Written by Len Frank in 1988 under a pseudonym. The following has not been previously published, to our knowledge.
by Maxwell Chalmers
I know guys who keep time by the Monterey Historics: “yeah—that was a couple weeks before Monterey,” or, “sure, I remember that because it was the Ferrari year (or Bentley, Ford, Chevrolet, Alfa-Romeo, Mercedes-Benz, et al)…”.
I don’t know why Monterey is a big deal exactly, except that it is. There are a few other automotive events that are surrounded by that same aura—a kind-of mysto-wacko automobiliana that subverts and seduces, sucks up time and money, and we go after them like we had good sense.
I used to know other guys who spent the entire month of May at Indy (I used to work for one of them until one day it occurred to me that the I was putting in twelve hours a day, slowly becoming a troglodyte, so that this guy could go to Indiana. I either quit or was fired—about the same back then.), or started to get ready for NASCAR Speed Week at Daytona six months early, or most fanatical of all maybe, the guys who have made every Bonneville Speed Week ever, risking heat prostration, skin cancer, dehydration, and the chicken-fried steak at the Western Cafe in Wendover, Utah.
It occurs to me that in every way other than some sort of engendered must-do fanaticism (and that they are held about the same time of the year), Bonneville is the exact opposite of Monterey. Cars at Monterey show up in 18-wheelers with expensive graphics on their sides and crews of uniformed lackeys doing all of the work. The salt rats show up in pickup campers pulling two-wheel trailers. The trucks are rusty and so are most of the drivers.
But it’s all surface rust. About half of the people are at Monterey to be seen. At Bonneville, no one is looking. Monterey is the ultimate in mechanical class society, with Bonneville still the last bastion of Run Whatcha Brung. How did I get off onto this?
OK. This year, the Maserati Year (every year a make with a significant racing history is honored; last year was Chevrolet’s turn; next year it’s Aston-Martin), a few days before The Event, I flew into San Francisco, picked up an Audi 200 Quattro that had to be returned to Los Angeles anyway—I’m a nice guy. I do favors like this—and drove down to the Monterey Peninsula staying off the main CHP infested highways and as close to the coast—Half Moon Bay, Moss Landing, etc.—as possible. Some great tidal flats, some wonderful shoreline, and still comparatively un-condo’ed.
The Monterey Peninsula, scene of about a third of Steinbeck’s writing, used to be one of the most beautiful places on God’s earth. It’s still beautiful but God can no longer afford the down payment and the Phillistines are building a tract right down the road as we speak. Steinbeck had his own cosmography going when he lived there. A kind of populist-socialism, he seemed to have a real affinity for the little people of the area, the fishermen, bums, farmers, laborers who really lived there. They are all pretty much gone now, although Cannery Row is still there, loaded with high-buck restaurants and semi-adult Disney-fantasies of The Way it Used to Be. If you get there though, don’t miss the aquarium and do drop in at Merlin McFly’s (one of a chain of bars of no great distinction, except that this one has a Brooklands Austin 7 hanging over the bar, a couch made to look like a Type 35 Bugatti, and a wall relief of Panhard Dynamique—the front door leads to the loo. Billy Hinds, the artist who put it all together, Gerry McCabe, and I are the the only one who recognized it as a Dynamique, and I’ve never seen McCabe in a bar, so they have recently repainted it to make it look like a weird ’37 Chevy. The way of the world.
Approach the peninsula through Seaside (coming from the north) where ladies of the night start to patrol the streets about mid-morning, there are a dozen neighborhood bars that cater to soldiers from Fort Ord (Laguna Seca, the track, is built in a gentle valley and the slopes that form it on what was the eastern side of Ft. Ord, before the U.S. Government donated it as a park.) and sailors from smaller facilities in the area. Nothing like a military town to make everything real. Seaside also has the local auto row, everything else that has been zoned out of Monterey and Pacific Grove, and the best damn Chinese restaurant (The Chinese Village) in the whole area. Steinbeck would have approved.
But we came here to see cars.
