Martin Swig in Lancia Lambda

Martin Swig – Interview and Profile

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.

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Show Comments (7)

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  1. Martin Swig is a man who speaks his mind and in the bargain has important things to say, and what’s better than that? Dennis Gray has done a great job here with his questions, and Martin’s replies run the gamut from what makes sense to kick-ass brilliance in understanding the vintage and rally car scene’s population that comprises all types from ultra-cool to go-do-something-else. This sit-down with Mr. Swig is informative and entertaining throughout and makes a stellar read to begin another new day in our car-centric lives. Fabulous stuff.

  2. Wow after reading this Interview I have a whole new appreciation for Mr Swig, he is hilarious and seems like my kind of people. I guess I need to do the California Mille.

  3. I was so touched this morning, when I knew of Martin`s dead, coincidentially on my father`s 25th anniversary, so at church this morning we prayed for Martin too.
    We always enjoyed talking at the Laguna Seca pits, around his Chrysler 8, and mainly last year we both were so enthusiastic about us finding a 1930 Chrysler 77 Le Mans Roadster, that had been lost for 40 years in a mexican hacienda, we finally got a hold of her and is being rebuilt on our family`s premises, but were never able to show her to Martin; he, together with our dad, will now see us working on her from the best place they could ever have: Heaven.
    We now have one more good angel looking after us.