Leonard (MNI) Frank
Published on Tue, Jun 15, 2004
By: Len Frank
In a Message From Stefan Frank, Len’s Offspring Speaks…
On the 1st of September, 1935 , the second son of two Russian immigrants was born, in the then, unwashed armpit of the industrial belt of the U.S.,
Youngstown , Ohio.
They named him Leonard (nmi) Frank. He always told me he had no middle initial because his parents were too poor.
Len chose reading, before the advent of telecommunication, as a partner to quench his voracious appetite for knowledge. Wind in the Willows was his favorite book, but the process of flight, racing, car design, internal combustion, going faster, and learning just about everything else, were his true driven ambitions. As a youth he originally fixated on airplanes, till he discovered that he couldn’t cruise nightly up and down the boulevard in an airplane.
He had a true passion for that special kind of vehicular obscurity that could only have been spawned by the need to break free of the normality of the mid-west, and its Chevy-apple-pie image. Borgwards, Berkleys, and Porsches were the early objects of his affections.
His father, who believed that life was a cracked engine block, then you die, owned a gas station and garage on the north side of town. This philosophy was true for his father. But Len tried to carve himself out a more enjoyable destiny. His wildest open road fantasies of traveling the world, wind in his hair, in a succession of great rides, on great roads, with a classy woman in every town, racing the ultimate car, all became Len’s reality. Appreciating it all, most every step of the way.
In 1951, his senior year in high school, Len was expelled for being related to his father and uncle, who were card carrying members of the socialist party (not a popular club then). His uncle was actually one of the political cartoonists for the Daily worker, a communist paper in NY.
Ironically, Len joined the Air Force (US) shortly after making up his senior year. This would prove to be a tempestuous time for him. Near the end of his time in the service, his father died. He fell in love and had three intimate affairs. one with a ’41 Lincoln Continental, a’51 MG-TD, and my mom, whom he married, briefly, had a baby (me), packed up the family in the Porsche Speedster (we traveled light), and drove to California to learn to become an automotive designer, at Art Center in Pasadena.
Len took on an impressive chain of automotive sales jobs to make ends meet while in school. Gearing himself to selling the cars that satisfied his eclectic and unusual tastes, mostly European sports cars (“Forn cars” in those days), and eventually, mostly everything else too. He eventually graduated to owning a Saab and Peugeot dealership in Riverside, in 1968, selling more Saabs than anyone else in America that year. Which could have numbered in the 10’s, thanks to that free love and self-discovery promise with every car, otherwise he may not have ever prompted any generation, gap or no gap, to possess a three cylinder, two-stroke car.
Besides the college girls in Riverside, I’m sure the real reason Len was driven to Riverside was the Raceway. His true love.
He usually drove anything to get on the track. I remember a winter of Ford pickup testing, where all he did all day was laps in an 150 Custom eight hours a day, or any friendly owners club track day, who was willing to bend the entrance rules or the clever way he customized the roof line on the full race ’59 Anglia, By rolling it in turn 4 at riverside.
He developed his natural urge to race just about anything, and he did. From a 700cc chain driven Berkeley to a 500+hp Cheetah, to a factory sponsored Volvo turbo wagon to a Firehawk series prepared Saleen SVO Mustang (painted like a CHP car) to two-stroke Karts with me in England and everything in between. I remember his face beaming like a kid who has just discovered candy, while driving past the start line in a ’35 Studebaker Indy car for a vintage race from LA to Indy. Or the pride he emitted in his modest way, about the stealthiness of his 220bhp, 4-door ’66 Corvair he built to do low 12’s in the ¼ when he wasn’t auto-crossing or hill climbing it. “Poor mans Porsche,” he would say.
There were so many of those experiences that filled his life, it would have filled a large volume of the book he was always going to write. He loved to go fast! And also taught many others including me, to hold a line, or at least hold a drivers license. His was often in jeopardy from the millions of miles that he drove and the caliber of car that he regularly had donated to him ,on behalf of some hopeful car manufacturer. This necessitated his ability to beat tickets in court, which he could have written a book about. (Getting them and beating them)
Through a long procession of universities dotting the West Coast, he accumulated a master’s degree in creative writing and English and went on to become a professor of English. I believe Len having to face teaching a freshman composition class, in Moscow, Idaho, for a year, was the true catalyst for making sure his own name was resting firmly on the mastheads of the fine car magazines that laid mulching on his floors, in every stage of his life.
I grew up knowing that wherever he was, his domicile would surely have been consumed by at least a four foot deep mulch of car books and magazines barricading his bed and bathroom floor (mostly Hot Rod, R&T, Motor Trend, and Car and Driver); and various unfinished race engines, diffs and trannies, majestically placed like sculptures in a museum of lost car obscurity on the remaining available floor space. Not the tidiest fellow.
Although, as you’ll see he could turn a phrase or two.
