Old Jags & Allards: The Whimsy and Fun of Dick O’Kane

Old Jags & Allards: The Whimsy and Fun of Dick O’Kane

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 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 Land 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 toward 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).

Settling down

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. 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.

(Illus­tra­tion by Dale Weaver Tot­ten, by kind per­mis­sion of Tabitha Totten)

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.

Frustrated lovers

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…”

The Mark IV in full flight. (Illus­tra­tion by Dale Weaver Tot­ten, cour­tesy Tabitha Totten)

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.]

* * *

“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.

Don Vor­der­man: The Best Edi­tor I Ever Had (includ­ing more on Gren­del, the Allard from Hell)

4 thoughts on “Old Jags & Allards: The Whimsy and Fun of Dick O’Kane

  1. I became aware of Dick O’Kane in the mid-1960’s when David, above, showed me his book How To Repair Your For­eign Car—a book I still have. The police car and chain bit occurs in the “Amer­i­can Graf­fi­ti” movie. I often won­dered if maybe from a true tale. The atti­tudes shared by the old timers then shaped how I approached my career of Jour­ney­man Mechan­ic. I’m still at it and still remem­ber the joy of motor­ing those men taught me. I too am an L.B.C. (lover/owner/feeler) mechan­ic. -Nate

    Nate, I’d have liked to try that chain trick, but nev­er had the courage… RML

  2. I just stum­bled on this. The Land Rover push­ing the Alfa was in one of his many con­tri­bu­tions to Road & Track.The first one I remem­ber is an appre­ci­a­tion of Jef­fi called O’Kane on love. Between him, Stan Mott, Russ Brock­bank and Hen­ry N. Man­ney III, Road & Track was not only a great car mag­a­zine, but a great humor magazine.

    You’re right, David. From the edi­tor­ship of John and Elaine Bond to Tony Hogg, R&T was in a class by itself. I remem­ber Man­ney writ­ing about vis­it­ing a nude beach in St. Tropez, illus­trat­ed by a car­toon (Brockbank’s?) of Hen­ry observ­ing the bathers, wear­ing a string around his waist, hold­ing a copy of R&T in front of him­self. Click here for my favorite Brock­bank car­toon. Thanks for the mem­o­ry. —RML

  3. THANKS TO THE ARTISTS! Tabitha Tot­ten writes: “This is won­der­ful. I am so emo­tion­al as this moment. I thank you so much. Not only for your beau­ti­ful words but for keep­ing every­one and their work alive. My father would be thrilled. I miss him so much. All of my fam­i­ly. Again I thank you.”

    Stan Mott writes: “Thanks for the Dick O’Kane info. I didn’t know he was so artis­ti­cal­ly inclined, in addi­tion to being such a bril­liant humor writer. Here is the lat­est Cyclops effort: The “Cyclops Sim Rac­er.” We’ll be using this Cyclops dupli­cate of the 1960 Le Mans win­ner dri­ven by Piero Mar­ti­ni him­self. I have two bright com­put­er pals work­ing on the details. Hope­ful­ly the world will be able to enjoy it in 2021.”

    If you’ve nev­er heard of Stan’s Cyclops, an Ital­ian import made of old Cin­zano signs by Piero Mar­ti­ni, who sold each car for $14.35, click here.

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