Thursday, March 19, 2015

Karma Goes Round and Round

Dolly Granatelli cuts the ribbon on the exhibit with friend and Murphy board member 
Dana Newquist, next to a photo of her gregarious husband at Indy’s Victory Lane
 Studebaker - PDFIn storms this gorgeous guy – he was thin then – and he was spearheading everybody behind him, charging, and I said to myself, ‘Why are all the good ones married?’” 

Thus was Dolly Granatelli’s first impression of her late husband, Andy, when meeting him on a trip to Chicago. For everyone in his life, and nearly everyone in the world of auto racing, Andy Granatelli was a larger- than-life presence.

On Sunday, March 15, the Murphy Museum in Oxnard opened its “Mister 500” tribute to Andy, which houses memorabilia from the collection of his son, Vince. You can see the exhibit every weekend with admission to the Murphy (

It turned out that Andy was no longer married, and the night after her first encounter with him, Dolly recalls, he took her and her family out to dinner.

“Before we even got the menu, he picked up my hand from my lap...and told my dad, ‘I’m going to marry your daughter.’” In response, Dolly just giggled, but she had already fallen in love at first sight.

Andy may have been an imposing figure, but he was also a positive and energizing one. Describing her husband, Dolly uses terms like “powerful” and “all over the place.” But her smile really comes through when talking about his love and affection.

“If I ever had anything negative to say about someone, he would steer me away from it. That was his expression, ‘It’s gonna come back to bite you someday.’”

A big believer in karma, I suggested. 

“He started it,” replied Dolly.

Andy was born in Dallas, but his family moved to Chicago when he was young. He opened an auto service shop with his brothers Joe and Vince. Andy’s Super Service – their name would be first in the phonebook – set themselves apart by doing pit-stop-style maintenance, with four or five mechanics wrenching at a time. 

Andy parlayed the success of the shop to create Grancor, with performance parts for the burgeoning hot rod scene. His business acumen was undeniable, as he was one of the first to recognize the opportunity for branded, consistent performance upgrades. 

The next year, in 1946, Andy took his first car to the Indianapolis 500, which kicked off a life-long obsession with the event. In fact, Andy attended every single Indy 500 event from ’46 until 2012, reinforcing his “Mr. 500” moniker. 

Even as he focused on winning Indy, he had time to create a tremendous business legacy. He and his brother, Joe, had purchased Paxton Products, from which they had been buying superchargers, and Andy managed to rescue the company from failure in a mere seven months.

The company was acquired by Studebaker, which then asked Andy to rescue their floundering Chemical Compounds division, which made STP oil additive. He proceeded to create a marketing plan that revolutionized the way brands could be promoted, and cemented the new STP logo as one of the most recognized in history, becoming a symbol of speed and excitement.

During this time, Andy’s mind was still focused on racing, and getting back to the Indy 500. He returned in 1967 with a car he had built with Ken Wallis with a turbine engine and all-wheel drive. The car, driven by Parnelli Jones, led for most of the race, but the failure of a six-dollar transmission bearing sank the car with just three laps to go.

The following year, his Lotus racecar was also leading the race when it broke down just ten laps before the checkered flag.

But in 1969, despite driving a year-old backup car and recovering from burns from the crash of the main car in a practice session, Mario Andretti sealed the deal for Andy. This spurred the iconic photo of Andy’s big, fat kiss on Andretti’s cheek in Victory Lane – before the Queen of the 500 Festival could get to him.

He continued his involvement in racing until 1973, but would go on to attend the Indy 500 as a major presence every year. It would even be part of his philanthropic efforts. Andy would often donate packages to fundraisers that would give the winning bidder the opportunity to join him at the race. He would regularly draw in bids of more than $50,000 for the package.

His charitable endeavors were manifold. In 1982, Andy helped to found the 11-99 Foundation to benefit CHP officers and their families. He also served as chairman of the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Council and was a big supporter of the Police Activities League. His affinity for police organizations began with his good friend Bob Weinberg, with whom he started the 11-99 Foundation.

“He saw how successful that was,” and realized the big impact he could make for the law enforcement community, said his son, Vince. Andy was a relentless crusader for those causes, which perhaps helped to sustain his vitality. He was nearly 91 years old when he passed away at the end of 2013.

“Two days before he died, he was working at his desk,” proclaimed Dolly.

With his outsized impact of both his sport of choice and the people around him, Andy was honored many times. Most prominently, he was inducted into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame in 1992, and the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America in 2001.

The Indianapolis Motor Speedway Museum will also be honoring Andy with an exhibit, but that is still under construction, so you can get your Granatelli fix at the Murphy in the interim. The exhibit features photos, memorabilia, and even clothing from the family collection, some of it displayed publicly for the first time. The Murphy exhibit also has a sharper focus on Andy’s life on the Central Coast. 

