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

1 comment:

  1. Jeeps will easily last more than a decade, while most cars start to have mechanical problems at this age. You can expect a Jeep to last up to 15 years, but with good care and maintenance they can even last up to 20 years. The Cherokee line lasts the longest and can go up to 25 years or 500k miles.