.

Part II visits Volvo and its branding challenges in the years just before and after being purchased by Ford in 1999.

Betraying the Brand or Smart Business? Part II

 

The experience of another great brand, Volvo, with its iconic Iron Mark logo offers important lessons in the value of fidelity to brand values.

When I came on board with Volvo Cars of North America in 1980, the previous decade of the 1970s had seen Volvo featuring taglines like “The car for people who think,” and in 1978 “A car you can believe in.” Reflecting the somewhat cerebral nature of its taglines’ appeal, Volvo courted a niche to which it played well. Its accessory catalog could easily have included Volvo branded leather elbow patches and pipe cleaners.

1979 Volvo “Love Letters” ad

With the 1980s, it seemed the world discovered the safe, durable, reliable, rugged, environmentally conscious and comfortable Swede. While always a small player in a much larger automobile universe, Volvo always punched above its weight. It enjoyed extraordinary brand recognition, far beyond what its modest sales volume would normally merit.

To think of any other car brand proudly displaying an “I Love my car” bumper sticker would have been unthinkable. I love my Lincoln? I love my BMW? I love my anything? It did not work. But “I love my Volvo,” absolutely. Owners loved their Volvos. So much so that they would pen love letters to Volvo headquarters especially ones featuring a common theme. Safety! Unsolicited, Volvo owners would send photos of terrible accidents they had experienced accompanied by letters thanking Volvo for the safe cars they built while proclaiming, “Volvo Saved My Life.” A steady stream of such letters inspired Bob Austin, then, Director of Marketing Communications at Volvo Cars of North America to start the “Volvo Saved My Life Club” in 1990. Austin said, “The club was a way to recognize a very special group of people and say thank you in a very respectful way.”

At the same time Volvo delighted in recognizing another group of owners. This group shared a very different Volvo attribute, longevity. These Volvo owners put hundreds of thousands of miles on the Volvos they loved. This lead to Volvo establishing the Volvo High Mileage Club that awarded handsome badges in 100,000 increments to drivers with high mileage Volvos. One such driver stood tall as a renowned figure among car people in general and Volvo people in particular. His name was Irv Gordon. Gordon had long held and most likely will always hold the Guinness World Record for most miles driven in a single car. Over the span of six decades Gordon put 3.2 million miles on his 1966 Volvo P1800.

Irv Gordon and his 1966 Volvo P1800

By the early 1990s, I had started my own business which enjoyed Volvo as a client. Still Swedish to its core, Volvo offered a new family of good looking and popular 850 sedans and wagons that all remained faithful to the Volvo brand values.

Volvo’s tagline of the 1990s “Drive Safely” proffered friendly and thoughtful counsel. In reinforcing long held brand values, the tagline really cut to the chase. In the Pantheon of Volvo core values intelligent comprehensive world class safety design stood the tallest. Going back to the very beginning in 1927, safety stood foremost in the minds of Volvo founders Assar Gabrielsson and Gustaf Larson when they stated, “Cars are driven by people. Therefore, the guiding principle behind everything we make at Volvo is, and must remain, safety.”

If asked, “What do you think of when you hear the name Volvo?” For all members of the Volvo family of employees and much of the public the answer would be “Safety, durability and quality.” In 1995 Bill Hoover, then Volvo Cars of North America Executive Vice President, speaking for all those Volvo executives who had come before him in carrying the Volvo banner, was asked. “How does a company with such relatively small annual sales get such high brand name recognition?” Hoover said, “We are not trying to be the auto du jour. Our image has consistently been one of safety, durability and quality.” Researchers at Yankelovitch Partners, a major research firm at the time, assessed the reason for Volvo’s success. Their conclusion? “Volvo promoted their car as the choice for safety, durability and quality and they delivered.”

However, during the 1990s winds of change started buffeting Volvo in North America. Traditional Volvo brand advocates had been organized out of the North American operation. Longtime CEO Joseph Nicolato retired in 1991. Hoover was provided an “opportunity” to manage Volvo’s Asia/Pacific marketing operations in Singapore and Austin chose not to join Volvo in its move to Irvine, California after Ford, under CEO Jack Nasser, bought Volvo in 1999. The cost, $6.5 Billion. Ford’s purchase of Volvo represented a watershed moment. By relocating Volvo to the west coast Ford intended to package it into Ford’s newly created Premier Auto Group (PAG) with Wolfgang Reitzle at the helm. PAG membership would consist of Volvo, Jaguar, Aston Martin, Mazda, Lincoln-Mercury and Land Rover, all Ford owned marques.

1981 Volvo “Brownies” ad

Unfortunately, Volvo’s relocation from Rockleigh, NJ to Irvine in 2001 gutted the corporate culture. Purged from the loyal Volvo ranks, a large number of longtime experienced employees with extensive product knowledge either did not get invited or chose not to uproot and move across country. Sadly, seven years later when PAG failed and with most of its pieces sold off, Ford would return Volvo to New Jersey. Regrettably it could never reclaim the lost and invaluable experience and expertise that had been willingly sacrificed. Ford ran Volvo off a cliff and without safety, Volvo would not survive the crash as a Ford owned brand.

With the demise of the old guard (Literally, like the three Grail Knights in “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” Austin, Hoover and Nicolato, had protected the Volvo brand) a drum beat emanating from Sweden first heard in the mid-1990s grew louder. The message, now, arrived loud and clear. Volvo should move up in the luxury ranks to be priced like Mercedes-Benz and BMW. In the March 23, 1998 Automotive News, a front page photo of Volvo senior management accompanied a story trumpeting “Volvo adds spice to image of safety.” The first paragraph said it all in describing global management’s stated belief that, “(Volvo’s) safety-laden reputation may be too square for today’s buyers.” The corporate mindset of Volvo’s, then, new owner, Ford, proved richly fertile ground for navigating a sea change in brand messaging driven by powerful winds of competitive brand envy.

It became a given by management that, “Safety was “understood” by all customers and, thus, did not need to be promoted. In word and deed it seemed new Volvo management espoused opinions of old Volvo brand values with a palpable disregard bordering on contempt. At a time when the Ford Explorer had a well publicized rollover issue, Volvo, had a suspension design in its newly introduced XC90 SUV that offered greater rollover protection. Volvo had to limit its advertising to avoid comparing its superiority to other brands.

1980 Volvo “LOVE” ad

From the new millennium’s early aughts to its early teens the market witnessed a Volvo intentionally transformed into a brand unintentionally adrift. Where once Volvo advertising resided at the pinnacle of wry humor (We’d Never put our brownies in a little tin box and What four-letter word best describes your car?), its efforts now seemed more “awry humor” that unwittingly insulted the very people to whom Volvo wished to sell.

Volvo’s iconic High Mileage Club’s substantial metal medallions awarded at 100,000 mile increment (Up to 1,000,000 miles) were shelved in place of a decal for every 250,000 miles. The prevailing management thought, then, called for not incentivizing people to keep their Volvos in the hope that they would more frequently buy new ones. Another high mileage Volvo association, the promotion of Irv Gordon, the beloved and world famous million mile driver went to the far back burner.

Volvo’s new direction witnessed co-branding promotions whose intent bordered on the threshold of incredulity. Volvo reportedly poured funds into the vampire themed Twilight Saga series of romance fantasy films. The Twilight films targeted young audiences comprised of a significant percentage of teenage girls, many too young to drive. However, Paul Walder, Global Marketing Manager at Volvo Cars said “More younger people think that Volvo is ‘cool’ because Edward drives one and this will impact on their future car buying decision making.” Contestant winners, young women ages 18 an 19 took home new XC60s.

Volvo committed significant dollars, as well, to its association with the film “Pirates of the Caribbean.” This involved people following clues to finding a Volvo buried by a salt water beach in the Bahamas. It is said that the size of the expenditures on the film promotions left little remaining to support North American advertising. Tracking data showed no association between promotional money expended and additional vehicles sold.

Coco Framboise

In a truly head scratching move, Volvo launched a “Naughty Volvo” S60 model promotion possessing the power to drive a stake through the heart (Apparently the vampire thing has stuck with me) of any lingering “family values association” remaining in consumer memory. Promotional events showcased the “Naughty Volvo S60” in venues such as a make-shift “Red Light” district in Toronto featuring “Burlesque star Coco Framboise with sounds provided by DJ Dopey and Poizonus.” The campaign included slogans like “Spank the competition” and “Naughty Volvos are coming.”

The start of the new millennium and the promotion of new values begun under Nasser and Reitzle did not go well for Volvo. From MY2000 with sales of 123,178 to MY2010 where sales had plummeted to 53,948 Volvo had lost its way. For the purpose of this article, the year 2010  will serve as the point in time where the decision on brand betrayal or good business will be determined. Why?  By the end of 2010 Ford would have sold Volvo to Geely of China. The price, $1.8 billion. $4.7 billion less than it had paid. The Geely purchase presents a whole new story for a later date.

Brand betrayal or smart decision? The plummeting sales volumes and the subsequent sale of the company screams betrayal. However, the good news for the traditional Volvo brand values comes with the success it once again enjoys, but not with Volvo. When Volvo dropped it, Subaru snatched it up and ran. The following quote comes from Subaru’s agency of record, Carmichael Lynch:   “How do you stand apart when your competition is spending literally billions of dollars? By connecting with what’s truly important to your audience — not just features they might like, but the life that they love. Their families. Their pets. The great outdoors. Even the venerable old Subaru they’ve been driving forever. In 2007, we introduced the “Love” campaign. In the years since, sales and market share have more than tripled and love has spread to every level of the brand.”

Many industry people recognize that Subaru has drawn heavily from the original Volvo playbook with great success as its reward. Themes like the “Love” Campaign, fund raising, golden retrievers, driver’s stories, environmental concerns and, above all, safety, all masterfully interwoven with a consistent voice and narrative have served Subaru well. From 2009 to 2019 Subaru sales in the U.S. increased 200% from 216,652 units to 700,117 units. Such success has many parents, but the Volvo themes sit at the head of the table.

A humorous aside. Austin, now, Past Volvo Director of Marketing Communications, has a good sense of humor. A number of years back he complimented the Subaru Advertising Manager on Subaru’s wrecking yard “They Lived” TV commercial. With a smile he added, “In fact I liked it when I did it 10 years ago.” Both laughed.

Now what of BMW? Brand Betrayal or Smart Business?

All different model SUVs

BMW, as the Ultimate Driving Machine, despite considerable success faces many challenges in a world racing – some might say hurtling – towards autonomous cars and where visual identity is increasingly harder to come by. (See nearby image of two dozen recent white SUVs from different manufacturers. Can you tell them apart?). BMW does not face this threat to individuality alone. And to be fair, BMW does produce designs a notch above. However, for the most part, unlike years back, today, all of one manufacturer’s model line looks pretty much the same as every other manufacturer’s offerings. Basically everything looks like a jelly bean with a few razor edges added for character. Just sayin’. This causes manufacturers to take desperate measures to distance themselves from the crowd. Have you noticed the more that car designs suffer under imposed hard points accommodating global market homogeneity demands, fuel economy demands and corporate packaging the larger grills have become? As an apparent natural byproduct of big grill disease, the ugly bordering on downright disturbing aesthetics of some creations produce, in the viewer, a kind of curious morbid fascination like seeing a two-headed cow and wondering how could this be? Case in point, the Lexus “Predator” grill design. Really?  Don’t laugh Audi your grill offers no visual feast for sore eyes either. But BMW? It already possessed what many consider one of the most recognizable grills in the business.

This brings me to BMW issue number one, the God-awful smiling Tasmania Devil grill. To put things in perspective while it doesn’t quite make me want to scratch my eyes out, it does make the “Bangle Butt” and the first generation Z4 front fender “Z” line border on being fond memories. Yes, a frontal feature that distinguishes and differentiates a design serves a valuable purpose when it does so in an attractive way. However, the Phantom of the Opera wore a mask for a reason.

Does BMW believe that its iconic grill design suffers from being so indistinguishable that “better to be ugly and noticed” offers valid defense of its questionable execution?

