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Martin Swig – Interview and Profile

Interview and photos (unless noted) by Dennis Gray

Martin Swig is a San Francisco Bay Area-based vintage racer, car collector and founder of the California Mille vintage car rally. A graduate of Stanford University, Swig was a multi-franchise new car dealer in San Francisco for 40 years.

In addition to founding the storied California Mille in the early ’90s, Martin has been vintage racing a variety of mostly Italian marques for more than 30 years. He is a contributor to Sports Car Digest and a variety of other publications.

In advance of the 2011 California Mille, Martin sat down with Sports Car Digest to discuss his early passion for all things automotive, his time as a new car dealer, insight into what makes the California Mille go and much more.

Sports Car Digest: Can you give us a history of Martin Swig?

Martin Swig: I was born in 1934 in Northern New Jersey. At some point I got hooked on automobiles. I must have been pretty young because I remember my mother wanted me to go to a Sunday school when I was three or four years old, I must have been three because I remember the bribe was, on the way there was a Cord showroom, and If I’d go to the Sunday school I could get out of the car on the way and press my nose up against the Cord showroom. So I got hooked kind of early on. Luckily, when I was about 12 years old my father bought a company here in San Francisco and moved us here. I thought I had died and gone to heaven. You read about the beginnings of the hot rod movement in California, it was a place that was all about cars. I thought that was pretty neat. And, in those years in California, you could get a driver’s license when you were 14. So every kid who was worth a shit knew how to drive when he was 12. Whenever you had a chance you would get together with a couple of your friends and steal your parents car when they were gone for the night, and go for a little drive. Luckily, we survived all of that. Every kid who was worth his salt had a driver’s license by the time he was 14 years old; and a car. I guess for a California boy at that time there was only one thing he was as interested in playing with besides his car, but we had to take care of the car and buy gas first, so there wasn’t too much money left over for social.

I was lucky enough to go to high school down in Palo Alto, and then I went to Stanford. While I was at Stanford I worked for a used car dealer over in Menlo Park who was starting to fool around with used foreign cars. And they were really foreign then. When I got out of school I went to work for the Fiat/Alfa Romeo/Lancia dealer in San Francisco. I had been attracted to those cars before. A friend of mine brought a Fiat 1100 back from Italy in 1955, and we all knew Henry Manney at the time and he was sort of our, well he taught us about everything good, he taught us about Fiats, about Alfas, about Lancia Aurelias, he taught us about little Crosley-powered Siatas, about all the fabulous stuff.

I worked for that company for about 10 or 12 years. It became the Mercedes dealership. By the time I had been there for that long I thought I was about the smartest man on the face of the earth and my bosses were two fabulous guys, old Stanford business guys, old-time quality new car dealers. I really had a wonderful sort of graduate school education, and they had let me buy a minority interest in the company, so when it was time for me to be kicked out and fly on my own they did me the favor of doing that and since I owned a minority share of the company I got a fairly good size check for the times, buying out my interest. I went down the street on Van Ness in San Francisco and bought the Datsun dealership. That worked out pretty well, and then in the next few years I picked up Fiat and Alfa Romeo, and I got kind of serious and picked up Mazda, Toyota and some other Japanese cars over the years. Then, after about a dozen years on Van Ness, the whole car business was changing a lot so I was lucky enough to be able to do one of the first artful multi-franchise, all-under-one-roof dealerships in San Francisco. That worked out very well, but it also kind of put me in the real estate business. I didn’t know it at the time, but after I had that San Francisco Autocenter, as we called it, for about a dozen years I realized — with the help of the J.D. Power Organization, who were doing a lot of dealer roundtables, and some real estate friends of mine — that I was really in the real estate business and not the car business. So, with the help of a good developer, we made a good retail shopping, not automotive, center out of it, and that enabled me to be the bum I always wanted to be. So that is sort of the business background.

I must say I loved every minute of being in the car business. I don’t recall I ever went to work. I put into it an awful lot of hours and it was dead serious, and certainly at-risk financially, the whole time, but it was certainly fabulous, fabulous. Along the way, I always liked the hobby side of cars. To this day, I think I only have two good friends who don’t come from either the business side of cars or the hobby side. Of all the guys I know and I am very fond of, it’s the total world of cars, whether for hobby or business, and I consider myself very lucky, it’s been a fabulous group of people.

