“Just wait until you try a New York pretzel,” my dad said, as our pale yellow Coupe de Ville glided down Route 3. I admit I was skeptical. I mean, I was almost six years old already, and I knew what pretzels from a store tasted like. They were good, but hardly the stuff of dreams. My Dad was undeterred his enthusiasm. “The street vendors have these big carts where they cook the pretzels over a charcoal fire,” my dad continued. “They’re hot and a little crunchy on the outside, but soft in the middle. You put a little mustard on them and they are out of this world.”
Food was always inextricably woven into the weekend adventures with my dad. Sometimes he would introduce a new pizza place that he had come across in his travels (like Pizza Kings). Sometimes it was a bakery with great cheese buns (Hahns). Or an amazing burger joint (The Brook Tavern). Or the best sloppy joes in New Jersey (Bangiolas). Or hot dogs with long slices of pickle and birch beer on tap (Johnnys). Whatever the place or cuisine, he made it all part of the adventure, and the adventure on this day was my first trip to New York City to see the Auto Show.
I sat in the passenger seat of the big coupe, in this time before modern annoyances like child seats, rear-seat laws, airbags, and seat belts. I guess as it is with most recollections from childhood, that Caddy seemed bigger than life. Only it was bigger than life, with an enormous split bench in front and a long expanse of dashboard that dwarfed me in a wall of plastic wood. I loved the small details that the car had, like those little sentinel lights on the leading edge of each front fender that showed that the headlights were functioning, and the Cadillac emblems, ducks and all, seemingly everywhere. The car’s eight-track player clicked back to Program 1, and Barry Manilow appropriately began to wax poetic about the New York City Rhythm.
“Here comes the Lincoln Tunnel,” my dad announced. He had already primed me for this part of the trip, and I was eager to see what driving under the water felt like. “Like a big bathroom,” I thought, as we drove through the tiled tube, my eyes scanning vigilantly for even the slightest of water leaks.
When we finally made our way out of the parking garage and through the doors of the New York Coliseum, I stood slightly transfixed, like when you first see Santa’s presents under the tree on Christmas morning. It was slightly dark and cozy, very unlike the strong, garish trade show lighting of the Javits Center. Cars were everywhere, and they were all wondrous to me. Up until that very point in time, I really had no awareness of automobiles, other than the ones that were in my family. In this afternoon, though, I excitedly asked question after question about Chevrolets and Buicks, Opels and Peugeots, Alfas, Fiats and Ferraris. I sat in most of them, and dutifully collected each and every brochure to put in my Datsun bag. And every year starting with that first show, the show would continue long after we left the city and returned home. “What was your favorite?” he would begin. “Well what was your favorite?” I would counter, seeking his counsel before making such an important decision. We would go through every brochure that night, right up until my bedtime.
My dad always preferred having new cars. They would arrive in the driveway in two year increments. With my mom’s car in play in the odd years, that meant a new machine to get to know every year. They were always clean, too. Being allowed to help wash them was a right I had to earn, with clean hands and an undropped sponge. My job was the sides of the car, while my dad tackled the top surfaces and wheels. While he was not above taking the cars through car washes, at least in those early years, he clearly preferred the hose and bucket method. “You really get to know the car up close when you wash it by hand,” I offered one day. I remember my dad smiling and suppressing a laugh about that observation, but never really appreciated why.
The car ordering process was almost as exciting as the car itself. Sometimes my dad would know exactly what make and model he wanted, but was unsure of color and wheel choices. Other times there would be several contenders. He would lay in bed with brochures and car magazines scattered all over his side, pondering Tornado Silver versus Rennaissance Red, Anthracite versus Astral Silver, Slate Grey versus Firemist Green. Sometimes, in this time before Photoshop, he would literally cut wheels from one picture and paste them on to another car. Though I am probably biased, I have to say to he nailed it nearly every time, ordering the sharpest whatever it may have been, no matter coupe, sedan, or wagon.