Secondly, the lollipop Roundel. Logos such as Ferrari’s prancing horse, the Rolls-Royce “Spirit of Ecstasy” and, yes, the BMW Roundel trigger a conditioned customer response. A product bearing that badge confirms that that car fulfills that long established brand’s promise. Research suggests that it takes five to ten years for a brand to be established in market consciousness. Common sense would suggest it takes one look at a distortion of the brand icon to confuse the observer. When the revered iconic badge undergoes change, the natural course of thought calls to question what other changes this new symbol might augur?

In the 2004 Automotive News World Congress Helmut Panke, then Chairman of BMW said, “A brand is a promise, a promise that the products of a brand provide substance, authenticity, emotional appeal and heritage.”

Does the jumbo grille and the pin wheel badge seem frivolous and unworthy of the BMW brand in light of Panke’s words.

What do you think?

For those interested in reading that offers insight into Branding and the automobile industry, the following are three recommendations:

  1. Where the Suckers Moon, An advertising story. Randall Rothenberg, Alfred A. Knopf, 1994
  2. Branding Iron, Branding Lessons from the Meltdown of the US Auto Industry. Charlie Hughes and William Jeanes, Racom Books, 2007
  3. Car Guys vs Bean Counters, The battle for the Soul of American Business. Bob Lutz. Penguin Books, 2011
By |2024-02-29T13:01:04+00:00February 29th, 2024|6 Comments

Cars We Love & Who We Are #49

Good fortune allowed me to enter the U.S. import car business in the later part of its formative years. For a subsequent period touching 5 decades I had the privilege to write for the vast majority of European automobile brands including, for over 30 years, Mercedes-Benz, Volvo and BMW. It afforded me the opportunity to work with some of the best and brightest professional men and women to grace the import automobile industry. I learned from these experienced, insightful and wise individuals the meaning and importance of “brand.” I admired how they would passionately defend “the Brand.” My time in the business also allowed me to witness corporate decisions that tacked a marque away from their traditional brand values.

This two-part issue of Drivin’ News will ask can “Betraying the Brand be good business?”

Betraying the Brand or Smart Business? Part I

 

For a product, a brand is a promise. A strong brand adheres faithfully to a set of values highly prized by a targeted market segment. Building a powerful brand image takes time and consistency because building trust takes time (five to ten years is a number quoted) and consistency. A brand that has established a high level of trust usually features a slogan and/or logo, the Mercedes-Benz 3-Pointed Star, Volvo Iron Mark or BMW Roundel that functions as a beacon signaling to targeted customers that this product will fulfill their expectations. A brand that customers have grown to trust represents a hard earned and invaluable asset. A product sending off-brand messages confuses the customer and undermines the brand. It raises questions.

Recently I noticed a new BMW with a redesigned version of the iconic blue, white and black BMW badge. The new iteration called to mind a child’s multi-color swirl lollipop. That together with BMW’s recent addition of the oversized smiling Tasmanian Devil grill gave me pause. I realized that I had witnessed this manifestation of questionable branding efforts before. As a “car guy” such moves always engendered personal doubt and discomfort. As an exercise in retrospection I chose to revisit examples of brand infidelity I had witnessed and dig deeper before I explore two of BMW’s recent curious measures and their potential impact on the BMW brand.

Rather than looking first at BMW, Part I will start on the other side of the Strasse, with BMW’s arch rival Mercedes-Benz and in Part II, Volvo.

I began working at Mercedes-Benz in 1976. Then, the Mercedes-Benz boldly confident slogan “Engineered like no other car in the world” succinctly captured the Mercedes-Benz commitment to engineering excellence, quality, and luxury. It proudly advanced without equivocation the Mercedes-Benz brand values. As an organizational culture most everyone in the company embraced the passionate self-assessment of Mercedes-Benz as a builder of superior luxury automobiles for customers who understood, respected and could afford superior quality.

In the early years the business plan expressed by Mercedes-Benz management actually considered restricting overall Mercedes-Benz sales to 100,000 units to maintain its limited availability and support premium pricing and healthy margins. It is said that in the 1960s Executive VP of Sales Heinz Waizennegger laughed at the thought that consumers would ever consider paying $10,000 for a new passenger car. By the time I joined, company insiders laughed at the idea of people paying $20,000. By the 1980s nobody laughed any more.

Back then Mercedes-Benz as a company benefited from a workforce populated with skilled and dedicated car guys, both male and female, who, as a group, displayed a quiet and prideful confidence born of their perceived association with an internationally admired, stable and prosperous organization where the employees place and future seemed assured. Gifted engineers and technicians held respected status.

Many employees bought a new Mercedes each year at a favorable discount. Often the following year they would sell their year-old sedan for a profit. For longtime employees the annual profit could build to a cumulative sum where they were buying their annual new Mercedes with what felt like “house money.”

The Mercedes-Benz early North American business model succeeded based on a system where cars were designed, developed and perfected in a timely manner. Much like the aging of a prime steak or the maturing of a fine wine, Mercedes-Benz would bring without great haste well engineered and assorted superior vehicles to a loyal but limited market. However, the late 1980s witnessed U.S. sales volumes and margins declining. Word filtered out of internal management discussions considering the advisability of moving Mercedes-Benz product upscale into higher cost/higher margin but lower volume Rolls-Royce/Bentley territory.

Then Mike Jackson took the helm in 1989. He passionately preached to Stuttgart a message advocating reduced prices with more exciting product and advertising designed to reach a younger and broader market slice. To keep this in context, realize that M-B home office in Germany and M-B North America did not always see eye to eye. In their early years in America the mindset of the predominantly conservative post-war German Mercedes-Benz management in Stuttgart found the North America market baffling and at times infuriating. Especially humorous and emblematic of the disconnect surfaced in the early years when Mercedes-Benz in America pressured Stuttgart for a sunroof as a product feature. The German’s did not see the need when you could simply open the windows but, over time, Germany yielded to the demand. Shortly thereafter America wanted air conditioning. Home office in Stuttgart lost its mind. “The Americans had gotten their sunroof with the fresh air and sunshine now America wanted to close the sunroof and have air conditioning. By the 1980s, however, times were indeed changing with Mercedes-Benz having a more international character.

At the close of 1980s, U.S. sales had dropped for most European luxury car makers, including Mercedes. The economic recession, the luxury tax, and the dollar/mark valuation all played a part in the problem.

A 1991 study by J.D. Powers & Associates found that American luxury owners appreciated prestige but bought reliability, a Japanese brands’ strength. One particular reason for Mercedes’ maintenance issues, as compared to Japanese brands, emanated from Mercedes-Benz emphasis on cars being crafted more than mass produced. The Mercedes-Benz mindset at that time was expressed by Edzard Reuter, then chairman of Daimler-Benz, who said, “We constantly study our position and we always come to the conclusion that we should stay away from mass production. The economies of scale wouldn’t help us. Besides, we have a culture of engineering and product differentiation that would make it difficult.”

However, it had become increasingly apparent that Americans viewed Mercedes’ signature over-engineering as irrelevant. By 1991, Mercedes had started to pay attention to what the American customer and baby boomers in particular, wanted. This sea change in mindset resulted in Mercedes redirecting its focus away from engineering and towards marketing. Germany had listened to Mike Jackson. Mercedes-Benz would respond to a new reality by retaining the 3-pointed star but changing the value proposition it represented.

300SL factory craftsmanship

Like the canary in the coal mine, the slogan “Engineered like no other car in the world” would no longer sing the praises of Mercedes-Benz automobiles. The old brand values buckled under the pressure making way for a new paradigm intent on defining a new path to broader success.

Mercedes-Benz of North America retreated from its engineering-centric heritage to that of a North American marketing function. The retreat created pain. Notorious international business consulting firm McKinsey came in to plan the desired organizational changes with one of the results being a mass layoff of staff members that became known as “Black Tuesday.” This purging of experienced and loyal employees devastated company morale and weakened the foundation of the corporate culture. McKinsey interventions often left such organizational detritus in its wake.

W140 S-Class

The radical departure from past practices would evidence itself when comparing the MY1992 W140 S-Class with its replacement the MY2000 S220 S-Class. With the W140, initial development started in 1981 with it coming to market in 1991. It should be noted that the final product caused much consternation in Germany. The impact of significant cost overruns associated with the project’s over-engineering (Estimate, approx. $1 billion) would ripple through the organization with lasting effects. That said, in the case of the W140, save for a later developing issue with the car’s biodegradable wiring insulation, its excellent build quality and noteworthy expression of over-engineering received wide praise but lukewarm buyer interest. Certainly, new competition contributed to Mercedes’ disappointing sales. Japanese luxury in the form of Lexus and others had burst onto the scene swinging polite but sharp elbows. It forced the staid luxury market including Mercedes-Benz into a period of wrenchingly painful self-examination.

Development of the S220 began in 1992 at the dawn of marketing taking dominance over engineering at Mercedes-Benz. In comparing the S220 replacement for the W140, Motor Trend wrote, “Though hard to pin down, there was something about the S220 that suggested it was developed in an era when the engineers no longer held sway at Mercedes.”

S220 S-Class

Doug Munro, the respected online car reviewer and founder of “Cars and Bids” in comparing the S220 and W140, said, “It represents a low point being the product of cost cutting and simplification in production and engineering.” Munro went on to say, “The earlier goal in producing the W140 was to make the greatest car in the world and they did. In the case of the W220 cost cutting was the name of the game.” The 2000 S500 cost roughly 15% less than the 1992 S500.

So was the Mercedes-Benz course of action that of a brand betrayed or a smart business decision necessitated by a changing market?

The answer may well depend on your point of view. Are you a pure car guy or a business guy? A car guy savors great automobiles built with passion, brilliance, excellence and a cost be damned attitude. Business guys savor a great car that makes money. Car guys love Duesenbergs, Cords, Tuckers, Ferraris, Lamborghinis, Bentleys, Rolls-Royces to name a few. Unfortunately, all went bankrupt or were sold.

As to whether brand betrayal or smart business move, by the year 1998, one would have to say a necessary business decision. Why 1998? Because that year Daimler-Benz swallowed Chrysler and initiated a boiling cauldron of brand confusion and chaos. But that is story for another day.

Did Mercedes-Benz financially benefit from the brand’s redirection? Sales volume would seem to say yes. From Model Year 1991 though 1999 Mercedes-Benz unit sales increased from 58,868 units to 189,437 units. Certainly many factors such as more models, sportier offerings, the competitive set, exchange rates, manufacturing techniques and market conditions impacted sales as well. Furthermore, in considering the earlier fate of pinnacle brands such as Rolls-Royce, Bentley and, later, Mercedes’ own effort with Maybach, the idea of the upmarket move Mercedes-Benz management once considered, would seem to have been destined to fail. Furthermore, based partly on the success of Mercedes-Benz who industry insiders viewed as having been revitalized by Mike Jackson, Jackson now resides in the Automotive Hall of Fame.

In speaking of the old Mercedes-Benz brand, then, it may be best to say, “The king is dead. Long live the king.”

 

Betraying the Brand or Smart Business? Part II will focus on Volvo and BMW

By |2024-02-15T15:19:41+00:00February 15th, 2024|12 Comments

Cars We Love & Who We Are #48

It ranks high on the list of last places to look for classic Rolls-Royces and Bentleys. The meandering country two-lane bisects a large expanse of Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania farmland. Upon cresting a berm saddled with a railroad crossing, the road descends to reveal a well tended but non-descript collection of linked single story beige structures with the character of warehousing. Au contraire, one has arrived at the Rolls-Royce and Bentley Museum and home to the Rolls-Royce Foundation and Rolls-Royce Owners’ Club. Much like an automotive Clark Kent there is far more here than first meets the eye.

On this particular clear and crisp late autumn day turning into the front parking area reveals an array of vintage and classic Rolls-Royces and Bentleys. One in particular snags the eye and demands greater scrutiny. A striking black and silver open wheel hot rod sporting a Bentley Flying “B” vibrates in place, poised to launch.

Meet the Black Adder VI Bentley Special.

