Story and Photos by Greg Wing
Hey SCD fans, did you ever wonder what Ken Gross, contributing writer to Playboy and John Fitch, the legendary 50’s sporty car driver would pick as favorite cars? Well…just stick with it here and you will find out.
The Saratoga Auto Museum (SAM), in picturesque and historic Saratoga Springs, NY, set in motion its inaugural Spring Invitational recently showcasing the Dennis Dammerman Collection, “Mid-Century Marvels: Great Cars from the 1950s to 1960s.” Here “Handsome” open-air machines from the 1950’s and 1960’s are on view all summer. Car guy expert, Ken Gross led SAM members on an exclusive tour and discussion of the Dammerman Collection.
The tour started in the main, high ceiling, Gotlieb exhibition space. Mr. Gross led about 35 members on a time-trip back to the 1950s. As he spoke, one member said, “I don’t know what you think, but I feel like I’m being sold a new car off the floor!” Yup, he got that right. This was a time trip of “Handsome”, and I would say, stylish classics of the 1950’s. There we saw a ’48 Mercury, ’53 Buick Skylark and’55 and ’57 Chevy convertibles. What a fantastic beginning to a gorgeous, warm spring day in Saratoga Springs, NY.
Ken Gross is an engaging and knowledgeable speaker and he gave the group, anecdotes along the way. While speaking about the ’53 Buick Skylark he shared a conversation he had with his friend, Jay Leno. Leno asked Gross, “What do you think about my new Buick?” “Well, to be honest there are better examples and I think you paid too much.” Mr. Leno said, “Do you know how much I make in one evening?” The answer was, “No.” Leno barked, “Well, SHUT UP THEN!” The group gave a hearty laugh.
Next, we moved on to a display of a 1957 Corvette and ’57 T-Bird. Mr. Gross, said, “The Vette was very, very quick for its day. It’s the Hatfield’s vs. the McCoy’s. The Vette has the softer and sensuous lines vs. the T-Birds angularity. The Vette shows its Motorama origins and in SCCA Class-B events was very quick until the (Ford-Shelby) Cobras came out.”
One of the highlights of the tour was the famous guest among the tour group, John Fitch. Fitch a legendary SCCA driver from the ’50s among other accolades tagged along. While Gross talked about the ’76 Caddy Eldorado, I slipped away to engage Mr. Fitch. At his sharp, but advanced age he complained, “Ken is such an expert. It’s frustrating not to be able to hear him.” I asked, “What is your favorite car in the show?” He said, “I brought my Phoenix here today.” I said, “Did you drive it here?” “No, I trailered it. I am giving it to the museum and I didn’t want to put mileage on their car!” He chuckled that Fitch laugh of his. What an incredible gift to SAM.
Moving forward we traveled to the exhibition space where the 1960s Muscle-cars were displayed. Gross explained about the ’60s fast paced Detroit fight around “Options and Horsepower”. He led us to a gloss black, ’67 GTO convertible. There he entertained us with his remembrances of the cover of “Car and Driver” magazine from the period. “Car & Driver boasted on their cover that the Pontiac GTO beats the Ferrari GTO! The illustration showed the Pontiac with the Ferrari in the dust! They never really matched these cars up.” He went on, “Of course, nobody read the fine print. Back then a magazine could put a car on the map and sell a lot of issues.” Later in the day, I caught up in the park with Gross and asked a dumb question. “What’s your favorite car in the Museum?” He reflected for what seemed a few moments and said, “The ’67 mid-year-change, GTO.” Then quickly shot back, “Out here in the park, I’d say the ’38 Mercedes 540K!” Bam! Got that right! Photos cannot accurately capture the German black, long and low, sinister 1938 machine.
I have to admit that I was hoping to hear more about the European sports cars in this show, but Gross’ real passion was for the American models. I gained a new appreciation for them as he spoke.
This same day, SAM featured a special evening event in honor of Wayne D. Freihoefer sponsor of The “Drive for Excellence Award”. The guest of honor this year was none other that that fancy dresser I spoke with, the legendary sports car driver of the 1950-60’s’ John Fitch. Fitch lives nearby in Connecticut by Lime Rock Park raceway.
The Saratoga Auto Museum is a lively purveyor of the eclectic history of the automobile from its early roots to the cars of today and tomorrow. The museum is in the former water bottling plant and each week locals, me included, bottle up the clean, natural tasting spring water across the street in the park. About 30 minutes north of Albany, NY this museum is well worth a trip from anywhere.
If you can’t visit SAM, you just have to check out the museum at www.saratogaautomuseum.org.