“It is necessary to remember friends, particularly the great ones.”
My Dad always said the worst thing about getting old is the loss of friends. Now I know what he meant. Don, Dave and Randy, each in his own way, had a lot to do with my own story. Their friends are left only with memories. Here are mine. (The quotation is from pioneer auto writer Ken Purdy, father of us all.)
Dave Brownell 1941 – 15 November 2021
Few of us had been able to talk to Dave for years. Felled by a stroke 15 years ago, he was confined to a nursing home. Understandably, his wife Marian asked his friends not to try to communicate. (His life and career are ably recalled by John Gunnell in Old Cars.)
David W. Brownell was crucial—indeed decisive—in the course of my life. In 1970, Automobile Quarterly was looking for an associate editor for a new line of auto history books. I was brooding in a dead-end job in Pennsylvania when I sent them, out of the blue, an article about Kaiser-Frazer. To my astonishment, they not only accepted it; they asked me to interview for the job. I took it, moved back to New York, and the rest is history.
Only later did Dave tell me that the position had only remained open because he’d turned it down. He knew more than I about one of the principals—I have met only two knaves in my life. Nonetheless, it was a priceless opportunity. You couldn’t buy that education in a university. It forged my career—thanks to Dave. (See “AQ: The Memories.”)
(D)WB and DSJ
For thirty years we collaborated, published articles, and had fun. We’d communicate in the style of Denis Jenkinson’s auto racing reports to Bill Boddy for MotorSport, which Jenks always began with “My dear WB” and ended with, “Yours, DSJ.”
So to Dave I’d write, “My dear [D]WB” and he would reply, “My dear DSJ” [“Distinguished Sunbeam Jockey”]. Our memories were of Hershey and New York, Le Chanteclair and Austie Clark and the Mount Equinox Hillclimb and his Bentley. Golden years.
Leaving Old Cars in 1977, Dave spent a year editing Cars & Parts, then joined world-famous Hemmings Motor News in Bennington, Vermont. Besides editing Hemmings he ran Special-Interest Autos, a bi-monthly featuring collectable cars of all eras. Dave also created and produced 14 annual editions of the Vintage Auto Almanac, a guide to the old car industry’s and services.
A friend of us all was Tom Warth, longtime publisher of Classic Motorbooks, founder of the magnificent charity Books For Africa. Tom was one of the few able to see Dave recently. His last visit was a sad occasion, Tom said. Poor Dave could not recall if he had had breakfast or not. Both his first and second wives passed away in 2016, leaving Dave with his nursing staff and, one hopes, his memories. RIP, my old friend.
Randy Mason 12 July 1941 – 19 March 2022
Moreton-in-Marsh, Gloucestershire, England, an upstairs solicitor’s office, June 1977…. I was making an offer for a Cotswold bungalow, Well Cottage, in a magical village called Bourton-on-the-Water. Accompanying me was Randy Mason, Curator of Transportation at the Henry Ford Museum at Greenfield Village. Co-founders of the Vintage Triumph Register, we were bound for the first Standard-Triumph International Rallye.
The solicitor was in a reflective mood. “You know,” he said, “I once sold a Cotswold cottage to America.” (He didn’t say “to an American,” but “to America.”)
In the 1930s, a client had asked him to discourage a pesky estate agent trying to buy his property, then worth about £500: “I named an extravagant price, thinking it would drive the buyer away. The reply came by return post: ‘Sold.’ At the closing, the agent revealed he was representing Henry Ford, who had fallen for this particular old building. It was dismantled stone by stone and shipped to America. I often wonder where it went.”
“You’re not going to believe this,” I told the solicitor. “But Mr. Mason here knows exactly where it went.” Randy laughed: “I pass it every day on my way to work!” The reassembled cottage stands today in splendor at Greenfield Village.
Despite Randy’s urgings we didn’t buy Well Cottage, then priced at £12,000. Beautifully appointed, the 16th century house is now a popular rental property, worth about $1 million. That was one of many droll adventures with Randy who, like Dave Brownell, had a lot to do with my writing career.
Cars, outboards, Fiesta ware and an Edsel
Randy grew up in Dearborn, near Ford World Headquarters, which helped stoke his passion for cars. He was running a Ziebart rustproofing business when he ran into his predecessor, Les Henry, who quickly recognized Randy’s depth of knowledge and qualities. About to retire in 1971, Les asked Randy to succeed him, and Randy served as Transport Curator for 20 years.
Together with a couple of pals, Randy and I organized the Vintage Triumph Register—in an Edsel. Yes! Doug’s Body Shop was a Detroit bistro, its tables artfully placed inside hollowed out Fifties cars. VTR has since grown to one of the most successful English car clubs in America. Let it not be said that the Edsel was a total failure.