The Black Adder VI, an Outrageous Hot Rod Bentley

Alex and Elaine in the Black Adder VI

Daresay that the chances approached nil. Surely Baron Henry de Blonay of Villa Favorite in Chembésy, Switzerland never thought about it at all. What were the chances that his new 1947 Bentley Mark VI would, 70 years later, be a cycle fendered, open cockpit hot rod named after a poisonous viper and seen cruising the back roads of Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania.

While tracking ownership history of early postwar Bentleys ranks high on the frustration scale, much of the Black Adder’s last 75 years is known. Most of it resides in Mechanicsburg, PA.

My friend Henry Uiga greeted me. A Rolls-Royce owner, club member and Drivin’ News reader, Henry had extended Drivin’ News an invitation to the Rolls-Royce Club’s monthly Volunteer Saturday. On this scheduled day club members gathered at the Museum to service the Rolls-Royce and Bentley vehicles in the collection. Watching the members in action quickly dismissed any preconceived notions of an elitist membership dominated by the white glove crowd depicted in the iconic Grey Poupon Mustard ads. The men and women present and immersed in their hands-on work displayed a hardy respect for the 100 plus-year heritage of Rolls-Royce and Bentley automobiles including that featured in the fabled mid-century “Loudest thing is the clock” ads.

As I entered a workshop lined with vehicles representing a century of British engineering excellence, I had found Henry working on an open wheel roadster the likes of which I had never seen. It sported the Bentley Flying “B.”

Displaying an apparent Dry Lakes Racer/T-Bucket inspired visual execution and chassis number B46AK, this right-hand drive Bentley hot rod pleased the eye with a striking livery of a black passenger tub with saddle tan interior, black cycle fenders and silver aluminum bonnet. With Brooklands Type Racing Screens, leather hood straps and an athletic stance, this well conceived custom execution represented a consummate example of a breed of collectible Bentley, the modified Bentley “Special”.”

Starting life as what might be described as the entry level 1947 Bentley Mark VI, the Bentley Special concept came to life in the early 1960s. At that time, the poor quality sheet metal used in the early Post WWII Mark VI had almost universally fallen prey to the tin worm. In sharp contrast, owners found their Bentley Mark VI’s seriously deteriorated steel bodies to be mounted on rugged and reliable chassis with an equally capable drivetrain.

As a restored Mark VI did not possess a high value comparable to a Rolls-Royce Phantom or a Vintage Bentley, owners saw little merit in committing large sums of money to the restoration of a rusted hulk. However, the Mark VI did possess a rugged drivetrain and chassis pretty much regarded as bulletproof. The solution? Re-body and upgrade the remaining chassis to create a “Special” that reflected the personal tastes and interests of the individual who commissioned the restoration.

Woolf Barnato

Starting around 1963 in the UK, Bentley Specials became very popular. Many of the first re-creations emulated the vintage racing Bentley’s of the late 1920s and early 1930s. During that period Bentley had made its name in competitive motorsports with numerous victories including multiple wins in the 24-Hours of LeMans. At the same time, this period witnessed the heyday of adventuress part-time drivers, more sportsmen than professionals. They became known as gentlemen-drivers who would race their cars at the track and then drive the same cars home. Their ranks included Bentley drivers like Woolf Barnato, John Duff and Glen Kidston. These men, though not professional drivers, piloted Bentley’s to many impressive victories in the 1920s and 1930s earning them the name, the “Bentley Boys.”

Bentley “Specials” today offer non-professional drivers great enjoyment in vintage racing as well as rallies and tours. Utilizing open style bodywork and Bentley sourced performance upgrades, one prominent auction house states, “We admire these MK VI Specials, and think they best represent what a true British gentleman might create in lieu of an American hot rod.”

To get the real story behind the Museum’s chassis number B46AK Black Adder VI Special, Henry directed me to Mark Lizewskie, the Executive Director of both the Rolls-Royce Owner’s Club and the Rolls-Royce Foundation. Mark said, “As with all the vehicles in our collection this Special came to us as a donation. Presented to us by the married couple of author, military historian and decorated Special Forces veteran James Stejskal and Ms. Wanda Nesbit, a United States diplomat and career Foreign Service Officer. the Black Adder VI entered the collection in 2017.”

James Young Coupe bodied Mark VI

The record seemed to indicate that chassis number B46AK started life in 1947 as a James Young Coupe bodied Mark VI. The subsequent search for any records covering the next 25 years drew a blank. Fortunately its history resurfaced in the 1970s when Johnard Engineering, located in Blandford, Dorset UK, re-bodied B46AK as a Bentley Special. Johnard possessed considerable renown for the superior technical and aesthetic execution of its Bentley Specials. Elton John owned one and another finished 4th in class in the 1997 Peking to Paris Challenge.

The 21st century saw B46AK experience a second re-bodying by the late Victor Yordy of Metal Works in Dewart, Pennsylvania. Many regarded Yordy as an artist who at times would create new art in the form of an automobile. B46AK’s beauty extended beneath the skin with all mechanicals undergoing a comprehensive performance upgrade by the Rolls-Royce specialists Pierce Reid and Billings Cook at The Vintage Garage in Stowe, Vermont. Billed as purveyors of superlative engine rebuilding, mechanical restoration and service since 1963, the end result affirmed their reputation. And so, the Black Adder VI came to life. As reported in The Flying Lady, “ The Black Adder VI is a formidable performer, with 90+ mph available in third gear alone; no one is exactly sure what the top speed is on this car. Equally at home on the track or on the road. It is in outstanding condition and a formidable performer. In short it embodies everything a Bentley Special should be.” In 2015 it received a Touring Class award at the RROC Annual Meet.

Mark in describing some of the technical upgrades said, “As with all Specials it reflects the owner’s specific taste and preferences. Mark continued saying, “It’s certainly not original. And after all, that is the point of a Special.”

In enhancing the original Bentley 4.3-liter inline 6-cylinder, the Black Adder features an R-type Continental big valve head and highly desirable R-type Continental manual center shift gearbox. Mark added to the list saying, “It’s upgrades include disc brakes, larger SU carburetors and numerous drivetrain tweaks.”  As to the actual engine and performance specs, Mark says, “It has never been on a dyno. But, together with the engine upgrades and the significant weight reduction due to the open cockpit re-body, performance has improved significantly.” Interestingly no base performance figures exist as Rolls-Royce/ Bentley never would publish them. With true British reserve, the corporate answer to questions about horsepower and performance was, “Adequate.”

Now came the time to bring the Black Adder out to play. Climbing behind the wheel would be Foundation volunteer Alex Sharpe. Alex said his lean physique, comfort with the right-hand steering and the four-speed found him taking the Black Adder out with the greatest frequency.

Elaine, my partner in crime, would be taking the passenger seat for the test drive. She noted that the interior while very nicely trimmed did feel quite confining. She said, “The tiny doors provided minimal easing of entry. I am glad I do a lot of yoga otherwise getting in and out would be a challenge.” In referring to my size twelve feet she just shook her head and said, “No way.”

Alex agreed saying, “The cockpit itself is very tight. It’s very shallow at the end so your seating is much more constrained and the relationship between you and the steering wheel is much different than people are used to in a modern vehicle.” Alex continued saying, “You sit tall in the seat with the door top in line with your kidneys. That together with the fact that instead of having a conventional windshield you have the Brooklyn screens makes for a very open cockpit.

Twitchy might be the best word for Alex’s description of the Black Adder’s handling. B46AK’s close coupled design positions the driver just forward of the rear axle while, much like an XK120 (Alex owns and drives one), the front end feels a mile away. Alex said, “It can create a dynamic that produces over steer.” With a wry smile Alex laughed saying, “I have not pushed it to the point where I can confirm my suspicions. I like being a volunteer here.”

In closing, when asked for any other comment he would have on the experience of driving the Black Adder VI Bentley Special. Alex said, “I just can’t wait to get out there and enjoy it more.”

Apparently being snake bit is not always a bad thing.

By |2024-02-01T15:00:16+00:00February 1st, 2024|1 Comment

Cars We Love & Who We Are #47

As announced in the last Drivin’ News posting, I have chosen the depths of winter in New Jersey to produce a Collectible Car event comprised of a photography show, raffle, wine tasting and panel discussion. Its purpose, to benefit North Jersey’s decades-old and respected Tri-Boro Food Pantry.

The logic inspiring my seemingly counter intuitive plunge into the heart of Winter Pattern SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder) resides in the fast fading joy of the increasingly distant holidays and the associated ennui of a large population of car enthusiasts Jonesing for something, anything car related to do. I am placing my bet on a sunny day in January that together with a fun and interesting Collectible Car event will entice a boatload of enthusiasts out of their man cave hibernation.

As my esteemed panel of experts comprised of Dave La Chance, Bob Austin, Bryan Maletsky, Fred Hammond and Matt Maisano will be wrestling with the topic of “The Future of Collectible Automobiles” I have decided to explore just what makes an automobile collectible.

Defining “Collectible Car.”

Vinny Plotino with his ’70 Plymouth Superbird and ’62 Ford Falcon

So What defines a collectible vehicle?

In the broadest sense, a collectible car is one you do not need in the least but would most love to have. Much like asking opinions on who makes the best pizza, the  definition of a Collectible automobile can vary. In the case of Jay Leno, he says, “It should be of technical or historical interest, fun to drive and pleasant to look at.” Others such as renowned car enthusiast Miles Collier, founder of the Revs Museum and Dr. Fred Simeone founder of the eponymous Simeone Automotive Foundation Museum both put a more a much finer point on what determines a true collectible automobile. For the sake of this article, I would like to take everyone to my friend Vinny Plotino’s garage.

Opening the garage doors reveals a pristine B5 Blue 1970 Plymouth Superbird and a severely distressed 1962 Ford Falcon. Few cars could stand farther apart on the collector car spectrum. Vinny’s Superbird towers as an unmodified, low mileage, highly valued iconic beacon of visually outrageous high performance.

His lowly, bland Ford Falcon displays a level of patina that crosses the line into structural decay. As to its cash value, it has none. Vinny pays more each year for a place to store the car than the car is worth. However, value to the wallet can be trumped by value to the heart. ToVinny, this Falcon belonged to his beloved and deceased childhood neighbor Mrs. Olesko. This 85-horsepower budget coupe never got more than 20 miles out of town and never did so at great speed. However, while traveling within that tight circle it played a huge part in Vinny’s life since he was seven-years old. He treasures that little blue Falcon for all the love and memories it holds for him but for him alone and no other collector. However, what of other vehicles that do not rely on tender memories to have value? These special interest vehicles merit love and admiration as subjects of desire for what they represent within the broad universe of Collector Car enthusiasts. Using Hagerty and other respected sources, I have segmented such special interest vehicles into three specific groupings as automobiles desired in primarily unmodified form.

In the case of Collier and Simeone, the emphasis placed on a car’s proximity to its original unmodified form is of paramount importance, with its worth determined by a rigorous assessment based on a specific set of attributes.

Roughly based on Collier’s and Simeone’s benchmark’s for collectability, the following four primary attributes and three attribute enhancements represent the primary drivers of a vehicle’s worth as a Collectible car.

PRIMARY ATTRIBUTES

  1. Evidence of past design innovation, style, construction technique, etc (1971 Hemi Cuda, 1938 Alfa Romeo 8C 2900B, 1957 Corvette)

    Plymouth Hemi ‘Cuda

     

    1938 Alfa Romeo 8c 2900B

     

    1957 F.I. Corvette

 

  1. Political, cultural or spiritual significance for a particular segment of society (Bullitt Mustang, James Bond’s 1964 DB5 Aston Martin)

    1968 Bulltitt Mustang

    1964 “James Bond” DB5 Aston Martin

     

    3. Association with a particular event or individual (Bonny and Clyde’s Ford V8, John Lennon’s Rolls-Royce, Clark Gable’s Jaguar XK120)

    Bonny and Clyde’s “34 Ford V8

     

    John Lennon’s Rolls-Royce

     

    Clark Gabel’s 1952 XK120 Jaguar

     

    4. Exceptional aesthetic qualities of form and decoration (1961 Jaguar E-Type, 1936 Bugatti Type 57 Atlantic Coupe, 1963 Corvette split window coupe)

    1961 Jaguar E-type

     

    1936 Bugatt1 Atlantic

     

    1963 Corvette Sting Ray

    ATTRIBUTE ENHANCEMENTS

    1. Popularity that increases desirability in the present marketplace (1st Generation 1970- 1972 Datsun 240Z, 1st Generation 1966 – 1977 Ford Bronco, 1st Generation 1986 – 1991 BMW E30 M3)

    1st Generation Datsun 240Z

     

    1st Generation Ford Bronco

     

    1986-1991 BMW E30 M3

    3. Originality, condition and extent of remaining original material (Tom Cotter Barn Find 1967 Big Block Shelby Cobra, 1966 Ferrari 275 GTB, Seinfeld’s 1958 Porsche Speedster)

    Barn Find Original, 1966 Ferrari 275 GTB and 1967 Big Block Shelby Cobra

     

    3. Rarity as a survivor. Probably fewer pristine 1977 Mavericks exist than the thirty something early 1960s Ferrari 250 GTOs. However, the Maverick has no value while recently a 250GTO sold for $51.7 Million.