In the seventies, my dad was a Mercedes guy. He had owned a pair of 450SLs in tandem, one silver and one blue, but both too early for me to really remember. When a light blue metallic Mercedes-Benz 300SD Turbo Diesel arrived in 1979 (cleverly disguised as my mother’s car, I might add), it was really the first time that I realized just how much he loved the “car” part of the car. “See the ridges in the tail light, Drew?” my dad would ask as we washed it. “Those are to help the air and rain clean the lens when the weather is bad.” He marveled at the paint quality, the leatherette, the alloy wheels, and even the Becker tape player, which was of the smaller “cassette” variety. The diesel motor made a pleasing, mechanical chuttering sound, black soot and all.
In 1981, my dad decided to move to a three-car strategy, paving the way for a sports car in the driveway. The first arrival to fill that spot was a 1981 Mazda Rx-7 GSL, taking a spot in the garage next to a silver 380 SEC. That little Mazda was a fun and pure little sports car, and was the first standard transmission car that he had owned since I was born. The whole rowing the gears thing did not make any sense to me, though my dad assured me that I would get the hang of it when I got older.
One day we were taking the Rx-7 up to Massachusetts when a bright red sports car came up from behind and passed us in those curves that used to be the entrance to 287 New England after the Tappan Zee bridge. It was low, it was wide, and it had a great exhaust note. “What was that?” my dad asked me. I was prepared, thanks to the latest Road and Track at the school library. “That is the new Porsche 944.” I told him all about the car excitedly, thinking about the prospect of having a Porsche in the garage. A the ripe age of 13, I was better than any car salesman at closing a deal. The next week, he ordered one in black metallic over black partial leather from Herman Miller Porsche.
That car would never come to fruition, though, with production delay after production delay aggravating my father. The seed for the owning a 944 had been planted. Following a brief stint in a 1984 “New Corvette”, it finally became a reality in late 1986 when he took delivery of a 1987 944 Turbo in Germany. It was a sinister looking car, black on black, and adorned with the 16 inch 928-style forged wheel upgrade. Now seventeen years old and fully-armed with a drivers license, I was chomping at the bit to drive the Porsche. Though I did not make the trip to Germany with him that time around, we did fly down to the Carolinas to pick up the Porsche at the vehicle preparation center. We took an extended road trip back to NJ, stopping for a college interview and some golf along the way. Over the next couple of years, my dad would go on to let me drive that 944 Turbo probably more than any reasonable person would allow a seventeen year old kid the privilege. I took the car to the Poconos with a friend. I drove the car to my high school graduation, I even took the car on a date with a college freshman. Dad would go on to own a couple of other Porsches, including one of the very first 964 C4s and an early 993 Cabriolet, but to be honest, the 944 Turbo is the car that I think about the most when I think about my dad.
“What Porsche do you think you’ll first own, Drew?” my dad asked me one day when we were driving down Route 80. Now post-college in my early twenties, I had been stopping into High Marques to kick tires on a near regular basis. Though John Vogt may not remember speaking with me, he had given me some sage advice way back then: “If you learn to drive a 911 well, you can drive almost any other car well.”
“I think the first one will be a 911SC, dad. I really want to join the Porsche Club and learn how to drive one of these things on the racetrack.”
It took some time, but I did go on to fulfill that dream back in 2004 when I bought my first Porsche – a 1983 911SC. And like I planned, I did join the Porsche Club, and I did learn to drive the car. Over the past eleven years, I have done countless autocrosses and even won a second place trophy at the SCCA Solo 2 Nationals in Lincoln, Nebraska in 2010. In driver education, I advanced through the DE run groups, and eventually became an instructor for the club, and now, the track chair. The autocrosses, the tracks, the whole experience – there is no one that I would have loved to share all of this with more than my dad.
My dad passed away in early 2000, leaving behind his family and a lot of unfulfilled dreams of his own. I think about him often at events, especially when I see fathers and their sons enjoying this wonderful hobby together. The gift of the love of automobiles, and all of the memories past, present and future that I associate with them, is something that I will always be thankful to my dad for.
