Martin Swig in Lancia Lambda

Martin Swig – Interview and Profile

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.

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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.