1962 Ferrari 250 GTO

The following three specific groupings offer special interest cars where the determination of value resides to a significant measure on the degree it possesses Primary Attributes and Attribute Enhancements:

Brass Era – Vehicles from 1903 to 1918 named for the prominent brass fittings used during the period for such features as lights and radiators.

1907 Thomas Flyer

 

Brass Era 1912 Buick

 

Vintage Cars – Vehicles produced between 1919 to 1969.

1935 Duesenberg

356 Porsche

1969 Camaro Z28

Classic Cars – Vehicles at least 25 years old but not older than 50 years, So roughly 1970 to 2000.

1987 Buick Grand National GNX

 

1990 Porsche 911

 

Three other families of cars have been excluded (some may say arbitrarily) from the value discussion as the means for establishing their worth does not conform to the determinants defined by the Primary Attributes and the Attribute Enhancers. Their exclusion does not mean that these cars have no value, many have significant value, or that that enthusiasts do not collect them. Many do, but these segments of the enthusiast universe do not, at this point, enjoy the broadest appeal.

The first two segments are Hot Rods and Restomods, not because they are not collected, they certainly are, but because they are for the most part individual expressions of personal taste.

Hot Rods

Hot Rods traditionally are early to mid-20th century automobiles stripped down, rebuilt and modified according to an individual’s personal taste for high speed, fast acceleration and at times, trumping the first two, design.

The operative phrase in assessing their value is “personal taste.” Creating a unique hot rod has its greatest appeal to a market of one, the builder, which is not to say that they do not appeal to others. But for the most part they do not appeal to the broadest audience.

1927 Ford Model “T” Sedan

 

1950s Mercury

Restomods

Restomods are a newer entry on the car enthusiast scene. Primarily Vintage or Classic Cars subjected to both restoration and modification. They combine classic looks and modern convenience. Restoration returns a vehicle to a state representing its original condition. Modification can introduce body alterations and extensive upgrading of suspension, drive train and interior with new non-original specification components. The nature of the modification rests solely on the basis of the restomod owner’s personal tastes and desires.

Again the operative phrase in assessing value is personal tastes. As with Hot Rods a Restomod often targets its greatest appeal to a more limited market. And while they are gaining in popularity, they remain a special segment within the broader market.

Restomods pursue the incorporation of the latest features in a classic body. The question can be posed as to whether an older restomod as it ages with dated technology will appreciate. In the case of an original classic Corvette, Porsche or other vehicle, it will never need to change its dated engine or chassis to maintain its collectability.

1961 Corvette Restomod

 

1957 Chevrolet Bel Air Restomod

The third family of cars are Hypercars

The hypercar arrived on the scene with the 21st century. In essence the term hypercar describes an absurdly powerful, outrageously expensive, limited edition sports car. All hypercars have theoretical top speeds approaching or exceeding 300 mph and prices well into seven figures.

To quote The New Yorker magazine some motoring aficionados view driving a hypercar like cracking a nut with a diamond-encrusted sledgehammer.

On the rare occasion when mingling on public roads with we common folk, hypercars and their, notch lower but still outrageous, supercar brethren are often driven in a manner that leave behind a wake of single finger salutes.

They are rare, they are fabulously expensive, they are contemporary trophies to excess and people do collect them, however they do not fit into this article’s Collectible segments of Brass Era, Vintage and Classic segments spanning 1903 to 2000.

2023 Bugatti Divo

 

2024 Czinger 21C

 

It should be noted that not all cars from any period merit Collectible Car status. A good indicator of a car deserving of such recognition occurs when, over time, its price declines from new and after hitting a bottom appreciates to a point far exceeding its original cost due to its being recognized as highly desirable.

Basically, emotional appreciation of a car by car enthusiasts translates into monetary appreciation in the car’s value. Thus defines the difference between a Collectible Car and a used car.

By |2024-01-18T15:04:11+00:00January 18th, 2024|4 Comments

Cars We Love & Who we Are #46

This late June day finds Fred Hammond cruising peaceably along a suburban four-lane county road. The car to his left has it’s left directional on indicating the intent of the woman at the wheel to turn left into an awaiting Marriot parking lot. Fred maintains his progress in the right lane only to have the, soon to be ticketed, directionally challenged driver to his left make a sharp right turn. I am pleased to report that Fred’s car with its plenitude of safety features functioned as intended when called upon. The good news, Fred fared far better than his car. As to the bad news, his car suffered fatal injuries. And this brings us to the point of our story.

Fred’s quest to purchase another set of wheels.

Carvana Confusion – Dude where’s My Car?

Carvana C70 Ad

Fred found himself priced out of a new car marketplace suffering from the turbulence of the post Covid era. This included limited supply, higher prices and high interest rates. In this environment he would be both unwilling and unable to replace his totaled 2021 Hyundai with a like model. At that point Fred turned his attention to finding a quality used car. He recalled, “My insurance picked up the cost of a rental car, about $30 a day. Starting from the day of the accident, June 16th, I figured that covered me until the beginning of July.”

For a number of reasons Fred directed his focus to Carvana. About Carvana Car and Driver had written, “Carvana is an online-only used-car retailer that performs almost all the functions a physical dealer would offer: buying and selling cars, accepting trade-ins, and financing purchases.” Fred says, “Based on the commercials, on the hype and everything else, I found Carvana interesting.” He does say that he had heard some disquieting things about their inability to deliver titles to people who purchased cars. However, it did not reach a point that discouraged him from exploring cars available on the Carvana site. As told to me by Fred, the following describes his Carvana experience.

Fred offered a number of reasons that made Carvana appealing to him. First and foremost it provided a broad selection of vehicles. Secondly, Fred found the Carvana 120-point inspection program very attractive. Being a veteran of the car business Fred understood that used cars most often required some repair of problems developed during their prior usage. Fred pretty much viewed the 120-point checklist as Carvana’s version of new car dealers’ Certified Pre-Owned (CPO) used car programs. Lastly, Carvana’s ability to provide financing offered a high level of convenience should he buy a car. Fred understood that getting financing when purchasing an older car especially 10-years or more could be very difficult. Armed with a down payment of $3000 thanks to the refund from his insurer after the totaling of his Hyundai, Fred explored the Carvana site. Success came quickly. His find was, to quote singer Robert Palmer, “Simply irresistible.”

Fred, as a long time Volvo fan had a sweet spot in his heart for their sturdy Swedish products. Upon opening the Carvana site, the stylish convertible jumped out at him like a loose $20 on a sidewalk. His find, a 2011 Volvo C70 convertible with retractable hardtop. It featured an uncommon and desirable Flamenco Red Metallic exterior with cranberry and black interior. Fred says, “In the Flamenco Red it is a visually striking car. The interior is not a pure red. It’s a red and black combination. It’s just a stunning looking car.” To boot, it featured factory late production 5-spoke wheels that Fred loved. The gleaming C70 listed for $15,590 and, Carvana offered financing. According to the Carvana site $2,750 down and $300 a month would have Fred cruising in a car he loved. The site said he could have it by the following Tuesday. Fred felt that this had real possibilities. He reached out to Carvana and expressed his interest. Carvana responded with a status report explaining that the car was not currently available. Its 120-point check-up had yet to be completed. However, he could put a deposit of $1000 down to hold it. Fred says, “That’s what I did. I really wanted that C70.”

Fred received a pre-order confirmation email indicating that he would be kept up-to-date with availability notices. Carvana also added, “We like your style.” Shortly thereafter Fred got an update that informed him that Carvana had upped the price of the C70 to $16,784, raised his down payment to $3000 and increased the monthly payment to $369.

 

Not happy, Fred felt no satisfaction would be achieved in trying to communicate with AI bots responding to a complaint. Seeking a more direct channel for redress, he scoured through the Carvana website to find a headquarters phone number in hopes of connecting with a sentient being. Success, he connected with a Customer Service Representative and learned that the elevated monthly payment included a maintenance program and a warranty. After much haggling to remove the unapproved programs the final monthly payment came to $308 though the down payment remained at $3000. Fred says, “The original quote, was essentially useless. It was just a come on. For me that was strike number one against Carvana.” Still Fred  decided to go through with it. He loved the car. With the details confirmed Carvana assured Fred he would be contacted upon completion of the 120-point inspection. Further adding to Fred’s frustration, despite his numerous requests, he had been afforded no opportunity to personally inspect the car.

Now, however, he received notification that the C70 had been transported to a nearby location in Midland Park, NJ and would be ready for delivery Thursday July 29th.

At this point Fred signed all the papers only to, now, find to his consternation that the APR on his loan would be 17 ¾ percent. He said, “They never discuss the interest rate until after you sign the papers. Strike two for Carvana.” Fred let it go for the time being while proceeding to begin exploring personal loans to essentially get the car while dispensing with Carvana financing.

Suddenly Carvana alerted Fred to a postponement of the delivery date. A problem had surfaced requiring the Volvo to return to the shop. Delivery would now take place on August 3rd.

Having been approved by a local credit union for a personal loan with an APR of 8% and anticipating taking delivery of his much delayed C70 on August 3rd, Fred returned the rental car, the expense of which he had been carrying for almost a month. He had arranged for insurance. Excitement built as Fred’s girlfriend Nadine drove him to the delivery location. In the words of historic NASA mission control, “Preparing for lift off.” Mid journey, Fred’s phone rings. “Houston we have a problem” (To continue my NASA theme). A Carvana Maintenance Manager in Midland Park informed Fred that considerable problems existed with the C70’s retractable roof. He described a headliner that hung down and a roof that would not close properly. He assessed the whole mechanism as inoperable. Fred’s described his first thoughts saying, “How was this missed by the alleged rigorous 120-point pre-sale inspection?” Fred went on to say, “If you look at the pictures on the website, they show the car with the roof down and there’s nothing wrong with the headliner and there’s nothing wrong with the roof. It went down and went back up.”

Carvana re-rescheduled delivery for August 10th. Now on a first name basis with the people at the rental counter, Fred rented another car on his credit card at $30 a day. At this point  Carvana introduced a phrase that would serve as the Greek Chorus for the remainder of Fred’s Carvana experience. When Fred expressed his concern about the problems seemingly overlooked by the 120-point inspection, Carvana’s responded saying, “You can always cancel the deal.”

As August 10th fast approached. A new Carvana status notification informed Fred, “We still have problems. We’re waiting for the headliner.” Delivery re-rescheduled to August 19th. Cue the Greek Chorus. “You can always cancel the deal.”

Accompanying the arrival of August 19th came a call from Carvana. Parts were still on order. Cue the Greek Chorus. “You can always cancel the deal.” Fred says, “It is now August 19th. Still no car. We are talking 19 days since the car was originally supposed to arrive. At $30 a day for a rental car we are looking at $570 plus insurance for the car I don’t have.” At this point Fred, an ever patient man, had grown increasingly irritated. As well, the financial burden had started to weigh heavily.

Out of frustration Fred started exploring alternatives. Fred says, “That’s when I started looking elsewhere and happily found a 2005 Jaguar XK8 convertible with 65,000 miles in Pennsylvania. Very nice car, low mileage and actually priced $3,000 less.

