Remembering Otto Zipper

Story by Stephen Mitchell

Otto Zipper I spent a lot of time in a showroom at the corner of Wilshire Boulevard and 26th Street in Santa Monica. It belonged to Otto Zipper and featured Ferraris that held me spellbound for hours at a time.

On the occasion of my first visit, there was a silver Berlinetta Lusso showing its profile to passers-by and behind it in an array was a 250 2+2, a 330 GT America and a 330 GT 2+2 (quad headlights)–a very generous offering for someone who had never seen a Ferrari up close. My only previous exposure had been to see Jill St. John’s Lusso in the paddock at Riverside Raceway through a pair of binoculars, which was pretty impressive, I have to say. Seeing these cars close up where the nuance of the design was highlighted by optimized lighting was like seeing your favorite paintings in the Louvre.

My host on those occasions was Trevor Hook, an Englishman’s Englishman, always well-presented and perhaps better suited to a Rolls-Royce showroom, he had aristocratic manners in the best sense and spoke in an impeccable ‘brochure’ vernacular referring to Pininfarina as the Maestro. It was Trevor who offered me my first ride in a Ferrari. I suppose he figured I’d invested enough time staring at and studying these cars that I should be accorded the privilege of a more dynamic experience. He selected the keys to a Bordeaux colored 250 GTE and off we went up Wilshire to a street that ran behind the Brentwood Country Club and featured a ninety degree right-hander that allowed him to demonstrate the Ferrari’s flat cornering capability at speed which, along with the seductive sound of the the V12 with its timing chains and canvas-ripping exhaust note (sorry about the cliché, but it’s how Trevor would have described it), was an unforgettable, landmark experience for me.

It would be awhile before I bought my first car which wasn’t a Ferrari but a Jaguar E-Type but that didn’t stop me from returning again and again to Otto Zipper’s to see what was new in the showroom. When I acquired my Berlinetta Lusso, it was to his shop on Wilshire that I took it for service. I remember developing a rapport with Mrs. Zipper who thought I should buy a Porsche 904 that they owned or was for sale by a customer. She was quite knowledgeable about the car and was convinced it would make an ideal street racer. As much as I liked it, it wasn’t Italian and didn’t have twelve cylinders.

When I bought the GTO, I wasn’t surprised to find that it had an Otto Zipper provenance. He had owned it when Richie Ginther raced it at Riverside where he finished fifth overall in the Times Grand Prix in 1964. One day, as I was waiting to collect the Lusso after some routine maintenance, I saw Otto standing in the far end of the shop in deep contemplation of what I think was a Porsche 906 parked in the corner. I was reminded of this quiet moment a lifetime later when I snapped a candid photo of Jim Glickenhaus in his shop in quiet reflection as he gazed at his cars. I’ve heard people say that “it’s just a car” but I could never think in those terms. Cars, like the people who get involved with them, give us a lot to think about.

[Source: Stephen Mitchell; photo courtesy of Bill Diller who can be seen as a young man standing with Otto Zipper]

Show Comments (17)

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  1. How did you get that kind of money as a kid? My first car was a 1966 Ford Mustang which my Dad paid 600.00 USD for in 1977.

    I attended TONS of races at Riverside & OMS thru the 70s.

    Nide read! Thanks.

  2. That Porsche 906 that Otto Zipper was looking at in his shop was probably the Otto Zipper entered 906 that Don Wester and Scooter Patrick drove in the 1966 Sebring race. That same car, with Wester at the wheel, had an accident with the Mario Andretti Ferrari and flew off the track and killed four spectators.

  3. I too remember Otto Zipper with reverence. Often in the mid to late 1960s I would visit the showroom to look at the Ferraris, the Porsche 904, Porsche 906, and then the Group-5 Porsche 911R.