Randy founded the Detroit Region of the Lambda Car Club International. He co-founded the Ypsilanti Orphan Car Show for brands no longer in production, and contributed color commentary as the vintage orphans paraded. For the Henry Ford Heritage Association, he helped acquire the historic Piquette Avenue plant that built the first Model T, saving it from destruction. His personal collections were broad and imaginative: Fiesta tableware, antique lighting, vintage outboard motors, cars and automobilia. On my last visit to “The Shack,” his Dearborn pad—more museum than living quarters—he proudly showed us his perfectly restored 1941 Buick. (Visit his memory page here.)
We collaborated on dozens of Triumph events including the 1978 International Rallye at Bridgehampton race track. There on the straightaway, a TR5’s poorly attached bonnet flew off at speed, narrowly missing “Buttercup,” Randy’s TR3A. “Only God knows how close we came to gaol for life,” Randy quipped. In England we dined with Jaguar historian Andrew Whyte, whose mother wrote More Than a Legend, arguing that the Loch Ness Monster lives. Dutifully Andrew explained that plesiosaurs still live in Scotland! “Andrew Whyte is a cool guy,” quoth Mason. It takes one to know one. It is so hard to believe Randy’s gone.
Don Peterson 1 April 1929 – 16 September 2021
Like Dave, Randy and Don were vital in my life. In 1975 I left Automobile Quarterly, without a lot of prospects. Randy Mason offered me editorship of The Vintage Triumph for a salary of $1 per member per year, a welcome break. Then came Don Peterson, editor of Car Collector, with the offer of a monthly column and feature articles.
Don’s love was big American cars (mostly Packards), especially driving them. He began small with a 1929 Model A Ford coupe, driving 8000 miles in a few months from his Maynard, Minnesota home as afield as Key West. Don participated in 80 Classic Car Club of America tours—the most on record. At 35, he won one of CCCA’s first two Citations for Distinguished Service. His son West continues:
Outside of CCCA, Dad enjoyed driving on Veteran Motor Car Club tours, five AACA Glidden Tours (having joined AACA in 1958), the 1979 London-to-Brighton Run in England, and the 1983 World F.I.V.A. Rallye. He also enjoyed driving his one- and two-cylinder cars in the yearly New London-to-New Brighton Antique Car Runs in Minnesota, finishing the 123-mile trek all but two times during a period of more than 30 years.
Perhaps his favorite accomplishment took place in 1995, when he drove his 1930 Packard 734 Speedster Eight on a one-month tour throughout the U.S. (most of the way without a support vehicle and with no fellow compatriots), putting rubber to pavement in 48 states and adding about 10,000 miles to the car’s odometer. The Speedster was restored shortly thereafter, but that surely didn’t stop the odometer from continuing to reel off the miles. (Contact me for a pdf copy of West’s tribute.)
Packards to Pitcairn
I wonder how many miles Dave, Randy and Don logged in cars long past their trade-in dates? By himself, Don Peterson clocked three million, in over 100 old car tours in 140 countries, and owned 100 vintage vehicles.
Don was the only old friend who phoned me every year on my birthday, July 7th. We shared frustration at being unable to contact Dave Brownell, incommunicado at his Vermont nursing home. Don was also anxious to get our mutual friend Tom Warth on The Queen’s Honours List for his work with Books for Africa. I knew some people, and told Don I’d write, but warned him I was a long way down the totem pole.
Pushing 90, he called to say he and Eedie were headed for Pitcairn Island, fabled hideout of Fletcher Christian and mutineers of the Bounty. I collected Pitcairn stamps and enjoyed a long correspondence with the island postmaster. I’d always wanted to visit. Likewise Don—but he just did it. “We didn’t get to land,” he said with regret. “But we met the locals and wouldn’t have missed it.”
He thought often of others and was as loyal a friend as anyone you’ve ever met. To the last he loved the hand life had dealt him, and enjoyed it to the fullest. West Peterson speaks for many of us when he writes: “There are many things I already miss about Dad, but I think not being able to pick up the phone for that quick and easy answer is what I miss most.” I know what he means.
“Ride on in majesty”
Don always liked the story of Parry Thomas, the great Welsh racing driver, who also had motor oil in his veins, albeit in a different age. Thomas died at half Don’s age in 1927, pursuing the Land Speed Record in a racing car named “Babs,” powered by a 27-liter Packard Liberty engine. He crashed on Pendine Sands in Wales, then the main venue for LSR attempts. This was a place I did manage to visit, having arranged for the semi-restored “Babs” to run again on the 50th anniversary.
I began this essay with the words of Ken Purdy, so perhaps it’s appropriate to end likewise:
Parry Thomas was buried in the graveyard of Byfleet, near Brooklands, the great oval racetrack where he built his fame. His marker reads: “Life is eternal and love is immortal, and death, which is only the horizon, is nothing save the limit of our sight.” A wreath of violets, anonymously sent, carried the legend, “Ride On, Ride On, in Majesty.”
Ride On, Don, Dave and Randy.
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