Still with lingering hopes of rescuing the C70 from being lost Fred, the following week, reached out to see if Carvana had any updates. Carvana’s response, “No, we’re still waiting for parts, but we anticipate delivering the car on or about the 31st of August.” Fred says, “I had been on the hook with Carvana from mid-July to the 31st of August. I had committed to the deal and I had been paying insurance on a car I didn’t have. With all that I still continued to drive a thirty dollars a day rental with no commitment from Carvana as to when they could deliver the car. Cue the Greek Chorus, “You can always cancel the deal.” Strike three.

Finally getting off the phone after hearing Carvana unable to commit to a firm delivery date, Fred decided to take Carvana’s advice. He called up the dealer in Pennsylvania and put a thousand dollars down on the Jaguar. He then called Carvana back and cancelled the deal.

In assessing his Carvana experience Fred says, “After getting off the phone with them and they could still not give me a firm date for delivery, I lost all trust in them. Their inability to answer any questions, their lack of transparency, their inability to diagnose a problem or honor a commitment, it all eroded any sense of trust. I gave them the benefit of the doubt and they betrayed it at every step.

Sadly all of their actions supported their mantra, “You can always cancel the deal” and despite Fred’s best efforts he finally did.

By |2023-10-12T14:00:59+00:00October 12th, 2023|8 Comments

Cars We Love & Who We Are #45

“When worlds collide” always comes to mind whenever I see a wheelchair bound individual poised at a crosswalk on a busy street. In my town I have observed this scene with considerable frequency over the years. Gutsy men and women in electric wheelchairs mixing with other pedestrians offer a relatively common sight around my town. (People in motorized wheelchairs are considered pedestrians by law). I finally decided to find out their story. Many stories awaited me, all touching and many inspiring. None more so than that of Charles Ward.

Meet Charles Ward.

Mobility Matters, Navigating Life in a Wheelchair

Charles loves his Lincoln

Created as a dedicated facility for wheelchair bound but self sufficient individuals, Lehman Gardens in Park Ridge, New Jersey has served disabled men and women since the 1980s. Here 36 modest individual apartments sit nicely spaced in a landscaped setting enhanced with flowered walks and curved paths. My first time entering the parking lot I knew nothing about Lehman Gardens not even its name. That would soon change. I met Ed and Mike.

Taking advantage of the beautiful late summer day, Ed a burly congenial man in a Harley-Davidson T-shirt welcomed me with a smile. His openness immediately relieved me of any self consciousness I might harbor in asking questions of a disabled person about mobility. Seated in his electric wheelchair Ed projected the persona of a man of years eminently capable as a craftsman and absolutely not afraid to get his hands dirty. Ed had one leg. His disability certainly did not limit his passion for motorcycles and big block Mopars. Ed knew his stuff. To Ed’s side I met Mike. Quick to laugh, Mike a long time resident with an updated Haight-Ashbury look had been disabled by a stroke at the age of three. I recognized Mike as one of the brave souls who ventured forth in his wheelchair to travel the half mile or so to downtown.

As a side bar for the gearheads out there, top speed for a standard electric wheelchair ranges from 5 mph to 8 mph depending on class. To answer the question I am confident some Drivin’ News readers stand poised to ask, I say, yes. There is an electric wheelchair land speed record. Full credit goes to Jason Liversidge, an Englishmen, avid adventurer, adrenaline junkie, married father of two and a quadriplegic. Though paralyzed from the neck down, Liversidge set the world record of 66.826 mph (107.546 km/h) in 2020 during the Straightliners Speed Weekend, held at England’s Elvington airfield. He set the Guinness record using only the motion of his head to control the record setting electric mobility-vehicle. Now back to Lehman Gardens.

Charles at Lehman Gardens

As Ed and I spoke he made it clear that the best person with whom to speak would be another resident, Charles. As if on cue a gentleman in an electric wheelchair came rolling up on one of Lehman Gardens neatly groomed concrete paths. His left arm hooked around a vertical bar on the wheelchair’s seat back. It appeared to provide stability for a torso that seemed twisted in an uncomfortable curl. Bright and engaging he projected the spirit and energy of a man younger than what I would learn to be his 65 years. Upon Ed’s urging the man introduced himself as Henry Charles Ward. He made clear he preferred to be called Charles. Accompanying his introduction he offered an outstretched hand. The hand, though proffered with rigid fingers and limited mobility, somehow succeeded in conveying sincerity and conviction.

Easy to speak with and disarmingly honest Charles indeed provided a special person with whom to discuss the challenges, lessons and life journey experienced in a wheelchair. Born in Alabama before moving to Newark, NJ, Charles at the age of 23 experienced the misfortune that would demand his remaining years be spent in a wheelchair. I did not explore his misfortune. He wisely noted that little would be gained by looking back when all of life’s remaining good stuff lay ahead.

Indeed, while Charles’ body exists relegated to a wheelchair his spirit soars without bounds.

Early in our conversation Charles expressed a passionate desire to relate the story of Lehman Gardens and in so doing inadvertently reveal much about the man into whom he had grown over his 40 years as a resident of Lehman Gardens.

Charles says, “It all began with a devoted family, their beloved son, a compassionate church, a willing town, a supportive county and a terrible accident. Over 40-years ago a local family, the Lehmans experienced a horrific tragedy. Their son, Tom, suffered a terrible spinal cord injury that left him a quadriplegic. Though paralyzed from the neck down, Tom craved independence. As a lifelong member of the local Our Lady of Mercy Catholic Church, Tom approached the church with the idea of creating a facility dedicated to providing a place where wheelchair bound individuals could live independent lives. He advocated for the Church to donate a parcel of land it owned as the site. The church leadership and congregation embraced the idea and donated the property. Then Tom’s plan needed an organization to run the facility. The county housing authority stepped to the plate and agreed to oversee what many believe to be the first facility dedicated to providing a place for young self-sustaining wheelchair bound individuals to live independent lives. Charles with a clear expression of pride says, “The concept caught fire and over the coming years spread worldwide.”

Lehman Gardens, in focusing on independence does not provide care giving staff. Residents need to have a home health aide or family member to provide assistance when needed.

Charles echoed the sentiments of other residents with whom I spoken, such as Ed, when Charles said, “This is the most wonderful blessing that could ever be offered to a wheelchair bound person, whether you’re coming from a nursing home or from your parents home. Young Tom Lehman used to live with his parents, but he wanted to be independent. It’s a blessing from the town of Park Ridge and from the church for the residents to be able to do this.”

Lehman Gardens’ wheelchair bound residents’ in their demonstrated passionate desire for independence leave no doubt as to how much they appreciate their benefactors who aid in overcoming life’s everyday challenges. Charles says, “Our home town here of Park Ridge has helped a lot by providing sidewalks that assist in promoting our mobility.” Charles goes on to recognize the town and the local Rotary Club. He says, “They built a bridge that allowed us to visit the local baseball field.” Local police and friends of Charles created a GoFundMe effort that enabled him to achieve the ultimate mobility, buy a car he could drive. More about that later.

At age 22 Charles faced life as a healthy, vigorous and strong young man. At 23 an accident changed his life profoundly. Few believed Charles would long survive the severe injuries he had sustained. Charles says, “With the grace of God, when you are down, you have no other choice but to get up.”

When Lehman Gardens first got off the ground in the mid-1980s Charles at the age of 23 found himself basically homeless, physically disabled and wheelchair bound. He had become acquainted with Tom Lehman through a local community college. Charles says, “I called Tom up and told him my story.” Charles spoke with Tom. He interviewed with the church. They welcomed him as a resident in the Lehman Gardens’ experiment. Almost forty years later both Lehman Gardens and Charles have grown to benefit those with whom they connect. Charles who today provides the voice of Lehman Gardens tells a powerful story of how Lehman Gardens changed his life. Charles recalls a life altering dream he had. Charles says, “In my dream Tom Lehman tells me that I want you to talk to people and talk about this place but mention my name. I started crying. I said I can’t do that. He said don’t worry. I will provide the words and help you. Sure enough, Tom Lehman died and  the people from the town and people that I know, people from government and Congress, they all came to me and started talking to me. And I don’t know what happened, but the words just start coming out of my mouth. And I’ve been talking ever since. Charles caps his recollection with a smile saying, “As you may have noticed.” Indeed Charles stands as a most eloquent and passionate advocate for Tom Lehman and his concept of independence for the disabled.”

Charles now serves as a powerful advocate for promoting independence for the disabled across the county and state. When asked as to what society in general may not understand or appreciate about those in his situation, Charles says, “Don’t take anyone for granted. Just because they have a disability doesn’t mean that they don’t have a sound mind. The mind is a powerful thing that can go anywhere or do anything as witness by myself and other residents. When I found myself in a wheelchair, I thought my life was over. Then I realized that the only thing holding me back was my mind. So society has to appreciate that the mind is the most powerful thing.” Which brings us back to Charles and his car.

When asked what having a car means to a disabled person such as himself Charles says, “Oh Lord. When I was in rehabilitation at Kessler, the first thought on my mind was independence. I knew I had to learn to drive. So through Kessler Rehabilitation I worked hard and took my driver’s test to make sure that when I got out of rehab I could get around. Leaving Kessler I had been approved to drive a vehicle outfitted for someone with my disability.”

With a big smile Charles asks if I would like to see his car. I eagerly accepted. As noted earlier Charles had acquired it with the support of the local police, fiends and strangers on GoFundMe. Following Charles as he motors across the parking lot, I am brought to a 1997 Bright Toreador Red Metallic Lincoln MK VIII. Smiling proudly Charles says, “I take pride and joy in my Lincoln.” It had gotten a lot of respect from the automotive press when new. Certainly far more than the Lincoln Town Car. Edmunds wrote, “Under the skin, the Mark VIII is unbeatable, and we think that buyers who like the styling of the Mark VIII will enjoy this quick, competent luxury coupe for many years to come.” Clearly Charles does.

Charles acknowledges that he does not drive as much as he used to because he no longer parties like he used to. When I ask where he used to party, I realize that I knew Charles from years back when I partied on much the same circuit. I now recall a party animal in a wheelchair busting some two wheel moves on the dance floor. We recall those days and smile and laugh.

I ask Charles if he will pose by his Lincoln for a photo. He flashes a big smile and asks if he can have a copy. No problem.

Charles loves his Lincoln and his independence.

By |2023-09-30T21:06:04+00:00September 28th, 2023|2 Comments

Cars We Love & Who We Are #44

The death of wealthy Romanian playboy Archimedes “Archie” Antonescu, had placed Estonian farmer and gifted mechanic Jaak Oja in a precarious situation fraught with danger. Antonescu had prepared a fabulously expensive one-off race-tuned Bugatti Royale with the intention of competing in the 1939 Monte Carlo Rally. Tallinn, Estonia had been selected by Antonescu for his starting point.

Unfortunately damaged in pre-race preparation, Antonescu’s Royale had been secreted away to Jaak’s farm for desperately needed repairs. Jaak had been chosen both for his mechanical skills and his rural location. At his farm repairs could be performed without prematurely revealing the spectacular Royale’s existence to the world automotive press. Now with Antonescu dead, and Estonia immersed in deadly pre-WWII political turmoil that threatened Jaak’s son Mihkel, the suddenly orphaned Royale in Jaak’s barn radiated a powerful gravity that attracted danger that threatened Jaak and his loved ones. Jaak had to warn his son and make the Bugatti disappear.

In Search of the Lost 7th Royale

(Part 8 – Darkness Swallows a Priceless Treasure)

 

 

A clearing alive with barking Malamutes and Siberian Huskies opened up before Jaak. From a cabin with a thick ribbon of smoke rising from its stone chimney came a young man who had not long ago been an athletic teenage boy laughing and eating at the Oja family dinner table. Now, more angular in face and form, his time in the woods had begun to chisel his manhood. Arms spread and smile wide Mihkel Oja ran full speed to his father. For Jaak the hug from his son warmed his heart even as he feared it might break his ribs.

They laughed and listened as stories spilled out about home and family and adventures experienced and lessons learned during time spent in the forest. They wiped the dampness from their eyes that both described as sweat. However, looking at Jaak, Mihkel knew only something very serious would force his father to risk betraying his son’s whereabouts.

