1962 Maserati 3500 GT Vignale Spyder For Sale
Details: Listed for sale on eBay; located in Georgia. The Maserati is currently bid to $140,100 with seven days left on the auction.
Seller Comments: “Original engine, five-speed ZF transmission, and Webers. Extensively restored and rebuilt, as documented in the following article and photographs. All receipts since purchase in 1981.”
See below for seller’s additional comments.
Sports Car Digest Comments: The May – August 2008 Cars That Matter price guide suggests a $217,000 – $292,000 range for the Maserati Vignale Spyder, while the 2008 Sports Car Market price guide advocates a $130,000 – $260,000 price range.
This has to be the most unique and lengthy car description Sports Car Digest has ever read, but the owner has a great story to tell. It’s a long narrative, but if you are a car guy, it is certainly worth your time.
The Vignale Spyder: A Canterbury Tale
By eBay seller: carguy6554
I’d always been a sucker for English cars. Damascus, Ohio, was a crossroads village of a few hundred inhabitants, a Pure Oil station, a Massey Ferguson tractor dealer, and a general store. Yet somehow, probably through Life magazine, I had been exposed to the MG-TD and the Jaguar XK120. As a ten-year-old fourth grader, I recognized that these machines had panache, romance, and mystery that my dad’s Chevrolet coupes failed to evoke. When he announced to the family in spring of 1954 that we were moving to Cleveland, I passed the news along to my fourth grade class of 16. Mrs. Townsend, my teacher, sought insight from one of my friends regarding an appropriate departure gift. On the final school day, the class presented me with a balsa wood model kit of a Jaguar XK120.
This model was not molded plastic or die-cast metal. Rather, there was a roughly cut block of balsa that required sanding and shaping before it even approximated the Jaguar it would eventually resemble. The wheels mounted to the block with pins, which, along with the windshield frame, grille, and bumpers, were pressed into the balsa block. (Such was the art of car model building in 1954) I was struck by one of the steps on the terse instruction sheet that accompanied the model. It read “you should examine a parked Jaguar as you shape your model to ensure the accuracy of the proportions and complex curves of its sultry body.” The likelihood of finding a parked Jaguar within fifty miles of Damascus was about as high as Mickey Mantle stopping me on my bicycle to ask directions. But with my dad’s help, we carved and sanded and painted that block of wood into a reasonable semblance of a red XK120 roadster. I parked it proudly on the shelf in my room alongside my Cleveland Indian coin bank and my Cub Scout handbook.
Over the next several years, I progressed through a variety of kit models, principally MGs and Jaguars in plastic and metal, all the while fantasizing eventual ownership.
There are benefits in uprooting a family. Not far from our new home was a sports car dealership–Jaguar Cleveland–and over the years, my dad and I regularly visited their showroom, where I could actually walk among real-life Morgans, MGs, Healeys, Jags, Alfas, and Porsches. Some day. . .
Fifteen years later, as a newly commissioned naval officer stationed in San Diego, I was able to have a sports car of my own–a 1962 Volvo P-1800. If it was good enough for Roger Moore in TV’s spy series The Saint, it would suit my James Bond fantasy–even if it wasn’t an Aston Martin and I never wore a tuxedo. (I did, however, have it resprayed silver over the original dark gray.)
My English car craving was realized several years later. Having survived a year in Viet Nam and numerous Friday nights in the Marine Corps Officers’ Club, I was a Combat Intelligence instructor at the Naval Amphibious School in Coronado, California. As was our custom on slack days with no classes to teach, my colleagues and I would work out in the base gym, and then muster at the Officers’ Club to replenish lost fluids. During one Friday’s liquid lunch, the subject of cars arose; and the conversation turned to Austin Healeys. I’d always wanted one, and upon returning to my office, I scanned the San Diego Union to see if any were for sale. As it happened, one was listed as a “must sell” for $500 dollars. I called the number in the ad, and a woman advised me that I’d have to talk to her husband, a sailor at the anti-submarine warfare school. I reached him at work, and he had all the right answers to my questions. His wife was “out to here” with impending childbirth, and he needed a car that would accommodate his bulbous wife and their expected firstborn. I committed to the car sight unseen and picked it up that evening. Thirty-six years later, I still own that car.
Over the following ten-or-so years, I got in and out of several E-Types and a lovely Morgan Plus Four, all of which generally satisfied my need for speed and the masochistic inclinations of those given to Lucas electrics and SU carburetors. But the car I really wanted was a Ferrari.
I was a professional bachelor until age 35, and during my first married Christmas in Massachusetts, home to my new extended family, I met my wife’s sister-in law’s sister’s husband, Jim. We struck an immediate bond, drinking beer in Aunt Lou’s kitchen and finding kinship in our passion for the quirky machinery of sports motoring. He had, as it turned out, owned a Morgan some years ago and was currently holding a couple of Maserati road cars, along with a fat-fender Plymouth in which I had little interest other than the story behind its acquisition. The Maseratis, however, intrigued me, as they were in a class with the coveted Ferrari. I’d remembered seeing a Volvo P-1800 ad in Life magazine in the early 60’s, in which the Volvo was positioned among a Ferrari 250GT, a Maserati 3500, a Lamborghini 400GT, and an Aston Martin DB4, but at one-quarter the cost.
The following Christmas, Jim and I again gathered in Lou’s kitchen, drink Uncle John’s beer, and talk about cars. Jim mentioned to me that his Maserati connections had led him to a 1962 Vignale Spyder, which meant nothing to me beyond the fact that it was Italian, probably sexy, and according to Jim, similar to his coupe but “very rare.” The Maserati 3500GT series of road cars, produced from the late ’50s until about 1964, offered two models. They shared suspension and drive trains, but the coupe, produced in numbers approaching fifteen-hundred, bore coachwork by Touring, The convertible, or Spyder, was bodied by Vignale, and production was limited to about 250. This particular example was secreted away in a garage in Virginia. Jim had gone to examine it, but had decided against buying it because it would have required too much work. But, he said, for the right owner, it could become “an exceptional piece.”
Later that week, Jim showed me some Polaroids he’d taken of the car and an article in a Maserati Club publication about several examples of the Vignale Spyder with their owners’ profiles and comments. It bore a resemblance to the Ferrari 250 California Spyder. I thought of it as an “almost” Ferrari. Cool car!
Some months later, in late fall of 1981, I had business in the Washington, DC, area and figured I’d steal away from an event I was attending to see the car up close and personal. I collared one of my sales team whose presence wasn’t required and we sped south from Maryland to the location in Falls Church that Jim had given me. It was gravel used car lot, complete down to the string of light bulbs hung along the perimeter, with repair facilities in a scattering of sheds behind the sales office, which was a converted residential bungalow. Specializing in European cars—in fact, EuroCars was the establishment’s name–it was owned and operated by an Englishman named Duncan Crook. My arrival was met by a tiny, very proper English lady who answered my request for Duncan with an explanation that he was on holiday in the UK and would return in several weeks. I told her that I’d come all the way from New Jersey to have a look at the Maserati.
While she professed to know nothing about its status, she saw no harm in my looking at it, adding that I’d have to talk to Duncan if I had an interest in its purchase. She led me to an unused shed in the rear of the property, and sliding open a heavy, railed door, allowed the afternoon light to fall upon the most wretched automotive specimen I’d ever seen outside of a junkyard. It was covered with the dusty patina of neglect that had spanned a great number of years. It was missing critical pieces, such as the front bumper, the rear bumper, the grille, the grille surround, a headlight rim, and most of the interior knobs and handles. There were no inner door panels, and the once luxurious red leather seats were cracked and dried and smelled like a musty chicken coup.
