Adventure July 10, 2008

Heart Like a Wheel

If what you dream about defines who you are, then the 40-year-old legend that describes how a young Italian once pushed a 1960 Maserati Tipo Birdcage into a stone barn will waken your soul.

The Maserati had been raced in hill climbs and perhaps the fuel pump seized or a head gasket blew. Maybe the clutch fried, or the pinion snapped, wiping out the rear end. Whatever the cause, the failure was too expensive, or the parts to repair it were out of production, and so the young man drained the gas, pulled the battery and covered the red convertible with a canvas tarp. Over time, a wall of old books, boxed plates and miscellaneous junk accumulated, thick dust blanketed the tarp and, as one year turned to 40, the Maserati was gradually forgotten.

At this point, Hollywood steps in. Music up, film speed down. Shots of stone walls, vineyards, and an ancient villa swept with bright fall leaves. The young man grew old and collapsed among his grapes. In an attempt to settle his estate, the owner’s failing widow hired a local handyman to empty the barn and haul it all to the dump.

Sweating in the golden, dusty light of late Italian afternoon, the handyman discovered the Maserati and cut a deal. “From now on,” he promised the old widow. “I work for free!”

If what you dream about indeed defines who you are, then my fantasies about ’58 Corvettes set on blocks in abandoned sheds, lost 1966 427 King Cobras and crated Chevrolet Rat motors, clearly reveal a deprived adolescence. To compensate, I enjoyed a shotgun intimacy with Ford gearboxes and, in the course of rebuilding race engines, was doused with gasoline, gear oil, scalding 10-30 and a variety of other fluids the surgeon general now warns are unfit for human exposure.

My first car was a 1948 Oldsmobile. Bright yellow with a white top and massive fenders, even now I would call it ugly. I was 15, however, and the $35 price was right. I kept it parked around the block to keep my mom from learning I was driving without a license or insurance. I quickly traded the Olds for a rare 1940 Mercury ($300) and then a 1956 Chevy BelAir ($500).

Though I’ve poked around old sheds, scoured wrecking yards and stared into garages filled with a half century of exploded differentials, fractured transmissions, frozen flathead V-8s and enough steel detritus to build a battleship, I never found a two-million-dollar Maserati Tipo. I did, however, briefly consider a career as a grave robber after hearing about a man who was buried in his 1960 Corvette. I later discovered he’d committed suicide in the Corvette then cooked for five days in the hot Texas sun before he was found. >>>

When Wayne Willich, Sun Valley’s newly-elected mayor, volunteered, “You wouldn’t believe the number of classic cars sitting in Wood River Valley garages,” he was preaching to the choir.

An engineer for Boeing, Willich devoted much of the last 30 years to “peddling airplanes.”

“I learned just about everything there is to know about a 737,” he says. Today, Willich brings the same energy to his newest twin passions—Sun Valley’s city government and his rare 1954 Mercury Sun Valley. Only 2,500 Sun Valleys were built and, of those, perhaps 100 have survived the ravages of salty roads and the finality of a crusher’s vice. While Willich confesses he might have once preferred a late ’50s Corvette, he was putting his children through college and the Sun Valley made more economic sense. Then, too, the Plexiglas® vista cruiser roof spoke to central Idaho’s halcyon past, the 1950s when Hollywood coveted Sun Valley’s rare mix of small Western town and towering ski mountain. A case can be made that using the Mercury as a running mate revealed a commitment that tipped the recent election in Willich’s favor.

Willich now fittingly stores his Sun Valley at the Sun Valley Auto Club, at the south end of Friedman Memorial Airport. Auto Club owner David Stone points out that the museum houses the classics, pre-’60 Corvettes, a replica of the General Lee, a GT40, two Chevy Nomads, a hot Camaro, a variety of Porsches and a classic 1957 Cadillac Coupe Deville.

As goalie for the Sun Valley Suns hockey team, Stone served in the trenches for 18 years. In that time, he collected a sobering inventory of breaks and dislocations, which he now dismisses as simply the cost of living the good life. That good life also includes Stone’s Porsche 356 B Cabriolet.

Introduced in 1959, Porsche built just 40 lightweight 356 Bs in 1960. Sculpted around Porsche’s powerful 1,600-cubic-centimeter GS, GT engine, the 356 B combined classic lines, big power and superb handling. Stone recalls his neighbor owned one. “I would stand on the curb and stare as he drove by and would constantly remind him, ‘If you ever decide to sell, come to me first!’”

