Remembering Otto Zipper

Story by Stephen Mitchell

Otto Zipper I spent a lot of time in a showroom at the corner of Wilshire Boulevard and 26th Street in Santa Monica. It belonged to Otto Zipper and featured Ferraris that held me spellbound for hours at a time.

On the occasion of my first visit, there was a silver Berlinetta Lusso showing its profile to passers-by and behind it in an array was a 250 2+2, a 330 GT America and a 330 GT 2+2 (quad headlights)–a very generous offering for someone who had never seen a Ferrari up close. My only previous exposure had been to see Jill St. John’s Lusso in the paddock at Riverside Raceway through a pair of binoculars, which was pretty impressive, I have to say. Seeing these cars close up where the nuance of the design was highlighted by optimized lighting was like seeing your favorite paintings in the Louvre.

My host on those occasions was Trevor Hook, an Englishman’s Englishman, always well-presented and perhaps better suited to a Rolls-Royce showroom, he had aristocratic manners in the best sense and spoke in an impeccable ‘brochure’ vernacular referring to Pininfarina as the Maestro. It was Trevor who offered me my first ride in a Ferrari. I suppose he figured I’d invested enough time staring at and studying these cars that I should be accorded the privilege of a more dynamic experience. He selected the keys to a Bordeaux colored 250 GTE and off we went up Wilshire to a street that ran behind the Brentwood Country Club and featured a ninety degree right-hander that allowed him to demonstrate the Ferrari’s flat cornering capability at speed which, along with the seductive sound of the the V12 with its timing chains and canvas-ripping exhaust note (sorry about the cliché, but it’s how Trevor would have described it), was an unforgettable, landmark experience for me.

It would be awhile before I bought my first car which wasn’t a Ferrari but a Jaguar E-Type but that didn’t stop me from returning again and again to Otto Zipper’s to see what was new in the showroom. When I acquired my Berlinetta Lusso, it was to his shop on Wilshire that I took it for service. I remember developing a rapport with Mrs. Zipper who thought I should buy a Porsche 904 that they owned or was for sale by a customer. She was quite knowledgeable about the car and was convinced it would make an ideal street racer. As much as I liked it, it wasn’t Italian and didn’t have twelve cylinders.

When I bought the GTO, I wasn’t surprised to find that it had an Otto Zipper provenance. He had owned it when Richie Ginther raced it at Riverside where he finished fifth overall in the Times Grand Prix in 1964. One day, as I was waiting to collect the Lusso after some routine maintenance, I saw Otto standing in the far end of the shop in deep contemplation of what I think was a Porsche 906 parked in the corner. I was reminded of this quiet moment a lifetime later when I snapped a candid photo of Jim Glickenhaus in his shop in quiet reflection as he gazed at his cars. I’ve heard people say that “it’s just a car” but I could never think in those terms. Cars, like the people who get involved with them, give us a lot to think about.

[Source: Stephen Mitchell; photo courtesy of Bill Diller who can be seen as a young man standing with Otto Zipper]


  1. Scott & Tami Bennett says

    How did you get that kind of money as a kid? My first car was a 1966 Ford Mustang which my Dad paid 600.00 USD for in 1977.

    I attended TONS of races at Riverside & OMS thru the 70s.

    Nide read! Thanks.

  2. Louis Galanos says

    That Porsche 906 that Otto Zipper was looking at in his shop was probably the Otto Zipper entered 906 that Don Wester and Scooter Patrick drove in the 1966 Sebring race. That same car, with Wester at the wheel, had an accident with the Mario Andretti Ferrari and flew off the track and killed four spectators.

  3. Bruce Campbell says

    I too remember Otto Zipper with reverence. Often in the mid to late 1960s I would visit the showroom to look at the Ferraris, the Porsche 904, Porsche 906, and then the Group-5 Porsche 911R.

    Then one SCCA race weekend at Riverside International Raceway in 1968, I was fortunate to pit my new black showroom stock E production 912 right next to Otto’s famous Porsche 904 in the Goodyear garage. Scooter Patrick in the 904 had qualified pole position next to a ‘pavement pounding’ black A Production V-8 Cobra, ahead of all the rest of the A, B & C production as well as professional A & B sedan race cars.

