All posts by Tom Strongman

Tom Strongman has been writing about automobiles, both new and vintage, as the automotive editor of the Kansas City Star for more than 25 years. He left the paper in 2001 to become its Contributing Editor. His work is syndicated in 20 newspapers through the Universal Uclick Syndicate, the St. Louis Suburban Journals and the Columbus Dispatch. He writes a monthly column for AAA's Home and Away Magazine website and a chain of suburban lifestyle magazines. He authored "Wheels of Dreams," a coffee-table book that is a compilation of his vintage car stories. He has covered several Formula One races plus the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

Eye Candy: Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance

Stirling Moss pilots 722 through the crowd on the show field.

Stirling Moss pilots 722 through the crowd on the show field.

Almost like Moses parting the Red Sea, Stirling Moss gently guided the Mercedes-Benz 300 SLR, No. 722, down the fairway and through the crowd of spectators last weekend during the 20th Anniversary of the Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance. Where else could you see one of history’s great drivers behind the wheel of what could arguably be called one of the most valuable and most famous race cars in history, driving unprotected and unmolested, through throngs of admirers? Continue reading

Brenda Vernor shares her insider’s view of Enzo and Ferrari racing’s glory days in F1

British-born Brenda Vernor was Ferrari's English translator | Tom Strongman
British-born Brenda Vernor was Ferrari’s English translator | Tom Strongman

From the early 1970s until the death of Enzo Ferrari in 1988, Brenda Vernor had a unique and insider’s role in Ferrari’s Formula One racing program. British born, Vernor was an English translator for Enzo and the only woman among 199 men.

How did a woman from Surrey, England, end up working for Ferrari?

“I was the only girl in a family with three boys and had to fend for myself,” she said. “When I left England for Italy in 1962, my brothers didn’t think I would stick it out, but I did.”

In the early 1970s Vernor was teaching English in Modena, near Maranello, home of Ferrari. One of her students was Piero Lardi Ferrari, Enzo’s son. He was about 16 years old, she recalled.

One day Enzo called. “I had just a taken my Labrador dogs for a walk, and they made me angry,” she said. “The phone was ringing as I walked in the door. I answered the phone, ‘Yes. Pronto.’

“I heard a voice on the other end say, ‘Are you angry? This is Enzo Ferrari. How about coming to work for me?’”

Enzo | photo courtesy Ferrari
Enzo | photo courtesy Ferrari

They met the next day at 3 p.m. at the Pista di Fiorano, Ferrari’s private test track.

“He put me on a three-month trial,” said said, adding, “He never spoke English, just French. So I used to do all of his translations for the Formula One teams. They sent Telexes in those days.”

I talked with Brenda Vernor while she was in Kansas City visiting her good friend, noted automotive historian, author and Ferrari expert Michael T. Lynch during her annual visit to the United States (she comes every year for the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance).

Vernor’s role with the Ferrari team was far greater than a translator. She looked after the drivers, handled their fan mail, found housing and even washed their driving uniforms.

They often called her “zia,” or aunt. I can imagine that her role with the Formula One team was more akin to being the housemother of a college fraternity.

“They were all good boys,” she said with a smile.

When French driver Rene Arnoux joined Ferrari’s Formula One team in 1983 she said he acquired the nickname of “Coccolino” because of the highly perfumed Coccolino brand fabric softener she used to wash his uniform.

“Late at night I would go visit the mechanics,” she said. “I would bring them cakes that I baked and some wine. I would sit with them as they worked late into the night on the Formula One cars, sometimes until 2 or 3 a.m. Then early the next day I would be back in the office.”

“I was working in the press office,” she said, “and I remember the first time I saw the French driver Didier Pironi. He was ‘ciccio bello,’ most handsome.”

She worked with famous drivers including the late Gilles Villeneuve, Jody Scheckter, Carlos Reutemann, Patrick Tambay, Clay Regazzoni, Stefan Johansson and Michele Alboreto. She still stays in touch with some.

Speaking of Villeneuve, she said, “I’ve never driven a Ferrari, but I’ve driven with Villeneuve,” she punctuates her sentence with a chuckle. “That was something, too. Nut case. When I got out of the car my hair was standing on end.”

Villenueve died at the Belgian Grand Prix in 1982.

Her favorite Ferrari is the 275 GTB/4
Her favorite Ferrari is the 275 GTB/4

“I’ve driven with the old man (Enzo), in a 330GTC,” she continued. “I was in a restaurant with a client who had to go home suddenly, so I was stuck up there in the mountains. The old man was there eating, so I said ‘Ingegnere, could you please take me home. (Enzo was often called Ingegnere, or engineer, in his later years). Down the hill we went. He was a good driver, but he liked to go fast.

“The speed limit in Italy is 130 kilometers per hour (80 miles per hour), but if the police see you speeding in a Ferrari, they pull you over just to get a look at the car. Then they send you on your way. Arrivederci.”

Vernor worked for Enzo until he died on August 14, 1988. She was in Pebble Beach when she learned of his death. It was Aug. 15, her birthday.

