Martin Swig in Lancia Lambda

Martin Swig – Interview and Profile

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]

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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.