With Mihkel’s friend Juri out gathering firewood, Jaak let it all out in a flood of emotion, confusion, fear and bewilderment. He updated Mihkel on the worsening political climate that portended frightening violence at the hands of both Nazis and Communists alike. Against that background he spoke of the spectacular Bugatti with the elephant hood ornament. He related his amazement when viewing the damaged masterpiece that had been trucked to the Oja farm and his barn for repair. He described “Antonescu” the sinister Romanian who owned it and damaged it. He almost shivered in sharing Antonescu’s bare faced threat to Mihkel’s well being. He admitted his complete bewilderment at how Antonescu knew about Mihkel. He admitted his fears for his son’s well being had only gotten worse. Finally, he looked at Mihkel with painful confusion on his face and beseeching arms spread wide to express his quandary. What should he do with this fabulously expensive orphaned work of art sitting in his barn. Its Nazi sympathizer owner and the only other people who knew its location other than Jaak, Ann and, now, Mihkel had died taking with them their secret.

Years later history would refer to life in Estonia during this period as “Estonia’s Silent Era.” After leading a coup, government official Konstantin Päts established himself as a heavy-handed dictator.  His regime barred political parties, suspended elections and took control of the newspapers. Estonians no longer had access to news other than that put out by the Ministry of Propaganda. Päts closed Estonia’s borders and imposed a strict lockdown. No one could get out, not even Estonian diplomats. Päts quickly evolved into a Soviet puppet. He allowed Russia to build military bases in Estonia and bring in over 50,000 troops. The ugly face of Soviet dominance revealed itself in many ways, some horrific and brutal. During the winter of early 1939, Red Army troops captured Estonian soldiers on the Estonian side of the lake that separated Russia and Estonia. The Russians dragged all the captured Estonian soldiers onto the frozen lake and shot them all.

Soviet troops marching in Tallinn, Estonia

Considering the state of their world, father and son agreed that survival, however unpleasant, offered the only hope. With the hated communists clearly gaining the upper hand, Mihkel needed to flee Estonia, but for now, his only choice required he remain hidden and wait for an opportunity. His skill at living off the land would be tested and not for the last time. As to the elephant in the barn, both agreed its discovery would doom both Jaak and Ann. The secret of its existence must be preserved. Jaak assured his son he had a plan to do just that.

The falling sun in the early afternoon sky dictated the painful necessity of concluding this heart rending meeting of father and son. The only joy each took from this dangerous rendezvous came from the faith each had in the other’s ability to prevail, regardless the odds. The hug they shared reflected an unspoken awareness that it might have to last forever. Jaak climbed into the buggy. Päts (Jaak’s horse, sarcastically named after the Estonian dictator) looked back as if to capture a final vision of the young boy, now man, who had so lovingly cared for him on the farm. No longer explained away as “sweat,” accepted tears ran down the cheeks of both father and son as Päts turned towards home.

 

Over the following months that ran from spring through the autumn of 1939 Mihkel probed and probed for an escape route. To no avail. At times he would allow himself to dream of finding his way to America and freedom. Living off the land and training his dogs, Mihkel felt the mounting pressure of political forces that could end his life. More than once he had barely eluded Red Army troops in the Estonian forest. He had seen their encampments, on Estonian soil. It infuriated him. Being powerless only made the pain worse. He hated the Russian Communists. He remembered his grandmother’s story of the Bolshevik led slaughter of Estonians going back to 1905.

June of 1939 witnessed Konstantin Päts fold under the pressure of communist revolutionaries. While Nazis remained in Estonia for the time being, Communists with their lies of a better life had ascended to new heights. Estonia teetered on the brink of being torn apart. August of 1939 saw Germany and Russia sign a non-aggression treaty that among other things divvied up the Baltic states with Estonia going to the Russians. September 1st brought the start of what would become WWII. To Mihkel the impossibility of fleeing Estonia seemed more pronounced than ever as the bitter winter of 1939 arrived and with it the Finnish-Russian “Winter War” of 1939 – 1940. So bitterly cold, the winter of 1939 to 1940 saw the Gulf of Finland freeze over. Desperate times call for desperate measures. Mihkel had an idea.

The Winter War had brought chaos to the Gulf of Finland region. Huge troop movements with lots of unusual activity would not attract the same level of attention expected in peace time. A frustrated and angry Mihkel saw this as his best ticket, frankly his only ticket to freedom. He would punch that ticket behind his team of dogs and speed across the frozen Gulf of Finland to Finland and freedom.

While he normally used a team of six or eight dogs, his “Freedom Team” would include all twelve of the Malamutes and Siberian Huskies he personally trained. He wanted freedom for them as well. And what of Juri? A dear friend who had become even more so over the previous year, Mihkel had always said that he trusted him with his life. In this case Mihkel’s concern for his own life rated second to his concern for Juri’s. Mihkel eliminated any trace of his presence in the camp, took what he needed  and quietly slipped out well before dawn. He left to be burned a note to Juri. It read, “With hate in your eyes, tell anyone who should ask about me that Mihkel, that crook, stole your best dogs and a sled. If they catch him you want your dogs and sled back! And you don’t give a damn what you do to him.” Below the instructions  the note concluded with “Take care my brother.”

 

Like an idling steam engine, Jaak exhaled into the bitter morning air creating a swirling white cloud. Rattling shut, the big wooden barn door closed behind him. His eyes swept the full expanse of the barn’s interior. Not a trace of the Bugatti remained. Jaak allowed himself an expression of sad satisfaction at the success of his plan. This muted relief mirrored that derived from having quelled the pain of an aching tooth while knowing the tooth remained.

A few months back, in facing the challenge of how to make this beautiful beast disappear, Jaak had allowed himself a few moments to simply gaze at the great Bugatti in an attempt to comprehend its magnificence. The diffuse morning light filtering into the barn softened the Royale’s heroic visage. Its presence in this rough hewn barn seemed irreconcilable with reality, not unlike discovering Michelangelo’s David tucked away in a forgotten broom closet. Jaak’s thought of the David tucked in a closet sparked his imagination. It give birth to a solution. He would hide the Royale in plain sight.

 

Placed beneath each of the Bugatti’s 36-inch wheels, four wheeled dollies fabricated by Jaak would allow the massive Royale to be re-positioned without being started. Maneuvering its prodigious mass, however, presented an additional challenge. Luckily, one with a ready solution. Prior to the arrival of the Bugatti, the Ploesti owned oil shale company had brought a Lanz Bulldog tractor to Jaak’s shop for repairs. In a fortuitous twist of fate, the political turmoil erupting in the ensuing months resulted in the departing Nazi’s abandoning the tractor.

Now, with Jaak at the controls, he effortlessly eased the Bugatti into close proximity with the rear inside wall of the barn. For Jaak, all that remained to do required gathering the readily available weathered barn siding strewn about the farm and constructing a new wall to match the old one. Completed, the new wall plunged the beautiful Bugatti into decades of dark isolation. Isolation, yes, abandonment, no. Once every month for many decades to come the Bugatti would have a visitor. He would lift the great hood and remove the dual sets of spark plugs. Oil would be squirted into each cylinder and the engine would be given a few turns. Jaak could not allow the beautiful beast to die.

 

Frozen Gulf of Finland

Mihkel having smeared petroleum jelly on the exposed skin of his face turned his attention to his beloved dogs. Each dog’s paws received a proper application of the same petroleum jelly and a fitted reindeer hide boot. There could be no turning back. His dogs capable of covering 100-miles in a day could do 20-miles an hour. He estimated the distance across the gulf to be 50 miles, 50-miles of dark uncertainty and danger.

With Siberian Husky Maksim in the lead, Mihkel eased the dog sled down the gently sloping shore line of what in summer would be the water’s edge of the Gulf of Finland. On this winter night the unrelenting bitter cold temperatures had turned the gulf into an expansive ice road reaching from Estonia to Finland. A road Mihkel prayed would take him safely to freedom. In a firm but low voice he commanded his team to go. Eerily, with the well trained sled dogs silent and focused on the task, the only sound came from the soft rasp of the sled blades skimming the ice.

 

 

 

 

This 8th installment of “The Lost Royale” completes the first of three-parts comprising a book detailing the fate of the Oja family and the lost 7th Royale to which the family is inextricably linked.

With this the 101st issue of Drivin’ News, I will take the opportunity to pause and recharge. Drivin’ News will return after a brief hiatus with stories collected over my time away. My intention is for Part II of “The Lost Royale” to return before year’s end.

 

By |2023-08-17T13:46:41+00:00August 17th, 2023|Comments Off on Cars We Love & Who We Are #44

Cars We Love & Who We Are #43

Early 1939 saw Nazi sympathizer and fabulously wealthy Romanian playboy Archimedes “Archie” Antonescu’s life and dreams of motor sport fame come to a violent end. Behind the wheel of his Maybach and driving under the influence, he died at a railroad crossing in a horrendous collision with a speeding train. His death brought to an abrupt end his plans to compete with a fabulously expensive race-tuned custom Bugatti Royale created by Jean Bugatti himself. Kept as a secret, this 7th Royale had been shipped to Estonia where “Archie” intended to start the Monte Carlo Rally of 1939 and startle the racing community with his spectacular Bugatti.

With Archie and his three team mechanics now dead, knowledge of the 7th Royale’s existence and its exact whereabouts resided solely with Jaak Oja a rural and gifted Estonian mechanic in whose barn Archie’s beautiful beast resided.

With a European war on the horizon and Estonia square in the crosshairs of competing Russian Communist and German Nazi expansionist intentions, Jaak Oja faced an uncertain and frightening future. Jaak’s head spun. He feared for his Independence loving activist son presently pursued by both communists and Nazis in Estonia and for his fate should Archie’s exquisite Albatross in his barn and around his neck be discovered.

In Search of the 7th Royale

(Part 7 – Chaos Reigns, Lives Shatter)

Until he was free of this magnificent burden, Jaak would dedicate his every waking hour to repairing the Bugatti. The dream of seeing the big Mercedes truck departing his farm with the successfully repaired Royale firmly tucked inside filled his sleep, when he could sleep. All that could ever supplant his preoccupation with successfully ridding his life and farm of this beautiful curse loomed as fears for his son Mihkel’s safety and well being.

Inflamed by outside forces, local political passions fast approached the boiling point. Mihkel’s outspoken commitment to Estonian independence had him marked as an enemy by both Nazi and communist zealots. Jaak thanked God for his son’s self imposed retreat into the protective isolation of the dense Estonian woodlands. Jaak knew Mihkel did it to protect Jaak and Ann, his mother. Though saddened at the need, his isolation did offer Jaak and Ann a modicum of comfort though they missed him so.

Nazi soldiers killing civilians

Winter had come to the farm and the big wood burning stove worked hard in the stone and wood barn. Jaak held a strong belief in the saying “Slow is smooth and smooth is fast.” Even with a rush job he was not big on hurrying. He believed hurrying took longer. Day one, Jaak started by first placing a chair about a dozen feet away from the Royale’s undamaged side. He then took his chair and did the same on the damaged side. In both instances, he sat down and just looked. He carefully studied its condition and character in both its undamaged and damaged state. He did so to inform the process of deconstructing the forces that created the damage. With that perspective he could go about doing his best to replicate the strength, integrity and geometry of the undamaged suspension members.

Having developed a great respect for and a sense of the machine and indeed the man who created it, Jaak set about elevating the damaged corner to remove the load on the damaged suspension. Over a few days he sketched both the undamaged and damaged front suspensions in their present state. Next step called for the precise dismantling and labeling of all the parts associated with the damaged front suspension. His observations revealed that all the broken parts had been fabricated from steel and could be welded with the acetylene-based technology he had available.

Jack considered himself lucky when the completed disassembly revealed that the vast majority of damage resulted from breaks and cracks and not from twists and bends. Breaks and cracks did not change the tensile strength of the steel. Reheating and straightening a bent or twisted steel component could change the character of the metal most often weakening it.

