Thursday, March 31, 2016

Fast Car

I’m a auto-visual sort of person- I see a certain car and it cues a memory. I see a first generation Mustang and I instantly remember the all-three network introduction on prime time TV. A Jaguar E-Type reminds me of a top-down drive on a moonlit Michigan summer night, with both speedo and tach needles pointing straight up. And oddly enough, a Triumph TR-3a sports car takes me all the way back to Christmas of 1963.

I was just a toddler, and had fallen asleep on the back seat of Dad’s big ‘61 Electra 225 on the way out to my Grandparents’ farm in Byron, Michigan. Dad was one of seven, and on Thanksgiving and Christmas the whole clan would gather at the farm. I was still asleep when we arrived, so Dad scooped me up and carried me inside.

At least that was his intention. Grandfather wasn’t the very best at maintaining things, and the tales of his automotive choices are disasters for another day. But suffice to say the broken glass in the storm door probably should have been repaired prior to the family gathering. That way, Dad wouldn’t have accidentally put my little head through the broken glass and cut it wide open.

I doubt we were even inside before blood began gushing out. I’m not sure Dad ever quite put me down, and it's highly doubtful that I even got my coat off. All I know for sure is that a holiday with turkey and toys turned out instead to be an urgent trip to the emergency room in Flint, nearly 25 miles away.

And for that we needed a fast car. Fortunately, my Uncle David came to the rescue. His cute little Triumph TR-3a, with its bug eyes and wide mouthed grille, was right outside the jagged door. It was quick, it's snug little cabin had a heater, and it had washable vinyl seats and sort of a top. We wedged ourselves in and the Two and a Half men were off. 

Dad put me between the bucket seats and wrapped a towel tightly around my head. From my vantage point, I could watch the gauges- especially the speedometer and tach, both of which were swinging wildly as Uncle David did his best to make the little Triumph fly. I was mesmerized by the gauges and pretty much oblivious to the fact that I was painting the interior red. Google Maps suggests the trip takes a half hour, but Uncle Dave got us there much quicker than that. I wonder how much of the trip the little car was actually touching the road.

The next thing I knew we were at the hospital where a nice lady in white stitched my head closed again, and within a couple of hours we were back at the farm. Poor Granddad never heard the end of the broken storm door- my Grandmother was not very pleased and never let him forget it.  Although Mother wasn’t exactly amused either, she played the Diplomat and saved her words for when we were back home. Dave replaced the carpet in the TR-3a that spring, I'm not sure if I was the cause of that. But my lingering memory was watching the gauges- especially the tach- and I learned that it was worth a little suffering to ride in a really cool car.

I guess I've pretty much lived by those words.

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Frankie and Phil

Frank Sinatras Jr and Sr in 1969
Phil was a car guy to the core. He was the fleet manager at Gunther-Langer Buick in Los Angeles in the early sixties, and he had a side job with the Buick Zone over on Wilshire Blvd., keeping track of the fleet of Buick company-owned cars that were in constant rotation. It was almost a full time job in itself, and it brought him in contact with lots of folks- Buick reps, the staff at the GM Training Center, and more than a few celebrities who were provided with cars as well.

Lots of famous names showed up in those logs. Jack Entratter of the Sands Hotel. Legendary customizer George Barris. And Old Blue Eyes himself, one Francis Albert Sinatra, appears frequently in the records. While the exact beginning of his relationship with Buick is unknown, it dates back to at least 1962 when he wrangled an appearance for the not-yet-introduced Riviera in his movie “Come Blow Your Horn.” Sinatra was provided with cars in both Los Angeles and New York, as well as station wagons for the period of time when he had the Cal-Neva ranch in Lake Tahoe.

And it was in 1969 when Phil was asked to deliver a Buick to 24-year old Francis Wayne Sinatra, the only son of the legendary vocalist and a performer himself. He is noted in the log as Sinatra Jr. And who would imagine that the car guy and the aspiring singer would go on to become lifelong friends. They both loved cars, and I wonder if Phil wasn’t like a surrogate uncle to Frank.

I didn’t come on to the scene until the 1990s myself, and by then they were longtime friends. Phil was working at a different Buick dealer but still managing the fleet. No longer the recipient of company cars, Frank Jr. purchased numerous Buicks through the Los Angeles Zone. He and Phil would have lunch together every day that Frank Jr. was in town. Phil would frequently attend Frank Jr’s concerts, and was not an infrequent guest of Jr’s for holidays. By this time, Phil’s wife Esther was suffering from Alzheimer’s and was in a convalescent home, so Phil’s life would have been pretty quiet without Frank Jr.

I was in Phil’s office the day of Frank Sinatra’s funeral in the spring of 1998 when Frank Jr. called Phil after having just left the service. Phil was dispatched to take guests to the airport- I saw it as a testimony to their closeness. I remember visiting Phil in his office that summer when he told me that he was going to Europe with Frank Jr. and the orchestra, and was told to bring a Tuxedo in case he got to meet the Queen. I hadn’t seen him look that excited in years.

But sadly it was not to be.  Phil had surgery that summer, something supposed to be routine but instead he had a stroke on the table and passed away a few days later. Phil’s wife, Esther, was unaware that he had died. I have been told that Frank Jr. paid for her care until she died a few years later. While I don’t have confirmation of that, it wouldn’t surprise me in the least. They were that kind of friends.