You can see the exhibit along with the rest of the Murphy’s wonderful cars, some of which will be highlight- ed in the Santa Barbara Sentinel this weekend. And if you visit for Andy, your admission donation to support the museum can help his karmic legacy continue to grow.
If you have a story about a special car or piece of car culture in the local area, email Randy at

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Studebaker’s Last Gasp of (Wagon)aire

 Studebaker - PDFWhile the 1963 Studebaker Wagonaire was innovative in many ways, it was sadly not enough to save the company from ruin. Studebaker lumbered along for another three years, but ultimately succumbed to poor sales. 

The Wagonaire, a version of the Lark wagon, had been the brainchild of noted industrial designer Brooks Stevens, acting on the directive of the company’s president, who thought it needed an expanded lineup but lacked the capital to make heavy investments.

The Wagonaire introduced a sliding rear roof panel to the Lark, which would glide forward, opening the cargo area for taller items, like house- hold appliances. A wagon-loving fam- ily could use it for occasional pick- up-truck duty, without the sacrifices that, especially at that time, a truck would entail.

David Neel spent years assembling this matched 
set of vintage Samsonite luggage to complement the car
The innovations on the car were so advanced that they would inspire even vehicles in the modern era. The 2004 GMC Envoy XUV featured the same type of sliding panel, and Ford introduced a tailgate step very similar to the Wagonaire’s on the 2009 F-150.

Despite their relative rarity, David Neel was able to find his on Craigslist a few years ago. He brought it to Cars and Coffee, in the Upper Village in Montecito, on March 8. Neel gave me a little tour of some of the car’s other interesting features. The headliner appears to be vinyl, but it’s actually cardboard, which offers an easy way for prospective buyers to assess the conditions in which it was stored. And where you might expect to find the glove box is a compartment labeled “Vanity”, which houses a make-up prep surface, complete with a mirror. 
The passenger-side vanity features a make-up surface and mirror
This delightfully quirky car was Neel’s first Studebaker, but not his last, and it’s certainly not his only car with an abundance of character. When we talked that day, he rattled off a list of interesting American relics he owns, from a 1961 suicide-door Lincoln Continental convertible to a ’64 Jeep Wagoneer – incidentally, like the similarly named Wagonaire, also designed by Stevens. And Neel’s collection extends beyond just cars, to items like classic Airstream trailers and a 1947 Cushman scooter.

The other Studebaker in his collection is a 1964 Avanti, a fiberglass sports coupe that has been the obsession of many enthusiasts over the years.

Neel might sometimes have difficulty picking one from his collection to bring to Montecito, but his decision to bring one of his Studebakers Sunday morning was certainly strategic. He was also there to promote the L.A. Studebaker Drivers Club’s 30th Annual Winter Meet Car Show, which he is hosting at the Murphy Auto Museum in Oxnard.

The show runs one day only, Sunday, March 15, from 9 am to 4 pm. Admission is $10, and that gets you a look at not only the Studs, of which there will be around three dozen, but also the regular collection of the muse- um (more than 65 privately owned classics), the current exhibit featuring Jeeps all the way back to WWII, and the museum’s 1,800-square-foot model railroad. 

Neel doesn’t just run the Murphy Museum, he owns it. He took control early last year from Dr. Daniel Murphy, who created it originally to house his Packard collection. Since then, it has grown thanks to the several private collectors who store their cars there. 
The museum has a rotating exhibit that changes four times per year, and when the Jeeps leave at the end of this month they’ll be replaced by a display of vintage campers. Later in the year, the exhibits will include classic Corvettes and Mopar products.

Neel’s 1963 Studebaker Wagonaire features a sliding rear roof panel to handle tall cargo items
The museum isn’t a full-time gig for Neel, as it’s only open on the weekends, but it does get roughly 5,000 visitors per year. The museum relies on the generosity of donations from visitors and volunteer hours from its staff. 

He and I also talked about the theme that ties together his personal vehicle collection. Many of his wheeled
toys happen to be excellent examples of industrial design. Aside from those vehicles designed by Stevens, his Avanti was penned by Raymond Loewy, and his Airstreams need no introduction. Even the diminutive Cushman scooter is a study in design elegance. 

Regarding his Studebakers, Neel says, “I just like innovative, outside-the-box thinking, and both those cars were.”
Still, their “forward-thinking” design did little to guarantee success, as their production runs were short. The Wagonaire died with the brand in 1966, and the Avanti’s run was even shorter, with only two model years totaling fewer than 6,000 cars. 
“I like collecting cars that are unusual,” adds Neel. “That doesn’t always mean they’re valuable.”