I guess I always had one or two collector cars, I mean way back when, years ago, because you would buy some treasure and you’d be telling someone how pleased by you were and they would say “what did you pay for that piece of old shit?” Well their answer was always, “you could have bought a new Chevy for that kind of money!” Well, it was more fun when people thought we were nuts. Now they think you’re really hot stuff if you have an old Alfa or something and it’s only $50,000. Well, you stole it. Now that they have gone up so they cost more than new Chevys.

Martin Swig, Tatra t-87 sedan.
A local Porsche notices a cousin. Tatra T-87 sedan. Rear engine 3-liter V8, 4-speed transmission, monocoque body.

SCD: Your wife drives, and don’t you have a daughter who drove?

MS: That’s funny. The valet parking guy here, we come here a lot on Sunday mornings, and when I have to go do a few errands my wife and I take two separate cars. One day I pulled up here and the parking guy says, “Hey, your daughter is already here.” So my wife earned that. She’s been living on that ever since. My wife is probably better, more aware of most cars than most ladies, and she does a little racing — not that she is very quick, but she is attentive. She drives a little Alfa Romeo Giulietta Sprint Zagato, she has never frightened anybody into thinking she might pass them, she knows where she is on the track, to her credit. I have two sons who race very well. The older one named David works for Bonhams auction house in the automotive sector, and the younger guy, Howard, is working for Car and Driver in Ann Arbor.

SCD: What was your first vintage automobile?

MS: I can go back to about to about 1947 when I had a $10 Model T, but we didn’t even know they were called vintage, it was just an old piece of shit at that time. After that you get married and have a kid and all that stuff and you don’t fool around too much. In the early 1960s I bought a very nice 1940 Buick convertible. Nice original car, never should have sold that one either, but if I never sold all the cars I shouldn’t have sold there would not be a garage big enough. Later in the ’60s I had a nice 1937 Buick Century convertible from the original owner, I was into Buicks. One of my problems, but I don’t consider it a problem, is that I like an awful lot of different kinds of cars. Because there are so many that are significant in one way or another, if I would just zero in on one. I like Alfa Romeos a lot, I’ve got eight or nine of them. I have too many other things. I worked for the Alfa dealer, then later I had the dealership myself. That was between 1958 and 1995. I was involved in new Alfa franchise all those years. I bought my first Alfa Romeo 1900 in about 1973. I’ve had a lot of Alfa 1900s over the years, and a lot of Giuliettas, and some others as well.

SCD: Can you describe your toy car collection?

MS: Well, again, I like all kinds. I like pedal cars, I probably have 30 or 40 of them. I like manufacturer’s promos, and I have several hundred of them. I like 1/43rds. I like oversize things, and it’s out of control. If I had to guess, and I wouldn’t claim anything like that, but it’s probably like a thousand pieces. I keep some at home and some in my office. The problem is I have a house full of this stuff and an office full. And the office is several rooms, which doesn’t present any trouble except in terms of books. I probably have 85 percent of my library at home and 15 percent at the office. But that doesn’t prevent the fact that wherever you are, the book you want is at the other place. I could never afford to move again, it would be so disorienting it would kill me.

SCD: What cars do you own now?

MS: My everyday driver is an S5 Audi, and to me, they built that car just for me. They did not pay any attention to anybody else, they just did everything I liked. Then I have another older Audi A4 wagon that I love. I was going to tell you a funny story about my wife. Three or four years ago, we’re having dinner, and she said she had it figured out now that she was 60 years old. “I have been married to you for thirty years, I’ve figured out that the dealer’s wife always gets something either sale proof or a leftover. I think it’s time I had my dream car.” So I said well, in principal I agree, depending on what that might be. She said she liked the Cayman. I said well that’s funny, in all the years I’ve owned cars I have never bought a Porsche car. All the Alfa guys don’t do that. So we got her a Cayman, and it has proved to be very satisfactory. We also have a Suzuki SX4, it’s done by the Suzuki factory, it’s a little trick rice rocket, turbo with a wheel and suspension package, the appearance package and all that one-off show stuff, and she uses that car more than the Porsche.

SCD: Your 1925 Lancia Lambda, has front suspension that reminds me of the much later Morgan cars. Can you tell us a little about this car?

