continuing the caption above…
Shrieking with hilarity and wheelspin, they left—Fast. B.O. sprinted puffing to his cruiser, leapt in and hit the starter, siren and red light all at once. With a wild squeal of rubber, the cruiser shot off after the Allard. That’s when I noticed the chain coiled up under the police car. One end was wrapped securely around a fire plug. The other end seemed to be attached to something underneath the cruiser. There was, oh, maybe 100 feet of it. We watched fascinated as the cruiser picked up speed and the coil grew smaller…and smaller… —Dick O’Kane
The O’Kane ouevre
Reader Mark Jones writes of my tribute to Don Vorderman and Automobile Quarterly: “You mention a story by Dick O’Kane and an Allard J2X named ‘Grendel.’ In my youth I enjoyed Mr. O’Kane’s stories of the Thunder Beetle, Peter the Fisherman’s Engineering Thesis, the Goat circling the disabled VW van. I can still just see the Rover inching the squealing Alfa into traffic. My question is: who was Dick O’Kane, and what became of him?”
(Glory, Mark, I can only imagine what O’Kane must have written about the Goat, the Rover and the Alfa…)
I wish I had half the talent of John Richard “Dick” O’Kane (1936-2019), a unique wit and a gentle man, with a whimsical attitude about old cars. I remember his best-seller, How to Repair Your Foreign Car: A Guide for the Beginner, Your Wife, and the Mechanically Inept. Dick was neither the famous Navy admiral nor the Long Island labor leader by the same name. But like them, he was in a class by himself.
Born in Little Rock, Arkansas, Dick was raised there and in Providence, Rhode Island. By the 1960s he was winning awards for TV and print copywriting. His repair book was gleaned from his travels in Europe and North Africa. Driving their VW camper, Dick and his wife Jennifer (Jeffi) observed those lands with wry wit. His later books were The Making of an Aircraft Mechanic (1970), Repairing the Inscrutable Toyota (1974), Most Miles Per Gallon (1975), and Simple Auto Repair (1976).
His Arkansas memorial tells us of Dick’s later life:
Tired of traveling, Dick and Jeffi settled in northwest Arkansas in 1973, creating O’Kane Studios. It produces extraordinarily beautiful custom stained glass installations for homes and businesses. As a visual artist, Dick always sought new possibilities. He invented unique optical lens mosaics combined with stained glass, watch crystals, bevels, jewels—anything glass—creating three-dimensionality and movement in his works, a startling beautiful innovation. He also invented soldering techniques which have since been adopted by stained glass artists today.
Dick was brilliantly funny, a natural storyteller. Quotes from his first book include… “If you own or drive a foreign car you need this book. In fact you need two copies—one to read by the fireside, the other to amuse you by the roadside.” One chapter was headed: “Why, When Britannia Rules the Waves, Will Her Cars Not Go Through a Puddle?”
[I owned just such a car, “Hilda, the Friendly Hillman.” Reliable as Big Ben, but if you splashed through a puddle deeper than half an inch, the little Minx convertible stopped dead. You had to pop the bonnet and dry off the inside of the distributor cap.]
O’Kane and the English
Like many of us, Dick was besotted by English cars. Not always by their running—when they were running. (“I’d rather be driving my Jaguar, but it’s in the shop.”) No—it is their very old world essence, the leather and walnut, the way the rain beads on the bonnet, that causes us to get bees in our bonnets, and buy and drive and fix the things.
Dick wrote two stories for Automobile Quarterly. One was that bizarre tale of Grendel, the Allard from Hell (Summer, 1970). The other was “Bright Wheels Leaping” (Summer, 1969), about his love affair with a Mark IV Jaguar. Why Mark IV, and not its real name, “1948 Jaguar 3.5 Liter Drophead Coupe”? “Mark IV is easier to say,” Dick explained. But why this car out of all cars?
It was classically pretty—huge Lucas P.100 headlamps, sweeping fenders. I didn’t care much for the sedan. I often was struck with the feeling that the designer got to the back of the car and ran out of patience. Ahh, but that drophead. I think it was the landau bars that made the car truly pretty. They were working ones, too, part of a delightfully baroque top system. The top wasn’t exactly hard to put up and down. Involved would be a better word.
Behind the wheel was pure Edwardian Glitz. Everywhere was walnut, leather and wool. The dashboard was Power, Glory and Excess in all things. There were dials and knobs and switches and cranks. You could do everything from increasing idle speed 25 rpm to winding the windshield out to the horizontal if this pleased you. A man getting behind the wheel of a Mark IV for the first time is lost.
We all know those feelings if we’ve owned English classics. Dick knew the penalties, too. One was “The Adventure of Operating.” Dick explained:
I say “operating,” because that’s what you do to a Mark IV. And operating encompasses more than mere driving…. Oddly, that Mark IV was the only Jag I’ve ever had that laughed into the teeth of a New England winter. It fired up with the first turn of the starter. The top was reasonably weather-tight, and cold was no problem if you could get the heater to work. This was an involved system of ducts, flaps, knobs, switches, lights and faucets, all rather optimistically labeled AIR CONDITIONING. When you turned it on you would be rewarded with a big green light that said ON, and a little fixture designed for the function would drop antifreeze on your right shoe. The way you fix it is to rip the whole system out and replace it with a ’38 Buick heater.
Ah, the memories…
The Mark IV owners manual was a special experience. Dick called it “Monument to the Quaint Assumption. It assumed you had all sorts of peculiar doodads lying around.” The section on brake adjustment begins: “Obtain a steel disc having a circumference of 6.749 inches and being .388 inches in thickness, with a .435-inch square opening offset one-half inch from the centre of the disc…”
Of course, as Dick writes, the day always comes when car and driver must part:
One afternoon the Mark IV owner slips into a nimble, quick little roadster to rediscover the joy of driving a machine that doesn’t argue with him. Sadly, he’ll realize that his Mark IV just isn’t what he has in mind. He’ll sell it—an unhappy day. Right to the end that lovely old car will still be trying its hopeless best.
It will appeal immediately to someone else. I had no trouble getting rid of mine. I swapped with a dealer for a nice Jag roadster and a serviceable Austin sedan, even deal, no cash. Then the dealer turned around and convinced some poor, classic-mad wretch that the Mark IV had been specially built for King Farouk and was worth $4200. [Those were the days.]
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“Dick O’Kane was a man of wisdom, and great kindness,” his memorial reads. “He was an iconoclast, living life as he saw fit, not as others would have him live. He is survived by his wife, Jennifer, his sons Charles and Benjamin, five grandchildren, his beautiful stained glass works, and many wonderful stories.” Rest in peace, Dick. Thanks for the memories.
Further reading: the artists
Stan Mott’s Facebook page.
Dale Weaver Totten’s Facebook page.