I lifted the rear of the creased and buckled hood to reveal the black wrinkle-finished cam covers, aggressively proclaiming “Maserati” in bold, brushed aluminum relief. Looking for something to touch, I checked the brake fluid reservoir—clear and yellowy fluid. I checked the dipstick. It was dark, but smelled like motor oil. I wiggled the cheap, aftermarket wooden steering wheel, and the front tires, soft but inflated, responded to the slightest nudge. I secured one of Duncan’s business cards and went back to the meeting with a new purpose in life.
The day after his expected return, I called Duncan. He advised, apologetically, that the Maserati had been sold several months prior to “a bloke” who’d left a $500 deposit and had yet to come by with the remaining $2,500 to collect the car. Without blatantly announcing my intentions, I hinted around the possibilities that the transaction might be consummated immediately, were a potential buyer to come forth with the full purchase price, which might, in fact, be something MORE than $3,000. But Duncan was quite firm in his position that the car was sold.
Several weeks later, when business found me in the DC area again, I dropped by EuroCars, figuring correctly that a face-to-face encounter would lend a more “personal” aspect to our discussion, in the event the car was still there. Duncan was in his office when I entered, and our exchange went something like this: “Hello Duncan, I’m Bob. We talked several weeks ago about the Maserati. Is it gone yet, or do you still have it?”
“It’s still here, but the chap has been in touch since we talked and he thinks he’s about to sell his car. He has an XK150 he needs to move to raise the money. That’s what’s holding him up.”
“Any way I could look at it again?”
“I suppose so, but as I’d told you last month, the car is not available for sale. I’ve got a number of other fine cars you might find of interest. Let’s go out and have a look at a few, shall we?”
“OK, but first, could we just have a peek at the Maserati—one last time?”
During our visit to the shed, Duncan shared with me the known history of the car. It had New York plates, most recently registered six years prior. It had a New York City tax sticker, indicating it had been a city car (and looked it). It had probably passed through a series of owners, each being less attentive than the last to its maintenance and cosmetics. When a bumper got whacked, the owner simply smeared Bondo over the mounting holes over and ran bumperless. When the grille got crunched, more Bondo over the grille mounts and the car’s snout, minus all chrome entirely, looked like a toothless shark. In the sixties, we’d have called this “customizing.”
Duncan motioned to the left front fender. The back half, from wheel well to door, was accordion pleated. “This? Oh, that’s when a couple of blokes took it out one night for some spirited motoring and the wheel spun off. Seems the spindles had been reversed, left to right, and the spinner backed off under hard braking. The owner brought it here five years ago to sort out the front end and never returned to collect it. Rumor was he was in jail somewhere in Arizona for stealing cactuses from the desert.”
I phoned Duncan each week for the following two months, each time to be told with perceptible, mounting impatience that the “bloke had better get on with it.” Finally, after a number of fruitless calls, Duncan caved. I offered $3,200, and told him I’d be down the next day to get the car. He had already secured a mechanic’s lien, and the Virginia paperwork was in order. He agreed to get it running, and I could drive it home. I wrote up a bill of sale, got a bank check, found the location of a notary near Duncan’s lot, and slept like a kid on Christmas Eve.
I arrived at EuroCars after the six-hour drive. Duncan had rolled the car out of the shed and gotten it running. The brakes functioned, the clutch worked, and with the help of a new battery, the car started right up. As I climbed around the cockpit, the wretched condition that had caused Jim to pass on the car suddenly struck me with a terminal case of buyer’s regret. I had already given Duncan the bank check for $3,200, but I sheepishly chickened out, noting weakly that the car was well beyond my scope or ability to restore.
“Oh great,” he said, “I’ve already told the other bloke to piss off.” Nonetheless, he graciously returned the check.
I gave him a hundred dollars for his trouble, apologized, got back in my diesel Buick LeSabre, and headed north. Throughout the six-hour drive, I kicked myself in the head.
I languished over my hesitancy throughout the weekend. It was clear to Barbara that I was destined to one of two paths—have that car, or spend the remainder of our marriage regretting my decision. With her encouragement, I called Duncan Monday morning and timidly asked if he still had the car. I flew down to Washington National that afternoon and met a flatbed at EuroCars,
I had the car delivered to a garage in downtown Red Bank that I’d patronized with my daily Buick and Barbara’s Olds as well as my Austin Healey, a ’67 Jag E-type, and a ’62 Morgan. Since the car had sat unused for over five years, I figured that bleeding, flushing and refilling all the fluids would be a good idea. Red Bank Auto Repair, around the corner from my office, was where everyone took their cars for anything from a flat tire to an engine rebuild. It was owned and operated by two old-school mechanics—the kind of guys who probably built hot rods in the 50’s. Everyone called it simply “the boys’ garage.” I also determined that a tune-up was probably in order, so I made the hundred-or-so-mile round trip to Randy’s Motors, a factory authorized Maserati repair facility in Clifton, New Jersey. I bought a two sets of points and twin condensers (the car has dual ignition), a new distributor cap, and whatever trim pieces they had for my car, which consisted of an inner door handle, a badge, a couple of Vignale medallions, and miraculously, a grille surround. This grille surround had to be the last one in existence. Several years earlier, my friend Jim had needed one for his Touring bodied coupe. Unable to find one anywhere, he ultimately commissioned the metal smiths at Maserati’s factory in Modena to hand-craft one for fifteen-hundred dollars.
The restoration was underway. On the ride home from Randy’s, I liberally estimated five-to-six thousand for body work, two-thousand for interior work, fifteen-hundred for miscellaneous parts and mechanicals; and I calculated that with the fluid change, tune up, and cosmetics, I’d have a rare 1962 Maserati convertible for under $12,000. In reality, I was on the threshold of an adventure beyond anyone’s most creative comprehension. A clue came in the form of my discovery with the rare and treasured grille surround. When I held it up to the snout of my car, it was off by almost an inch in several dimensions. I called Randy’s to validate that this piece was, in fact, for a Vignale Spyder. It was then I learned that the Vignale coachworks had hand-built each car, and that no two were identical. It was assumed that any replacement body part would need minor modification to fit that particular unit, and my grille surround was no exception. This was why, I was told, it was in bare steel and not plated. I couldn’t be plated until after it had been cut, shaped, welded, and ground.
A Portuguese Adventure
“The boys” completed their work, and I prevailed upon my relatively new wife for a ride to the garage the following Saturday morning. When I pointed proudly to the car, sitting quietly in a back corner of the shop, Barbara said something like, “no, really—where’s the car you bought?” With some convincing that this really was the Maserati, she wept. Girls often don’t understand.
I drove the car home, noting that it pulled decidedly to the left. (I thought that left front wheel looked a tad wall-eyed). Curiously, the car enjoyed spurts of spirited performance, but largely ran like it was firing on three of its six in-line cylinders. I envisioned the Webers needing a good rebuild, what with sitting all those years, so on Monday, I brought it to the only foreign car specialists in Red Bank. Their mechanic, Mario, greeted me with a grin, immediately announcing that he was Portuguese and could fix anything, and yes, he was well familiar with Weber side-draft carbs. He would obtain some rebuild kits and have me back on the road in a couple days. I naively left the car and returned as planned. Mario had rebuilt the carbs, and in test driving the car, ascertained that it had “no pep,” so he did a compression check and found two of the cylinders to have almost no compression—probably badly worn or cracked rings. That could explain, he said, the periodic spurts of performance—when the oil caught a momentary seal, he said, then gave way to blow-by. That sounded fishy to me, but, he noted, he was Portuguese and could replace the rings on the weak cylinders and have me on the road in a couple more days. I returned as instructed, to find my engineless car in the back lot, my block on the floor of the shop, and the head on a cluttered bench along with assorted parts and bits from an Aston Martin and a Bentley that were similarly enjoying Mario’s Portuguese artistry.
Mario urged me to allow him to send out the head for a valve job, and he would attend to all six cylinders with his hone and new rings. I figured, as long as we’ve come this far, we may as well proceed—the engine would be entirely right, which was really the only way to treat such a noble machine anyway. Mario asked me to find the rings and a set of valve guides and seats.