MS: Well, I guess it’s not too different from a Morgan. The Lancia started using that suspension in 1922, it’s called a sliding pillar front suspension. The old Lancia that I have is called a 25 and it’s far, far and away the best driving car of that era I have ever driven, a fabulous car to drive. So it’s a 1925 Lancia Lambda. It’s just a standard four-seater open car. The suspension was used up until about 1961. Almost unchanged. I have a couple of late 1950s Lancia Appias with that same front suspension, and it works very well. So, I have those three Lancias, the Appia Zagato, and an Appia Pininfarina Coupe, then I have Alfas, a 1928 6C 1500 Zagato Spider, and a 1953 1900 Pininfarina Coupe. I love Alfa 1900s. And then I have five different Giuliettas, a Spider Normale, Spider Veloce, a Sprint Veloce, a Berlina TI and a Sprint Zagato.

Martin Swig - 1925 Lancia Lambda 5th series Torpedo
1925 Lancia Lambda 5th series Torpedo basking in the early morning sun.
1954 Alfa Romeo 1900 Pinin Farina on the 2008 California Mille, Martin Swig
1954 Alfa Romeo 1900 Pinin Farina on the 2008 California Mille. Image from the Swig Collection.
Alfa Romeos in Martin Swig's garage.
Alfa Romeos in Martin Swig’s garage. Image from the Swig Collection.

SCD: How do you pick your cars, how do you focus on a car?

MS: Cars I like. Well, one thing I find very important is whether it’s a nice car to drive. Every car ever made was made to drive, and it should have good driving characteristics. That’s why I love the Italians, but I also love those early Chryslers. We’ve run our 1931 CM 6 Chrysler Roadster at Monterey. It runs about like an Alfa 1750. Surprises everybody because it’s just a lowly Chrysler. Probably not worth as much as a 1932 Ford Roadster. The year that Bentley was the featured marque at the Monterey Historics, there were 17 of them. One of them, my buddy Stanley Mann from the UK, was in an 8-liter Bentley and cleaned my clock, but the other 16 of them didn’t have a chance in hell. It was kind of fun.

SCD: Don’t you own a Chrysler Le Mans or Chrysler that ran at Le Mans in the 1930s?

MS: I have four early Chryslers, an early 1924 Roadster, the first year of Chrysler production. In the last 25 years I have only seen one other in the U.S. You can find sedans and touring cars, but no roadsters. Fabulous car; nobody else cares about it, but I happen to like it a lot. Then I have a 1931 eight-cylinder roadster, done in the style of the car that ran at Le Mans driven by Raymond Sommer, a well-known French driver. Then I have a 1931 six-cylinder Chrysler Roadster, slightly breathed on. Maybe what a well-to-do hot rodder in Beverly Hills would have done at the time. Still runs on white wall tires and has a loud exhaust, three updraft carburetors and a little extra compression. And then I have a 1951 Chrysler Saratoga. It is identical, even to the original paint color, to one that John Fitch drove in New Mexico in 1951. They’re all pretty good cars, especially when you look at what certain cars are today and you say, “Well they don’t make them like they used to,” which is in some ways sad, but in some ways, thank god. One time Fitch was doing autographs and selling some books at the Quail, so I took the car down and he autographed the car for me. He loved it. He’s pretty nice.

Other interesting cars, I have a pre-war Tatra V8, which is a fabulous car. For the most part I don’t like cars where there are a lot of others and everyone has one anyway. And Alfas, I have a nice 1750 GTV. Pretty good. I have a French Fessel-bodied Ford Comet from the early 1950s, I consider it pretty significant. Then I got, along with my son, a dozen, I guess, very significant early Japanese cars. Some Toyotas, some Datsuns, just got a nice Subaru SVX, one of the greatest cars of all time.

Martin Swig, Tatra T-87 Sedan
Martin Swig pulls the Tatra T-87 out for a drive.

SCD: Your son David and you both compete in today’s vintage racing. Have you a history of racing other than vintage racing?

MS: My son Howard is also a good driver. I was always too busy trying to make a living. When you’re a car dealer you’re always busy. You can’t take off on Thursday and spend all weekend racing and get back Monday and find your feet by Tuesday. You can’t run a business like that.

SCD: Could you describe the events you produce for vintage and historic automobiles?

