In Memoriam: Martin Swig

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Martin L. Swig, a longtime SCMer, creator of the California Mille and one of the great West Coast car guys, died July 3 in Sausalito, CA.

He was 78.

Swig was a car guy since he could walk. He got his driver’s license at age 14, and he became well-known for his road antics around the family home in Palo Alto, CA, where he made early morning, high-speed runs to San Jose and back—and drove on informal, timed road races on local dirt farm roads that are now part of the Stanford University campus.

Swig graduated Stanford with a B.A. in economics in 1956. He worked as a used-car salesman while attending Stanford.

By 1957, he was working for European Motors on Van Ness Avenue in San Francisco, where he sold Fiats, Lancias, and Alfa Romeos.

Swig continued as a car salesman in San Francisco through the 1960s, selling Mercedes-Benz among other brands, and he acquired a San Francisco Datsun franchise in 1969. He continued to open additional dealerships, including Mazda, Toyota, and several European brands, through the 1970s.

Swig was a pioneer car dealer. He opened the San Francisco Autocenter—the first artful multi-franchise all-under-one-roof car dealership in the country, in 1982. At its peak, Autocenter sold 17 different makes of cars and trucks.

But Swig also loved old, collectible cars. He caught the bug after driving his 1948 Plymouth to the 1950 Palm Springs Road Races, where he got hooked on European cars. He later attended the road races at Pebble Beach, Golden Gate Park and other spots.

Swig began collecting vintage cars in 1973 with the purchase of a 1955 Alfa Romeo 1900 Zagato. He raced in the third Monterey Historics in 1976 and thus began a life-long hobby of vintage car racing. Martin raced in every Monterey Historics until he hung up his helmet in 2010. This passion is shared today by his two sons, David and Howard Swig.

In 1982, Swig drove in the first Mille Miglia Retrospective with his 1900 Zagato, accompanied by John Lamm of Road & Track magazine. Swig and Lamm were the first American team to participate in the Mille Miglia Retrospective and were the only Americans on the event in 1982. Martin participated in the Italian event approximately 20 times, as well as Mille events in Japan, Australia and Argentina.

In 1991, Swig organized the first California Mille, which was his idea of what a United States Mille Miglia event ought to be, and he kept the overall spirit of the original Mille Miglia. The California Mille, organized by the non-profit Amici americani della Mille Miglia (American Friends of the Mille Miglia) was recognized by the ACI Brescia and is now in its 23rd year. It is known internationally as one of the premier historic motoring tours in the world.

SCM Publisher Keith Martin first met Swig when he drove his 1958 Giulietta Spider Veloce on the Mille in 1992.

“The collector car world has lost a mentor and a change-creator, and I’ve lost my very best collector car friend,” Martin said. “From the very earliest days of the Alfa Market Letter, he encouraged me to keep the magazine growing, and he was always a source of ideas for its development.

“It’s hard for me to imagine coming to San Francisco now without sharing a glass of good red wine with Martin, and swapping tall tales about the collector car world and the people that inhabit it. He will live on in our memories, every time we fire up one of the 4-cylinder jewels that he loved so much.”

Swig also created the New Year’s Day Anti-Football Run, an off-the-cuff event that has grown in stature and attracts some 150 drivers and vintage cars every January 1st to the backroads of Western Marin County.

Swig retired from the new-car retail business in 2000 to pursue his passions for collecting vintage cars, writing and organizing the California Mille and other events.

Swig loved the adventure of the open road, and he was a quintessential California car guy.

Swig is survived by his wife of 34 years, Esta Swig;  their two sons, David and Howard Swig, of Sausalito, CA; his daughter, Annalisa Poirel of Hohengœft, France; his four grandchildren (Anders, Solveig, Isolde and Jacob Poirel); his sister, Angel Bastek of Naples, FL; and his brother, Richard Swig of Council Bluffs, IA.

A memorial service will be Friday, July 20th, 2012 at 1:00pm at Temple Emanu-El in San Francisco.