I called a couple of my Maserati contacts to inquire about a source of engine parts. A single name emerged: Kyle Flemming. I called Kyle and caught him at home one evening. He was a well known fixture in the global Maserati community. He lived in Virginia Beach and had a small, non working farm in rural Virginia with a barn and a salvage area where he harvested used Maserati parts and warehoused a fair assortment of NOS parts. Kyle was one of those easy, personable guys, instantly likeable on the basis of his openness and smile alone—a smile that was discernable over the phone. Kyle and I had a pleasant discussion about Vignale Spyders, and he relayed some information about examples he had come to know among US collectors. I ordered the necessary parts, expecting Kyle to ask for payment in advance. To my amazement, he indicated that he’d get them off to me the following morning and would invoice me in several days. He wasn’t sure just what they would cost; he had the prices and the parts in his barn. I was touched by his trust, but I later learned that, in all his years of selling parts to the Maserati collector community, he’d never been stiffed. Over the months to come, I got to know Kyle pretty well. In fact, on a business trip to Norfolk, I made a side jaunt to Virginia Beach and stopped by his home on Sir Barton Drive, where he entertained me with Italian car adventures spanning three decades. I got to meet his lovely British wife, have a spot of tea, and put a couple of faces with the voices that had become so familiar over recent months.
Having dropped off the valve seats, guides, and rings at Mario’s, I stopped by the shop a week-or-so later to check on his progress. The head had come back from the machine shop, but Mario had not yet gotten to the block. I told him to take his time, as long as he did a good job. “Hey—I’m Portuguese,” he reminded. “We always do good job.”
The following week, I again dropped by expecting to find my work well along. Mario was nowhere in sight, but the owner was at his desk in the sales room. I enquired as to Mario’s Portuguese whereabouts.
The owner’s response was like an arrow through the sternum. “That little sombitch took off and went back to Portugal—left me high and dry. I got parts and cars and all kinds of shit out there. Was he working on a car for you too?”
After a brief episode of hyperventilation, I flailed about the shop, collecting generator, starter motor, headers, carbs, head, coils, water pump, radiator, and other assorted parts, nuts, studs, bolts, and brackets that looked like they might have come from a Maserati. I told him I’d come back with a truck to pick up my block, and he advised me quite perfunctorily that would be fine– after “we settled up.” He would be holding my block for ransom until I paid him not only for the machine shop sublet, but also for several hundred dollars worth of Mario’s Portuguese labor. I returned with my checkbook, gathered the remainder of what I hoped to be all of my parts, and went directly to Red Bank Automotive, the machine shop that had rebuilt the head.
John, the machinist who had done the head work, was agreeable to taking on the task of rebuilding the rest of the engine. He agreed to pick up the block at Mario’s and get to work forthwith. I checked on his progress several days later and was pleased to discover that he had dissembled and boiled the block and was about to undertake honing the cylinder liners. He’d told me he’d need a set of bearings and a head gasket. Curiously, the head gasket consists of a set of brass “fire rings” that provide a compression seal with the aluminum head at the top of each cylinder, a rubber gasket that provides a seal for coolant circulation between the head and the block, and a couple dozen tiny (REALLY tiny) steel balls that lie within really tiny holes in the rubber seal to serve as spacers that, while allowing the head and block to compress the rubber seal for a leak-proof coolant barrier, prevent the head from warping when torqued down on the fire rings. Kyle provided the needed parts for something in the neighborhood of eleven hundred dollars—a fair price, considering their rarity and what alternate sources (of which there were few) charged, but a price nonetheless which caused me to re-examine my impulsiveness at ever getting involved with an old Maserati.
I delivered these to John the Machinist and, over the following weeks, awaited his call. It came, but not with the news I’d expected. As his work had progressed, he’d recognized, possibly from the complexity of the head gasket alone, the unique nature of this engine. Although he had dissembled it, he was uncomfortable with the prospect of trying to get all these pieces back in their proper order. As he put it, “If this were a Ford or Chevy, I could put it together in the dark, but this is way too special an engine, and I’m afraid I might screw it up. I’ve got all the parts organized and cleaned and boxed up, the liners have been honed, and it’s all ready for assembly, but you’ll need to find somebody else. I suggest you get somebody who works on these kinds of engines.” He had, as he’d said, wrapped and organized the immaculate parts in clean shop rags and packed them in several wine boxes he’d collected from the Shoprite across the street. I respected his honesty and candor. As Detective Harry Callahan so aptly proclaimed in Magnum Force: “a man’s got to know his limitations.”
That afternoon, I set about a campaign of dialing for dollars. I started calling machine shops and garages in the yellow pages, asking anyone who’d listen if they would, or knew of someone who might, undertake the assembly of a complete Maserati 3.5 liter engine that had been machined and cleaned (I don’t know why I felt that was important) and simply needed to be put back together. To a man, each person I spoke with demurred, but several suggested I “call Hagaman—that sounds like something he’d do.” I tracked down this Hagaman, Jim by name, who had a shop in Lakewood, New Jersey, about 30 miles south of Red Bank. He was listed with a one-liner in the Monmouth County yellow pages as Hagaman Racing Engines. I relayed my situation, stoking his ego by citing the ringing endorsements that came with his name. He was unimpressed but attentive, asking “What kind of engine is it?” I explained it was an aluminum block twin cam inline six.
He said, “It sounds a lot like a Jag—yeah, I did one of them once. Sure, bring it by. It might be kind of fun, but I hope you’re not in a hurry. I’m not sure when I’ll be able to get to it.”
I was so relieved to find a willing participant in my folly, I told him that it didn’t matter when I got it back. The car would need to undergo extensive body restoration anyway, so he could work on it at his own pace, “–whenever you don’t have anything else to do.” He gave me directions to his shop, I borrowed my friend’s van, collected all my engine parts, gave Red Bank Automotive a check for a few hundred more dollars, and headed south on the Garden State Parkway to meet Hagaman.
Hagaman Racing Engines was a small shop with an area in front served by a three-stool counter festooned with a multitude of automotive and racing stickers, pennants, promotional material, and the obligatory Snap-On cleavage calendar. The shop however was as immaculate and as organized as any surgical trauma center, with spotless floor, steel-topped benches, rows of red tool cases, and an assortment of lathes, presses, and bores that looked like a sub tender’s machine shop. I exhaled for the first time in weeks.
Hagaman himself was an intense, articulate man of larger than average proportion, with a directness and sincerity that instilled immediate confidence. We carried the block, crank, cams swaddled like newborns in shop rags, and the wine cases of pistons, rods, studs, pins, springs, nuts, spacers, seals, o-rings, and baggies of bits and pieces into the shop. Hagaman gave me his card and said he’d be in touch. Relieved and optimistic, I headed home.
The rolling body and hood were still back at Mario’s shop. I hired a flatbed to collect them and bring them to my home. As the driver winched the engineless carcass down onto my driveway, he shook his head and said with a tone implying more pity than admiration, “Buddy, you sure do have an imagination.”
The Surgical Team
I removed the interior, dash and instruments, and had a steam cleaning/pressure washing service come and blast off the years of accumulated grease, grime, abuse and neglect. There was a mature, personable fourteen-year-old who lived across the street who was always looking for extra spending money. I bought five gallons of aircraft stripper, a few bales of course steel wool, brushes, a carton of vinyl gloves, some scrapers, and turned George loose in my driveway for a couple weeks while Barbara and I went to Cape Cod. When I’d returned, the Spyder was in bare metal. The job had taken George much longer than I had anticipated, due to the numerous layers of gold, white, and blue paint, not to mention numerous gallons of filler, applied under the factory paint, to smooth out the peaks and valleys of crude Italian metalwork. Of course, at $5 an hour, a few hundred bucks to George remains the biggest bargain of the project, before or since.
