Thursday, February 26, 2015

French Connections

Chris Belanger’s Citroën 2CV, which has a 1980s body atop a 1965 chassis for titling purposes
French Connections - PDF
Chris Belanger has been coming to Cars and Coffee since almost the very beginning. Over the years, he’s brought some exotic Italian steel, including cars from Ferrari and Maserati. But by far the most attention he’s ever gotten has been directed toward his Citroën 2CV.

If you’re not a car person, you may not have heard of it, but you’ve probably seen one. It’s an icon of French automotive history, in much the same way as the Ford Model T is for America or the Volkswagen Beetle is for Germany. This was the car that truly got France rolling, but did it with that nation’s signature style.

Since he acquired it four months ago, Belanger has been bringing his Citroën to Cars and Coffee just about every week. And if you see him there, you’ll know that this is one of the most talked-about cars on the block. There is a regular throng of people gathered around begging for some details.

Belanger was happy to share them with me, since the details are precisely what make the 2CV so fascinating.
First of all, like other foundational cars, the 2CV had a remarkably long run. The last example rolled off the line in 1990, 42 years after its introduction at the 1948 Paris Auto Salon. The vehicle had been constructed to handle the primitive road system of early post-war France – in fact, it had been designed before the war – which meant that the suspension had to be an impressive feat of engineering.

“You could drive across a plowed field with a basket of eggs in the back seat and you wouldn’t break a single
egg,” said Belanger. “That was the requirement of the car when it was designed.”

That also means, however, that the pliant suspenders allow the car to roll around in curves a lot. He counts that as one of the most interesting parts of the driving experience.

The 2CV’s shape makes it instantly recognizable around the world
We also talked about the name, which stands for Deux Chevaux, or two horses. No, the tiny engine didn’t have a mere 2 horsepower (the original actually had 9 hp). The name was based on the tax horsepower system, which used engine displacement to calculate taxes, and it emphasized the low excise class of the vehicle.
Belanger’s copy is actually a later model, with many features of the 1980s cars, including a towering 29 hp from its motorcycle-sized engine. That power plant is air-cooled, just like a Beetle’s, but it only has two cylinders.

The tiny engine and unique suspension are just where the fun begins. Belanger offered me a ride to experience all of the unique quirks in their full glory.

“The quirkiness... for this car is the sum of the parts,” he said, and went on to list several of the aspects of the 2CV that are just plain unexpected.

The first two things you’ll probably notice getting into the vehicle are the steering wheel and gearshift lever. The former is a one-spoke design, with the rod pointing to around 9 o’clock with the front wheels straight, supposedly to aid in crashworthiness.

The gearbox is controlled in an entirely unique way, with a lever action that consists of sliding and twisting to shift gears. And its H-pattern is quirky as well, with reverse residing where first gear usually lives, first where you’d expect to find second, and so on.

There’s no tachometer to tell you when to use that gear shifter, but Citroën has helpfully provided upshift hash marks on the speedo, which is in kilometers per hour.

A few more interesting tidbits include the horn, which is activated by pressing the end of the light switch stalk; the side windows, which fold up instead of rolling down; and the seats, which come out of the car so you could drive to a meadow and use them for a picnic. Ah, the French.

The top rolls back for open-air cruising
The car also has a soft top that rolls backward to let in the sunshine, though when Belanger and I met near Alameda Park, there wasn’t much to be had. Still, he let me jump in the driver’s seat and crank it up. This feat can actually be done with an old-fashioned starter level that can be inserted behind the grille, but that’s just for emergencies, and the 2CV sprang to life with the prodding of a regular key.

After a brief tutorial on the controls, especially the gear shift, we were off, and the two-pot engine pulled us down the street with due deliberation. It’s a light car, but the 29 horses still have their work cut out for them, with a 0-60 time of more than 30 seconds.

Belanger encouraged me to test the steering, which elicited the behavior that marks this as “the rollingest car” he’s ever owned, the body gently swaying from side to side. We had no plowed fields or eggs at our disposal, but I’d venture to say the designers pulled off a highly compliant ride, just as intended. Just remember to switch off the turn signal once you complete a turn, since it doesn’t do so automatically. 