MS: The (California) Mille came about because I went to the Mille Miglia first in 1982, and we were the only Americans there. I invited John Lamm from Road & Track to come with me. I took an Alfa 1900 Zagato and we had the time of our lives. John put a little thing in Road & Track and pretty soon everybody was paying attention to the Mille Miglia. Incidentally, it had an unfortunate side benefit. Before the Mille Miglia everybody thought my 1900 Zagato was a piece of shit and a total waste of money. Then when Italian cars like that, when people were reminded about how good they are, all of a sudden I was a smart guy for owning it. So we went back to the Mille Miglia, I’ve done it twenty times. But in 1990 Bob Sutherland in Colorado started the Colorado Grand. I went to it, Gil Nickel was there, Ivan Zaremba was there, Lou Sellyei was there. That night the four of us went out to dinner on our own, you know, so we could drink some of Gil’s wine, and somebody said, “You know, somebody may do something like this in California, and we may not like it, so we better do it.” So we did.

SCD: What about other events you produce?

MS: About 20 odd years ago we started a kind of tongue-in-cheek thing we called “fuck football” on New Year’s Day. Within a few years it got kind of popular, so we had to clean up the name. Then we do a some kind of a Mille event in the fall, a little lower key and open to somewhat younger cars, open on the 1957 limitation on the Mille. That’s about it. I’ve been functioning as the Chief Judge for the Marin-Sonoma Concours, and most years I go to Amelia Island and judge there. I’m not going this year for the first time in years, and just came back from Retromobile. You can’t go everywhere. I have been going for about twenty years, and it’s a fabulous show as only the French can do. For all the things wrong with the French, when they get things right they’re really good.

SCD: Focusing on the California Mille, what sets this event apart from other vintage events?

MS: I can tell you a little story about that. One year, out in the country, about three days out, one of my friends and one of the participants came over and said, “Things are going pretty good aren’t they? You must be very pleased.” He then said, “But did you ever look at it this way: You take these cars, these people, these roads, the topography, the hotels and restaurants. What could you guys do to screw it up?” I’ll tell you what we could do to screw it up. We could make it bigger. It’s the first thing I’ve ever done that more wasn’t better. So, we will always limit it to about 65-70 cars, we could focus less on driving and more on the social aspects, but it’s very nice, eat and drink well and stay in nice places but it’s a motorhead’s game. If you’re just a poseur you don’t show up.

One day I had a call from a guy who identified himself as a very important Beverly Hills doctor. He had heard about the Mille Miglia and thought it was pretty good and he’d like to do it, and he wanted to know what kind of a car he should buy. I said the first rule is you buy a car you like. What kind of a car do you like? He said, “Mostly I like whatever is best in its field. I like a Mercedes-Benz or a Ferrari.” I said that a lot of people bring those, and he said, “I want to be sure to get in,” and I said then I’ve been waiting for somebody to enter, buy this car and then you’re in. He asked, “What’s that?” I said it’s called a Topolino. “What in the hell is that?” When I told him, I never heard from him again. What distinguishes it, and probably equally the Colorado Grand, is it probably appeals to motorheads, and they are the two best events in the country, in terms of roads. In California we have a little bit of an edge because in Colorado they have to use the main roads between the towns because the secondary roads are dirt surfaced. We could run California Mille every week and never duplicate the roads, almost. So that makes it kind of nice.

SCD: Can you share a few stories from the California Mille?

MS: One of my favorite things. A smart guy who comes to this event figures that his best friends are the two mechanics, Conrad Stevenson, who has been with us from day one, and Jere Brown, who has been with us as long as I can remember. Fabulous guys who can look at a car they have never seen before that is not running, and then within 30 minutes have it going again. They work their fannies off every day and do well. Sometimes there are guys who do not understand who is really important. We had one guy who was a particularly egregious example, came out from the East Coast in his Aurelia Coupe. He was very demanding. His horn was not quite right, and he wanted the full attention of the mechanics to fix his god-damn horn. We had a long time tow guy named Doug Lackey who, unfortunately, has passed away, one of the fabulous guys, the kind they don’t make anymore. And this dumb disagreeable guy went off the road down the coast off a very steep embankment. He would have gone all the way down except for a tree stump that stopped him. Didn’t do his Aurelia much good. He had just gone off, and the tow truck which is the last car came along, and for some reason I was behind it. Tow truck was there, and I pull up and Doug sees who it is driving the car and he says, “Do I have to pull that fucker out? Can’t I just leave him here?”