I set about finding the right body shop to tend to the cosmetics. I took some pictures and, over the coming weeks, I “interviewed” body shops with a proposition: “How’d you like to take on an interesting project, with no time requirements, to fill in when things were slow?” Nobody was interested. Clearly, I would need a different approach.
“OK, I need you to paint this car. It needs rocker panels, quarter panel work, and a nice paint job.” Nobody was interested. That’s when I learned that body shops exist solely to serve as the middle man between insurance companies and pedestrians.
Coincidently, there was a business in an old, relatively run-down house I regularly passed on my weekly trips to Newark Airport. It was about four miles from my home and displayed a hand-painted plywood sign: R&M Auto Restorations. On a lark, I strode in one afternoon and was stopped in my tracks. In the dusty shop, afloat in the wonderful smell of paints and thinners and fillers and new rubber, were the most magnificent examples of automotive art–old Mercedes convertibles, a coach-built LaSalle, a Pierce Arrow, and an MG TD. I was home.
I struck a deal with Gary, (either the R or the M–I’m not sure which, but there were only two guys who worked there) to take in my car and work on it at their own pace for $20 an hour. That was an unheard of rate, even in 1982. It seemed that everyone with a restoration project had some car show or auction that dictated the work schedule. They were delighted to have some no-pressure fallback work, and I was happy with the financial arrangement. They would send me a bill every month, and I really didn’t care when they finished the car. After all, Hagaman would take several months at least.
Feeling quite satisfied with my problem solving abilities, I enjoyed my E-Type, Healey, and Morgan and fantasized about the day when I could bring the body and soul of the Maserati together. A couple of weeks later, my company announced my transfer to Atlanta.
I commuted between Newark and Atlanta for several months, all the while wringing my hands with mounting angst over the prospect of leaving my engine with Hagaman, my body with Gary R or M, and having under my direct control only a few boxes of trim pieces, moldy seats, a starter, generator, radiator, and three Webers. But, a man’s got to do what a man’s got to do, and mid-summer of 1983, I was in Marietta, suffering recurring nightmares: that Hagaman and /or R & M would disappear along with my engine and/or car. There were fires, vandalism, wars, acts of God, and a whole chamber of horrors that could, however remote the possibility, befall my cherished abandonments. I learned to live with it.
I received a monthly invoice accompanied by photos of the work from Gary, so my comfort level grew in that regard. I got into the habit of calling Hagaman every several weeks, both to verify his continued existence (he did drive a red Corvette, he was a bachelor, and these two factors actuarially put him at higher risk of early death) and to check on the project’s evolution. His answer was routinely, “no, I haven’t been able to get to get yet—I’m gonna try to get on it later in the week.” At one point, obviously sympathetic to my discomfort with the utter lack of progress, he explained, “Bob, I know you think I don’t care about your engine, but during the racing season, I get a truck in here every Monday morning with five or six engines, and I have until Thursday night to get them back out. I can’t really tackle yours until the season is over and things slow down. Besides, I need to take my time with it—I have to figure it out. It’s kind of like a jigsaw puzzle. I’m looking at it as a winter project.”
I backed off, and dialed down my calling rate to quarterly. Each time, I dreaded the possibility of that familiar series of tones and beeps, with the Universal Phone Lady’s message: “I’m sorry, the number you have called has been disconnected and there is no new number. Please check the number, and dial again.” On one occasion, after a few months of patience, I heard, “beep BEEP beep—the number you have called, 201-348-2670 … (my heart stopped)… has been changed—the new number is. . .” (my heart restarted). I called the new number and got the familiar “Hagaman.” Jim had moved. He needed a bigger shop.
I was beginning to reach that age where we don’t like change. I needed to see it. I scheduled a trip to Jersey and made the trek to Lakewood. There it was: “Hagaman Racing Engines” in a much bigger shop. My visit was a surprise. It had been almost two years since Jim and I had emptied the van of my engine bits, but he recognized me and proudly gave me a tour of his new shop. It was considerably larger, even more immaculate with a shiny, coated floor, more machines, a bank of tall red Snap-On chests of tools, and an almost antiseptic smell. There were a dozen or so engine stands with blocks in various stages of assembly. I recognized one as mine—it was the only in-line six among a row of big block and small block eights.
At one point in our conversation, talk turned to my engine, and Hagaman’s intensity edged up a few clicks. “Oh, that’s a magnificent engine. I had no idea how special it was.”
“What do you mean?”
“C’mere—I’ll show you.”
He led me to a small room, opening the door as if to a hospital nursery. There, standing in rows on the floor like sprouting cornstalks, were 30 or 40 crankshafts. He immediately seized upon one of them and hefted it into his arms, like a ninety-pound infant. He brought it out of the dark room and laid it on a large shop towel spread onto a shiny steel workbench. Pulling a clean rag from a row of stacks, he wiped his prints from one of the throws, exclaiming “Look at this.”
“Huh? What about it?” I replied.
“This is forged from a single block of the finest, hardest steel. We miced, scoped and fluxed it; there isn’t a flaw. It’s spectacular. It’s perfect. All I did was polish it.”
Here was a man given to great passion in his art—the Michelangelo of crankshafts. I wanted to hug him. We talked about Atlanta, and I learned that he was a very knowledgeable civil war buff. He expressed a long-standing desire to come to the South and visit some of the historic battlefields and civil war museums–the Andersonville prison memorial, and a number of sites and attractions I’d never heard of. I left with a sincere appreciation of the fact that I had been in the presence of greatness—a genuine Renaissance Man. I committed to give Hagaman all the time and space he wanted. That was the summer of 1984. I touched base with him several times a year.
I got a voicemail from Gary in the spring of ’87. “Your car’s in primer, and we need to get it out of here. We lost our lease, and Jim and I are both going to go do something else. Give me a call.”
I was on a plane to Newark several days later. A flatbed took the completed body to my friend Bill Meyers’ parents’ home, where they had graciously agreed to store it in their garage until I could arrange transport several weeks later to Atlanta. It was a grand day, in the summer of 1987 when Passport rolled into my neighborhood and unloaded the Spyder in front of my house.
At this stage, the project began to get legs. There were a number of details to attend to. I needed to find or create bumpers, a grille, interior door panels, rear view mirrors, chrome trim strips. Also, there was the nasty matter of the hood.
The hood had endured a tough life. It fastened in the front and opened in the rear, as was the custom in early Italian exotics. These cars never embraced the complicated springs and levers associated with 50’s and 60’s American cars. There was, rather, a simple hinge, and a couple of ratchet struts that held the hood open. Raising it was a matter of releasing a cable-connected latch under the driver’s side dash, then lifting up the rear of the hood 60 degrees or so until the ratchet braces engaged and held it in the open position. When closing time came, one would raise the hood several inches to release the ratchet, and lower it to a foot or so above the firewall. It was then dropped onto the self-engaging latches. In the course of its fall from grace, the Spyder came under the abuse, unintentional I’m sure, of a ham-handed mechanic or pump jockey who only knew the standard American hood closure routine. He’d attempted to force the hood down despite the ratchet props’ commitment to counter his misguided intent. Something had to give, and, as one might guess, it was the hood with its relatively flimsy steel framework and gossamer aluminum skin. Naturally, this mishap was the object of immediate corrective action, and Igor next tried to bend it back to something approximating its original configuration. The hood had a serious buckle. The aluminum work required craftsmanship beyond the capability of the guys in New Jersey, and, wisely, they were professional enough to acknowledge this when they took the car in. This repair would require the services of an old-world panel beater.