    Then one SCCA race weekend at Riverside International Raceway in 1968, I was fortunate to pit my new black showroom stock E production 912 right next to Otto’s famous Porsche 904 in the Goodyear garage. Scooter Patrick in the 904 had qualified pole position next to a ‘pavement pounding’ black A Production V-8 Cobra, ahead of all the rest of the A, B & C production as well as professional A & B sedan race cars.

    Just before their Sunday race was called to the grid, the sky became cloudy and we felt as few rain drops. I overheard Otto, Scooter, & their crews’ concern, so I offered them the use of my new Goodyear wet/dry compound racing tires, that I drove on the street to work, to school, and to the race tracks on weekends.

    From the standing start in those years, Scooter out dragged that fire-breathing Cobra through the old Turn-1 bridge, into Turn-2, and up through the esses, and finished the race with another incredible 1st overall.

    Otto and his crew then quickly remounted my tires on my wheels, helped push me to the starting grid, and I drove my little black 912 street racer to 2nd place overall in the E production, etc. heat.

    Monday morning Otto phoned me at my UCLA research laboratory and invited me to join him for lunch in Beverly Hills. Then to my surprise after lunch, Otto and the crew presented me with my first Porsche 904/906 racing transmission main-shaft [a priceless possession for a non-factory race car driver and team].

    Porsche transmissions were designed with changeable gears designated by the entire alphabet from A to Z to facilitate gearing for the speeds of corners, curves, and straight-a-ways of racetracks worldwide [including a few extra gear ratios in between, such as GA, HA, HB, and ZA etc.]. But, the production main-shaft delivered in 911s and 912s had a forged ‘F’ gear in place, that was only useful for very slow corners and when starting out from 1st gear on the street. So that limited the stock 5-speed transmission to only 3 useable gears [3rd, 4th, & 5th] on most race tracks.

    Otto Zipper’s gift that day of the Porsche factory all-changeable gear racing main-shaft no doubt changed my life to thoroughly enjoy over a couple of decades of amateur and professional race car driving and fond memories.

    Bruce Campbell

  4. Memories of Otto

    In 1969 both my older brother and I (I was 15) purchased a 1969 Alfa Romeo 1750 GTV from Otto’s dealership (on Wilshire Blvd.) which was next to Bob Estes’ Ferrari/Maserati/Lamborghini showroom. After 42 years, I still own the Alfa and, is still cherry. (I can send a pix if you want). The problem I have is that, even though I now live behind the bamboo curtain (Orange County), I can’t locate a proficient Alfa Romeo mechanic…anywhere unless I have to drive 95+ miles and, that still won’t guaranty an acceptable service, etc. 
    I stayed with Otto through his Wilshire Boulevard and his Santa Monica location on Lincoln Boulevard. Today, I’m still looking for a proficient Alfa mechanic who, additionally, won’t steal parts off my car when it’s being worked on. Your feedback is greatly appreciated. ([email protected]).  Michel 

  5. That is me in the picture. My dad had many Porsches including a 356 Carrera 2 . He was best friends with an noteworthy professional automobile racing photographer named Cameron Warren. We used to go to all the races at Riverside, Willow Springs, Fontana, Laguna Seca, and Santa Barbara. Through my dad’s friendship with Cam, I got many special “perks” such as this opportunity to meet Mr. Zipper.

  6. I met Otto in 1975 when I was plucked from the Wild Whist Bridge Club and thrust under the hoods of the ALFA’s at Otto Zipper ALFA on Lincoln Blvd in Santa Monica Ca. I was given the opportunity to run the service dept and it was and still is today one of the highlights of my working career. My favorite day was a Saturday and for a reason I can’t remember, I went to the Dealership. Otto was there and had the Tippo 33 in the service department. It was my favorite car and Otto noticed the smile on my face. He said to me….”You want to start it up?”. Do I have to tell you my answer??? He told me to get an oil can and put some gas in it. I brought it to him and he gave the carb stacks a healthy squirt. Then he jumped in the cockpit and fired it up. He revved the engine a few times and stunned me by putting it in gear and burning rubber nearly out on to Lincoln Blvd. I will never forget knowing Otto….