Monterey, west of the track and south of Seaside has a few used car lots that are worth looking at, and a good Ferrari dealership. I was there about `82 for a Pontiac long lead, going out to dinner with some of my fellow jour-nal-istes and a bunch of Pontiac engineers and designers, all in an intimate little bus. For a few minutes there I was in fear of my life as the Pontiac guys rushed from rail to rail in the bus threatening to turn it over, just to get a look at the car lots on both sides of the road. They don’t have stuff like that in Detroit apparently. It makes a nice little walking tour if you can find a place to park to begin with.
Now, south to Carmel where I had been lucky enough to find a place without a year-long reservation. One does this by having lots of friends any one of whom may have to flee the country at a moment’s notice leaving a vacancy behind.
Everybody knows about Carmel. Clint Eastwood, owner of the Hog’s Breath Inn, jazz aficionado, and sometime Ferrari driver used to be the mayor. Clint’s out of office now and the Hog’s Breath’s kitchen had been closed down by the health department (the bar was still open). But Carmel got it’s reputation first as an artist’s colony, then as real estate salesman’s fantasy, long before Eastwood, The Monterey Historics, or Pebble Beach (the Concours, not the private housing preserve or the land/golf club/hotel development company just to the northwest of Carmel) came along.
Carmel is crowded with little boutique places, galleries, clothing, jewelry shops, eating establishments—all of life’s necessities, the staples. And one of my life’s necessities is to sit in one of the eateries, preferably one outdoors, and watch cars that we have begun to think of as hanger queens, museum pieces, trading pawns in a stupid, greedy game, come rumbling or gliding or whining along, looking for parking places, waiting at stop signs, just like real cars are supposed to. Cars after all are machines for conquering distance, defeating time, for taking people from one place to another. Seeing a picture of an XK-120 Jag in this or any other book is one thing, a mild aesthetic experience. But seeing one weave between Cutlasses and LTDs on those crowded, narrow, tree-lined streets, is quite a different thing. It puts the Jag into a kind of wonderful perspective, reminds us of adventure lost, youth fled. And the leaking oil helps to keep the dust down.
The official program has four days of school, practice, and vintage racing at Laguna Seca, a huge concours at the Quail Lodge in the Carmel Valley (over the hill to the south from the track, east of Carmel itself), a Ford-hosted competitor/journalist breakfast, an exclusive Mercedes-hosted banquet for the elite few (moi) at the Beach-and-Tennis Club next to The Lodge at Pebble Beach, the Rick Cole Vintage Sports and Race Car Auction at the Doubletree in Monterey, various marque club gatherings, the Pebble Beach Concours D’Elegance and when everything is supposed to be over, the Ferrari Owners Club Time Trials held at Laguna Seca on Monday.
This year Maserati had a hospitality tent for the Friend(s) of Alejandro DeTomaso. It’s hard to know whether to feel sorrier for the buyers of BiTurbos and their derivations or the conscientious people who work for the Maserati importers in Maryland. But the concours at the Quail Lodge brought out perhaps a hundred Masers–all that I saw were road-going (or at least road-going at one time). No Birdcages, 250Fs, 300/450Ss, 4CLTs, or any of the other gloriosa that make the road-going cars increasingly desirable by association
Funny thing about Maserati. No one who knows ever has much bad to say about their competition cars. Not that they were all winners. Even when they had world-beaters, they seldom beat the world because of lack of funding and often just plain bad luck. But the road cars were always far behind their counterparts from Ferrari. The most numerous (until the DeTomaso era) were the 3500GT and the cars based on them (Sebring, etc.). DOHC sixes, they seemed poorly built, underdeveloped, and truck-like compared with
Ferraris, Astons, even comparatively cheap cars like the Porsches and Jaguars. Maserati kept plugging away but to no great avail. Only the Ghibli, especially the Spiders, seemed to have any ready group of buyers. But the serious escalation of Ferrari prices has had the effect of sucking the Masers up into the vacuum left in the wake of the prancing horse.
