Saturday, April 18, 2015

The Little Guys

Kurt Richter and Haik Hakobian of Haik’s German Autohaus
The Little Guys - PDFThe auto service market in Santa Barbara is a bit of a unique one. Its character is dictated by the size of the town. Perhaps a non-automotive story to illustrate.

On my first visit to this city eight years ago, I struck up a friendship with my seat-mate on the flight in. She invited me to see a friend’s band at Creek Side Inn that night, and we hung out with them after their set. The next night, the company I was interviewing with took me out for a night on the town, and we ended up at Dargan’s. Naturally, I ran into the guys from the band there.

My first and lasting impression of Santa Barbara: this is a small town. It’s easy to feel like you know everyone... and everyone knows you.

This dynamic tends to impact the way people interact with one another, and when it comes to car service, it’s especially true. This may account for the sizeable number of relatively small, independent specialty shops, with a fairly narrow focus. If you visit one of these shops, you’ll likely talk to the guy (mostly) who will be wrenching on your car, and who also might own the place. Haik Hakobian (pronounced “Hike”), of Haik’s German Autohaus, has been working on German cars since 1979. He talks about his shop in comparison to going to a dealer for service.

“In some ways, we don’t give as good of service,” he says. “We don’t give rental cars, we don’t even give rides, usually because there’s just two of us.” While there may be other perks at a dealer, such as car washes, Hakobian points out that he’s able to provide more “personal service.”

“When they go to a dealership, the mechanic has to come out of the back to talk to them.” Hakobian acts as his own service writer, so his clients can talk to the same person each time, and he feels it elicits more confidence from them. He also gets business from people who have bad experiences at dealerships.

“I think some of them are being driven away by some of the attitudes” of the dealership service departments, he says.

The Garage is a business that’s built entirely on word of mouth. Christian “Critter” Mooney is a specialist in British marques, and he’s one of the most trusted Land Rover wrenches in town. In contrast to L.A., which has much bigger shops, Mooney talks about the intimate nature of Santa Barbara.

The Garage is a business that’s built entirely on word of mouth. “Here it’s a very small community. Everyone knows everyone,” he says. “You’ve gotta keep your name very, very clean in Santa Barbara.” This prompts him and his partner, Bert Linau, a German car mechanic who works most often on Audis, to go the extra mile for their customers, with loaners and rides, and occasionally eating the cost of some service to help someone out.

Of his formative years, Mooney says, “We all worked at the dealer, and this is like a lot of people, so we got a lot of our schooling and experience from the dealership, and then after we left the dealership... all of us went to private shops.”

Some shops are actually just one person, as is the case with Der Volks Werks. Dana Steele has owned the business for 31 years, and used to have some help, but it’s just him, since his assistant went on disability due to health issues. If you bring your air-cooled Volkswagen to him, he’ll not only fix it, but he’ll also explain literally every little nut and bolt that he touched in doing so.

He sticks to servicing the cheap stuff, and enjoys his rapport with his customers.

“The people that own these cars work for a living, and they value labor,” he says. “I actually choose not to work on people’s cars that have more money, because they’re [bloody] pains in the [butt].”

Roy Miller is one of the more widely known mechanics in town, but he’s begun to wind down East-West Motors, which he’s owned since 1983. At this point, his business mostly consists of long-time customers, who have since become friends of his. With those relationships can come the fraught issue of charging his friends money for work.

“That’s a real dilemma for me,” he says. “My wife is so critical of me. She says, ‘You know, everyone loves you, and you do a great job on these cars. Why don’t we have any money?’” He tends to think more about fixing someone’s issue than about the business aspect of it, but the result has been a karmic bonanza.

“We’ve had some amazing things happen to us because of camaraderie with fellow car people, and it turns into something completely different.”

Jack Bianchi has a similar story, though he actually closed his shop in 2006. Now he mostly just works on his own cars and those of friends as a “hobbyist,” and occasionally takes on more specialized projects. If you’ve got a Lotus engine or anything involving a Grand Prix racer, it might be worth your while to seek out his expertise.