One day, the Cabriolet stopped in front of the house. When the owner put a price on it that took Stone’s breath away, he thought about it for less than a minute, then sealed the deal with a handshake and a promise to produce a check. The only problem was he couldn’t summon the courage to tell his wife. When he did, her response was simple and direct. “We’ll make it work,” she said.
“I definitely married up,” he admits.  >>>

1969 Chevrolet Camaro RS/SS Convertible owned by George Holmes

The Auto Club Museum is a testament to Stone’s love of cars. He recalls, “The only problem was the museum alone didn’t really pencil out.” The storage of garden-variety Mercedes Benzes, Range Rovers and turbo Porsches, as well as the addition of a full-time mechanic and a “concierge” service, helped Stone attract clients . . . virtually all of whom use the club’s facilities. Today, Sun Valley Auto has five full-time employees and recently hosted Wayne Willich’s inaugural ball.

John Blackman is as well-known for his art as for his term as coach and now principal of Wood River High School. Less known is Blackman’s passion for old cars. He now blames his obsession on his grandfather, Chris. An immigrant from Denmark, Chris never lost his temper or raised his voice. His calm spoke to the younger Blackman, who was born to a tumultuous family filled with divorces and unexpected deaths. It was through cars that Blackman discovered art and while a junior in high school in Bellevue, Washington, won first prize at the Bellevue Arts and Crafts fair with a sketch of a 1932 Duesenberg. Blackman’s reproductions of Vargas’ World War II B-17 bombers now brighten the walls of the Auto Club.

Standing in his garage, where an ancient black sedan has evicted the family car, Blackman recalls he was 14 when he bought the 1937 Plymouth Business Coupe P-4. The upholstery had long since rotted away, leaving a rusted spring frame, but the flathead six ran and the three-speed shifted and, upending an apple crate for a seat, he forced the Plymouth into gear and drove it home. Blackman eventually sold the Plymouth in 1973 for $500 to his best friend’s father. He recalls, “I wanted the money for a ’68 Firebird convertible,” then sadly shakes his head.

In 1982, he saw an ad for a 1957 Cadillac Coupe Deville in the local paper. Blackman was newly married, enrolled in graduate school and barely making rent, utilities and food. Still, he was drawn to the machine shop address listed in the want ad. The shop had taken the Coupe Deville in trade, then quickly forgot about it out back in a weed-filled lot.

Blackman remembers, “The tires were flat, it was covered with dirt, the upholstery was shot and the interior door panels were stuffed into the trunk.” At the same time he inventoried the rotten tires and filthy engine, he also saw the glass was perfect, the body was straight and the chrome was unflawed. He didn’t know how he would pay for the Cad, or how his wife would react, but when he left, the Coupe Deville was his.

“I somehow found a $100 extra per month until I paid it off,” he recalls. He bought four bias-ply Sears tires, changed all the fluids, rebuilt the carburetor, and almost fell over when the Cad started. Today, 50 years after it first rumbled to life, the enormous V-8 has never been apart, the gloss black paint is original and though the interior has been refreshed, all the numbers match, massive chrome bumper to chrome bumper.

In the way of all obsessions, upon the death of his friend’s father, the 1937 Plymouth returned to haunt him. The widow called Blackman. “He wanted you to have the Plymouth,” she said. The ancient Business Coupe included all the parts, the paint was good and, like an old friend down on his luck, the Plymouth found a home in his crowded garage, where it now waits for him to reinstall the rebuilt transmission.

Blackman recalls how Christian, his son, drove the Cad to high school graduation. In the tradition of such things, perhaps his younger son, Jens, will drive the Plymouth to his own. >>>


1950 Mercury owned by Scott Nelson.You’d never expect to find Bob Baker’s car collection in the Wood River Valley. In 1958 his wife Sonja was a competitive skater and Baker followed her to Sun Valley. Baker thrives on challenges and while Sonja practiced, he strapped on a pair of 215 centimeter wooden skis with long thong bindings, and made his first high-speed turns on Dollar.

In the following years, Baker mixed 90-hour work weeks in his Des Moines, Iowa, grocery stores with vacations in Sun Valley. The Bakers eventually purchased a house and began to put down roots.