The car had come with a set of worn out but restorable wheels. Borrani sixteen inch, or so I thought. I bought a set of sixteen inch radial tires at Coker in Chattanooga, only to learn that the wheels were not sixteen inch, but rather 400 millimeter. This wheel is a shade smaller than a 16-inch tire. A 16 inch tire can be mounted on such a wheel, but the effect, I was told, was that the tires don’t center themselves on the wheel, leaving the combination out-of-round. At low speed, the car goes down the road with a kind of gallop, each corner rising and falling independently as the out-of-round tire/wheel combination rotates around its somewhat centrally positioned axel. Over 40 mph and the whole car simply shakes until pieces start falling off. One solution is shaving the tire to a constant radius from the axel, then hope you never have to remove it from the wheel. Once it’s shaved, the tire is committed to that unique mount. I prevailed upon Coker to take back the tires, which they graciously accepted. They also agreed to try and locate me a set of 400 millimeter tires, which, we soon learned, hadn’t been built since the Johnson administration.
Cars manufactured for European delivery were fitted with 400 millimeter wheels, while those destined for North America or the UK had 15-inch wheels. I went to Plan B: find a set of 15-inch Borranis, for which any brand of tire was readily available. Kyle Fleming concurred with this approach, and introduced me to Glen Sipe, an Italian car guru from Memphis who, he thought, might have access to a set. As it turned out, Glen had a spare set of Borranis he’d acquired with a Maserati Mexico some years earlier, and he agreed to part with them for a fair price. I arranged a business trip to work with my guy in Memphis, where had the pleasure of making Glen’s acquaintance as well as receiving a tour of his exquisite garage. I brought my four 15-inch Borrani wheels home as checked baggage on Delta, bummed four empty paint cases from the Glidden store, and sent them off to Dayton Wheel to be polished and rewoven with stainless steel spokes. Choosing a set of Michelin 6.50x75x15 radials (75-series provided the correct outer circumference for the existing speedometer calibration) I had them mounted to the freshly restored wheels and attempted to install them on my rolling chassis.
The rolling part wasn’t about to happen. It seemed that the Girling disk brakes on all four corners were designed to accommodate 400 millimeter wheels. The 15-inch wheels couldn’t clear the calipers’ castings. The clearances were, I ascertained, off by a couple of millimeters. Fortunately, the castings were thick enough that I could grind down the offending high points with my trusty Black & Decker and a two-inch grinding wheel. Trust me, you don’t want to try and grind off a couple of millimeters of iron casting with a portable drill. Halfway through the second corner, I was ready to trade in my Black & Decker for a Smith & Wesson and hunt down both Messrs. Borrani and Girling. But eventually, through trial, error, and several cubes of billiard chalk, the wheels mounted and rotated with acceptable clearance.
I had seen an ad in Auto Week for reproduction Talbot Racing Mirrors at Cobra Restorers, which happened to be in Atlanta. This little business was dedicated to the restoration and ground-up fabrication of replica Cobras–not the kit-car varieties, but accurate reproductions, built with tubular steel frames from the ground up on authentic Shelby-era jigs, but with modern brakes, engines, and hand-crafted aluminum bodies. It was here, having dropped by one afternoon to have a look at the mirrors, that I was serendipitously exposed to several key participants in my evolving Canterbury Tale. There was a car in the final stages of assembly, skinned in raw aluminum, with panel joins displaying the most precise aluminum welds one could imagine. Inquiring where they got their bodies, I was told of a local craftsman who hand-hammered the bodies the old fashioned way, with an English wheel and wooden bucks. I got his name and number and thus had the delightful experience of meeting Robbie Robinson. I reached Robbie by phone and got directions to his house in Acworth, a mere 20 minutes from my home. Robbie had been a panel beater all his life. He’d risen from shop boy through apprenticeship to master at Aston Martin’s Tickford Works until wanderlust and other callings brought him to America. His skills were in high demand, given the surging popularity of vintage racing, ’50’s exotic car restoration, and the country’s foremost Cobra shop just down the road.
Robbie’s home was a simple split-level in a middle class suburban neighborhood, with a one-car drive-under garage that opened into the basement. It was here that Robbie worked his magic with metal. He showed me his shop. He had sheets of aluminum stacked like plywood at one end of his basement. There were English wheels and power hammers. The basement also housed several wooden body bucks, Ferrari, Aston, and Cobra fenders, doors, boots and bonnets in various stages of completion, along with a refrigerator stocked with a selection of English beers and ales.
Robbie examined my buckled hood and said it looked relatively straightforward. Since the crease was forward of the power bulge, he could straighten, section, and weld the steel frame where it had been bent, cut out and replace the front foot or so of the alloy skin, and I would be “right as rain.” He added that he’d need the car to fit it properly, and hoped that I wasn’t in a hurry. Between the Cobra work and the misfortunes visited upon the rich guys each weekend in the vintage racing circuit, Robbie might not be able to finish my hood until winter. Since this was 1988 and I’d bought the car in ’81, I was in no hurry that I knew of.
Robbie also worked in steel, and there were several pieces that required custom fabrication or modification. An inner panel for the passenger door was missing, but the driver’s door was complete and could be used for a mirror-image pattern. The dash needed a piece of steel formed and welded where one of the Spyder’s previous owners had rough-cut a hole to accommodate an eight-track. The ill-fitting grille surround needed to be shortened and re-contoured to fit this Spyder’s snout. Since the dash was the easiest part of the job, he agreed to tackle it “straight away.” He took my hood, dash, and grille surround into his care, and I had the rolling chassis flat-bedded to his home. I got the dash back in a week. The eight-track hole was gone, filled with a perfectly cut, formed, welded, and ground panel. The work was perfect enough to obviate the need of filler prior to priming.
I had removed the instruments and all the wiring from the dash during disassembly in New Jersey. Since the dash needed to be painted prior to the upholstery work, I sought out a paint and body shop that specialized in Porsche exteriors. I reasoned that, since I was having the car painted in Porsche’s India Guard’s Red, the shop could prep the piece and shoot the color next time they had some routine work in that formula. This was sure to save me some money, I reasoned, insofar as red was the most expensive paint color one could buy and they could shoot my dash panel with what was left in the gun rather than pour it into the sewer. I learned that it doesn’t work that way. The shop said they’d be glad to paint it, but that the materials portion of the bill would be the same whether I wanted it in two days or two years. They were entitled, it seems, to double dip on materials if the occasion permitted. OK, I picked it up a couple of days later and, on the basis of the quality of their work on the dash, enquired about their painting the car. I was promptly dispatched. They painted Porsches because they knew Porsches, they could take them apart and reassemble them in their sleep, and they were loathe to undertake anything beyond that of which they had become masters. I had always felt that Porsche people seemed somewhat elitist in their dismissal of all things non-Porsche. Hell, these guys were just lazy. They were on autopilot.
Coincidently or otherwise, in the same industrial park as the paint shop was housed a trim shop specializing in Porsche interiors—CB & E. I took my freshly painted dash to them and expected to be similarly rejected. I got a similar story—about how they could do a Porsche convertible top quite handily, having done so many and, owing to the precision with which Porsche’s are built, and having mastered the art on one meant mastery of the art on many. But, this explanation, as it turned out, was in the way of an apology for pricing my job. Insofar as this was a one-off, they would have to tackle it by trial and error, and while the outcome would be flawless, they would need to charge for the effort. I’m not sure which partner, CB or E, was the wife member of the partnership, but she covered the top of my dash and the instrument binnacle hood with flawless, triple stitched, vat-dyed Italian leather in a way that far exceeded my expectations. I was thrilled to pay her $750 for the work. It was spectacular. A purist once informed me dismissively that the correct dash covering for my car was matte black vinyl. I ran my hand over the elegant, glove-soft, incorrect leather and smugly replied, “I prefer leather, and it’s my car.”
On a subsequent visit to Cobra Restorers, I was admiring the paint work on a finished 427. I asked the owner about painting my car. With Cobra production being somewhat limited, his painter, I was told, worked there on a part-time basis. He also did work on the side. He might, the owner continued, be interested in taking on my project, provided there was no time deadline. This was becoming a recurring theme.