But mostly, it’s interesting, the type of personality who comes to the Mille. First, it’s somebody who has a pretty good car, so they have been successful enough in their chosen field to make enough money to buy the stupid car. Well, that means in their professional or business life they’re probably in the top rung in that field and they can snap their fingers and whatever they need to happen happens. Now you have come to the California Mille and you can be left by the side of the road if your car just decides to quit on you for any number of reasons. So, the same personality that controls his situation has to enjoy being in a situation that he doesn’t control. I think that brings us some very lovely people who are really pretty together.

Marc Hruschka, Martin Swig, 1925 Lancia Lambda
Marc Hruschka, CEO of Chopard USA, and Martin Swig with Martin’s 1925 Lancia Lambda on the 2009 California Mille.

SCD: Can you share insights into this year’s (2011) California Mille?

MS: We always do something a little different. This year the biggest change we’re making is we’re leaving San Francisco on Monday morning and we’re spending the next three nights in one place, up in Calistoga. We have never done that before. All the ladies are probably going to love it, all the guys won’t care much either way. But from Calistoga, if you think about it, if you go one way or the other, it’s a good road. That’s one change. We’re going to have lunch one day at Arturo Keller’s. On the first day we’re going to go on a few touring laps at Sears Point, and on the third touring day we’re going on a few touring laps at Thunder Hill. Otherwise, we’re going to go on a few favorite roads, a mish-mash of our favorite roads, just strung together differently than other years. In the early years, some days we had days that were really long. One year we went from San Francisco to Mt. Shasta. The town of Mt. Shasta, not just up Highway 5, we did a little route of 350 miles or more, just wore everybody out. We thought 250 miles is enough. Which is four hours in the morning and four hours in the afternoon and a good place for lunch. Some days it’s only 200 miles.

I’ll tell you a funny story. One year we had our normal thing, it was about a thousand miles, and I think at that time it cost about $4,000 to enter. My buddy Lou Sellyei said, “That’s a hell of a deal, only $4 a mile and you bring your own car.” So the next year we had a very long route, about 1,200 miles, and so our sales pitch was 200 miles extra and no extra charge.

SCD: What problems crop up year after year?

MS: None. Mostly, you know, Dan Radowicz is the administrator for this thing, or I don’t know what we call it. He makes everything happen flawlessly and makes it look easy. The reason we don’t have any problems is because of Dan. Well, you do have a problem if cars fail. As people understand what it takes to do a tour. They have to have a car they drive and don’t just take it out once a year. We have less and less of that, but the gremlins strike unpredictably. A couple of years ago on the final day we had people dropping like flies. Usually, the first day is the worst because the people aren’t really prepared to crap out on the first day. We had another son of a bitch one year, a good story. We had a guy with a nice V8 Siata just out of the restoration shop. The guy didn’t know his ass from a hole in the ground, and he got to lunch on the first day and the transmission was broken. And he was holding forth about how a gear tooth fell off. And I should tell you this guy is a lawyer. So he was constructing his court case. A gear tooth fell off because the restorer fucked up like he didn’t screw it on right. Not that it was broken off by a clumsy driver. Well that guy never came back, and we were glad never to see him again.

1953 FIAT 100 Berlina, Martin's favorite racer. Image from the Swig Collection.
1953 FIAT 100 Berlina, Martin’s favorite racer. Image from the Swig Collection.

SCD: What is the most unusual or funny problem you have had to solve over the years?

MS: Well, one year Jaguar was our sponsor, it might have been in the late 1990s, I forget exactly, or early 2000s. Anyway, they had a really bitchy lady journalist, fairly well known. And the cops stopped her for blowing through a stop sign some place the way she shouldn’t have at a high speed. And she started telling the cop how important she was and they almost took her off to jail. They should have, it would have been good for her.

One year we got to an evening and Erin Zausner was along with us that year. He had just finished regaling a video crew — and I hope I know where the tape is of him doing one of those testimonials — about how he had made a lot of money, and he said because he subscribed to Sports Car Market he knew how to buy low and sell high. And how, you know, five years ago he was driving a crummy Dodge Dart and now he had a whole fleet of Ferraris from Keith Martin’s Sports Car Market and that he had everybody doubled up. Then we gave him the microphone over dinner and he told us Jaguar stories about how in the summertime when he grew up back in Philadelphia, sleeping with the window open and the car was outside in the rain and you could hear it rusting. A whole bunch of Jaguar stories that were, close to true. Well, the Jaguar people were so annoyed they almost got up and walked out. They were really pissed!

