By: Ed Niles
Luigi Chinettis very successful efforts to put Ferrari on the map in the United States have been so well documented that I wont insult your intelligence with a rehash.
At the same time, however, it needs to be said that Chinettis presence was felt primarily on the East Coast. So lets reminisce a bit about the left Coast, and Southern California in particular.
Soon after the end of World War II, John Von Neumann was successful in contracting for the US distributorship of economy cars made by a struggling war-torn company named Volkswagen. VWs sales success in this country created financial success for Johnny beyond (one supposes) his wildest dreams! Soon, John Von Neumann was able to afford the latest from Modena, and while he wasnt the best driver in the world, he was careful, and in the early 50s his name started appearing with regularity on the winners list.
Automobile distributorship, and automobile racing, were family affairs for Johnny. His wife, Eleanor, could be seen directing the Von Neumann Scuderia, and Johnnys daughter Josie was a regular entrant, with considerable success, in the "Ladies Races." So it was only natural that Eleanor Von Neumann should become a Ferrari Dealer. Large, blond and very Teutonic, all Eleanor needed was a horned helmet to pass as a Valkyrie. Her Ferrari store, located on Chauenga Blvd. in Hollywood, was opened under the appellation of "Ferrari Representatives of California." Only one staff member comes to mind: a small, wiry young man with a blond crew cut and a grin almost as wide as his shoulders. His name, we soon learned, was Richard Ginther - known to everyone as Richie. Richie was everything: Service Manager, Part Time Mechanic, Parts Manager, and general factotem. And on the weekends, he raced. It wasnt long before he was out-racing his boss (now was that nice, Richie?) and certainly he helped Ferraris image in Southern California.
John Von Neumann, from around 1954 to the late 50s, had a great number of very interesting Ferraris. And, through his wifes dealership, he sold even more Ferraris. But around the end of the decade, John and Eleanor decided to call their marriage finis, and soon we saw Eleanor giving up the dealership.
In the meantime, we saw Otto Zipper, an Alfa Romeo dealer on the West side, becoming more visible in the world of Ferraris. Among local enthusiasts, he was well-known as the owner of a Series I PF Cabriolet, with a cut down drivers door and brakes specially modified for its first owner, racer Peter Collins. So when Eleanor Von Neumann left the scene, he became the Ferrari distributor for the area.
During this time, Otto held forth on Whilshire Blvd., in Beverly Hills, and in a large barn of a building on Lincoln Blvd. in Santa Monica, which later housed the restoration shop of Hill and Vaughn. Ottos Ferrari shop foreman was Richie Vanderwater, and from the mid-60s one of his mechanics was Bruno Borri, later one of the owners of Modena Sport Cars.
So far as I know, Otto Zipper never raced Ferraris during those early days, but later ran a Porsche 904 and an Alfa Tipo 33, with Scooter Patrick and Milt Minter among his drivers. In 1978 he was brought "out of retirement" to manage a team of three 1973 365 GTB/4s at the 24 hours of Daytona. Drivers included actors Bobby Carradine and Paul Newman. The results were promising, so in 1979 he returned as team manager for a Daytona driven by John Morton and Tony Adamowicz. He died in his motel room the night before the race, but his organizational skills were rewarded with a first in class and 2nd overall.
In late 1962, Otto Zipper, as Ferrari distributor, granted a franchise to Chic Vandagriffs Hollywood Sport Cars. Chic, who had started as a mechanic and had acquired a British Motors franchise, was quite successful at promoting the Ferrari image.
But not without conflict! Otto still had the distributorship, and was only a few miles away. The result was that Otto could discount the new car price and undercut Chic. But that conflict lasted little more than a year.
In the early 60s the Ferrari factory decided that a strong, well-financed presence was needed West of the Rockies. So Bill Harrah, who had made a name and a fortune for himself in Reno, Nevada, became the Western States Distributor for Ferrari (Modern Classic Motors). This move effectively left Otto Zipper out in the cold, and Harrahs company, in early 1964, appointed Hollywood Sport Cars as its first official Ferrari dealer. Hollywood Sport Cars was another family operation, run by Chic Vandagriff, with the help of his wife, his brother Skip, and later his son and daughter. Chic soon became very active in Ferrari racing activities, and was quite successful at strengthening Ferraris position in Southern California. In fact, his success was such that at one time he had an ownership interest in Newport Imports, the next Ferrari dealership to open in Southern California, in Newport Beach.