Weeks passed as Jaak displayed a mastery solely witnessed by the great Bugatti. Each crack ked or broken part benefited from being placed in a jig custom made by Jaak to perfectly align the broken pieces. Where bends occurred he worked his best magic to return it as close to original as possible. The thought that once damaged parts would be replaced before the car would see a race track gave him comfort. Over a period of many weeks Jaak returned the 7th Royale to its original functionality, if not it peak performance capabilities. Finally he could do no more to make it better. Jaak work had reached its conclusion.

At last Jack permitted himself to step back and gaze upon the resurrected Royale. Now, viewed for the first time in all its glory, what he saw stole his breath. No longer hunched over crippled and lame like a bowed and beaten once glorious warrior king, the Royale possessed the stance of a great cat that could only be expressed as majestically athletic.

Though Jaak, for the sake of secrecy, could not take the great Bugatti out of the barn for a test drive, nor would he dare, he felt totally confident in the quality of his repair. At last the long awaited time had come when he could reach out to the lead mechanic, Gunther. It would be a long reach as Jaak’s secluded location had no telephone service. Roughly 15 km from Jaak’s farm, the nearest phone line ran to a railroad station in the village of Raasiku. Located at a switching yard on the rail line connecting Tallinn and the Antonescu owned oil shale facility near the village of Tapa, the yard managed shipments into and out of the oil shale site as well as military supplies for the army base at Tapa. Jaak had knowledge of the site from work he performed from time to time for the motor pool at the oil shale facility.

Soviet killing of Estonian citizens

Eager to move the Bugatti approval process along, Jaak cast long shadows in the early light of day preparing for a long wagon ride. Normally when he had business at the oil shale site the company would send a truck to pick him up. However, this time he very much wanted to maintain a low profile. With the morning stillness broken only by a pleasing sound track courtesy of shifting harnesses, creaking wooden wheels and random horse hooves, Jaak readied his two-wheeled buggy. Well fed, watered and ready, Päts one of the Oja farm’s sturdy and rugged Estonian native horses stood ready to accept the burden. Though not the largest of breeds, the Estonian Native Horses’ reputation for tireless service and their ability as a powerful puller made them a common sight on Estonian farms. Jaak had named his horse after the Estonian President, Konstantin Päts. Jaak had his reasons. He felt that the long time Estonian leader acted like everyone worked for him. Jaak took some satisfaction in saying that Päts worked for him. However, unlike the Estonian leader, Päts the horse displayed an appealing and easy temperament that earned a fondness from all who knew him. Having cinched the last harness strap with a reassuring tug, Jaak and Päts commenced a journey that should have Jaak making his phone call well before noon.

With his senses awash in the forest’s comforting sights, sounds, and smells as Päts trotted along the rural path, Jaak enjoyed a peace that had evaded him in recent times. Then, when reality snapped him back to thoughts of Antonescu, the Bugatti, and his son Mihkel, he clenched with a powerful desire to reach his destination, to make the call, to move this nightmare to closure. Päts held a steady pace and did not speak.

A shrieking steam whistle alerted Jaak to the close proximity of his destination. He urged Päts with a little verbal “chk chk” and flicked the reins. Päts rewarded him with the pleasing sound of hoof falls moving at a quicker pace.

Entering the building Jaak recognized the station master from previous trips. An exchange of brief pleasantries quickly transitioned into Jaak’s successful request for access to a phone line. He calmed himself and readied for his call. He straightened his shirt and tugged at his jacket as if the other party could see him. Directed to a quiet corner of the open office area Jaak rang up the operator and placed his call. At last. At last. A women responded brightly with clear and precise German. Jaak gasped. He did not speak German. His mind raced. Exasperated he simply asked for “Gunther, lead mechanic.” Suddenly her voice dropped. Now speaking softly, sadly she seemed to intersperse her words with deep sighs. Jaak felt panic. She appeared to be taking great pains to share something very import, in German. German which Jaak did not understand. Jack quickly scanned the room. He could barely think. He called to his friend the station master. Yes, the station master spoke some German. Jaak handed him the phone like a hot potato. He stared at the station master with wild eyes trying to divine answers from body language and facial expressions. The station master with a somber countenance slowly hung up the phone. The pronounced click punctuated the phone conversations conclusion.

In the even tone of someone who has no idea of the emotional load his words would carry, the station master explained that Gunther had died in a tragic and horrific auto accident along with two of his fellow mechanics and a senior official of the oil company, a Mr. Archimedes Antonescu.

Jack froze. Momentarily incapable of processing the implications of this dreadful turn of events. As his awareness slowly returned, the station master seemed to be talking to him. For a brief time Jaak saw the station masters’ mouth moving but heard no words. Finally regaining his mental footing, Jaak thanked the station master for his help. Thinking quicker now, Jaak fabricated a story of how he had done work with this Gunther fellow and the shock and sadness he felt in hearing of Gunther’s untimely death. As Jaak, deep in thought, moved slowly to leave, the station master filled in details about the fabulously wealthy playboy who had been at the wheel. The station master wondered out loud as to what had brought those four men to that lonely crossing. Jack in a barely audible voice grunted in acknowledgement and politely excused himself.

Departing the station Jaak knew one thing. He would have to warn Mihkel of the orphaned masterpiece radiating danger from inside the family barn. Up to now Jaak would not have even considered visiting his son in hiding for fear of bringing unwanted attention to his location. The day’s events changed everything. Jaak felt confident he had no one following him. He would navigate the back roads in search of Juri’s sled dog camp and Mihkel. Jack’s life spent in these woodlands served him well. Like an Estonian Sacajawea he guided a willing and eager Päts along unmarked roads and paths. With the sun still bright, the sound of barking dogs in the distance ahead quickened Päts pace and Jaak’s heart beat.

By |2023-08-03T15:15:40+00:00August 3rd, 2023|4 Comments

Cars We Love &Who We Are #42

In late 1938 wealthy Romanian playboy Archimedes “Archie” Antonescu took delivery of a beautiful, powerful and outrageously expensive race-tuned custom Bugatti Royale. With it he intended to startle an unsuspecting motor sport community by driving it in the 1939 Monte Carlo Rally. The spectacular presence of his Bugatti, especially with him at the wheel, would be his ticket to gaining the adulation of the international auto racing community he coveted.

With the Bugatti transported secretly to Tallinn, Estonia, Archie’s chosen starting point for the rally, Archie, on secluded back roads outside of Tallinn took the wheel of the Royale to practice for the race. A harsh dose of reality left his haughty and unfounded self-confidence as a skilled race driver in tatters. His clearly evident lack of competency behind the wheel resulted in a jarring accident. Losing control in a turn, Archie spun out into a roadside ditch and damaged the Bugatti’s front suspension. Driving the performance-tuned Bugatti much less racing it far exceeded his abilities. And, now, he knew it. The search for a top tier professional driver would soon commence. As well, Archie decided his Bugatti’s existence would remain a secret till the Monte Carlo Rally in 1940.

In seeking to maintain his Royale’s existence a secret, Archie had been forced to entrust its repair to Jaak Oja a local but gifted Estonian mechanic and metal worker. This fateful decision would have a profound and life changing impact on the lives of both men, as well as, Jaak’s son Mihkel.

In Search of the  7th Royale

(Part 6 – Death Changes Everything)

 

Jaak stood in stunned silence as the big Mercedes truck rumbled away from his farm. So big, it brushed the foliage bordering both sides of the narrow dirt road. Enveloped by a cloud of dust kicked up by the big Benz, Jack coughed reflexively. It jarred him back to the present moment. His mind struggled to find its footing. Over his life he had known harsh men, even mean men. He understood that by living long enough, life introduced you to all kinds. But he could not comprehend this man, “The Owner.” This “Antonescu” radiated a soulless evil. Like being trapped in a frigid room, it bled the warmth from your body.

My son? Jaak thought. He shivered in recognizing that his life and his family had found themselves involved in a strange and, he feared, dangerous world where evil ruled. Jaak knew one thing. He would protect his family. He would use all his skill to resurrect this wounded work of art. As he had agreed, when he completed the repair he would call Archie’s lead mechanic. Not his biggest challenge, but he would have to go to town to find a telephone. The mechanic would, then, return to Jaak’s farm, review the work and, if approved, pay Jaak. Then, within a day of approval, the big Mercedes truck would return to the farm to fetch the Bugatti and Jaak would, as quickly as possible purge this experience from his life.

Peering into his barn Jack reflected on the glorious one-off Bugatti and its malevolent owner. He thought of the Borgias and Medicis who sponsored brilliant artists whose work celebrated the best of human creativity. He also knew of the evil that darkened their histories. Deconstructing this incongruity would best be left for another day he thought. Jaak moved across the farm yard to the house. His wife, Ann, would be curious. He would soon involve her in far more than she would have ever wanted to be true. In sharing this reality with her, he had no doubt as to Ann’s response. She would look down. Sigh deeply. Look up. Stare him straight and reassuringly in the eye while projecting the strength and conviction upon which their love had been founded. She would then set about defining her role in ensuring this wretched curse would be lifted from their lives as quickly as possible.

 

At the warehouse hidden away deep in Archie’s Estonian forest, his mind raced to construct a new reality built around his 7th Royale. He embraced the story of Enzo Ferrari and his climb to fame managing his eponymous Scuderia Ferrari racing team. Archie felt as one with the great Ferrari. Ferrari, often referred to as Il Commendatore, became his guiding light. He treasured the story of Ferrari sitting as a passenger alongside the great racing driver Tazio Nuvolari. Accompanying Nuvolari during a practice run in preparation for the 1931 running of the challenging Italian race, the Circuito delle Tre Provincie (Circuit of the three provinces), Ferrari realized that he would never be the equal of Nuvolari. At that moment Ferrari turned his focus from driving his own car to managing his own team, Scuderia Ferrari. Archie would follow in the footsteps of the great Il Commendatore. He would hire superior drivers and make his mark with his own racing stable, Scuderia Antonescu. Archie faced much to do in building a team, hiring top notch drivers and preparing for the Monte Carlo Rally of 1940. With the 1939 rally fast approaching he would use the racing festivities in Monte Carlo to line up drivers and set about the business of creating Scuderia Antonescu. He would depart Estonia immediately.

Maybach Zeppelin Cabriolet

Accompanied by his three mechanics, Archie set out in his big  12-cylinder Maybach Zeppelin Cabriolet that his other two mechanics had driven to the forest warehouse in Estonia. In the 1930s Maybach built cars that competed head-to-head with top-of-the-line Mercedes-Benz models for the affection of emperors, kings and very wealthy individuals. Archie fit the profile. It would be a roughly 4-day journey on the poor roads of the Baltic countries and Poland before crossing into Germany.

After crossing the Polish border into Germany, Archie’s dreams of team ownership and prominence in motorsports elevated his spirits. The big 12-cylinder with its 8-speed manual transmission rekindled his fantasies of racing fame. He ordered the lead mechanic at the wheel to pull over. Archie would take the wheel and show them all “how it was done.” Unfortunately the poor quality gas, being all that was available along the journey, did not agree with the Maybach’s big 8-liter 12-cylinder engine. The Maybach’s extraordinary 200-horsepower and ravenous 8.6 miles per gallon fuel consumption suffered. The engine at times would falter. Archie, though not especially comfortable with the special 8-speed manual transmission pressed on undeterred. With the January temperature reaching an unseasonable 50 F° Archie lowered the cabriolet top. With the wind swirling about driver and passengers alike, the Maybach sped on ever faster. Simultaneously, to the west, a coal black juggernaut belching smoke and pulling a long string of freight cars roared towards the town of Dachau in the east.

With its massive six drive wheels a visual blur, the great steam engine hurtled across the northern fields and pasture lands of Germany. For the German SS in charge, the speeding train’s cargo of interest included gypsies, Jehovah’s Witnesses, panhandlers, Kristalknacht victims, outspoken holy men and members of an expanding population of Germans who opposed the Nazi machine. Visible atop each wooden freight car could be seen an armed Nazi soldier perched high overlooking the closed and sealed doors on each side.