Scott King lived with his young wife and toddler in his parents’ home south of the city He worked out of a four-bay shed behind the house. His parents’ spread included several acres of manicured, neatly aligned fir trees of various heights and girths. They were in the Christmas tree business. Scott was in the painting business when he wasn’t clipping trees. His bread and butter was repairing minor bump work for the rental car companies operating out of nearby Atlanta Hartsfield Airport; but an ancillary pursuit, and one which he passionately enjoyed, was working on high-end cars, one at a time, in his off-hours. One of the bays in his shop featured a gallery of pages taken from collector car calendars. Thumb-tacked alongside a fair number of these wall hangings were Polaroid versions of the featured calendar cars that Scott had painted. His pride was evident. I showed him photos of the Spyder, and he agreed to take it on as his next project. Enquiring what he would charge for the job, I got the standard reply: that depends. Like most artists, he was unable to quote a figure until the work was complete and he could gauge his effort in retrospect. I asked him for a rough “over and under,” and satisfied with the “under,” (I had learned long ago to ignore the “over”) we shook hands on the deal. One bright, crisp Saturday morning, I followed a flatbed from Marietta to College Park, where Scott and I unloaded the Spyder and pushed it into one of his empty bays. I handed him a box of rubber, which included new molding for the windshield. Inquiring how he intended to remove, store, and reinstall the glass, I let him know the rarity of that particular item and how my 3500 GT would be a 3500 lbs. paperweight if he broke the glass. Replacement windshields, I had learned, were non-existent. He seemed confident enough that he and his father and several old movers’ pads were up to the task.
About six weeks after leaving the car with Scott, he called to announce its completion. I stopped by his shop later that week and beheld my rolling chasses, basking in the Georgia sun. The surfaces, after hours of blocking and sanding, were flawlessly straight, mirror smooth, and glistened in vibrant, shimmering red. The finish was every bit as glossy as two-stage base-clear, despite the fact that I specified Centauri acrylic enamel for ease of possible spot repair. I gladly wrote him a check for the remainder of his fee—I had paid him up front for the materials—and scheduled a flatbed to fetch and deliver the car the following Saturday morning.
At this point, there four key steps remaining in the project: I needed to have the seats, door panels, and rear panels trimmed. I needed to have bumpers crafted. I needed a grille. And, most importantly, I needed Hagaman to step up and finish my engine.
I had elected to do the interior in butterscotch Connolly leather, or “biscuit” in Jaguar-speak. On a trip to New York, I swung by Bill Hirsch’s headquarters in Newark, New Jersey. I’d come to know of Bill Hirsch from years of seeing his ads in Hemming’s Motor News, and I was able to find him with the help of a Hertz map of Newark. The building was unmarked other than the address numbers. It sat alone on a block of abandoned business and boarded up ruins that looked like photos I’d seen of Berlin after the war. The windows and door were fortified with iron bars. There was a door buzzer with a raspy speaker that alerted the staff of a visitor’s arrival. I was buzzed aboard and rode a slow, jerky elevator to an upper floor, where I sorted through samples of more colors and textures of leather than I had thought existed. I selected the hides and canvas for the top and boot, paid for sufficient quantities of each, and in the process of completing the transaction, had the opportunity to meet Bill Hirsch himself. Hearing that I was from Georgia, he recounted a “good ol’ boy” joke to me, his counter clerk, and several others present. I have retold that joke on countless occasions, always to a hearty round of laughter. I headed back to Newark Airport and on to Atlanta, hide rolls in hand.
The Great Bumper Caper
Over the course of its misguided life, the Spyder had lost both the front and rear bumpers. The front bumper mounts had been cut off and the openings in the nose pan had been filled with Bondo. These mounts, actually just steel tubing welded to the front sub-frame and protruding through the roll pan, were reconstructed and installed by the shop in New Jersey as part of the body restoration. At the time, I contacted all known sources of parts and learned that bumpers for the 3500 Vignale Spyder were non-existent. I would have to have them made.
I concluded, correctly as it turned out, that it would be easier and far less costly to modify an existing bumper than to have one fashioned from scratch. Following this epiphany, I developed an obsession with bumpers. In the eighties, not many cars featured chrome bumpers, and those that did bore no similarity to what the Spyder required. They were large and ungainly, with contours beyond possible modification to approximate the simple, clean lines of the originals. I sensed that certain cars from the sixties and seventies, however, had bumpers of reasonably similar line, mass, and shape. For months, every parking lot involved a bumper review. Traffic lights required a scan of each car traversing the intersection. After a few years of obsessing, I had two eureka moments. The 1970 Maverick front and 1967 Camero rear would serve as tabula rosa. Now, in 1985, I set about finding one of each. Throughout my business travels, I’d check each city’s Yellow Pages, calling bumper shops in search of the Maverick and Camero pieces. I found a Maverick bumper in Miami. The Camero materialized in Chicago. Both rode Delta to Atlanta as checked luggage.
The basic lines of both were ideal. They would simply have to be sectioned and reshaped in length, curve, and contour. I made two corrugated cardboard templates and began calling or visiting bumper and chrome shops to do the work. None were remotely interested in my harebrained scheme. Venturing outside the envelope, I uncovered an ironworking shop that might consent to undertake the project. Their meat and potatoes was the fabrication of elaborate iron fences, gates, and railings for mansions, cemeteries, and, occasionally, film production. I showed the owner, a car guy, a picture of the bumperless Spyder and explained my predicament. He, like Hagaman before him, took up the gauntlet as only a car guy could. Happily, I brought him my bumpers. Unhappily, I learned that all plating had to be removed before they could saw or bend or weld my stock. I took the shiny new bumpers to a plating shop to have the chrome, nickel, and copper plating removed, then back to Atlanta Ironworks where they were cut, welded, and ground to conform to the templates. Slotted mounting brackets and tubing mounts, which would slide into the car’s female receivers, were fixed to their inner surfaces as indicated on the templates. Then it was back to the chrome shop to be plated and polished. My total investment in both bumpers came to around $2,500—a steal considering that fabrication from scratch would have cost considerably more than I had paid for the car.
I next focused on the interior of the car, having the seats rebuilt and trimmed, building inner door panels, restoring the power window regulators, re-wiring the instruments and lighting, and rebuilding the breaks and clutch. Over the next three years, the car evolved to near completion, needing only an exhaust system, convertible top, and an engine.
I located an original equipment NOS Maserati 3500 exhaust system and had it installed at my local Meineke shop. I interviewed several trim shops, soon learning that everyone who advertised “convertible tops” only worked with pre-manufactured kits. Kits were readily available for Fords, Buicks, and Packards. Vignale Spyders? Forget it.
Somehow, I found a shop that would undertake making a top from scratch. The owner-craftsman bore a shocking resemblance to Charles Manson—hair, beard, slight of frame, blue work shirt, jeans, and the piercingly vibrant eyes of one given to visits by demons. He said he’d simply work from the original top, using its panels as patterns. I had the car flatbedded to Smyrna. Other than breaking the driver’s side window and scratching a seat with the enormous ring of keys dangling from his belt, Charlie did a nice job. He offered to pay for the window, but I’d previously had three cut in anticipation of just such an occurrence. I just wanted to get me and my car out of there. Although I’m sure he’s a perfectly nice guy, I always felt a little creepy in his presence. Several years later, I recommended Charles Manson Auto Trim to a friend, but everything was gone—Charlie, the building, the neighboring buildings—all replaced by a condominium development.
One morning, out of the blue, in the fall of 1990, Hagaman called. “Your engine’s ready. What do you want me to do with it?”
“Great,” I exclaimed. “How much do I owe you?” preparing every muscle in my face for The Great Wince. We had never discussed money.
“How’s fifteen hundred sound?” came Hagaman’s response. Again, I wanted to hug him.