Chics success eventually lead to a splitting of his "district," and (I think in the late 60s) a new dealership opened in Santa Monica, California, called Diagnosis Sales and Service. Its owner, Fransisco Mir, was an engineer who came from South America with his own ideas about how a Ferrari dealership should be run. He was apparently not that interested in selling Ferraris, but developed a specialty of service and repair work for the customer for whom cost was no object. Frank Mir had equipment that Chic Vandagriff hadnt even thought of! Perhaps unfortunately for Frank, his prices equaled the extent of his mechanical equipment, so only the most wealthy customers came knocking at his door. Mir eventually opened a high-end restaurant in Brentwood, draining his financial resources to the extent that both businesses closed.
Another arrival among the official Ferrari dealers in Southern California was Ogner Motor Cars, owned and managed by Stand and Irving Ogner. It was primarily a Porsche and Audi dealership, and for some years seemed to retain the Ferrari franchise only for its prestige. In recent years, however, they have become more serious about catering to the Ferrari enthusiasts, and recently Michael Lederman has joined Ogner as Sales Manager. Mike, who spent many years in Northern Italy, had made a name for himself as someone who could be relied on to buy and sell Ferraris and Porsches in that part of the world, before returning to the US.
Another authorized dealer which came and went was David Roses "Ferrari of San Diego." Harley Cluxton opened "Grand Touring Cars" in the Phoenix area, specializing in race cars, and he is still serving the Arizona area.
During this same period of time, a number of independent mechanical shops sprang up around the South of California. Ernie McAfee, with the backing of Bill Doheny, became a Siata Dealer, but it was well known that his sympathies, and his mechanical abilities, lay with Ferrari. The same for Jack McAfee (no relation to Ernie). And somewhere along the line in the late 50s or early 60s, Harry Finer opened a Maserati shop in Beverly Hills.
Some of the true independent Ferrari shops included Sal DiNatale (S and A Italia Sports Cars) in Van Nuys, Nick Dioguardi (Dio Brothers) of Glendale, Jack Brumby in Hollywood, Chuck Betz and Fred Peters in Orange County, Bruno Borri and Pietro Iurilli, later Bruno and Luciano Fabbio (Modena Sports Cars) in Hollywood, Charlie Hayes in Orange County, Ralph Britton and Pete Civati of the South Bay, and perhaps one of the best mechanics of them all, Bill Rudd, who, at various times had shops in Montebello, Reno, and then in Van Nuys.
Later arrivals among the independents included Walt McCune, who still trades in used Ferraris from Modena Sports Cars, Steve Tillack, who opened Tillack & Co. in 1977, European Auto (Mike Sheehan) in Orange County, and Allen Bishop of Pacific Palisades.
The great collapse of 1989/1990 caused the disappearance of quite a few familiar names. At the top of the list would certainly have to be Hollywood Sport Cars, which had been more successful than anyone else in establishing Ferrari as a permanent presence Southern California. Chics son Cris, who started as a "parts boy" at Hollywood Sport Cars, now maintains Ferrari's image at Ferrari of Beverly Hills. Among the independents, only Modena Sport Cars, Tillack, European, Allen Bishop, and "Chuck and Fred" remain, while Bill Rudd has restricted his activities to parts only. Harrah and Chinetti, both deceased, have been replaced by Ferrari of North America, directly owned by the Ferrari factory in Italy. (An idea, incidentally, first proposed to the factory by Chic Vandagrif).
My apologies to anyone whose name I have omitted. Remember that old expression: Time is a dressmaker...specializing in alterations!
About the author: Ed Niles, a lawyer in the San Fernando Valley, has been active in the world of Ferraris for more than 35 years. During that time he has owned more than 100 of Maranello's products and has met some strange and wonderful characters. During occasional moments of lucidity, he will share remembrances of cars and people he has known and loved.