Baker started collecting cars when he was 48. Today, he has an immaculate 1954 Jag 120, a yellow Ferrari, and a Porsche Spyder 550, similar to the one in which the 24-year-old rebel actor James Dean died, south of Bakersfield, California.

When the Kroger chain made an offer for the family grocery business, the Bakers moved full-time to the Wood River Valley in the ’90s. Baker quickly realized he needed a new challenge to fill the vacuum left by years of brutal work weeks. That challenge appeared in the form of racing old sports cars. Baker started with classic Ferraris, Maseratis and Jags. “It takes an excellent, almost amazing, driver to handle those old cars,” he remembers. “I was doing OK but wasn’t having that much fun.”

Baker stepped out of sports cars into the Atlantic Series, and then tried Formula Juniors. For the last five years he has raced Formula Ones.

Baker confesses, “I’m an obsessive guy and tend to overdose.” Adding truth to his claim, four immaculate Formula Ones fill his cavernous garage, silently awaiting the start of the 2008 Vintage racing season.

Formula One cars rarely appear on the auction block and when they do, the bidding typically pushes them out of sight. Baker has owned seven Formula Ones, ranging from 1976 to 1983, and while most needed work, he never purchased a basket case. Today, the garage houses a 1983 Williams that won the world championship. Powered by a Cosworth DFV V-8, the Williams develops 495 bhp at 11,000 rpm. To its right is a 76 McClaren, also powered by a Cosworth V-8. Baker owns the 1979 Ferrari T-4 that Gilles Villeneuve drove, a ’73 McClaren that was driven by Peter Revson, a Brabham BT-26, driven by Jackie Ickx, and a Brabham BT-33. Clearly, these old Formula One cars were built to go incredibly fast on closed race courses. Like the Air Force’s Black Bird that constantly leaks jet fuel, clean oil wets drip pans beneath the Cosworths. And though Baker fantasizes about driving them once down Highway 75 through Ketchum, he is also well aware the local police force would not be amused.

The walls of Baker’s garage are covered with posters chronicling the history of the cars, portraits of his family and photos of Baker running at speed. Racing Vintage Formula One is clearly a family affair. His wife, Sonja, accompanies him to Road America at Elkhart Lake, Watkins Glen, Road Atlanta, Infineon in Sonoma, Laguna Seca, and Monaco. Dan, the youngest of Baker’s four sons, once raced with his father and showed such extraordinary talent that for a time Baker covered his expenses. But with tires costing $6,000 per set, and the years passing, the proud papa reluctantly insisted Dan needed to find a job that would support his racing habit.

Both Peter Revson and Gilles Villeneuve died in race cars, and Baker’s learning curve hasn’t come without cost. Modern safety features are missing in the old Formula One cars and Baker suffered a bad concussion and a back injury in a 2007 Mosport crash. He now acknowledges,“Drivers were more expendable in the ’70s and ’80s.” While he hasn’t raced since his accident, he hopes to return in 2008.

The reasons men and women covet classic cars are as varied as first loves. Men regard cars as an extension of their masculinity. Women remember their father’s car or their own exotic, fast, or even shabby Chevy. First cars represent a freedom, a chance to explore the world . . . even if that world is the Wood River Valley. Cars define a year as surely as a piece of music or a photograph. They are heirlooms, handed down from father to child, or collector to collector, who preserve them for a few years or four decades, then pass them on to the next caretaker. Little wonder that when the Castle Rock Fire burned above Ketchum last summer, the Sun Valley Auto Club loaded Bob Baker’s Formula One cars onto a trailer and transported them to the museum, where they were stored, without charge, until the danger passed.

The legend of old Maseratis hidden under dusty tarps may find its expression in Bellevue’s back streets, or on Baseline Road where a 1951 Buick Special sat for years next to a 12-cylinder Allison V-1710 P-38 Lightning engine.

My father once flew P-38s and later owned a ’51 Buick Woody station wagon. In the late ’70s, I asked the owner of the Allison 12-cylinder and Buick Special if he’d care to sell either. His response was polite but firm. “No, I think I’ll hold onto them for a few more years,” he said. “Who knows, they might even be worth something one day.”

This article appears in the Summer 2008 Issue of Sun Valley Magazine.