Absent Friends: Dave Brownell, Randy Mason, Don Peterson

Absent Friends: Dave Brownell, Randy Mason, Don Peterson

“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

Dave and Mary Brownell’s wed­ding, 1969. From the church they were dri­ven to their recep­tion in New­port, Rhode Island in Ash­ley Clark’s 1934 Rolls-Royce 20/25 sedan­ca dev­ille with coach­work by Gur­ney Nut­ting. (Lin­da Clark)

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.

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 a 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

Dave Brownell behind the wheel of a vin­tage rac­ing car at the Mer­cedes-Benz Old Timer Cen­ter. In the car next to him is West Peter­son, long­time edi­tor of Antique Auto­mo­bile. (John Gunnell)

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.

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

DaveMore­ton-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, Fiestaware and an Edsel

Randy at a meet for col­lec­tors of one of his more eso­teric pas­sions: vin­tage out­boards. (Post­ed by a friend on his mem­o­ry page)

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.

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 incar­cer­a­tion,” Randy quipped. In Eng­land we dined with Jaguar his­to­ri­an the late Andrew Whyte, whose moth­er wrote More Than a Leg­end, argu­ing that the Loch Ness Mon­ster is real. Duti­ful­ly Andrew explained that ple­siosaurs still lived 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

DaveLike 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 far afield as Key West. Don par­tic­i­pat­ed in eighty Clas­sic Car Club of Amer­i­ca tours—the most on record. At thir­ty-five, 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.

Packards to Pitcairn

Safe­ly rest, Don. (West Peterson)

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 the place. 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.


More Automotive Greats

Brooks Stevens: The Seer Who Made Mil­wau­kee Famous, 2022

Auto­mo­bile Quar­ter­ly: The Mem­o­ries2021

Packard Tales and Mem­o­ries of Bud Juneau, 2021

Gra­ham Rob­son: “He was Always, Tri­umphant­ly, in Touch,” 2021

The Whim­sy and Fun of Dick O’Kane, 2020

Don Vor­der­man: Best Edi­tor I Ever Had, 2018

Bev­er­ly Rae Kimes: Cor­rerai Ancor Piu Veloce, 2009

To browse more auto­mo­tive arti­cles, click here.

2 thoughts on “Absent Friends: Dave Brownell, Randy Mason, Don Peterson

  1. I came across your web pres­ence while try­ing to refresh my mem­o­ry on Gra­ham Robson’s date of death. Con­tin­u­ing down the rab­bit hole I dis­cov­ered your poignant trib­utes to Don Peter­son, Dave Brownell and Randy Mason, the latter’s pass­ing new to me. Yet anoth­er obit to write for Soci­ety of Auto­mo­tive His­to­ri­ans. Dave’s sec­ond wife Mar­i­an died on 11 May 2020, after a long jour­ney with Alzheimers. I had befriend­ed both­Dave and Mar­i­an years ear­li­er, before his stroke (cir­ca 2010), but all had been qui­et until that final post about Marian. 

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