A few years earlier we had a Chrysler sponsor, and Bob Lutz came with us a few times. I thought if that had happened on Bob Lutz’s watch, who was never a corporate twit, he would have gotten up and said, “You know, all those stories are true, and in fact, can you imagine a brand that is so strong it could suffer through all that shit and still be around?” And I am here to tell you all that we know all that, and we don’t want that shit to happen again and you can believe me. He would have handed Eric Zausner his head on a plate. In a clever good-humored way. These corporate people don’t know how to lighten up.

I should tell you two other pretty significant things. When you get older you think about the things that really influence your life, and in 1982 I did two things that were really to my benefit. I went to the Mille Miglia, and as a result of that I met everybody who is anybody in the world of car hobby and it led to me doing that 20 times. We have now completed, this will be our 21st year of the California Mille. I got to do the Argentina Mille Miglia a couple of times. I got to do the one in Australia three, four or five times, I got to do the one in Japan three or four times. It opens up this whole fabulous world. Well the other thing I did was I opened up this Autocenter, the multi-franchise thing, my first one. All of a sudden instead of being a car peddler, I’m sort of a prophet. I ended up meeting all the big thinkers in the retail world. Retail is kind of theater. I’ve met lots and lots of dealers from around the world and found it’s the same game everywhere. Factories are demanding, and the customers are demanding, and somehow the dealers have to live in the middle. I also got involved with the J.D. Power organization and a lot of their meetings. Those two things really opened up a whole new world to me.

SCD: How does an owner of a vintage or historic car prepare the car and himself for the California Mille?

MS: Well, I think you prep the car and you have to prep yourself and have a little sensibility about cars, so you’re not like one guy we had along one year whose Maserati just stopped cold and was fried. He could never hear anything or smell anything, everything was just fine and then instantly it stopped. I think you have to have a little sense of working with the car and helping the car to do what it does well and not ask it to do things it doesn’t do well. You have to be at one with your car. Like the Mazda people have figured out that their Miata should be like a man and his horse. It’s really important and, of course, you use the car, you just don’t drive it once a year. You pay attention to it, and hopefully you have some guy look after it for you who is sensitive and who knows what he is doing and sort of has a sixth sense of things that can go haywire.

SCD: If an early competition car such as Ferrari 250 Testa Rossa wanted to run your event how muffled would it need to be? What other modifications may an owner need to make?

MS: Lou Sellyei had his TR, brought it many, many times, took it to Colorado Grand many times. Tried to shake my Giulietta Veloce up and down the mountains. Well, it has to be licensed for the road, and you have to have lights and those things. If it’s a car of that old era, they were pretty good all-purpose cars except for weather protection. Bring a rain jacket or go faster, then you don’t get wet. That’s one of those things only guys of our generation understand.

1928 Alfa Romeo 6C 1500 Sport Zagato Spyder - Martin Swig
1928 Alfa Romeo 6C 1500 Sport Zagato Spyder. Image from the Swig Collection
1959 Lancia Appia Zagato GTE, Martin Swig
1959 Lancia Appia Zagato GTE at the 2009 Quail. Image from the Swig Collection.

SCD: Does local law enforcement give you any support?

MS: No. and we don’t want any. For the first few years, I sort of copied this from Bob Sutherland and then I figured it out that he was wrong. We had a California Highway Patrol guy with us. One year we had had a particularly bad winter and a few weeks before the race I drove every mile again just to make sure the roads were OK. Then we did the event with the Highway Patrol guy. I had just been over these roads three weeks ago and now I’m seeing sheriffs here and cops there everywhere. I think it was some professional courtesy law enforcement things, and now I was through with the Highway Patrol. I mean I had worked that out with Bruce Meyer. I called Bruce and I said, “I don’t want to embarrass you, but I am done with the Highway Patrol.” And his response floored me, he said, “I wondered when you’d come out of the smoke.” Now we tell people just to use their head. There are some roads where you know you are not going to see anybody and others where you know you might. So, if you’re not too stupid….

SCD: Where do you see the California Mille going in the next five or ten years?

MS: Well, the honest answer is, I don’t know. I would say I think it is a question, say ten or 20 years from now, of whether there will be enough people still alive and physically able to make up a starting field and whether there will be enough younger people who care about this stuff.