There were some beautifully restored Masers on the green acres at Quai lLodge but for the tyro visitor ,the Isos and Bizzarinis, with a little show of their own, were the stars. Iso got started with the unfortunately named and rather staid Rivolta, and by the time Bizzarini (a former Ferrari designer) got around to designing the Grifo for Iso, the whole was in commercial decline. Not Many of the wild Bizzarinis were actually built, so not many of the people viewing them even knew what they were.
There is a painful juxtaposition between the best part of the racing, and the worst, and the auction. To explain: I knew a veterinarian once who loved dogs, but was not a dog lover. In fact, “dog lover” he said, was a prejudicial term, a term of condemnation. It was dog lovers who bought collies with heads so narrow they might as well be brainless, and hysterical Irish setters, and German shepards with congenital hip disease. Dogs so bred and inbred that they were caricatures of themselves, and all caused by a misplaced aesthetic creating an opportunity for greed.
Steve Earle is a bit like that vet. When he started the Monterey Historics at Laguna Seca fifteen years ago, he could probably have been called an enthusiast without wincing. Steve grew up with a reverence for the cars of the recent past and the men who created and drove them. He has a special affinity for Ferraris—he has owned, among others, a Testa Rossa, a 250 GTO, and a 412MI. Any one of his friends knew which TR250 it was (It was the first one,#0666, and he bought it with a Chevy in it. It was just an old race car then, and I suppose Steve thought it deserved a better fate. Now that you know, maybe you can be his friend too—but don’t count on it.), and it was knowledge gained through osmosis and a practice rather akin to religion. But there have always been people who were sure they could buy passage to heaven.
And so I am reminded that I had better specify Testa Rossa—two words—V12 engine in the front, bodied and rebodied by Scaglietti with the pontoon fenders that look so right but really didn’t work all that well. Driven at one time or another by Von Trips and Gendebien and Gurney…all of this was important to Steve or any enthusiast.
The 412MI is, perhaps, a better example. Steve’s 412MI was THE 412MI, not just the best one—the only one. It was built by the factory as an anti-Scarab weapon and Steve had it at the first Monterey fifteen years ago. A friend, Tony Krivanek, was there the day before the event, Friday (in those days Monterey was a one day event, all over Saturday so that anyone who cared could go over to the Concours at Pebble Beach on Sunday. A nice weekend. Today, people and cars begin to arrive on Monday or Tuesday—the menu stretches over a week.), and he still remembers the ride that Steve gave him. Tony had ridden in dozens of exotics before that, maybe hundreds since—they’re his livelihood now—but he remembers the 412 howling and shrieking, the gear whine and the heat. Earle was driving the car on the track for the first time—right hand drive, center accelerator, four-cam 4-liter V12, narrow tires, a chassis that wasn’t the state of any art even by the cavalier standards of 1957/58, and definitely stone-aged by 1973. Steve was being very deliberate, smooth, but trying to coach himself through the driving process that was so open to the possibility of error.
Steve had really started the event for a group of admittedly, or at least identifiably elitist friends, people for who the significance of the Maserati 250F (used as a tool for Fangio’s last World’s Championship, the only F1 car to have run both the first and last race of the 2.5 liter formula—shame, if any of this is new to you, extra points if you know which the first and last races were.) did not have to be explained. He retains some prejudice concerning the ruck of British roadsters, Porsche 356s, Alfas and Corvettes that made up the production-based cars in SCCA and Cal Club racing in the `fifties and sixties. He does not want HMSA, the vintage racing club that sanctions Steve’s Monterey and Sears Point races, to become a haven for increasingly late model refugees from the SCCA.
What he does want are the glory cars, the Ferraris, the Maseratis, Aston-Martins, Jaguars (the Lightweights, C-Types, D-Types), Porsche 550-based Spyders, front-engined Lotuses, older “production” cars like the Zagato Alfas, Porsche 904s, Lancia B20s, Siatas, BMW 328s, specials in the Old Yeller/Scarab mold.
What he is getting are applications from exotic car dealers, exotic car brokers (“I know where there’s a…what’s it worth to you?”), owners of Lolas, McLarens, Chevrons. The ability of some of the drivers has always been questionable, but as the cars are increasingly faster, on one hand, and more pre-WWII (and even a few pre-WWI) cars one the other appear, policing becomes a major task. Then there is that elitism, a kind of extension of the Brooklands “the right crowd and no crowding” that seems doomed because the right crowd no longer seems able to afford the cars.