  7. I have just come across this article with attendant comments and have to say, first, thank you to all and second – your comments are most entertaining even if not all are consistent with my memories, which is probably just as well.
    It was a fun time. Mrs. Otto (Carol) Zipper

    1. Allow me to say hello to you after a lifetime has passed. I can well imagine that an auto dealership with its related activities, overhead, responsibilities and clientele appeared differently through your eyes but the kindness, or tolerance, you showed me as someone who was barely 15 yet smitten nonetheless was appreciated in a way this article cannot adequately convey.

  8. I was on the Grid Crew in 67-68 for SCCA….Riverside, McClaren, Hall, Gurney, others…at Vegas raceway saw Mr. Otto arrive in his 904 driven from S.M. to starting line next to Cobras and Corvettes and just win the drag race to the first turn staying ahead and winning the race….Wonderful…

  9. I raced Mustangs in the TransAm in the 60s, and have a friend, Duane Carling, who has made a business out of producing an independent rear suspension for Mustangs of that era. The original Mustang IRS was designed by Klaus Arning, who was THE Ford racing suspension guy for many years. He was from Germany, and had an interesting background, so I recently asked Duane if anyone had put together his bio in writing. Duane responded with some info that included the fact that he worked for Borgward before he came to the US.

    What on earth does this have to do with Otto Zipper? Well…when I was 16, in 1957, I had a summer job working for Mr. Zipper. Believe it or not, he was importing Borgwards, so Duane’s note jogged my fond memory of that time, I looked around on the web, and found this exchange. Following is the rest of my Otto Zipper story.

    The Borgwards arrived in the US coated in a rust preventive called Cosmolene. My first task for Zipper Motors was cleaning the awful stuff off the cars, with kerosene, as I recall! It was stinking hot, and a truly miserable task.

    Mr. Zipper was a classic, nearly unapproachable, German, always immaculately dressed, and I was plenty scared of him. After a couple of weeks of watching me suffer trying to prove to him that I would get all the stuff off, and wouldn’t quit, he showed a sign of mercy. He brought me the keys to a VW Microbus based pickup (remember them), told me to load a stack of tires on it, take them to a warehouse of his, unload them, and “have a look around before you return”.

    I got to the warehouse, and it had a motorized metal door – unusual in those days – which was a hint of something special. As it rose I saw an astonishing collection of classic cars. There must have been at least 30 of them – Ferraris, Lancias, Maseratis, and more than one Bugatti. I was stunned. When I returned to the dealership and gave Mr. Zipper the keys, he allowed himself a sly smile, and asked if “I found it interesting”? I stammered something that must have been somewhat coherent, because he rewarded me with a new job – helping rebuild a Bugatti engine, which was much better than cleaning Cosmolene!

    I spent many years after that in the racing world, and never forgot Otto Zipper.

    1. Hi, Brunce Trenery here. I loved your remembrances. In the fifties, or early sixties, do you remember Mr. Zipper having a beautiful Alfa 1900 open sports car? A freind of mine bought it derelict from the back of his race shop in 1966.

  10. My granddaughter. Ashley,sent this web site to me. While she did not know I had already seen it some years ago, I am now surprised to find the more recent
    comments. So, I must repeat myself: the bits that I could not remember before, I still do not remember because THEY NEVER HAPPENED. And now I can add more to those imaginary places and happenings. This is so much fun. But I am not mocking anyone. I’m just glad that others, besides myself, remember him even with some fondness. I’ll supply the tenderness, though he’s been gone 40 years. Carol Z.

  11. I need to thank whoever, whatever is keeping this website alive. It’s wonderful to read it again while waiting out this dreadful covid -19 virus that is surrounding the planet. As said before, life with Otto really was great fun, and it’s helpful to know that others thought so, also. Carol Zipper