I called North American Van Lines “high-value transport” division. This is a special subset of the moving industry that routinely moved mainframe computers, sculpture, antiques, concert grand pianos, and priceless object d’arts. They also routinely charge high-value rates. They assured me they would pad it, strap it firmly to a pallet, and bring it down here in an environmentally controlled, specially suspended trailer to minimize road shock and vibration. Within days, a pallet bearing the prodigal engine was gently rolled into my garage. North American’s charge to bring my engine to Atlanta was slightly more than Hagaman’s eight-year fee to assemble it.
Prior to its arrival, I’d placed numerous calls in pursuit of somebody willing to undertake the final installation. Marti Bishop’s name arose on several of these inquiries. It seemed that his was the name most routinely associated with Maserati repairs. My only other option was F&F, the Ferrari dealer clear across town. And, knowing what Ferrari dealers charge for labor, I opted to pay Marti a visit.
Marti Bishop was a New York kind of guy—confident, opinionated, and had a pretty good business going by the looks of the various European specimens scattered about his shop and parking lot. He was most agreeable to install, wire, plumb, and tune my engine, and would charge his standard hourly rate. I prevailed upon my friend Tony to help me hoist the pallet into his pickup, and with flatbed and my Buick in convoy, we caravanned to Marti’s on a clear September morning. We rolled the car into the rear of Marti’s shop, wheeled the pallet along side, and unloaded my boxes of peripherals: starter, generator, battery, radiator, coils, carbs, etc. It was a beautiful day.
I dropped by Marti’s a week or so later to check on his progress. The engine was in the car, bolted to its mounts. No more, no less. Well, that’s progress, right? Marti explained that he needed to get some incidental parts, (hoses, belts, fasteners, etc) before he could finish it.
I popped in for a visit a couple weeks later. Marti had draped a cover over the car, a peak under which revealed no change. Sensing my displeasure, Marti explained that every Monday a parade of flatbeds arrived with dead Biturbos. These cars served as people’s drivers, and he had to get them fixed and out because his customers depended on them for transportation. The Maserati Biturbo, you may recall, was a blindingly fast but quirky car of questionable quality. Alejandro deTomaso had tried to revive the marque, dormant for a decade, in the eighties, and this well-intentioned savior was legendary in its unreliability–a twin turbo rocket that either: (a.) thrilled its driver with rocket like performance as the turbos spooled-up, or (b.) manifest its myriad problems with cam belt slippage, weak differentials, electrical gremlins, top end lubrication, or simply not starting. No in-between. Marti Bishop was a very busy man.
After six months or so of occasional visits and noting zero progress, my curves of frustration and patience had defined polarity.
Jerome’s Complete Performance
Earlier in the year, I had come across a lovely, outrageous Pantera on a business trip to Los Angeles. I bought the car, primarily because the restoration and aftermarket goodies were easily triple the cost of what I paid for the car. I had it transported to Atlanta and enjoyed driving it, if only for very short rides. The fuel filter fouled after a few minutes of flow. Roadside, the filter settled out in a few minutes, whereupon the car would again start. Then, in a mile or so, the filter would foul. Et cetera. A trip around the block was like getting the racecar around a Monopoly board.
I pulled the plug on the fuel tank and, poking my pinkie through the threaded hole, ran it around the bottom. A half-inch of coating resembling used coffee grounds covered the bottom of the tank. Tending to rust in the tank had not been part of the restoration.
OK, I’d pull the tank, have it boiled and coated, and be back in business. I checked the Pantera Workshop Manual that had accompanied the car, shuddering when I read the first step in the section headed “Fuel Tank, Removal.”
It said, “1. Remove engine (see Section 2.A: Engine, Removal)”
I made a few phone calls and tapped into the local Pantera community, which introduced me to Jerome Craig. Jerome was a legend in the Pantera crowd. He knew the car inside and out. He also knew English cars, Japanese cars, German cars, American cars, racing cars, motorcycles, personal watercraft, go carts, and lawnmowers. If it had an engine or moved under its own power, Jerome could fix it. He was a rarity in this age of computerized diagnostics and parts exchangers. He understood machinery. He had a basement shop behind a strip mall on a little side street aside the civil war cemetery in Roswell: Complete Performance was what the sign said, and it was.
Jerome was a lanky, unassuming, awhh-shucks kind of guy, late twenties, with an unruly shock of brown hair and a pronounced Georgia drawl. Beneath this genuine, but simple, exterior was a genuine, but simple, genius. It didn’t take much interaction for a person of above-average intelligence to recognize that Jerome was brilliant. I just don’t think he knew it. Possessing a wry, lightening-quick wit, he easily dispensed pearls of profound wisdom, well beyond his years or formal education. In the summer, he was given to wearing cut-offs, black ankle socks, and high-top canvas sneakers. He always worked in rubber surgical gloves, and for a mechanic, he was amazingly un-greasy. He sometimes worked alone, but usually had an apprentice-sidekick of sorts named Jeffrey.
I brought the Pantera to Jerome’s basement shop, and for $1,100 he and Jeffery removed the seats, console, roll-bar, firewall, deck lid, dropped the transaxle, pulled the engine, removed the tank shroud and tank, took it to a radiator shop for boiling, coated the interior with aircraft sealer, and reassembled the whole works, without so much as a scratch on its show-quality finish or a smudge on its Connolly black leather.
During the course of this effort, I dropped by Jerome’s shop after work to check on his progress. The shop was something of a gathering place. Around six o’clock, one could generally find Jeffery and Jerome and one or more of Jerome’s friends or customers sitting around the shop’s refrigerator, talking about cars, politics, women, and enjoying an adult beverage or two. I asked Jerome if he knew anything about the 3500 series Maserati road cars. He said, “Sure. What, are the Webers out of synch?”
I told him that I’d had the car for nine years, it had never run, and that I’d left the car in a shop to have the rebuilt engine installed, but that the place didn’t seem to be making any progress, other than they’d mounted the block in the car. Jerome asked me where I’d taken it, to which I replied, half in question, “Marti Bishop’s?”
“Oh, Marti’s Museum,” Jerome chuckled. “That car’ll be there for the millennium. Only reason the block’s in it is Marti probably needed the floor space to store something else. Bring it on over, we’ll get you sorted out. Have you goin’ down the road in a week.”
Next morning, I met a flatbed at Marti’s Museum and collected my radiator, starter, generator, coils, carburetors, brackets, fasteners, and wrote Marti a check for a few hundred dollars. Rent I suppose.
It was a week to the day that Jerome called me at work and told me that he was ready to fire it up, asking if I wanted to be there for The Moment.
Does a Baptist church have a bus?
I bounded out of my office, grabbing the waste basket from aside my desk. I stopped by a gas & convenience store and picked up a bag of ice and a case of Killian’s. When I arrived at the shop, Jerome had pushed the car out through the large overhead door and was elbow-deep into the engine bay. I pulled my supplies from the trunk and dumped a dozen-or-so bottles and the ice into the wastebasket.
“Well, she’s ready to make some heat,” exclaimed Jerome. “Hop in and hit the starter, but don’t touch the gas. I’ll do it here with the linkage.”
“What do you think is going to happen?” I asked with some concern. I had previously told Jerome of Hagaman and the engine’s storied pilgrimage.
“No ‘think’ about it,” Jerome responded emphatically. “I know exactly what’s going to happen. One of three things: it won’t start, it’ll start and run, or it’ll start and then blow up. Now hit the switch.”
The starter motor, fresh from a rebuild, whined, spinning the engine easily. Jerome applied subtle wrist motions to the distributor with one hand and, with surgical precision, pumped the linkage with the other. The engine coughed a few times and roared to life.
“Come over here and hold this,” Jerome directed. I jumped out and held the throttle linkage as instructed while Jerome deftly dialed in the distributor by ear and tightened the clamp. He took over the throttle duty, holding the engine at about 2000 rpm. I remembered his words about “blowing up,” and asked why he was running it so hard.
“Got to seat the rings. Otherwise, she’ll glaze up and you’ll never have good compression,” he patiently explained.