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Old San Marcos Past

The tavern appears much as it did more than a
century ago, including the spittoon
 Old San Marcos Past - PDF
On a brisk Friday afternoon recently, my girlfriend and I took a ride up through the winding hills above Santa Barbara on one of my favorite roads. When I moved out west from the flatlands of Michigan, State Route 154 was a revelation to me: a pristine ribbon of road that bestows upon travelers curves, elevation changes, and breath- taking views of the Pacific. And the tributaries that serve it offer count- less little adventures and crannies to discover, from the off-roading challenges of Camino Cielo, to the epic viewing platform that overlooks Lake Cachuma.

The history of this road has consistently fascinated me, offering up glimpses into the development of the American West, and the story of how we came to be as interconnected as we are now. And what better way to dis- cover that history than a stop at Cold Spring Tavern.

The tavern lies along another one of those wonderful offshoots, Stagecoach Road. Part of the historical San Marcos Pass, Stagecoach is a twisting path that picks its way through the wilderness of the Los Padres National Forest.
Along our drive, we swung around sweeping corners while dodging various potholes and pieces of debris, the route being a bit worse for wear. But the scenery was a serene combination of overhead trees and picturesque precipices. 
Prior to the road construction, the pass had been used by Lt. Col. John Fremont to capture Santa Barbara from Mexico, as the U.S. fought to wrest California away from that country. During that journey, his unit lost many of its horses, mules, and cannon to the slippery, rain-soaked hillside, reinforcing the need for a real road.

The road was constructed in 1865 to offer, as its name suggests, a route for “stagers” from Santa Barbara, north through the Santa Ynez Mountains. It was built upon the San Marcos Pass, which had first been established by the Chumash natives, and the path is a bit different from the Highway 154 of today.

The stagecoach trek was made easier with the establishment of the Cold Spring Relay Station in 1886, which was a halfway house to water both people and horses, between Mattei’s Tavern in Los Olivos and the Summit House, which stood on what is now Kinevan Road. The establishment’s beneficial location placed it among 42 fresh-water springs, which continue to supply its needs to this day.

It was a welcome relief for stagers who had to contend with a treacherous journey over the pass. Challenges included runaway horses, bandits who would frequently target the gold-stuffed saddle bags of cattle traders, and the high tolls levied by Patrick Kinevan to pass his Summit House, which only felt like highway robbery.

The author’s car outside the rustic Cold Spring Tavern
In fact, the first car that traveled the pass, in 1910, was actually left at the Summit House by the driver, who was too incensed by the fee Kinevan tried to impose and declined to pay. This is according to the 1992 school report by sixth-grader—and San Marcos Pass resident—Ewan Kummel, so I have no doubt of its veracity (he does cite his sources).

From there, the route changed in geography and importance, with por- tions of the Old Pass becoming part of the 154, while others, like Stagecoach Road, were relegated to scenic route status. Of course, when the 101 was built, the 154 itself became the scenic option. And the Cold Spring Tavern became a hidden gem not experienced by most who traveled through Santa Barbara.

The tavern feels – and smells – like time stopped before modernity could creep in. The scent is driven by old fireplaces in each of the dining rooms, and the sights include visages of some of the wild game featured on its menu. Those dishes have included everything from the traditional elk, antelope, and buffalo, to more exotic fare like gator and kangaroo, and they once even served lion. That didn’t end well, with bomb threats aimed against the restaurant, so it was only on the menu once.
Cold Spring Tavern used to serve bear, but the practice was outlawed years ago

We sat down with Matt Bush, who’s been helping manage the place for the past decade. He let us in on a little of the history of the tavern itself. It has been owned by the same family since 1941, when the Ovington clan bought it for a few thousand dollars. Their granddaughter Joy and her husband, Wayne Wilson, are the current proprietors.

While eager to keep its traditions alive, the tavern has embraced new ones with gusto, particularly its entertainment and weekend tri-tip cook- outs. These have been going on for more than 30 years, with musicians Tom Ball and Kenny Sultan being a consistent presence for the whole run. They’re here every Sunday, with other acts rotating throughout the weekend.

And you’ll always see Tom Perez at the tri-tip smoker. If you’ve been here before, he’s probably served you a sandwich, and maybe even thrown some wry guff your way if you’re finicky. The meat is tender and delicious, and it’s the perfect vehicle for the spread of barbecue and horseradish sauces and salsa, which make for a surprisingly harmonious combo.

The Sunday cookouts were so popular that a few years ago they started up a Saturday version, as well.

You might also see a bunch of steel hogs, as Cold Spring has been a favorite gathering place for bikers for years. As its legend has spread – with exposure through newspapers and even Food Network and Travel Channel plugs – the tavern has become a more popular place for cars to gather, and Bush said that they get yearly visits from the Cobra, Porsche, Corvette, and even Plymouth Prowler and scooter clubs.

No doubt, these clubs are drawn by the tunes and grub, but the great driving roads in the area are a huge plus. Ultimately, it is a magical confluence of great elements, like car culture, food culture, history, and natural beauty, that makes the Cold Spring Tavern and the San Marcos Pass one of the most special experiences you can have in the Santa Barbara area.

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