And you’ll have to pry my cold dead fingers off the shift knob…
Len Frank on his Sunbeam Tiger. Date written unknown; previously unpublished
I just bought a car and I can hardly wait to tell you what and why. Buying a car in itself is not such an unusual act—about two cars a second are bought, every minute, every hour, of every day in the year, give or take. And that’s just in the US. Or maybe Los Angeles—I get the numbers confused sometimes.
But first you have to understand the irony in all of this. I have been doing an automotive radio show every week for the last dozen years—twice a week for the last two years. I’ve written about 500 articles on just about every facet of automotive minutiae and nonsense imaginable. I drive fifty or sixty new cars every year, attend about fifty automotive press conferences and new car introductions, drive sixty thousand miles a year, here, Germany, Switzerland, France, GB, Italy. I do some showroom stock racing, some vintage racing, run some time trials whenever I can, Have dinner with engineers and designers regularly, drop by restoration shops when there’s time. I used to judge concours but I finally kicked that. I read automotive books before I fall asleep at night and car magazines in the bathroom. I am steeped, assaulted, inundated by automobiles and automobilia.
And I don’t own a car, or didn’t, and haven’t for about ten years. About five years ago I got kind of excited about vintage racing, or more accurately, owning and racing an elderly car. I don’t think that the cold wet mackerel of reality had yet hit me in the face. It’s really a rich man’s (person’s) sport, and before you rush to find your crayons and lined pad to argue with me, there was a time once when it was easy, low pressure, inexpensive. For a few of the people who were running vintage cars then, there will be a host of golden memories and boring stories when deciding what to do with the big bucks the old Bugeye or Speedster or Alfa just brought. Have you seen those prices?
Obviously I don’t need a car for transportation. But less obviously, I miss the amusement and creative aspects of owning a car-as-toy. So without thinking about it too consciously, I began to expend most of my alpha waves maundering about one old crock or another.
I’d see a mid-sixties MGB with a factory hardtop in a parking lot, rust blossoming like ferrous popcorn, broken spokes, fluid leaking evilly, and I would transform it to one of the LeMans Bs, all raucous exhaust and headlight fairings. Or howzabout a replica of a Conrero-prepared Alfa Guilietta Spider like the ones that blew them away at Sebring. Sedan fantasies—Volvo 544s, Cortinas, an Anglia, a Corvair. Maybe a killer Devin C…I was beginning to lose focus and coherence.
Ok. What did I really want? More pertinently, what did I really want that I could afford? What did I really want that I could afford and could deal with? Focus was returning. It had to be fast enough to be amusing. It had to somewhat unusual (the “…a what?” factor), but not so unusual that parts were as close as my nearest precision machine shop. It had to be streetable. I like small, light cars. I like simple systems–I have had my bouts with trickshititis–independent suspensions with a shade too much independence, obsolete exotica, complexity for its own sake.
All formula cars were out. Most sports racing cars were out. All rare Porsches were out and while I was twiddling, common Porsches went out too. MG-T-types were too slow and expensive,
big Healeys, except the 100S (too expensive, too rare), uninteresting.
Forget about all Ferraris, OSCAs, Astons, Abarths, Siatas, AC-Bristols, and everything made after 1964/65. And for you readers, forget about logic and consistency–these are my fantasies.
Last qualification—it had to be a dumb car, or at least one not smarter than I am. I have seen too many butchered Ferraris, Porsche Carreras, Mercedes, Jaguars, lovely cars screwed up through more ambition than was healthy and less skill than was needed. I needed a car that matched my abilities.
Renault Alpine A110
Saab Sonett, maybe with the 2-stroke triple
Alfa Giuilietta/Giulia/GTA/Duetto, etc.
Berkeley Excelsior 500/Royal Enfield 700
Lancia Fulvia HF or Zagato
Notice that the G-4 is right at the top of the list. Great “…a what?” factor, great power-to-weight ratio, low frontal area, good looks. But there was never one for sale when I had money; there was never money when I had one for sale. I even went to England looking for one during my monied period, had a great time, drank a lot of whiskey, saw some wonderful cars, but… you see old boy, these are never sold, passed along father-to-son… given as gifts for extraordinary service…something like that. The last G-4 that I saw for sale in the US was $23,000—about six times the price when I started to get interested. I like to think that it was my interest that awakened the world to its possibilities.
Except for the G-4, the cars above are in no special order. Some days I would fantasize about the building of a modern two-stroke triple inside the the Berkeley’s Excelsior triple—I figured a conservative 90bhp (30 was stock) with a 700 lb. car. Some days I thought about calling Lee Midgley who almost snatched the G-Production SCCA championship away from Triumph with a Matra-Djet. I kept thinking about the Griffith 200 which could easily out accelerate a factory competition Cobra, and the guy who did all of the development on it lives right here in L.A. The Fantasy of the Week Club.
Notice that most of the cars on The List have glass fiber bodies, most have pushrod engines, most are front engine-rear drive. I can fix fiberglass, goes the reasoning—anybodycan fix fiberglass. Front engine-rear drivers usually come apart in easy modules—more fallacious reasoning, but I could get myself to believe it from day to day.
Some of the cars have support groups: the Alfa Romeo Owners Club comes to mind. Nice enthusiastic people, pretty well organized, good magazine, newsletters, swap-meets, technical help. There’s a Berkeley Club, several Sunbeam Tiger clubs…it occurs to me that there ought to be some anti-clubs—falaciousAlfa Anonymous, etc., a kind of infrastructure of helpful folks who are available by phone day or night, who will steal the classifieds out of your newspaper when it’s left on the doorstep during the wee hours, take your checkbook away if things get really bad …maybe a four-step plan that begins with voluntarily giving up your driver’s license and buying a bus pass.
Some cars, like the Denzel, are really orphans. The Matra and Alpine, then, are illegitimate children, or at least step-children. The nearest parts for the Steyr-Puch are in Austria, though some Fiat stuff (not available here either) also works. These are all after-the-facts. None mean a damn when one is in heat.
I raced a friend’s Alfa Giulietta Sprint Veloce at the Monterey Historics a couple of years back and got so enthused about the car that I talked two other friends into buying them. Instead of me. But for a while it topped the Fantasy Hit Parade. Elans went up. Griffiths disappeared. Not an affordable Elva could be found. All of the Turners had gone underground. Sonetts were too new, not worth the trouble, Berkeleys always had been ridiculous cars.
One day, a guy I know who is desperately trying to get into the exotic car middle-man business (an epidemic here in L.A. that will soon provide its own cure), called me to ask if I knew where he could find the same V-12 Ferrari that everyone else is looking for, or, alternatively, if he could talk the owner into selling, did I have a customer for whatever exotic junk he thought might be salable that day. And, oh yes, did I know anyone who wanted a Sunbeam Tiger?
Like an ether dream, I heard a voice say, “yes. Me.”
The car was completely disassembled when I bought it, but presumably complete. I will find out as fantasy turns to reality. There will be more. There will be more.
Top image: Sunbeam Tiger at Monrovia’s “Street Rods Forever” car show (R. Nakano)
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