But he has fairly broad praise for the extant shops in town.

“The town supports itself, and there’s really very few bad shops, so if a guy rolls in a fairly new Porsche, I’ll send him to Henry [Hinck] up at Schneider [Autohaus],” also mentioning long- term relationships with Mike Brown and Julio Limon at Santa Barbara Auto Group.

“That’s that small-town stuff. It’s pretty neat.”

Things seem to be getting a bit more difficult for the smaller shops, though, especially in the lower Eastside industrial corridor where many of them are located. While there’s been a steady decline in the number of air-cooled VWs in town, Steele of Der Volks Werks stays busy, since the number of shops that service them has also dropped.

“A lot of other businesses that used to work on them have generally been forced out of business by land speculation,” he says, “and the lot being bought to be turned into a wine tasting room.”

The building he operates out of, on East Gutierrez, “has been perpetually up for sale,” he says, but because the property would need to be fixed up for that, “I keep on outliving landlords.”

Mooney’s shop, The Garage, has had its own share of uncertainty, with rising rents and the threat of a land sale by the owner. He says his type of business is also targeted by the city with Byzantine codes that make it difficult to establish a new operation before running out of money.

He believes there’s a strong need for the independent shops as a counterweight to the clout of the dealership groups.

“Mainly why we’re all here, these specialists that you see – we all worked at the dealer – ‘cause we don’t like the dealer so much,” he says. “A lot of our clients don’t like the dealer. A lot of people just hate going to the dealer, and they go there because they have to. And that’s the reason, to an extent, that we exist.” 

It may grow increasingly challenging for those businesses to survive if there’s no place for them, though. Mooney points out that with the success of the Funk Zone, there are well-funded investors looking to replicate it in his part of town. 

“Who needs to listen? That’s a really good question,” he says. “Because we’re not asking for any handouts from anyone, but we love what we do in Santa Barbara.”

Saturday, April 4, 2015

A Troubling Phone Call

McLaren’s 1987 Gemballa Ferrari has only around 7,700 miles on the clock
 Gemballa - PDFI get occasional notes from readers telling me about interesting cars and owners in town. The cars will
have an noteworthy tale of provenance, or the owner will have a nice personal story attached to it. But the email I got recently from Archie McLaren went beyond these elements. He laid out a tale of a super-rare and exotic looking car, shady financial dealings...and murder. 

Uwe Gemballa (pronounced “OOH- vay”) made a career of modifying high-end cars, particularly Porsches, with performance equipment and radical body mods, and giving them names  like Mirage, Avalanche, and Tornado. 

Operating from his shop near Stuttgart, Germany, he also included interesting innovations that car companies themselves would later ape, such as steering wheel accessory controls and telecomm gear.

In 1987 he took one of the hottest cars around and made it even more extreme. The Ferrari Testarossa (fun fact: it means “redhead” in Italian) was one of the most lust-worthy cars of its day, aided by a starring role in the hit show Miami Vice. The design was already radical, but Gemballa took the super-wide car and widened it by nearly five inches.

He also replaced the Testarossa’s signature side strakes with a split air intake for better breathing. He added custom wheels, and naturally he restyled the front and rear, complete with spoilers, in addition to shrinking the side-view mirrors. To compensate for the latter change, Gemballa pioneered a technology now somewhat ubiquitous on modern cars: the rear-view camera.

The interior boasts a custom wheel with controls and a screen for the rear camera
He also did a fully custom interior, which included a dash display for the camera, Recaro seats with yellow piping, and steering wheel controls. The engine remained stock, but Gemballa’s exhaust had a unique six-pipe arrangement.

Including the donor car, the final product cost the equivalent of around $200,000 at the time. And he did this conversion only three times, with only two of those cars reportedly surviving to present day.

Several years ago, McLaren heard one of the cars was available in New York, and flew out there in the middle of winter.

“It was being shown in a very upscale, hip clothing store in SoHo,” McLaren recalls. “Didn’t just buy the car, I bought a really nice coat in that shop.”