The 2CV’s interior is a mix of quirky odds and ends,
especially the steering wheel and gear lever
The Citroën was one of the most unique driving experiences I’ve had, and I’ve even driven a Model T! As with that car, you get used to the quirks of driving it after a few minutes, and then begin to soak in the attention. 

Belanger, 44, came to Santa Barbara around 10 years ago, drawn from Nantucket, Massachusetts, by a project for his residential design business. He’s a dyed-in-the-wool car guy who started hanging out with the Cars and Coffee crew as soon as he found them, and now helps out with organization.

Like Herman Pfauter and Roy Miller, about whom I’ve previously written, he gets a big thrill talking about cars and seeing the smiles that really interesting ones generate. More than many people realize, being a car person is about connections, and a vehicle like the Citroën 2CV generates a whole heap of them.

If you have a story about a special car or piece of car culture in the local area, email Randy at

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Edythe and the Model T

Randy Lioz presents Edythe Kirchmaier with a scale replica of a Model T
Edythe and the Model T
Edythe Kirchmaier recently turned 107 years old and, while discussing her car ownership history – dominated by Fords – with me, it came to light that her driving experience began in and with the first mass-produced car: the Model T. She learned to drive on one and had fond memories of it.

It was thus ideal when the oppor- tunity presented itself to arrange for Edythe to reunite with that car by con- tacting Roy Miller, owner of a 1915 Ford Model T. Upon hearing about 107-year-old Edythe and my desire to put her together with his vehicle, Roy graciously offered to give Edythe a ride. We arranged to surprise her at the Direct Relief offices during her usual Tuesday visit, with a big assist from Hannah Rael, who handles the charity’s media relations.

At first, I presented Ms. Kirchmaier with a tiny replica of the Model T that I’d recently assembled, which positively lit her up. She then described her uncle’s car, a hardtop with curtains around the cabin she had learned on.

The ultimate thrill, though, was her joy when we brought her out to her personal parking spot to see the real deal pulling up. The entire Direct Relief staff emerged from the office to see us help Edythe get into the car. Roy was thrilled, as this was his first opportunity to pilot the car with a passenger who was alive when it was constructed. The two of them talked about what it was like to drive during that era – Edythe revealed that she didn’t even need a license.

The Model T is not an easy vehicle to start. When it was time to set up, Roy hopped down to hand-crank the motor with a lever sprouting from the radiator grille, careful to adjust the spark timing in order to avoid the signature kickback that leads to tales of broken wrists.

We putt-putted out of the lot and down the lane, never reaching the T’s top speed of 45 mph, but Edythe was giddy the whole time, reflecting on cascading memories as we trundled along.

The author, with Edythe and Roy in Miller’s Model T
After Edythe exited the car, Roy offered to hand me the wheel. But first, he said, an in-depth lesson would be required; piloting a Model T is a different endeavor from driving a modern car. Yes, there’s a steering wheel, a handbrake, and three pedals arrayed on the floor at your feet. But this control setup is deceptive, since those pedals bear little relation to those of a present-day stick-shift.

That one on the right? That’s the brake. And where the brake should be, in the middle? Well that’s actually reverse gear. A clutch pedal on the left? No way; that’s the gear selector. So where the heck is the throttle? That’s actually the little lever mount- ed right behind the steering wheel. It points to 2 o’clock at idle and swings down to bring the revs up. There’s another lever on the left side of the wheel that controls the spark timing.

I eased down the throttle lever and leaned on the center pedal with my left foot, easing off the brake with my right, and the T puttered gently back- ward out of the spot. Next, I cranked the wheel the other way – clockwise does actually turn the car to the right! – and gently toed the left-most pedal to get the car into low gear. Keeping the car in that gear requires you to have your foot planted, but once we got to a more open space I was able to ease off, the pedal backing through neutral and into high gear.

At this point, I got to experience the T’s full-bore acceleration, all 20 horsepower worth, which would have been plenty for an era when there was no such thing as a highway on-ramp. We made our way back into the parking lot after a few laps, and I managed to ease it back into the space without much drama. In fact, the drive was surprisingly anxiety-free, and I took to the task more quickly than expected.

