Remembering Martin Swig (1934 – 2012)

By Michael T. Lynch

Martin Swig at the 2012 California Mille
Always with a smile, Martin Swig at the 2012 California Mille (Photo: Dennis Gray)

Martin Swig died on July 3rd after suffering a stroke. He leaves a legacy as one of California’s great car guys. Unlike most others, his influence was felt internationally.

Swig caught our disease early. By the time he was at Stanford, he and schoolmates Mark Dees and Harvard Gordon were traveling together to the early races of the California road race revival. Dees went on to write the definitive book on Harry Miller and his cars and Gordon had a long career in the film industry as a technician. Now, all three are gone.

Swig made a career for himself in the automobile business, which he both loved and hated. He once commented on his Alfa dealership, “No one wants the damn things until they’re old.” He would own many iconic old Alfas over the years.

Martin began his love affair with foreign cars at a time when being part of the sports car scene was very social. His later contributions to the sport reflected this. Best known for creating the California Mille, a sort of rally for vintage sporting cars that included plenty of fine scenery, wine, food and most of all, camaraderie. All his events both organized and haphazard, shared these features. His inspiration was the Mille Miglia Retrospettiva, and he was the only American entrant at the first of these in 1982.

Great ideas often germinate at the same time, and my old high school buddy, Bob Sutherland, organized the Colorado Grand two years before Martin put together the California Mille. However, Martin was still present at the creation. He was an entrant at the first Colorado Grand.

Martin’s greatest achievement was to have been one of three major influences within the old car movement that turned the arc of history away from the dreaded trailer queens – cars that were trucked from show to show and rarely, if ever, driven on the street. They were Ed Gilbertson, who made driving events part of the scoring at Ferrari Club of America Concours; the Pebble Beach Concours organizers by creating the Pebble Beach Tour which can be a tie breaker if one car participates and the other doesn’t; and Martin Swig’s tireless efforts to bring great cars and great people together on the road rather than on a lawn.

Although Martin wasn’t there, he practiced what California Sports Car Club founder, John von Neumann instructed in his last public appearance at a function at the Petersen Museum, “Have fun with your cars.”

Martin certainly had fun with his, and best of all, allowed us to join him. Spectacular roads forever for you, Martin. You’ve earned them.

Remembering Martin Swig

Martin was a special guy, no doubt about that. I am not sure when we actually met but it had to have been at least 40 years ago. I thought I might be overly consumed with cars and after I met him I knew I was ok. He loved to drive and absorb the whole experience, rain or shine, wet or dry, old cars or new and the best part was that he could carry all that he had experienced right on into lunch and that made for some pretty good get-togethers.

Having found there was to be a recreation of some sort of the Mille Miglia in 1982; he entered (the only American to do so) and brought back reports of an amazing experience to the lunch bunch. The following Mille Miglia was well supported by American applicants and for many years to follow. Martin could do that. He also recognized that a tour of similar spirit, held in California could be special and the California Mille was born. He had a lot of good ideas, many of which we enjoy today. He also embraced others ideas and gave encouragement and support when he felt it was needed. He gave it to insure that “car guys” had the opportunity to enjoy being car guys/girls.

A lot goes through your head at a time like this, a million memories, lost opportunities but mostly the chance to say thank you. Thank you, Martin. ~ Steve Earle, president of General Racing, Ltd.

We have lost one of the last honest-to-goodness gentlemen of our hobby. When Judy and I finally made it to California, we were kindly adopted by Martin, whilst a visit to his various facilities on and off Van Ness was always an exciting treasure trove. As fellow Stanguellini Formula Junior owners, passionate Alfistis, and with proper reverence for all things Lancia, how could it not have been a truly special friendship?

Through the succeeding years it has been our pleasure to witness Martin’s pride and delight in David, and then Howard, assuming the vintage racing mantel, whilst everyone’s heroine, Esta, with great aplomb, pedaled various ’50s Alfas and Fiats.

More recently Martin acquired a Lambda from another legend, the late Don Wright, causing me (now enjoying my second one) to tease Martin “better late than never.” Martin quickly grew to truly love and appreciate his iconic Lambda, and was in process of helping me submit mine for its second running of the historic Mille Miglia.

Of course, life will go on, but let’s take time to thank and honor Martin for everything that he, and his family, have done for our car passion which, as a result, is so much the richer. ~ Peter and Judy Giddings

Mary and I did several California Milles and enjoyed them all. Mary always said that Martin picked the worst roads in California for some stages so he could watch the Ferraris bottom out or struggle up the switchbacks that the Porsche 356 guys loved. While I got the first speeding ticket in 30 years on one what I really remember is driving through the redwoods or up the coast. He picked great scenic vistas and he really loved driving them.