McLaren owned the car for several years before the intrigue began. In January 2010, he got a call from the man himself. Gemballa wanted to buy back his car. He claimed there was a client of his who wanted to open a Gemballa museum. While McLaren wasn’t much interested in selling, he indulged the builder with a price that he believed was fair, given its rarity and pedigree.

“There was a hesitation, a silence, and then he said, ‘Well, I was hoping to get it for a good deal less than that,’” recalls McLaren. At that point, they were the only Ferraris that Gemballa had ever modified.

“He said, ‘Well thank you, I can’t do that.’ And then a month later, he disappeared.”

McLaren believes that phone call came from Europe, but he went missing in South Africa, where he was later found dead, that October.

Contemporaneous news reporting laid out a money-laundering scheme that Gemballa had been roped into involving his cars. His business was on the verge of a bankruptcy filing, and to escape his precarious finances he was convinced by a Czech crime boss hiding in South Africa, Radovan Krejčíř, to smuggle money inside the cars.

The car’s rearview camera was a first for its time
It was reported that one vehicle, a Porsche Cayenne, had actually been sent from Germany to South Africa with €1 million, but the money went missing along the way. Shortly before he disappeared, Gemballa called his wife to request that she place a large amount of cash in his account right away. 

McLaren explained that Gemballa “spoke to her in English, which he never, ever did,” likely tipping her off to the precariousness of the situation. McLaren believes it’s highly unlikely that she complied because they didn’t have access to any significant quantities of cash. Like other tuners in Germany, Gemballa’s business was suffering from a major slowdown in the high-end market, and he was desperate to save the company he’d built.

Eventually, the South African authorities did manage to arrest, try, and convict a man, Thaibiso Mpshe, for the murder, all in the course of a single day.

Regarding the phone call that McLaren received, he believes that Gemballa was trying to get the car “for a song” so that he could turn around and sell it for the real market value to pay off Krejčíř, or perhaps just give it directly to the man as payment. It seems that Gemballa theorized that he could use his name and the story about the planned museum, to appeal to McLaren’s sense of pride, and pry away the car for chump change.

Since that time, the company has emerged from bankruptcy, and continues to make radical conversions of a wide range of cars, from Porsche to McLaren (the British supercar builder, not our friend Archie) to Mercedes- Benz. Not surprisingly, there’s no mention of the company’s tumultuous history on its website. Sadly, though, I couldn’t even find a single mention of the founder, whom McLaren describes as “a very gracious guy.”

“He was nice, there was nothing arrogant or intimidating about him,” he says.

For this story, I met McLaren at his condo in downtown Santa Barbara. He showed me the car in the ground-floor garage, and it’s quite a sight. One of the most striking features is the diminutive side mirrors, a high contrast from the extra-long originals. The rear-view monitor sticks out of the dash prominently, since Gemballa had no access to flat LCD screens in those days, but it is still nicely integrated to the interior design.
And the sound that emerged from the car when he cranked it up was magical.

The name Testarossa, or “Redhead,” stems from the red paint on the cam covers, 
but also the companies penchant for comparing its cars to beautiful women
McLaren’s own story is quite compelling as well.

“I was born in Atlanta and moved to Memphis the next day ‘cause the music was better.” His career in legal publishing took him to the western U.S. and all over eastern and southeastern Asia. In retirement, though, the real fun began, with deep involvement in the worlds of fine cuisine and rare wine.

He has been involved in several organizations in the wine world, and even founded the Central Coast Wine Classic, a prestigious food and wine event more than 25 years old. The event has also raised more than $2.5 million over the past decade to support the healing, performing, and studio arts.

Beyond these activities, McLaren’s bio is too long to adequately capture here, but suffice to say he spends his days traveling the country and the world helping out with charity auctions, chairing events in the wine and food industries, and studying subjects like language, art, music, and anthropology. He has also done some writing on topics like multiculturalism and women’s rights.

A renaissance man, I suggested.

“I don’t know about that,” he replied, mentioning his liberal leanings. “I don’t know if I’d have been well accepted in the Renaissance.”