Bill Tilden 1935-2013: Tribute to a Friend

Bill Tilden 1935-2013: Tribute to a Friend

Writ­ten for the Soci­ety of Auto­mo­tive His­to­ri­ans Journal

DutchR&Bill
The great styl­ist Dutch Dar­rin, Richard Lang­worth and Bill Tilden, Alame­da, 1972.

U.S. Coast Guard Base, Glouces­ter City, New Jer­sey, July 1965: A call from the Ops office—“Sir, there’s a civil­ian here ask­ing for you. He’s dri­ving the weird­est car I’ve ever seen.”

It was Bill, of course. We clicked from the start. With­in a week he hied me off to north Philadel­phia to help strip the odd­ly attrac­tive, faux lizard skin uphol­stery out of a rusty old car. It turned out a bad mistake—we’d junked an ultra-rare 1951 Kaiser Emer­ald Drag­on. They built maybe six….

Bill’s auto­mo­tive tastes were catholic, rang­ing from the E-type Jaguar he bought new and raced—probably the old­est in the hands of its orig­i­nal owner—to a 1941 Cadil­lac Six­ty-Spe­cial, sev­er­al Con­ti­nen­tals and late-mod­el Mopars, which he acquired as “future col­lectibles” from Chrysler, where he then worked, build­ing deal­er­ships. It was Detroit’s hey­day, Chrysler was rich and pow­er­ful, and more often than they knew, they helped finance our trav­els in search of relics.

Bill’s wife Mar­i­lyn was resigned to his addic­tion, though she nev­er for­gave him for the clapped-out 1949 Fraz­er con­vert­ible with which Bill dec­o­rat­ed their home in Dun­woody, Geor­gia. “Have you seen that Gahon­gas?” she said on my first vis­it. “So help me, if he doesn’t get rid of that thing I’m going to leave it out on the street for the garbage truck.”

1949-1950-frazer-manhattan-1
“Gahon­gas” (as his wife called it): Bill Tilden’s 1949 Fraz­er Man­hat­tan convertible.

The Fraz­er was restored, which eased her opin­ion, espe­cial­ly when he sold it. But that was Bill, who had a soft spot for dere­licts, orphans espe­cial­ly. He was down to under fifty (“I’m only keep­ing the cream”) when he was tak­en from us.

Our great­est col­lab­o­ra­tion was on my first book, Kaiser-Fraz­er: Last Onslaught [until then] on Detroit, which was a good job because of Bill. As his­to­ri­ans, we were just in time. Many of the K-F prin­ci­pals were aging or infirm. The book made good its claim (“an inti­mate study of the Amer­i­can car indus­try”) because Bill helped find many of them: Hen­ry McCaslin, chief engi­neer of the front-wheel-dri­ve Kaiser; Ralph Isbrandt, who gave the rev­o­lu­tion­ary ’51 its remark­able han­dling; design­ers Buzz Grisinger, Alex Tremulis and Bob Robil­lard, who had, with oth­ers, tak­en Kaiser-Fraz­er styling so far above the main­stream. The book sold 7500 copies in two print­ings. Bill sold sev­er­al hun­dred himself!

Time is run­ning out and I haven’t told you the half of it: of cruis­ing the Packard Prov­ing Grounds at 140 in Bill’s E-type (ka-pow! went one of his Atlas Bucrons; we stopped to find a fist-sized hole in the tread), or in his retro­fit­ted stick-over­drive Packard Caribbean; tour­ing the bars and dives of the Flori­da pan­han­dle, in search of some old auto­mo­tive duf­fer; enter­tain­ing Austin Clark at the Dear­born Inn; Bill dri­ving Brooks Stevens’ Excal­iburs at Indy; mean­der­ing Her­shey look­ing for Nash deal­er signs….

And that’s all you have when a friend dies. Just mem­o­ries. It’s not enough, real­ly, but it’s all you get, and soon we’re gone too, and the mem­o­ries with us. He meant so much to so many, that this can only be a sym­bol­ic trib­ute for us all. But I have no hes­i­ta­tion or lack of breath in this vale­dic­to­ry fan­fare: You were always on the good side: you loved the cars, and the peo­ple who built them; you were all that was good in our world; fare thee well, my gift­ed, true and many-sided friend.

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