SCD: How do we bring younger people into the sport, tours, racing, concours any vintage historic event?

MS: I’ve done my part, two out of two. You know young people don’t care about cars. Cars are a device to carry electronic things like radios and all that shit in. I think a big problem is the roads and safety and all that. Driving well is not a valued skill in America. The whole driving deal. My older boy taught me this when he was about 15 years old, he had his learner’s permit. He already knew how to drive. He had some deal he had to go out so many hours; he would go out with his mother and with me, and he was really getting sideways with his mother and he was pissed at her. He was really rude to her, and I said, “David, you just really can’t speak to your mother this way.” And he said, “It’s because she picks on me and it’s this stupid critique.” I said, “I do the same thing. I pick at you every 10 seconds when you’re driving.” He said, That’s right Dad, it’s a difference, she works on fear you work on skill.” And that taught me that we teach driving based on fear, that you’re going to be in this lethal device and if you’re not careful it will kill you. The whole “speed kills” thing. If you want to drive well, you learn to develop your skills and master the machine and the environment. We’re never going to have any good drivers. I can go to Europe and drive East or West and drive 4000-5000 km over a period of days and maybe see one stupid driver. I can get to the airport in San Francisco and drive home to Sausalito and see 25 of them. That is ridiculous.

My deal with my boys was, for their 16th birthday they each got Valentine 1s. I figured they needed to know how to use them. My younger guy was a little late to the car game, but we made a driver out of him. He lives in Ann Arbor, and one time he was coming home. So, the first day on the road, in the evening, I would call him up and say where are you? Grand Island, Nebraska. Oh shit, that’s pretty good, 925 miles is a pretty good day. The next night I called him and asked where he was. Elko, Nevada. Holy shit! He said 1,200 miles. The next night he’s home. I said tell me this: what was the largest number of miles you put into any one hour? He said 109 between Lovelock and Fernley. I flew back to Detroit to drive home with him some months back last year, and I was kind of tired and I took a little nap in Nevada and in three hours he did a trifle over 300 miles. He never gets caught. He pays attention to his Valentine 1, and when he can see where he is going he is doing 110-115. When he gets over a rise where there could be a cop, he gets down to 95 so you can get rid of the rest of the speed if you have to. A really heads-up kid. I am so proud of him. It is criminal what we are doing to people for traffic fines for miniscule violations. One state, the truth about cars today, some middle state has just made a failure to stop when you make a right-hand turn reckless driving.

SCD: What are the similarities between the original Italian event and your California Mille?

MS: Mille Miglia, the Italian event, is more demanding. It takes place over two and a half days, about 375 cars and they are pushing that up now because it’s more for profit than it used to be. The roads are more heavily trafficked. It is more demanding, it’s a more demanding drive, but that makes it more fun. If you blow through a town in California, people are pissed off at you. If you don’t blow through a town in Italy, people are pissed off at you. The people really appreciate the cars, and they like them well driven and making a little noise.

SCD: What have I missed asking that is important for our readers to know?

Martin Swig MS: Let’s go back. When I was a kid in high school in about 1951, I thought the university for me was Art Center and I shared that idea with my dad who told me there was no god-damn way I was going to a fairy art school, I was going to Stanford and that was it. Well, back in those days you listened to your parents and kind of did what they said. I’ve always admired and liked that school. In the last few years I’ve become good friends with Stewart Reed, who is in the transportation section, and he put on that Art Center Classic. They knock themselves out doing a nice car show, and they make a little money at it, not much. So I said, “Why don’t we do things a little different?” We are going to do, at the beginning of Monterey week, a tour from Pasadena to Monterey on the back roads of California over two days. You know, like this, and for cars of particular design merit. For anybody who wants to see any age car to pay just a small fee to come on the thing and a $1,000 donation to the University. I think we will probably get 50 people and $50,000, which is more than they make on their big shows they work on. I think it will be a lot of fun. So that will be on the Sunday and Monday before the big week, but most of those guys aren’t racers and most of them will bring newish cars. I think it will be a popular thing to do.

SCD: Any other question or questions I should have asked?

MS: Well, I guarantee you that between today and tomorrow I will think of it. There’s always something else. You know what it’s like if you’re a smart enough guy and somebody says something dumb and you have a brilliant comeback then, and other people, like everyone else, only think of it tomorrow, when it is too late. Well, I’m in a tomorrow mode.

[Source: Dennis Gray]