    Just before their Sunday race was called to the grid, the sky became cloudy and we felt as few rain drops. I overheard Otto, Scooter, & their crews’ concern, so I offered them the use of my new Goodyear wet/dry compound racing tires, that I drove on the street to work, to school, and to the race tracks on weekends.

    From the standing start in those years, Scooter out dragged that fire-breathing Cobra through the old Turn-1 bridge, into Turn-2, and up through the esses, and finished the race with another incredible 1st overall.

    Otto and his crew then quickly remounted my tires on my wheels, helped push me to the starting grid, and I drove my little black 912 street racer to 2nd place overall in the E production, etc. heat.

    Monday morning Otto phoned me at my UCLA research laboratory and invited me to join him for lunch in Beverly Hills. Then to my surprise after lunch, Otto and the crew presented me with my first Porsche 904/906 racing transmission main-shaft [a priceless possession for a non-factory race car driver and team].

    Porsche transmissions were designed with changeable gears designated by the entire alphabet from A to Z to facilitate gearing for the speeds of corners, curves, and straight-a-ways of racetracks worldwide [including a few extra gear ratios in between, such as GA, HA, HB, and ZA etc.]. But, the production main-shaft delivered in 911s and 912s had a forged ‘F’ gear in place, that was only useful for very slow corners and when starting out from 1st gear on the street. So that limited the stock 5-speed transmission to only 3 useable gears [3rd, 4th, & 5th] on most race tracks.

    Otto Zipper’s gift that day of the Porsche factory all-changeable gear racing main-shaft no doubt changed my life to thoroughly enjoy over a couple of decades of amateur and professional race car driving and fond memories.

    Bruce Campbell

  4. Michel Aniel says

    Memories of Otto

    In 1969 both my older brother and I (I was 15) purchased a 1969 Alfa Romeo 1750 GTV from Otto’s dealership (on Wilshire Blvd.) which was next to Bob Estes’ Ferrari/Maserati/Lamborghini showroom. After 42 years, I still own the Alfa and, is still cherry. (I can send a pix if you want). The problem I have is that, even though I now live behind the bamboo curtain (Orange County), I can’t locate a proficient Alfa Romeo mechanic…anywhere unless I have to drive 95+ miles and, that still won’t guaranty an acceptable service, etc. 
    I stayed with Otto through his Wilshire Boulevard and his Santa Monica location on Lincoln Boulevard. Today, I’m still looking for a proficient Alfa mechanic who, additionally, won’t steal parts off my car when it’s being worked on. Your feedback is greatly appreciated. (  Michel 

  5. Wdiller911 says

    That is me in the picture. My dad had many Porsches including a 356 Carrera 2 . He was best friends with an noteworthy professional automobile racing photographer named Cameron Warren. We used to go to all the races at Riverside, Willow Springs, Fontana, Laguna Seca, and Santa Barbara. Through my dad’s friendship with Cam, I got many special “perks” such as this opportunity to meet Mr. Zipper.

  6. Pete Ehrlich says

    I met Otto in 1975 when I was plucked from the Wild Whist Bridge Club and thrust under the hoods of the ALFA’s at Otto Zipper ALFA on Lincoln Blvd in Santa Monica Ca. I was given the opportunity to run the service dept and it was and still is today one of the highlights of my working career. My favorite day was a Saturday and for a reason I can’t remember, I went to the Dealership. Otto was there and had the Tippo 33 in the service department. It was my favorite car and Otto noticed the smile on my face. He said to me….”You want to start it up?”. Do I have to tell you my answer??? He told me to get an oil can and put some gas in it. I brought it to him and he gave the carb stacks a healthy squirt. Then he jumped in the cockpit and fired it up. He revved the engine a few times and stunned me by putting it in gear and burning rubber nearly out on to Lincoln Blvd. I will never forget knowing Otto….

  7. Anonymous says

    I have just come across this article with attendant comments and have to say, first, thank you to all and second – your comments are most entertaining even if not all are consistent with my memories, which is probably just as well.
    It was a fun time. Mrs. Otto (Carol) Zipper

    • says

      Allow me to say hello to you after a lifetime has passed. I can well imagine that an auto dealership with its related activities, overhead, responsibilities and clientele appeared differently through your eyes but the kindness, or tolerance, you showed me as someone who was barely 15 yet smitten nonetheless was appreciated in a way this article cannot adequately convey.

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