By John R. Wright
From the archives, October 31st, 2007
Otto Linton was one of those rare and colorful characters who participated in the beginnings of sports car racing in the United States. Linton drove a number of rare Italian cars, including the ex-Cabianca OSCA.
In 2005, I interviewed Linton at Watkins Glen. Linton, along with Denver Cornett, another early competitor, told to me about those early, post WWII days of sport scar racing which began at Watkins Glen.
Otto Linton: I came to the U.S. from Austria in 1938, but I was already interested in motor sports. I went to the Czechoslovakian Formula One Grand Prix in 1937. I saw Tazio Nuvolari who was outstanding. He was driving the Alfa Romeo Bi-Motore, with two Alfa engines against the dominant Mercedes and Auto Union cars with drivers like Rosemeyer and Caracciola. That racing was marvelous.
Two years before that, The Alpine Road in Austria had opened and there were quite a few hairpin turns. So, both the Auto Union and Mercedes teams showed up and used the road like a hill climb. In the U.S.A., I continued my interest in both motorcycles and sports cars. I acquired my MGJ4 in 1946 and used it in hill climbs and time trials with the SCCA.
Denver Cornett recalled that the newly formed SCCA abounded with interesting people. Charles Addams the New Yorker cartoonist and creator of the Addams Family often drove a pre War Mercedes. The Collier brothers, Miles and Sam, had formed a sports car club before the war, were also founding fathers of the post war racing movement.
George Huntoon was there along with Al Garthwaite, Bill Milliken, Cam Argetsinger, and Haig Ksayian and John Fitch. Celebrities included the first Today show host, Dave Garroway, and opera singer James Melton, who had a large classic car collection. They all loved the racing at Watkins Glen, which for the first five years, was run through the town and into the countryside on public roads.
Linton: It was a real road course, the greatest road course in the USA. It was all-natural. It was wonderful, we thought. When I think I did that course in 1948 in a car with mechanical brakes… (Otto shakes his head in disbelief). Briggs Cunningham was there of course, driving the BuMerc with a Buick engine and a Mercedes grill.
It was a real buckboard car, with a gas tank and spare tire and hood. It was very stark. Frank Griswold won the race of course as the history books tell it. The Alfa Romeo he drove was a coupe with a 2.9 liter engine, a straight eight supercharged engine. It was blue, not red like some people later thought it was. I had an MGJ4 with a supercharged 750cc OHC engine. When I got the car, it didn’t have a supercharger. I put a larger supercharger than the original missing one and raised the compression. That car had 80 horsepower, which was quite an improvement!
Linton and Denver met at that first race at Watkins Glen, both MG mounted. But while Denver kept coming back with his MGTC, Linton really got the bug and returned to the Glen in a variety of cars, usually Italian.
Linton: I raced on the second course in 1953 as well as on the original one in my two-liter Siata coupe. In 1951, I was driving a Siata with a 750cc Crosley Hotshot engine owned by Tony Pompeo. You know Tony always had a pocket full of money He sponsored a lot of cars and drivers way back then. My engine was built up and was much lighter. It was really fast and I was in first place. I was about to lap the entire class H field and was about to lap the second place man when he ran me off the road. He waved me on and then cut me off.
Besides racing at the Glen, I also raced in Canada at Harewood Acres in Ontario, Canada. I was running an OSCA there against Jim Pauley who was driving a 1500cc Offenhauser powered Osca. I lent him my extra set of wheels with special Michelin tires, but he still couldn’t catch me. At that time, there were five major races at Harewood and I won four of them. The drivers I competed against that I can remember were Jim Pauley and Jim Fergusson.
Linton came back to the Glen almost every year, in 1948 with the MG, in 1951 he entered a 1934 Frazer-Nash, which blew the clutch on the starting line. By 1951 he entered the Siata Crosley and in the last race at the old Glen circuit, Linton brought one of the rare Farina-bodied 208CS Siata Otto-Vu (chassis CS060)cars to the grid.
Both Denver and Linton became imported car dealers and did very well over the years, selling a wide variety of cars. Both prospered, Cornett sold Porsches and Linton Toyotas.
Linton: I took a Lancia Flaminia owned by Frank Griswold which had an exploding clutch problem similar to the Fraser Nash I drove, except with the transmission and clutch coupled to the differential on this model, when, when exploding, the pieces went through the rear seat and floor. I fixed it and took it in trade. I started my own business as Speedcraft Enterprises in 1948 in Exton, Pennsylvania and built new facilities in Devon, Pennsylvania in 1966. Racing was good advertising. I sold MGs, Austin Healeys, Rileys, Mercedes, Porsches, BMWs, Lancias, Jaguars, and other odd makes which Max Hoffman and Tony Pompeo imported. I sold the business in 1984.