I’ll give most of the credit to my esteemed instructor, Roy, who arrived in Santa Barbara three decades ago, having spent time in Germany during his Army days, and Los Angeles and Las Vegas on many interesting ven- tures, including as a successful SCCA racing career. Lured here by a friend who owned a Lotus workshop, Roy bought his own auto shop in Santa Barbara shortly thereafter.
Getting a lesson from Roy Miller in piloting the 100-year-old car

He bought the Model T some 15 years ago, and because the car wasn’t running at the time, so he got a great deal on it; he says it only took around 20 minutes of work for him to get it to crank. Restoring the vehicle was a labor of love that took several years to complete, particularly with Roy’s appreciation of the significance of the task. More than most old cars, preserving a Model T is akin to translating a manuscript of history.

It helped, too, that he’d been working on pre-war cars for more than a decade at his shop, East-West Motors. Aside from plenty of local events, perhaps Roy’s most high-profile gig is as a judge for the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance. With this association comes a network of some of the most knowledgeable car experts in the world. And he certainly tapped this network to help guide him in his restoration of the antique Ford.

The Model T isn’t just a car; it is a symbol of America’s industrial might, which helped to launch our nation’s trajectory as the most powerful force of the 20th century. While car people get riled up about a classic Corvette, everyone goes gaga over a Model T.

And it was for this reason that it was such a privilege to experience the car with the incomparable Edythe Kirchmaier. As humans, we’ve grown to treasure the links to our past, tracing the path of our evolution. It’s a thrill to be able to ask a woman like Edythe, “What was it like?” And it’s even more of a thrill to relive it with her. 

If you have a story about a special car or piece of car culture in the local area, email Randy at  

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Classics, Getting Better With Age

Edythe Kirchmaier at the Direct Relief office, with a stack of birthday cards from friends and admirers
Classics - PDF
Edythe Kirchmaier just turned 107 years old. If you’re a Santa Barbara local, you may well have heard of her. In fact, even if you’re not (wait, where did you get this paper?) you may have seen coverage of her in national outlets from ABC News and Fox News to Hot Rod Magazine.
That’s right, Hot Rod.
The enthusiast rag’s website did a feature on Edythe’s car ownership history. It highlighted one of the most fascinating facts about her: Edythe learned to drive on a Ford Model T. Now, nearly nine decades later, she’s still driving and is the oldest living licensed driver in California, and probably the whole country.
A look at the Guinness world record for licensed male drivers reveals that there was a man who was licensed until 108 years old, and another who held a valid license until he died, either at age 105 or 110. There are no records specifically for female drivers, nor a general record.

Also remarkable is that in that time, Edythe has never been so much as pulled over for an infraction. She verified this when I had the chance to sit down with her at the headquarters of Direct Relief, a Goleta-based medical aid organization where she has been volunteering for roughly 40 years.

Edythe has the only reserved spot at the office
First, a bit of background on Edythe. She’s had a remarkable life of volunteerism, starting at 10 years old, knitting lice-catching “cootie belts” for WWI troops. Forty years ago, she began volunteering for Direct Relief, spending three years in Taiwan teaching English. And she still comes to the office every Tuesday to write thank you notes. They’ve even given her the best parking spot in the lot.

Edythe came to Santa Barbara in 1938 with her husband, Joe. They were tired of the snowy Chicago climate, and figured it was time for a change.

“He said, ‘Shall we get married, or you wanna come with me and live in sin?’ ” Edythe recalls. “So we got married.”

As an automotive columnist, though, I gently steered the conversation toward her car history. The Hot Rod spread details much of it, and it’s dominated by Fords, including Model A’s and Mustangs. Why Fords?
“They were cheap!” she says. But Edythe also insists that they were quite reliable. She truly loved her Mustangs, though, and she and her husband owned a couple of them in the 1960s.
 Looking at a picture of the new Mustang next to the original, she thought that the car sitting in today’s showroom is much better-looking, a contrast to the nostalgia I’ve often heard from older drivers. In general, Edythe feels that car design has gotten better and better through the years, and the Honda Civic that an anonymous donor gave her a few years ago is a great example.

“I think it’s a very good-looking car,” she proclaims. “And not a mark on it.”