We also vintage raced together and he was equally enthusiastic about that. You could count on seeing Martin, Esta and the team at the Starbucks on the way to the Laguna Seca track in the early morning which was a great way to say hi. I will miss him, a great character and a super nice guy. ~ Jon Shirley

Martin was the archetype of the classic car enthusiast and a much-loved member of the raceway family. His passion and great sense of fun could infect any group of car nuts and we will think of him often when those groups gather in Sonoma in the days to come. ~ Steve Page, GM Sonoma Raceway

Martin, among truly avid car people, was a rare example in that he really knew what cars were made for — to be driven and have fun doing it — and, in the bargain, he was able to put together and lead one of the best excuses ever to exercise precious collector metal and rubber on the open road. It was his cool contribution to the hobby, and it became known the world over as The California Mille. The hell with expense, and drive them well! ~ William Edgar

Martin Swig, Alfa Romeo 6C 1500 Zagato
Barry Meguiar interviewing Martin for “Car Crazy”, with Martin seated in his 1928 Alfa Romeo 6C 1500 Zagato Sport on the race pre-grid at the 2007 Monterey Historic. (Photo: William Edgar, Edgar Motorsport)

Martin Swig had a real depth and breadth in his understanding as to why a certain car design was truly significant. Always incisive in capturing what made his and other collector cars so appealing for all of us.

There was his attentive mischievous warmth. A gravely voice that made me feel that I was somehow on the inside on the conniving to bring interesting speakers to do a presentation to Western Automotive Journalists.

Martin accomplished a huge amount in his reach leaving no enemies or bad feelings while touching many lives. He stood fearless with his thoughts, and as few ever, was fearless in his actions, without regrets. He imbibed life like a fine wine. His presence will very much be missed. ~ Jon Rosner

On behalf of the Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca family, Martin will be sorely missed. He has been a regular fixture in the paddock from the early days and bringing exquisite cars for our historic races, he has never missed an historic race here. His passion for all things automotive brightened the eyes and hearts of everyone he met. He has been an inspiration and mentor over the years, his contribution to this sport will not be forgotten. ~ Gill Campbell, CEO/GM, Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca

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. ~ Martin Swig from our April 2011 interview and profile

Swig is survived by his wife of 34 years, Esta Swig; their two sons, David and Howard Swig, of Sausalito, CA; his daughter, Annalisa Poirel of Hohengœft, France; his four grandchildren (Anders, Solveig, Isolde and Jacob Poirel); his sister, Angel Bastek of Naples, Florida; and his brother, Richard Swig of Council Bluffs, Iowa.

A memorial service will be Friday, July 20th, 2012 at 1:00pm at Temple Emanu-El in San Francisco.

Show Comments (3)

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  1. Our hearts have been very heavy since losing Martin Swig. He was a patriarch of vintage car enthusiasm and so much more. He was a great friend, and it was such a joy to be around him that we treasured every moment.

    We had the pleasure of getting to know Martin at his California Mille rallies, during Monterey Week, and at the LA Auto Show. Our gratefulness for the time with him is tempered by our regret that we didn’t get to see him more.

    Martin had a long and fascinating history in the car business. He was a leader and a trailblazer in everything he did, whether running dealership operations or organizing a rally. He was a skilled driver and an automotive historian. Most of all, he was an enthusiast. He enjoyed cars and he enjoyed sharing the passion with others. He loved it all, and we loved him for it. We once tried to keep up with him on a hillclimb, he in his 1925 Lancia, we in a car with 30 more years of development. We were not successful, partly because we were laughing so hard.

    We are enjoying the stories about him, the articles by him, the photos and videos of him, celebrating his rich, colorful life. But it’s also very painful. Monterey Week will just not be the same without Martin roaming around the paddock. We’ll have our sunglasses on and our hat brims pulled down to hide the tears.

    – Mitch and Kim McCullough

  2. Martin is gone and I will miss him.
    He was a true gentlemen and car guy of the old school.
    Martin would freely share his views on our sport in an often profanely funny dialogue.
    The morning after my first interview with him he called asking if I thought perhaps I might like to edit out the more colorful references to a group of carpet baggers from Santa Barbara. If you knew Martin you know who I refer to. My response was that we had very few children as readers but still the reference to these ‘gentlemen’ could be dropped without diluting his views.
    On another occasion, the Monday morning start of this year’s California Mille, upon being introduced to my wife Karletta he invited her to have breakfast with him and bring me along if she desired. He spent the next 30 minutes regaling her with stories of past Mille’s and explaining why these car people found the California Mille so intoxicating. Karletta left the Fairmont totally captivated by this old school gentleman and car guy.
    I’ll miss Martin from the Sears and Laguna pits and I’ll miss Martin from the list of friends I can call upon for advice and ideas on our sport.
    Damn, Martin, the world is a poorer place without you. Motor on my man.

  3. Wonderful tribute to a wonderful man. Thanks to all, especially Martin for his many contributions to the community. He will be missed.