One of the plans I had made in my head following his passing was to find and buy his 944 Turbo – his first Porsche. I took to the best place to find things these days, the internet, to mount a search for that car. Looking high and low, on Pelican and Rennlist, I came up with nothing. I had convinced myself that that car was probably parted out by now, and instead bought that aforementioned 911SC.
About three years ago, I had lunch at Pocono raceway with Rick Newman and Eugene Hahn, who is a well-seasoned instructor with NNJR, an incredible driver, not to mention one of the nicest people you will ever meet. In between bites, Eugene casually asked, “Drew, was your dad also named Drew?” I answered, ‘Yes, I’m actually Drew, Jr.” Eugene continued eating for a while, and then added, “I met your dad once.” I was pretty excited about this. “Really? How did you meet?” figuring he would say through business. Eugene paused (he dispenses information with the expression and pace of any “wise man” you have ever seen or heard about), and then offered, “I met your dad when he was buying his 964. I was introduced to him because I was looking to buy a car.”
All of a sudden, I had a epiphany. My dad had told me way back in 1989 that the turbo had been sold to a member of the PCA. Why hadn’t I remembered that detail before? “Were you the one that bought the car?” I asked excitedly. Eugene’s expression didn’t change. “Yes, I bought the car. It was really nice.” Wow! Now I knew who the car was originally sold to! A second later, I thought about Eugene’s current car. It is a black 944 Turbo, in full race trim with gutted interior and RUF graphics. It hit me like a ton of bricks. “Is your car outside the same car as my dad’s?” I asked, knowing what the answer would be. “It’s the same car,” answered Eugene, now with a broad smile,
I’ve been looking at this car for all of these years in the paddock and on the track. I’ve even been a passenger in the car a couple of times. And all the while, that was my dad’s old car…hiding in plain sight. I felt a sense of relief, like I just located a long lost friend.
Fast forwarding another few years to last summer, I was again at Pocono, waiting in pit lane for my run group to start. I was now in a 964, the same kind of car my dad had bought to replace his much-loved 944 Turbo. In front of me were two other drivers in their cars – Dick Fell in his 911 race car, and Eugene in dad’s old car. When we entered the track, the three of us ended up pulling away into our own little group. Dick and Eugene were taking a lap to get heat into their tires, and as I approached the bumper of the 944, Eugene gave me a point by. My car pulled alongside dad’s old machine, and I felt the ghosts of times gone by – the memories of not only this Porsche, or even of all cars, but the car shows, the long Saturday drives, the times we shared both good and bad. Even in this setting, on a racetrack with engines screaming at high speed all around me, I felt only peace, with a twinge of profound sadness. A half-lap later on the high speed back straight, I returned the favor and the powerful 951 whistled slowly by to take the point. I followed behind in that run session with a strange sense of calm. With each passing lap, the 951 became slightly more distant and quiet, but never out of sight.
A lot has changed about the New York Car Show since I was a kid. For one thing, most of the car companies have done away with printed brochures. “Give us your email address and we will send you a link,” the representatives answer. I do not want a link. I want a bag, and I want brochures. The good news is that the miracle wax guy is still there, still pouring acid on a black car hood, and it still shines like it was 1975. The Peugeots, Pontiacs and Oldsmobiles have gone the way of the DeSoto (and the Saturn), Datsun has corrected itself to Nissan, and Fiat is back, even if for only a limited time engagement. My near-six year old, Julia, pulls on my pant leg. “Can I get a pretzel, dad?” she asks. She happily chomps on the pretzel, looking at every car – and I do mean every car – and sitting in so many I cannot count. I take pictures of her next to Porsches, and Minis, and everything in between, until she has worn herself out and we are ready to go. On the way home, I ask her, “So Julia, what was your favorite car of the show?” She thinks for a second and answers, “I don’t know, what was your favorite, dad?”