Back to that Mustang, though...

Edythe confirmed that the car looks great, and as someone who’s seen the entire evolution of the Ford brand, I’ll grant her authority status. But does it move the bar in driving experience, too? I recently had the opportunity to drive the all-new 2015 model, courtesy of Perry Ford. The dealership has sold every copy it could get of the four-cylinder EcoBoost turbo and the V-8 GT, but they had a 3.7L V-6 on hand for me to sample.

To start out, the price was right. At just over 25 grand, it came in over $5,000 less than the Focus ST sitting right next to it. The most expensive versions that Perry has sold have crested $55,000, but with the Mustang you get a lot of car for the money, and I have a feeling Edythe would think Ford has lived up to the value story that won her over. 
The suspension was a bit soft in this base model car, and for someone who wants a real sports car I’d suggest upgrading to either the EcoBoost or GT, with a Performance Package. But Edythe would value a smooth ride more, and there’s a level of refinement that can’t be matched by the outgoing model, due to improvements such as increased chassis stiffness and – finally – an independent rear suspension. The outgoing model had a solid rear axle, just as her car did five decades ago.
The 2015 Ford Mustang in the hills above Santa Barbara

The V-6, even though it’s basically carried over from last year, happens to be a great motor, with a smooth and muscular sound and an eager response to the go pedal. The 6-speed auto transmission could stand to be quicker, even in sport mode, but flicking the steering wheel paddles to change gears through the hills proved more fun.

Inside, the thoroughly modern design has some pleasing retro touches, like a row of toggle switches. These reside next to the red-bordered start button, which may have you calling the dealer for some launch codes.
And while some of the interior materials of this base model car were cheap-feeling hard plastic, there was a nice faux-carbon fiber weave across the dash that added a sense of sportiness.

Perhaps the pièce de résistance is the Track Apps program in the cluster, which lets you track your acceleration and quarter mile times, and watch a real-time g-meter.

But our friend Edythe is probably less concerned with g-meters and soft cornering attitudes, and I wouldn’t expect her to know what to do with a steering wheel paddle. In fact, she believes that today’s drivers aren’t as careful as they used to be, so it’s probably a good thing that she wasn’t riding with me as I put the Mustang through its paces in the hills.

But that’s okay; Edythe doesn’t need a shiny new sports car to feel young. Her spirit of giving and all the love she gets from her adoring Facebook fans – that’s right, she’s reportedly the oldest social network user, too – keep her spritely. But maybe when her Civic lease is up we’ll see her peeling out of Direct Relief’s parking lot in a new Mustang. 

If you have a story about a special car or piece of car culture in the local area, email Randy at 

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Jeepers, Mr. Pfauter!

Pfauter in his garage with a 1949 Willys-Overland Jeepster, one of two he keeps there

Jeepers, Mr. Pfauter - PDF
Santa Barbara Cars and Coffee just flipped the script. At the beginning of the year, the weekly event’s main gathering spot moved to the Upper Village, with the Coast Village Road location now serving as the special last-Sunday-of-the-month location. The organizers say the upper village site can more easily accommo- date a larger crowd and large vehicles. 

Herman Pfauter is happy with the change. He has been showing up at Cars and Coffee on and off for years, often with some of the biggest vehicles around. On a recent Sunday, Pfauter showed up with his three-quarter-ton Dodge weapons carrier. No, Pfauter doesn’t carry around an arsenal fit for an army, but his Dodge did when it was built in 1944 for duty in Europe.

In fact, Pfauter has enough vehicles for a small army motor pool. Just a few weeks before, he brought to the upper village one of his four original Army jeeps. And those vehicles, built by Willys-Overland and Ford, are where his passion for American military iron began.

Pfauter was born in Chemnitz, Germany, and was nine years old when World War II ended. American jeeps were plentiful in Europe those days, and were later surplused by the Army on the continent rather than shipping them all back stateside, and Pfauter counts the jeep as his first “dream car.”

While his first car was a ’48 Chevrolet that he bought from a GI in Germany, he soon indulged his fantasy and bought his first Jeep in 1953, as soon as he’d secured a driver’s license. And by the end of the decade, he was on his way to the country that made those vehicles, drawn by a job offer as an auto mechanic near Boston. There he worked on Jaguars and Renaults, despite his training at the Mercedes-Benz factory.