By 1977, Len finally created the chance to write for the magazines that had previously only graced his bathroom floor. One of his first staff writing jobs was Editor-at-Large for Motor Trend, focusing on the “Retrospects” as well as many road tests and all the other stuff that revolves around the wheel. His then editor and boss, Tony Swan, would eulogize that he looked on wistfully at the 9-to-5 world, but to the best of his knowledge, never was in much danger of becoming part of it.
He was very resourceful in finding any diversion to keep him from finishing a story till the absolute deadline. But always had fabulous repertoire of car shuffling, phone calls, court appearances and missed flights accompanying a great story on legal paper in the end.
He was a contributing editor for Road & Track, Car and Driver, Playboy, Sports Car Graphic, Popular Mechanics, Popular Science, European Car and many more, including many books and newspapers.
One of the biggest honors for Len was being asked by Mercedes, along side some of the greatest car writers and racers in history, to contribute to the 100 years of Mercedes Benz Book. This could have been one time when he felt that he had truly arrived. He also served as a design, engineering, and marketing consultant to several auto manufacturers. Having a hand in the development of everything from a Miata to a Mustang.
In 1978, he joined up with fellow curmudgeon, auto enthusiast and friend, John Retsek on KPFK in L.A., for the 1st and longest running “Car Show”. Being dubbed the “Siskell and Ebert” of the automotive airwaves (not sure who was who) but for 30+years they weekly took apart and reassembled every new and used car, with cutting wit, brutal honesty and not always agreeing. The success of this show quickly escalated into a nationally syndicated show and numerous TV appearances.
The perks of his writing and broadcasting endeavors assured him of years of new test cars and world travel experiences that paralleled an F1 driver’s season. His house was filled with 1000s of books and mags, concerning every aspect of internal combustion. And much of the auto journalist elite as well as anyone else whom shared the same obscure tastes in motion.
Most of them regarded him as the man with the answers, the true CARmudgeon. I thought of him mostly as my dad my friend and occasionally “hey you”. (If any of this has seemed a bit biased, it was, but cut me some slack, jack… Its all true!) To any of his friends, listeners or readers, he was to known to have a great sense of humor. Even with me, I look back to being an obnoxious five-year old, he would casually tell me to “go play in traffic.” The fact that I was unlicensed and only drove a small red fire engine then, probably wasn’t an issue. He was also an extremely generous man that would give the shirt off his own back to someone, and often did. Although, it may have had a myriad of car logos on it.
One of the most important things he gave me, besides love, was the knowledge that I could do anything, and be the best at it. And genetically who knows, there’s rumors of traces of 20/50 Castrol in the old bloodstream. I learned great lessons by his example. That has stayed with me, as does his amazing spirit.
On June 28th, 1996, Len lost a long battle with cancer. Len decided he would rather die at home, and while listening to Fred Astaires “I’m in heaven” on the radio, Len slipped into his poetic transition at 59, and apexed his next turn, in his search for the perfect ride. Surrounded by his lifetimes accumulation of treasures, relating to his greatest passion, cars.
One week after, I took his ashes to one of his favorite American racetracks, Willow Springs International. And in the last Porsche that he raced there, scattered his ashes around the track in his last qualifying lap, while his fraternity of gray bearded car dudes, other assorted loved ones and fans looked on at Turn Nine. We gave him a moment. That day he finished 1st.
Len’s life was somewhat of a Cinderella story that started him out small town impoverished, and led him into the opulence of years of global automotive manufacturers kind considerations. Racing the cars that he used to only dream of, and occasionally winning. His true living heroes became his friends and peers. And he touched and was touched by a long and glamorous list of women.
He was one of the most well-read, self-proclaimed race car sluts ever to have proudly worn skinned knuckles from regularly replacing the coveted self removing Corvair fan belt. He even managed to get a SCCA Vintage trophy race named after him. And now a website.
But most of all he passed on his highly creative and unique perspective through his writings. Through the wonders of the net and some great friends, Len lives on with his stories, thoughts and perceptions, a writer who could turn a phrase into a controlled 360 spin at high speeds, who we are grateful to share with you. — Stefan Ashton Frank, offspring
Top image: Len Frank’s birthplace, Youngstown, Ohio (early 1900s public domain image, courtesy Wikiwand)
The late Len Frank was the legendary co-host of “The Car Show”—the first and longest-running automotive broadcast program on the airwaves. Len was also a highly regarded journalist, having served in editorial roles with Motor Trend, Sports Car Graphic, Popular Mechanics, and a number of other publications. LA Car is proud to once again host “Look Down the Road – The Writings of Len Frank” within its pages. Special thanks to another long-time automotive journalist, Matt Stone, who has been serving as the curator of Len Frank’s archives since his passing in 1996. Now, you’ll be able to view them all in one location under the simple search term “Len Frank”, or just click this link: Look Down The Road. – Roy Nakano