He lived on his own terms

I only saw Martin Swig two or three times a year. So the fact that he is now gone, forever, doesn’t create an immediate void. Instead, there’s a small, dull ache that will become a little more apparent each August when I think about his traditional Sunday night party on the last night of Monterey Car Week — and there will be no Martin to swap tales with. Or in April, as our thoughts turn to the California Mille, there will be no Martin with his infectious grin and rapier-like wit to welcome us to his beloved Fairmont Hotel.

We’ll miss him at the SCM reception at Retromobile. Martin was always the sauce at an event that caused your senses to perk up — and to realize that fooling around with old cars was profoundly irrelevant and profoundly important.

I first met Martin in Brescia, Italy, at the partenza for the 1991 Mille Miglia Storica — where I drove a 1947 Zagato-bodied 1100 Siata courtesy of collector Barry Russinoff. Martin was already a fan of the nascent Alfa Romeo Market Letter (which evolved into Sports Car Market) and invited me to attend the next California Mille. I did, and the event was magic — especially as my previous old-car-rally experiences had all involved some element of timing and control. You left at a certain time in the morning, and arrived at different stages at precise moments — and points were awarded and taken away for any deviation from the ideal.

Martin scoffed at that concept. I remember him saying, “We’re big boys and girls, these are our cars, this is my event, and you can get up and leave when you want! If you miss lunch or dinner, well, that’s your problem, isn’t it?”

Consequently, as early as 6 a.m., we’d hear the cowboys firing up their V12 Ferraris with their straight exhausts, and listen to them pull to redline as they sped off into the early morning Northern California mists. It was hard to adjust to at first. Just drive and enjoy the roads, the people and the machinery? No awards? No competition — aside from keeping up with the high-speed packs as we raced through the open countryside? Why, this could be fun.

It’s all about the cars

In that California Mille, I drove my 1958 Giulietta Spider Veloce, which I trailered to San Francisco from Portland, OR. A car I vintage-raced at the time, it had no top, heater or wipers, but it did have Zagato-inspired bucket seats from Italy. Mille prep was limited to swapping out the racing windscreen for a windshield, and putting a rudimentary exhaust on the car with a 12-inch glass pack muffler. Martin thought it was perfect, although he mentioned that the windshield was really for “softies.”

I recall how my Giulietta — with its gumball racing tires, ultra-close-ratio 5-speed and limited-slip 5:12 rear end — was able to harry the larger-but-much-less-nimble Ferraris, Maseratis and Jaguars on the curvy back roads. “These are Giulietta roads,” Martin would say with a smile. And it was so very “Swigian” of him to create an event that allowed his favorite little jewels to have the best of the big motor cars.

My path crossed Martin’s numerous times over the next 20 years. In addition to the many times I drove in the Mille, he gave me my first opportunity to host a television show, “San Francisco Car News,” which was shown on cable television in the Bay Area. I also hosted several shows about the California Mille — as well as another of Martin’s mad-hare schemes, the Carrera Nevada.

That tour was a 1,000-mile jaunt across Nevada, mostly over dirt roads, in 1950s American cars of nearly every stripe. As with everything Martin touched, the event was all about the driving. The Carrera Nevada was just an excuse for a bunch of gearheads to get together and pound dirt during the day in cars for which handling and braking were mostly theoretical, and hang out at the bar and tell stories at night. It was a celebration of American motoring.

Let’s go

Martin’s wife, Esta, once told me a story about Martin and his love for driving. “His friend Lou Sellyei has a Ferrari 250 TR and lives in Reno. Martin would get up at 5 a.m. in San Francisco, take one of his Alfas and drive to Reno (about 200 miles), and sit in Lou’s driveway until he woke up. Then he’d say, ‘Lou, it’s a great day — let’s go for a drive.’ And off they would go, to nowhere in particular. And Martin would be back that night.”

His oldest son, David, demonstrated that he was cut from the same gearhead cloth. The November 1995 issue of SCM featured its first full-color cover. Martin invited me to his home in Sausalito for dinner, and I proudly showed his family the magazine. “Wow, that’s an Enzo Naso painting of a Ferrari 250 TdF in the Mille Miglia. Cool!” was David’s reaction. He’s now a specialist with Bonhams, and his younger brother, Howard Swig, has Swig-octane gasoline in his veins as well, having been a blogger for Car and Driver.

The magic of Martin

In the end, what set Martin apart was his lack of pretension, his love of cars of all types and his passion for getting behind the wheel and just going anywhere. He had the resources to drive Ferraris and Astons, but was more at home with his diminutive-but-expressive Alfas, Lancias, Fiats and the like.

I learned a lot from Martin. I learned that it was okay to like cars for the qualities they possessed rather than just their monetary value. I learned that it was okay to drive a way-cool four-door Italian sedan on a road rally sprinkled with exotics — and to enjoy waving at the big-motor guys if you passed them going downhill into a curve. That it was okay to have a New Year’s Day tour that was simply about providing a gearhead alternative to gathering, zombie-like, around big screens to watch football. And it was equally okay to have a rally where the only requirement was that your car had to cost less than $500.

Martin, thank you for these lessons. Thank you for being my pal and encouraging me to continue growing SCM into a career. Thank you for making it okay to have a passion for any type of car, so long as it exhibits an element of passion in its soul. My promise to you is that I will live these things to their fullest, and pass them on to my children. 

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