Herman Pfauter at Cars and Coffee with a 1944 Dodge WC52 weapons carrier. It was one of 200,000 built for the war, and he bought it from the Austrian army in 1980.

Pfauter’s education and career brought him all across the U.S., from Northeastern University in Boston to UC-Berkeley and UCSB, and then all the way to Chicago to sell machine tools. He even spent a few years back in Germany, but his affinity for the American way of life ensured his return, and he settled in Goleta in 1984.

By then he had started buying vintage military vehicles again, and in the years since his collection has grown to a dozen, all from the World War II era and sourced mostly from Europe. Pfauter isn’t like most other collectors in one key way: While many are happy to have one copy each of their favorite models, he doesn’t mind redundancy. Hence his four Jeeps and three GMC CCKW [cargo truck] “Jimmys” – also known as the “Deuce and a Half” because of their 2.5-ton capacity.

And those Jimmys are enormous, built for a variety of jobs, including wrecking duty for other large vehi- cles. Pfauter invited me to take a look at his sprawling garage near downtown Santa Barbara, and it seems his goal of recreating the Red Ball Express Motor Pool – a convoy that would resupply the Army within enemy ter- ritory – is just about in the bag.

Pfauter has even donated money to the Estrella Warbirds Museum in Paso Robles for a new building that will house most of his collection, opening later this year.
The parking lot of Pfauter’s garage near downtown Santa Barbara looks a lot like a war-time motor pool

The visit to his garage was a treat, with vehicles and memorabilia filling nooks and crannies around the property. Many of the vehicles are covered in military olive drab, but Pfauter keeps some civilian transport there as well. While there’s the odd AMC Gremlin lying around, his taste in civvie fare is somewhat predict- able. There are two Willys-Overland Jeepsters – including one he’s convert- ed to automatic for his wife – as well as a couple of 1990s Jeep Cherokees, which he considers the last acceptable Jeep to own.

As a car guy, I naturally nudged the conversation toward his experiences with different brands. Pfauter mentioned that he’d worked on some British cars, and even owned a Land Rover – which suffered from “atro- cious workmanship”– in the 1970s.

But he carries a distinct reverence for a bygone era of the Jeep brand, and automobiles in general, when it was possible to get your hands dirty, doing the major maintenance for a vehicle by yourself.

He spoke with fondness of the inline-six engines that Jeep used until the 1990s, with straightforward technology that fostered bulletproof reliability – at least in its powertrains. And I related to Pfauter my experiences with the modern equivalents of these workhorses, and what the respective brands stand for.

Recently, I’d had the chance to drive the flagships of both the Jeep and Land Rover brands back-to-back, and the experience revealed interesting truths about the brands’ trajectories over the decades. While the Jeeps I’ve driven are thoroughly modern, with electronic differentials and Hill Descent Control, they’re also sturdy workhorses that go about their business in a no-nonsense manner. To me, the Land Rovers have been characterized by their stateliness and a focus on the grand entrance.

Driving the Jeep Grand Cherokee Summit just before a Range Rover Supercharged told me that, while I’d certainly grab the keys to the Brit if I were headed to a movie premiere in L.A., I’d much rather own the good ol’ American Jeep. And this would be irrespective of the savings of nearly 50 percent I’d realize, and the Jeep’s far-better track record of long-term dependability. It’s just that good in so many ways, from the superior ride comfort to the feature set advantages, to the vastly better setup of the infotainment system.

But Pfauter doesn’t really care much for the modern baubles. He likes his vehicles, and their styling, to be simple, so it’s no surprise that he developed a love for early military jeeps.

But most of all, Pfauter just nurtures a deep-seated enthusiasm for this era of American steel, and the men and women who used it for higher purposes. He loves to talk to people and share his passion. And he’s above all a friendly soul, who laughed with genuine mirth about our significant others sharing the same first name.

So when you see a WWII-era military vehicle at Cars and Coffee on Sunday, February 8, ask the man dressed in period garb about it. He’d love to talk with you.

If you have a story about a special car or piece of car culture in the local area, email Randy at