“What’s that smell? Smell’s like it’s burning up! Has it got oil in it?”
“That’s just paint cooking off. Relax. Go have a beer,” Jerome calmly replied, adding, “They like to feel the heat.”
He ran the engine a few more minutes, then eased the Spyder into the shop under its own power and shut it down. “I believe I’ll have one of those Killian’s,” he announced as he peeled off his gloves with a satisfied grin.
We circled the car, beers in hand, basking our senses in the metallic ticks and rising aromas as the engine cooled. I knelt down and looked under the car, noting happily that there were no leaks or drips. About that time, Jeffery returned with a large bag from Subway. “Smells like a racetrack in here,” he opined approvingly.
“Yeah?” Jerome replied. “Well, help me put this hood on and maybe Bob will let you have one of his beers.”
I returned to Jerome’s the next day to collect the car and take it home. The drive was more than satisfying. It was a crisp, autumn day. The Spyder toyed with my olfactory receptors, emitting fragrances of fresh paint, new rubber, hot oil, and leather. The engine purred like a turbine, answering the occasional call of my toe with a strong pull and throaty growl, set in an orchestra of whirling mechanical sounds of cams and chains and valves and straight-cut gears. Life was good.
I got the car home and surveyed the remaining details, making a mental to-do list. The car needed wiper arms and blades. There was a strip of engraved brightwork trim along the lower edge of the dash, behind the knobs and switches. God alone knew what had become of this piece over the car’s troubled life, but finding a replacement was out of the question. At some point, I would need to have it made, but its absence was not critical. Although the bright strip set against the red dash added visual exclamation, the dash looked fine without it.
The wipers were relatively easy. All American cars of the fifties and sixties had shiny bright arms and blades. It wasn’t until the eighties that matte black came into vogue. As I had learned early in the project, one doesn’t simply stroll into the local Pep Boys or NAPA and call up a part for a 1962 Maserati of which two-hundred-forty-some were produced. Although, in many cases, an acceptable substitute is available and can be, albeit with some modification, made to work, finding that particular part presents a predictable problem. When the guys behind the counter ask, fingers poised at keyboard, “What make and model?” I have learned that the only appropriate response is, “You don’t want to know. I need one of these. Does it look at all familiar?” I hand them the original, adding that I’d probably need to find something similar and make it work. And so with the wiper arms, a trip to Year One with my old, corroded originals found acceptable replacements.
The grille was another story. With its chrome surround, the Maserati grille has always been a profoundly handsome design cue, carried over through every road car since the early fifties A6G. It remains a distinguishing characteristic of the marque even in today’s lineup of coupes, spyders, and quattroportes. The chrome surround, best described as a rectangular oval, has a kind of “widow’s peak” dipping into the center of the opening. Positioned beneath this peak, in the center of the grille’s gaping mouth, is Maserati’s sacred symbol of identity, an upright elliptical ring surrounding a stylized head of Neptune’s trident. This whole array is backed by an egg-crate or mesh-like material, in the case of the 3500 series Spyders and Touring coupes, a polished aluminum stamping.
None of these components were available. I was told that neither the stamped aluminum grate nor the oval and trident were anywhere to be found, other than those already gracing whatever Spyders remained in existence. I continued, however, tenacious in my hunt, writing and calling around the world to the sources I’d developed, until I received the January 1988 edition of Viale Ciro Menotti, the magazine for Maserati enthusiasts. Its cover featured a stunning photograph of a car identical to mine, fresh out of restoration by the premier Maserati shop in North America, MIE of Belleview, Washington. This car’s grille opening featured an incorrect piece of chrome wire mesh—what we’d call a Bentley weave today—and an oversized trident, minus the oval, from another Maserati model. Clearly, if ANYONE could have located or crafted the correct Spyder grille, it was MIE. Thus, my hopes of ever finding the critical pieces were dashed. I’d have to leave the snout opening unfilled—the toothless shark look—until I figured out a solution.
I thus drove and enjoyed the car for several years until, on one of my weekly Home Depot missions, I noted a display of those white, rubber-coated wire modular closet shelving components. Eureka! By cutting and removing alternate spokes, those remaining were spaced at the precise distance of the upright lines of the grille. I envisioned these covered with strips of chromed plastic door-edge guard, over which I could lay the horizontal lines of chromed, stick-on rub strips I’d seen among the line of aftermarket trim materials at my local paint and body supplies jobber. I could make a grille and forever put an end to the question routinely asked in gas stations and supermarket parking lots. “Cool car! Isn’t there supposed to be something in that big hole in the front?”
I cut the shelving material accordingly, bent it to the correct angle to mate with the mounting brackets behind the grille surround, and stuck the chrome strips in place. When I wired it into position, even I was impressed with how good it looked. Now I’d have to get real creative and figure out the trident solution.
I explored the prospect of having a machine shop cut me the oval and trident from billet aluminum. If I’d wanted a couple hundred of them, the per-unit price of the second piece through number two hundred would be less than a Benjamin, which was eminently manageable. Problem was, I only needed one, and Job One would cost several thousand, whether I wanted the rest of them or not.
I went to Plan B, having a second Eureka Moment while my neighbor was remodeling his kitchen. I picked up a scrap of Dupont Corian, the material his contractor was using to custom build his countertops. This stuff, which had the heft and hardness of light metal, could be cut, shaped, and sanded like wood. Not to mention that, unlike wood, it could be chrome plated. If I could turn a block of balsa into a Jaguar XK120 when I was a Cub Scout, I could certainly cut, plane, carve, drill, and sand a sheet of Dupont Corian into a perfect oval ring and trident.
I made some precision drawings on my computer to use as patterns, and with about five hours of patient work with a planer, jig saw, files, and sander, I had the finished pieces ready for the chrome shop. Once plated, I hand-painted the red stripes into the relief channels on the trident and mounted the finished product in the center of my closet shelf grille, feeling quite full of myself and my own ingenuity.
The only remaining finishing item was the trim strip running along the lower edge of the dash. At a car show, I noticed an engine-turned panel on a hot rod’s dash. I visualized a similar adornment for the missing trim on the Spyder. I would need to master the art of engine turning, or “damascening,” as it is correctly designated. This is a craft, reportedly tracing back to Biblical times and originating in Damascus, Syria, that was applied to jewelry, weaponry, and fine household items to differentiate the rich from the commoners.
I found a metal supply house in Atlanta and had them cut three strips of sheet aluminum to the proper gauge and width. I removed my knobs and switches and made a cardboard pattern of the correct dimensions, which I traced onto the aluminum stock with a fine-line Sharpie. Using various size washers to outline the appropriate holes, I drilled and augured out the switch holes with a Dremel.
The engine-turning was a challenge. Eastwood sells a kit, consisting of abrasive compound and several different sized rubber buffers on shafts that fit into a drill chuck. To ensure uniformity and precision, I crafted a clamp-mounted fence and an indexed table that I could slide along a plank clamped to the table of my drill press. After an appropriate amount of practice on the spare stock, I tackled the finished piece. Alignment, spacing, uniformity of pressure, and time of contact are all critical to the perfect outcome. Try twelve hundred forty repetitions of the same drill press motion during a three-hour period. This was second only to grinding my brake castings in Boredom Factor, but the outcome surprised even me. Unlike the caliper casting caper, I can see and admire the results.
The car has become a regular at local shows and cruise-ins. But I don’t take it to serious events with concours judging or trophy awards. I don’t want some white-gloved, anal retentive connoisseur hyperventilating over the fact that my grille looks, from an inspection point in a lower corner of the engine compartment, that it may have once been a closet shelf. Or that a European spec Spyder should have 400 millimeter wheels. Or that the chrome bezel with anodized hex-head screws trimming the leather shift boot began life as a kitchen sink drain. Plan B cosmetic solutions notwithstanding, the car’s soul is 100% Maserati, and it is one of only a hundred or so left on the planet.