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John Retsek, founder of KPFK’s “The Car Show”—the longest-running automotive show on the airwaves—passed away in his sleep on Wednesday evening. He was 75. Current Car Show co-host and ABC7 Eyewitness News automotive writer Dave Kunz broke the news to LA Car about Retsek’s passing. Since the fall of 1972, John Retsek had been broadcasting automotive commentary, first with co-host Jack Kirkpatrick, then with Len Frank, and most recently with Art Gould. For the past few years, Gould has co-hosted The Car Show with ABC7’s Dave Kunz, while Retsek took a much-deserved respite. The break from The Car Show duties coincided with his retirement as Art Director for Los Angeles public television station KCET. Retsek spent the last few years sailing.
“John Retsek was a bona fide authority, and, like his partner, Len Frank, who went before him, almost vexingly correct on every subject that I ever engaged him on,” says LA Car Editor-at-Large and long-time Motor Press Guild member Doug Stokes. “He was gentle but blunt, and accurate to a half of a quarter-millimeter. His statements were facts, never opinions. He loved cars, people, and sailing, and was the sage voice of reason whenever he spoke on any subject—one of the true good guys of the business.”
John Retsek started The Car Show in 1973. He was a regular writer for the late and lamented Sports Car International. Retsek was a man of many hats. A former union man, John earned his keep at KCET Public Television. He won a string of Emmys for his work as the Art Director for KCET. When he’s not talking cars, he goes sailboat racing and classical concert halling.
“What impresses me so much about John is his passion for everything he does,” said long-time friend Matt Stone. “I congratulate John for starting The Car Show and sticking with it all those years against all odds,” said Chris Poole, West Coast Editor for both Consumer Guide Auto and Collectible Automobile magazine. “It’s a great institution unique to Los Angeles, one that serves consumers and car nuts so very well.”
Aside from automobilia, John was known as an award-winning art director for public television station KCET. “I started in 1969 at KCET when it was on Vine Street,” said Retsek during an interview with LA Car back in 2006. “A high point was when we produced the set for Cosmos.”
John’s involvement with the car scene started in the early 1970s. “KCET had a local news show, said Retsek. “The producer and I were both interested in cars. I used to have several cars stashed around the lot (I only have one now). So we did some car reporting. There was a young woman, Wina Sturgeon, then wife of science fiction writer Ted Sturgeon, who did Helpful Hints on consumer products and she had a show on KPFK. She noted my interest and asked, ‘Why don’t you come on my show and field some questions about cars?’ I think that was in the Fall of 1972. I did the show with Jack Kirkpatrick, a friend and head mechanic for the California Highway Patrol. We had a lot of fun on the radio. It occurred to (then) Program Director Ruth Seymour (then known as Ruth Hirschmann), now with KCRW, that this could be a show for KPFK. So she approached us about having our own show on Saturdays for an hour. Jack and I thought that would be fun.”
Retsek on the birth of The Car Show:
“About a month or two after the show debut, we were getting calls from handlers of dealers who would track us down. Dealers were offering cars for us to drive. In fact, dealers gave us some of the cars. Audi at that time didn’t have a press fleet handler. So it got even more fun.
Unfortunately, Jack was transferred by the Highway Patrol to San Luis Obispo. After about two years on the show, Jack decided to retire and move. His wife was our original telephone producer. I haven’t heard from Jack in a couple of years, but I hope he is still messing around with cars. He is really a bright guy. Our theme music (Artie Shaw’s “Summit Ridge Drive”) was Jack’s idea. Art (Gould) says there are so many car songs out there that we could play a different song every week, but I’ll never change it.
Retsek’s partners in crime
“So, I was by myself and started a city-wide search for a partner. I tried out several people and had hoped to find a woman’s voice. On one of those shows, I came across Leonard Frank in Long Beach. He listened to the show and even called in several times. He was of the firm belief that that he knew more about cars than both Jack and I put together, which was probably true. Leonard and I found out that we both owned Berkeley Spyders. It was apparent we were destined to be a pair.
It was one of the smallest cars ever, and shaped liked a darling Ferrari. Both Leonard and I both thought the Spyder would have the dual purpose of being both a street car and a race car – it was neither. I had a 560 with three cylinders. There are still some of those running around. It was a lot of fun but you had to have a crazed existence to drive that around. It was quite a coincidence.
On the artful Art Gould
“Art was general manager of Cormier and retired early. Until I gave him my old one, he didn’t have a CD or DVD player in his house. He doesn’t own a computer. He doesn’t even have a street address. He does write for the Washington News. He’s owned a couple of expensive cars, including a 427 Corvette that I’ve used as a prop on a set a couple of times.
Art started with us around 1990 as an expert on the retail car business. Both Len and I liked him a lot because he is a funny guy. We wanted a third person, just like Chris (Poole) is our third person now. One thing about Chris is that he doesn’t like to fly to press events. If the two hosts are gone, then the third person can put together the show. Art used to be so shy on the show, you really had to work to drag him out. Now you can’t shut him up (laughs). He’s a very good guy and very knowledgeable. He is a rock.
Back in 1998, Retsek had a near death experience. “We were in the midst of El Nino. Heavy weather was looming, but we were heavy weather sailors from San Pedro. We’re used to it; let’s go out and sail around. We got out about three feet out of our slink and got hit by a microblast. We got spun around, so I went to release the main. I released the rope clutch and it got jammed, spinning us around even further. The last thing I remember is standing there looking at the main and wondering why it wasn’t coming down. The next thing I know, I’m on the dock being treated. For a couple of days, I was in an induced coma. It was a good whack. I didn’t break anything, but I did crack my skull and got a concussion. It took me a while to not be dizzy. It actually sort of healed. I don’t like telling people that story. I mean, an accident three feet from your slip! It’s one thing to get knocked up while you are out to sea, but I didn’t even get out of the channel!
“Hey, you told me to go ahead and buy that M5!”
We asked John if he ever gave any advice on The Car Show that he later regretted. “Oh, I’m sure. I probably recommended cars that weren’t the right match. “I love my Z06 Corvette, but it’s too much car for me.” Occasionally, people call back and complain about my advice. One guy called and was determined to buy a BMW M5. I tried to talk him out of it, indicating that it was not the easiest car to drive. Ultimately, I relented and said, “Go ahead and buy it; buy the car you want—you can always sell it.” He did buy it, and later regretted it. The car turned out to be the difficult steed that I said it would be. “But you told me to go ahead and buy it!”
And I’ve given reviews of cars that were a bit too enthusiastic. The Chevy Citation X11 back in the 1980s, and received rave reviews all over—and we were participants to that. Why? The performance was like a breath of fresh air at that time. Of course, that was before I retested it and the hood of the production car came over and crashes back into the windshield—among other things. But compared to what GM had been doing, it was an attempt to catch up—a fun to drive car in the not-so-fun 1980s.
And the beat goes on…
Despite John Retsek’s absence from the show. there’s no slowing down in sight for The Car Show. It continues to be one of the most popular programs on KPFK. This fall marks 40 years since Wina Sturgeon of KPFK’s Helpful Hints first asked Retsek and Jack Kirkpatrick to come on her show to field questions about cars. And 2013 marks the 40th anniversary of The Car Show. – Roy Nakano
To find out more information on KPFK’s The Car Show, go to The Car Show homepage.
To hear The Car Show’s tribute to John Retsek, click here.
To view the writings of Len Frank, go to Look Down The Road.