Interview and photos (unless noted) by Dennis Gray
Martin Swig is a San Francisco Bay Area-based vintage racer, car collector and founder of the California Mille vintage car rally. A graduate of Stanford University, Swig was a multi-franchise new car dealer in San Francisco for 40 years.
In addition to founding the storied California Mille in the early ’90s, Martin has been vintage racing a variety of mostly Italian marques for more than 30 years. He is a contributor to Sports Car Digest and a variety of other publications.
In advance of the 2011 California Mille, Martin sat down with Sports Car Digest to discuss his early passion for all things automotive, his time as a new car dealer, insight into what makes the California Mille go and much more.
Sports Car Digest: Can you give us a history of Martin Swig?
Martin Swig: I was born in 1934 in Northern New Jersey. At some point I got hooked on automobiles. I must have been pretty young because I remember my mother wanted me to go to a Sunday school when I was three or four years old, I must have been three because I remember the bribe was, on the way there was a Cord showroom, and If I’d go to the Sunday school I could get out of the car on the way and press my nose up against the Cord showroom. So I got hooked kind of early on. Luckily, when I was about 12 years old my father bought a company here in San Francisco and moved us here. I thought I had died and gone to heaven. You read about the beginnings of the hot rod movement in California, it was a place that was all about cars. I thought that was pretty neat. And, in those years in California, you could get a driver’s license when you were 14. So every kid who was worth a shit knew how to drive when he was 12. Whenever you had a chance you would get together with a couple of your friends and steal your parents car when they were gone for the night, and go for a little drive. Luckily, we survived all of that. Every kid who was worth his salt had a driver’s license by the time he was 14 years old; and a car. I guess for a California boy at that time there was only one thing he was as interested in playing with besides his car, but we had to take care of the car and buy gas first, so there wasn’t too much money left over for social.
I was lucky enough to go to high school down in Palo Alto, and then I went to Stanford. While I was at Stanford I worked for a used car dealer over in Menlo Park who was starting to fool around with used foreign cars. And they were really foreign then. When I got out of school I went to work for the Fiat/Alfa Romeo/Lancia dealer in San Francisco. I had been attracted to those cars before. A friend of mine brought a Fiat 1100 back from Italy in 1955, and we all knew Henry Manney at the time and he was sort of our, well he taught us about everything good, he taught us about Fiats, about Alfas, about Lancia Aurelias, he taught us about little Crosley-powered Siatas, about all the fabulous stuff.
I worked for that company for about 10 or 12 years. It became the Mercedes dealership. By the time I had been there for that long I thought I was about the smartest man on the face of the earth and my bosses were two fabulous guys, old Stanford business guys, old-time quality new car dealers. I really had a wonderful sort of graduate school education, and they had let me buy a minority interest in the company, so when it was time for me to be kicked out and fly on my own they did me the favor of doing that and since I owned a minority share of the company I got a fairly good size check for the times, buying out my interest. I went down the street on Van Ness in San Francisco and bought the Datsun dealership. That worked out pretty well, and then in the next few years I picked up Fiat and Alfa Romeo, and I got kind of serious and picked up Mazda, Toyota and some other Japanese cars over the years. Then, after about a dozen years on Van Ness, the whole car business was changing a lot so I was lucky enough to be able to do one of the first artful multi-franchise, all-under-one-roof dealerships in San Francisco. That worked out very well, but it also kind of put me in the real estate business. I didn’t know it at the time, but after I had that San Francisco Autocenter, as we called it, for about a dozen years I realized — with the help of the J.D. Power Organization, who were doing a lot of dealer roundtables, and some real estate friends of mine — that I was really in the real estate business and not the car business. So, with the help of a good developer, we made a good retail shopping, not automotive, center out of it, and that enabled me to be the bum I always wanted to be. So that is sort of the business background.
I must say I loved every minute of being in the car business. I don’t recall I ever went to work. I put into it an awful lot of hours and it was dead serious, and certainly at-risk financially, the whole time, but it was certainly fabulous, fabulous. Along the way, I always liked the hobby side of cars. To this day, I think I only have two good friends who don’t come from either the business side of cars or the hobby side. Of all the guys I know and I am very fond of, it’s the total world of cars, whether for hobby or business, and I consider myself very lucky, it’s been a fabulous group of people.
I guess I always had one or two collector cars, I mean way back when, years ago, because you would buy some treasure and you’d be telling someone how pleased by you were and they would say “what did you pay for that piece of old shit?” Well their answer was always, “you could have bought a new Chevy for that kind of money!” Well, it was more fun when people thought we were nuts. Now they think you’re really hot stuff if you have an old Alfa or something and it’s only $50,000. Well, you stole it. Now that they have gone up so they cost more than new Chevys.
SCD: Your wife drives, and don’t you have a daughter who drove?
MS: That’s funny. The valet parking guy here, we come here a lot on Sunday mornings, and when I have to go do a few errands my wife and I take two separate cars. One day I pulled up here and the parking guy says, “Hey, your daughter is already here.” So my wife earned that. She’s been living on that ever since. My wife is probably better, more aware of most cars than most ladies, and she does a little racing — not that she is very quick, but she is attentive. She drives a little Alfa Romeo Giulietta Sprint Zagato, she has never frightened anybody into thinking she might pass them, she knows where she is on the track, to her credit. I have two sons who race very well. The older one named David works for Bonhams auction house in the automotive sector, and the younger guy, Howard, is working for Car and Driver in Ann Arbor.
SCD: What was your first vintage automobile?
MS: I can go back to about to about 1947 when I had a $10 Model T, but we didn’t even know they were called vintage, it was just an old piece of shit at that time. After that you get married and have a kid and all that stuff and you don’t fool around too much. In the early 1960s I bought a very nice 1940 Buick convertible. Nice original car, never should have sold that one either, but if I never sold all the cars I shouldn’t have sold there would not be a garage big enough. Later in the ’60s I had a nice 1937 Buick Century convertible from the original owner, I was into Buicks. One of my problems, but I don’t consider it a problem, is that I like an awful lot of different kinds of cars. Because there are so many that are significant in one way or another, if I would just zero in on one. I like Alfa Romeos a lot, I’ve got eight or nine of them. I have too many other things. I worked for the Alfa dealer, then later I had the dealership myself. That was between 1958 and 1995. I was involved in new Alfa franchise all those years. I bought my first Alfa Romeo 1900 in about 1973. I’ve had a lot of Alfa 1900s over the years, and a lot of Giuliettas, and some others as well.
SCD: Can you describe your toy car collection?
MS: Well, again, I like all kinds. I like pedal cars, I probably have 30 or 40 of them. I like manufacturer’s promos, and I have several hundred of them. I like 1/43rds. I like oversize things, and it’s out of control. If I had to guess, and I wouldn’t claim anything like that, but it’s probably like a thousand pieces. I keep some at home and some in my office. The problem is I have a house full of this stuff and an office full. And the office is several rooms, which doesn’t present any trouble except in terms of books. I probably have 85 percent of my library at home and 15 percent at the office. But that doesn’t prevent the fact that wherever you are, the book you want is at the other place. I could never afford to move again, it would be so disorienting it would kill me.