“They buried him at 6 a.m. on Sunday morning because he didn’t want any fuss,” she noted.

After Enzo’s death, she worked for Piero in the commercial department until she retired in 1993.

“Enzo did lots of good things for people, and nobody knew about it,” she revealed.

“Underneath, he was a softy. He did a lot for his workers. Most of his workers were local people. He gave jobs to the local people, and he understood them because he came from nothing. He knew what it was like not to have anything. If he could help somebody he would.

“He could get angry, too sometimes. He’d get red in the face, shout and scream, and in 10 minutes, it was finished. Back to normal.

“He was a lovely guy. I loved him. I was privileged to work with such a man.”

Eye Candy: The Hawk at Elkhart Lake

Photos by Tom Strongman

Few things in vintage sports car racing are more charming than Road America’s midsummer event, The Hawk with Brian Redman. Track time is the central focus, of course, but what really makes the weekend special happens in downtown Elkhart Lake on Friday and Saturday nights.

In 1950, sports cars raced on the roads around and through this tiny lakeside village. Lake Street was part of the original course, and the turn in front of Siebken’s is known as the Hard Left.

By 1952, racing on public roads around Elkhart Lake stopped. Road America was built on 525 acres of farmland outside of town in 1955 and it quickly became one of the nation’s most challenging and scenic tracks. The pavement that climbs up and down the hills of the Kettle Moraine region is more than four miles around and has 14 turns.

Touring the paddock during the vintage racing weekend is like walking through a living history museum. Refurbished race cars, driven mostly by amateur drivers, hit the track in full flight. Exercising the cars at high speed is more important than who wins or loses, although competition is still present.

On Friday night, race cars drive into town from the track, rumble down Lake Street and park in front of Siebken’s Resort, one of the most legendary bars in auto racing. Still warm from the day’s racing, the racers rest as the streets overflow with bystanders who want to get close.

On Saturday night, highly polished concours cars gather under the leafy shade of early evening and pose like art objects. Because most of the cars are at least 40 years old, strolling Lake Street is like shaking hands with an old friend at a class reunion.

The Hawk with Brian Redman is a time machine, a journey back 50 years to a time when racing was a gentleman’s sport and not a business.

Eye Candy: Kansas City Art of the Car Concours

Photos by Tom Strongman

For the first time in the eight-year history of Kansas City’s Art of the Car Concours, the cackle of straight pipes reverberated across the show field as 19 historically significant hot rods maneuvered into place as special honorees. Legendary Deuces such as the Doane Spencer and Ray Brown roadsters took their place alongside the California Kid, Jake’s coupe and Tom McIntyre’s chopped ’32 built by Ken Schmidt and his crew at Rolling Bones.

The Art of the Car Concours takes place on the quadrangle of the Kansas City Art Institute. Proceeds benefit the institute’s scholarship fund. The event, founded and guided by Marshall Miller, raises in excess of $100,000 for the fund each year. Nearly 6,000 people attended.

In addition to the concours on Sunday, a Meet the Legends program about the history of hot rods was held Saturday afternoon. Moderator Michael T. Lynch was joined by author and historian Ken Gross, as well as by Pete Chapouris, president of the So-Cal Speed Shop and co-founder of Pete and Jake’s Hot Rod Parts, and by noted collector Tom McIntyre.

More than 220 cars, trucks, motorcycles and pedal cars from 16 states and 79 cities filled the quad for the concours.

Bruce Meyer owns the Doane Spencer roadster, thought by many to be one of the most beautifully proportioned, carefully executed ’32 Ford Highboys ever built. Spencer bought the car in 1944, removed the fenders and installed a 1946 Mercury flathead with twin carbs. It was chosen the Best Appearing Roadster at the Pasadena Roadster Club’s 1947 Reliability Run. Meyer bought it in 1995 and had it restored by Chapouris and the So-Cal Speed Shop.

Charlie Little’s ’29 Ford roadster has a handmade track nose that resembles Wilbur Shaw’s Indy-winning Maserati 8CTF. Atop his car sat a scale model of the 8CTF handcrafted by Paul Geivett, 90, when he was in high school. Geivett is a former midget racer who has scratch-built several models.

But Art of the Car isn’t all hot rods this year. For example, in 1971, Fred Fischer’s father, John, took delivery of a 1957 Ferrari 250 GT LWB Berlinetta Competition, chassis 0733, a model known as the Tour de France because of its success in that racing series. Designed by Pinin Farina and built by Scaglietti in Modena, Italy, the car has a 3.0-liter, V12 that produced about 250 horsepower. It finished second in the 1957 Tour de France driven by Maurice Trintignant and Francois Picard.

Some other noteworthy cars on display included:

* The 1939 Delage D-8 120 Cabriolet from the Mullin Museum.

* Mike Sheehan’s 1954 Troutman-Barnes Special, restored to original condition in 1992.

* August Grasis III’s Allard J2X originally owned by Roy Cherryhomes, was raced several times by Carroll Shelby.

* A 1901 Shaw Motorbike, the only one known to exist.