If you’re a first time attendee at the Monterey Historics, you’ll find that many of the people spend very little time watching the races. It’s not the burn-the-car-in-the-bog mentality of ‘seventies Watkins Glen, or the swill beer and party-’til-you-puke of Indy, Long Beach or any number of other enthusiast events. The paddock is open to any ticket holder who has the fortitude to hoof it in from the parking area. The owners of the cars range from aloof to gregarious, but the cars are all there, more accessible than at any other motorsports event. And it’s here that the schmoozing and bench racing that really are the crux of The Spectator’s Monterey take place.
One good time—maybe the best time—to be at the track is Friday, late afternoon–I missed it what with the auction and the MBz dinner, but it comes as close to being the “right crowd…” atmosphere as Monterey is ever likely to get. And I shouldn’t be telling you about it. Fangio in an Alfa 159, Hill in a W196…The auction. Lots of hype, lots of pretense at black-tie gentility. It has more in common with the feeding frenzy of sharks or commodity brokers than a gentlemanly, refined exchange of prized possessions. The CERV-1, a Duntov-masterminded, Chevrolet-designed mid-engined single seater once driven by Stirling Moss at Riverside, that had been loaned to the Briggs Cunningham Museum, was transferred as part of the collection when Miles Collier in Florida bought it. Collier then resold the CERV as surplus to his requirements, and the gentleman who bought it, hoping to capitalize on the Corvette mania begun last year, ran it into the auction with an enormous reserve. General Motors enjoined him from selling what they considered their property and the car was taken out of the sale. Big excitement.
A dubiously restored Ferrari 250P brought over $2,700,000. The “Stovebolt Special,” the HWM that Kirk Douglas drove at the beginning of “The Racers,” repowered with a Chevy in 1956 (The first Chevy-powered special?) brought about $135,000—about the same as a Dino 246 with “chairs and flairs,” proving once again that while there may indeed be justice, it’s in as short supply as taste. Still, I have pedaled enough used cars to know that any car is worth what someone will pay for it. After the MBz dinner, an intimate little gathering for about 200, I went back to the auction just in time to see a Ferrari 330, a car that I always thought of as the schoolteacher’s dream, go for $180,000. And so I reeled off to my overpriced bed.
The concours on Sunday has become an impossibility. Admission is expensive (at least it’s for charity), the crowds become impenetrable earlier each year, the politics of winning grow more Byzantine (actually, the politics come in the acceptance of entry). Still, with it all, the best car (a magnificent Touring-bodied Alfa-Romeo spider) won. It is a car you must see, very much like one on the cover of the Simon Moore book on the 2.9 Alfa. I split early and went back to the races.
Monday and I’m supposed to be running Steve Sailors’ Alpine A110 in the Ferrari Owner’s Club time trial. With some little difficulty, the car was placed in the fast group. I guess the reasoning goes like this: all Ferraris are faster than the speed of sound if not the speed of light, so it makes sense to classify the cars by driver ability rather than by car type. However, if one of the inferior makes (like the Alpine) wants entree, it must be placed somehow among its social superiors, so after warning me that there were going to be real fast cars out there going real fast—like a LeMans Boxer and a Lola T-70—they let me out with the fast group. With a passenger aboard, something of a handicap in a car with maybe 130 hp, I was passed only once (Lola T-70) in practice. I did manage to pass a number of genuine Ferraris which have then been humiliated enough for one season. That was practice. Before the event itself, the transmission was somehow contrived to have been broken, and that was it for the day. I checked out, and Audied back to LA.
Next year is Aston, Ford owns most of Aston…the speculation starts.
Featured image above: “Monterey Historics” (Albert Wong for LA Car 2018).
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 at the age of 60. We are re-posting the entire collection of “Look Down the Road”—and you’ll be able to view them all in one location under the simple search term “Len Frank”. – Roy Nakano