 

With Archie still at the wheel, the wind had turned cold in the fading sun. When his passengers expressed discomfort, Archie tongue lashed the backseat “frauleins.” For the chastised and chilly mechanics a case of Schnapps in the big open Maybach proved too much a temptation and a fine solution. Archie loved the idea of toasting Scuderia Antonescu. All four did so repeatedly, possibly Archie more so than the others. Archie with fogged awareness saw no reason to moderate his aggressive driving.

In the evening’s fading light the chief mechanic called attention to the speeding train coming from the west. Clearly the train would intersect the path of Archie’s speeding Maybach. Inspired by his admiration for the victorious Bentley Blue Train and a bravado fueled by a bottle of Schnapps, Archie accepted a challenge that had not been offered. He would beat the train to the intersection where it crossed the road. Unfazed by neither the low quality gas nor  questionable driving skills diminished by a heavy dose of Schnapps, Archie raced up the incline to the intersection. Like a speeding avalanche of steel and steam, the dusty black shape to the right grew larger and larger. It would be a close call, but it appeared the Maybach would pass ahead of the onrushing behemoth. Then Archie missed a down shift and the great Maybach shuttered like a fighting bull surrendering its life. Archie attempted to stop to no avail. In locking up the brakes he merely succeeded in teeing up the Maybach for a perfect broadside by the thundering train. Two farmers in a wagon waiting at the crossing for the train to pass recounted seeing the impacted Maybach shed parts with explosive force. Its cruelly contorted body, bent like a horse shoe, clung to the massive locomotive’s cowcatcher as if welded in place. The impact launched all the Nazi guards seated atop the prisoner rail cars with deadly results. The mighty freight train departed the rails creating a domino effect of box cars tossed about like a child’s discarded toys. Rail cars, off the tracks and strewn about with wood and steel still creaking and doors popped open, disgorged themselves of scores of prisoners who fled and melted into the countryside. Only years later would some tell of their miraculous salvation. Both farmers reported four bodies ejected from the open cabriolet. Archimedes Antonescu and the three mechanics had died instantly and with them, so too, the location of the 7th Royale.

Outside of Tallinn in rural Estonia, a weary Jaak Oja, unaware of the day’s events, shuffled across his yard to return home after a long day spent healing the beautiful beast.

By |2023-07-20T13:08:30+00:00July 20th, 2023|2 Comments

Cars We Love & Who We Are #41

Winter of late 1938 found wealthy Romanian Playboy Archimedes ‘Archie” Antonescu transporting his fabulously expensive custom, race-tuned Bugatti Royale to Estonia to prepare for the January start of the 1939 Monte Carlo Rally in Tallinn, Estonia. As fate and Archie’s lack of driving prowess would have it, the needs of his 7th Royale would place the lives of Estonian craftsman Jaak Oja, Jaak’s son and Estonian freedom fighter, Mihkel Oja, and Archie on a collision course that would resonate deep into the coming decades.

In Search of the 7th Royale (Part 5 – Beauty and Beast)

Border crossing

Having crossed from Poland into Estonia with no complications, the big Mercedes truck carrying Archie and his precious secret cargo rumbled north. Veering east well south of Tallinn, the driver vigorously urged the truck forward along rutted country roads. A freshly constructed warehouse located off a long desolate dirt road situated deep in Archie’s recently purchased sprawling forest tract awaited his arrival. Unaccustomed to gratification delayed, Archie, exhibiting the patience of a spoiled backseat bound child, peppered the driver with every possible form of inquiry that boiled down to “are we there yet?”

As the long night associated with the short winter days of the Arctic circle closed in on the big Mercedes transport, it pulled off onto a freshly carved road. With two blasts of the big Benz’s air horn, two large metal doors on the warehouse rattled open allowing the truck to enter. The two other mechanics dedicated to servicing the needs of Archie’s Royale greeted him. His wealth and their Nazi affiliations had provided Archie with complete confidence that the secret of his race-prepped Royale would be kept until the start of the 1939 Monte Carlo rally.
With the Royale now here, they would have the great car ready for Archie to start practicing tomorrow.

City of Tallinn, Estonia

Emblematic of a frail moral fiber that contributed to Archie’s spotty efforts to enhance his driving prowess, he had put off an early morning road test in favor of having dinner in Tallinn with the attractive wife of a manager and friend employed at Archie’s Estonian oil shale facility. Just two days earlier, his friend had been unexpectedly called back to headquarters in Romania. The man responded by immediately departing. Good paying jobs like his were hard to come by in Estonia. Archie planned on dinner with the wife to last late into the evening as he would be discussing her role in assuring a promotion her husband greatly coveted. For Archie, self indulgence always seemed to trump responsibility.

Assuming it even a possibility, Archie’s commitment to developing a mastery of the driving skills necessary to command the powerful Royale frequently lost traction when competing with the summer pleasures available on the French Riviera in 1938 for wealthy friends of the Reich.

Archie, very possibly motivated more by the opportunity to rub shoulders with the stars of motor sport than by what he could learn approached contemporary drivers in the pantheon of greats. These included Rudolf Caracciola, Herman Lang, Tazio Nuvolari and Hans Stuck. He considered asking Donald Healey but Healey being a Brit turned him off. And, though, Rene Dreyfus ranked as one of the best of his time, Archie had no interest with Dreyfus his being a Jew and all. Over the preceding months despite Archie’s overtures none of the greats responded to “the Romanian’s” inquiries. Some lesser drivers accepted the opportunity to dip into Archie’s money trough. If the drivers who accepted Archie as a student had been polled as a group the assessment of his skills could best be summed up as “good enough to get himself killed.”

With the great drivers displaying no interest in Archie’s offer, Archie viewed the lesser driver’s who did accept his offer with little or no respect. He would have no problem ditching a session at the track in favor of joining a wealthy debutante on her father’s yacht. But, now, in the presence of the great Royale, time engaged in sipping champagne with debutantes suddenly seemed ill spent.

Emanating from the warmed and ready athletically stanced Royale, a deep sonorous growl more animal than machine seemed to be offered as a fair warning as Archie approached. However, fortified with boundless self confidence foolishly grounded in his nonchalant approach to driver training, Archie climbed into his completed 7th Royale. Bringing with him would be a skill level considered spotty at best. His first attempts to initiate forward motion to depart the warehouse resulted in stuttering stalls. With frustration bubbling up like a pot close to boil, Archie, accepting the guidance of the chief mechanic, coaxed the magnificent beast to depart the warehouse and enter the desolate country road. Amazingly well mannered at slow and moderate speeds the Royale absorbed ruts and bumps and offered pleasant passage along the forest border road. In retrospect it would seem the beast had intentionally lulled an unsuspecting Archie into unwittingly unleashing a perfect storm of performance potential far beyond Archie’s abilities to control.

Reaching a point of relative comfort Archie recalled comments from his instructors and decided to see what kind of performance his considerable investment had purchased. It quickly became apparent his money had purchased him far more car than he could handle. He remembered one of his German driver instructors intentionally demonstrating a cornering technique called drifting. The instructor’s words came to mind as the great Royale gobbled up huge chunks of road at a pace that exceeded Archie’s ability to process. And, now, a slow bend to the left rushed at him. The Bugatti’s rear started to break loose. It came around and broke free swinging out to the right. It felt very much like what the instructor had intentionally induced, except that the driving instructor had maintained control. Here, the car had produced this slide all on its own and it petrified a helpless Archie. Unlike the instructor who confidently and competently brought the back end of his car under control. Archie felt he might as well have been swept up in a landslide. Out of control and surrounded by danger all around he cut the wheel to the left and the big Bugatti spun. Amazingly he missed a row of trees. However, he could not avoid the deep trench carved by rain in the road side. The massive vehicle came to a brutal and sudden stop. Archie’s head struck the steering wheel then snapped against the door frame. With blood trickling down his cheek, Archie sat frozen, his head resting against the driver side window. An eerie silence filled the forest. His breath created the only sound. He knew this Royale now and forever would exceed his ability to drive.

Limping back like a pirate with a bad leg, the hobbled Royale with its front left suspension badly damaged came to a painful rest. Nobody said anything. Nobody dared. Silently the chief mechanic moved to inspect the damage. The front suspension member sagged like a badly broken shoulder. The mechanic believed the damage could be repaired. The repair, however, would be impossible with the capabilities available in the warehouse.

Furious, frustrated and snared in a trap of “nobody to blame but himself,” Archie instructed two of the mechanics to come up with a plan of action. The third mechanic would drive, a still dazed, Archie to a doctor.

To have his Royale discovered in its damaged state and him clearly the cause could not be allowed. Repair must be affected but it could not be brought to town. Secrecy had to be maintained, now, more than ever.

As the local doctor attended to Archie, the mechanic inquired of  the doctor as to any skilled local metal workers who could weld and repair an “old Volvo” that had been damaged. With no second thoughts the good doctor responded with but one name, Jaak Oja. The doctor sang the praises of Jaak as he stitched up Archie. Clearly respected by all, Jaak, who lived on an isolated farm east of Tallinn had a proven reputation for machine repair and the equipment to do it. He was the first person the big oil shale company called when they had a problem.

Even as the doctor bandaged the stitches, Archie had a plan formulating. He had to think quickly. He needed to get the Royale out of sight and fixed. He understood that his dream of driving could never be. He lacked the ability to drive his Royale much less race it. He would need to find a premium driver who would race for what would now be Archie’s team. This would all take time. Clearly, Archie would not enter the 1939 rally. His Bugatti would have to wait till the 1940 Monte Carlo Rally to wow the automotive world. However, for the matters at hand he would seek out this Oja fellow.

Jaak opened the door to has farmhouse to greet a man in mechanic’s coveralls. The man made very clear what he wanted, skilled metal work, welding excellence and secrecy. For this Jaak would be very handsomely compensated. When asked, Jaak confirmed that he had done work for the oil shale facility. The man in coveralls asked to inspect where the work would be carried out. A visit to the spacious barn on Jaak’s farm convinced the man of Jaak’s suitability and he extended a hand. Jaak agreed and they shook on it. Jaak understood that the vehicle would be delivered the next day.

As the big Mercedes truck departed the warehouse one of the mechanics mentioned the fish delivery and the young freedom fighter with the same last name as Jaak. Archie listened but said nothing.

As Jaak finished his breakfast and Ann poured him a final cup of coffee, he watched a large truck with Ploesti oil logos pull up and back towards his barn.

As men scurried around, large metal ramps extended down from the truck, a well dressed man with bandages on his head walked towards Jaak. With a gruff if not threatening demeanor the man with the dour expression simply introduced himself as “the owner.”

He wanted to meet Jaak face to face before showing him the project. The two walked around to the back of the truck. Foreshadowed by the resonating growl of a mythic beast, a beautiful but wounded colossus eased down the ramps, flawless save for a jury-rigged front wheel that dragged slightly. Jaak stared in quiet disbelief. His eyes marveled as an automotive  work of art slowly captured his consciousness before coming to rest in his barn.

With the nature of the repair to be completed reviewed in detail, the owner agreed on a price that Jaak considered quite fair. Jack added that if he had to keep the project on his property for more than a month after completion, a storage fee would be charged. The owner shrugged off the fee as meaningless considering his plan to relocate the Royale once the repair took place.

With the Royale parked in the deep dark recesses of the barn, Jaak closed and locked the wide wooden doors. He made an effort to calm the man’s concerns about secrecy by noting that few people if any traveled these roads. He assured the owner that secrecy would not be a problem.

Seemingly odd to Jaak, the owner asked if he had any children. Thinking that the query merely indicated that the owner sought to lighten the mood with small talk, Jaak responded that, yes, he had a teenage son. The owner firmly instructed Jaak that the young man could not know of the car. Jaak assured him that the son did not live at home and would never see the car. Jaak noted a strange almost cruel smile creep onto the owner’s face.

Reflexively as if incapable of suppressing the darkness resident in his heart, Archie curled a lip and fixed a harsh stare on Jaak. With words direct, cold and brutal he warned Jaak that should he or his wife betray the owner’s secret, Jaak’s freedom loving son would pay the price. Maintaining his stare, Archie with a slow deliberate motion raised his right hand and softly uttered “Heil Hitler,” then silently turned to the waiting truck and left.

By |2023-07-06T13:15:41+00:00July 6th, 2023|2 Comments