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April 2003

An Introduction to Martin Swig
By Shivu Rao

Martin Swig is one of those rare people who put back more into the hobby than he takes.
Martin Swig is a San Francisco Bay Area-based car collector, vintage racer, founder and chief organizer of the California Mille, La Carrera Nevada, and other notable U.S. vintage car rallies and events. VeloceToday recently had the pleasure of sitting down with Mr. Swig to talk about a wide-ranging set of subjects; from the foundations of the Italian car business in America in the 1950s, to the development of the car industry in general, to vintage rallies, to vintage cars, and last but not least, Swig himself.

Alfa Romeo as inscribed into the cam covers of Swig's 6C1500. Swig has been deeply involved with Alfas for almost 50 years.
Having spent some time with the man, we at VeloceToday can state without compunction that he is a true blue (or Rosso) Italian car enthusiast and holds much knowledge about our collective passion. His enthusiasm is real, palpable and infectious. The two Maxims of Swig we took away from this encounter were - "the cars choose the people, not the other way around" and "its all about having fun". The second phrase was in evidence as we had a good time creating the content for this piece.

European Motors
Martin Swig grew up in Palo Alto, Northern California, in the 1950s. It was a perfect time to be around to see the beginnings of the West Coast European car craze. As a youth, he recalls being a fan of Henry Manney (Road & Track correspondent) and keeping himself up to date with news of cars and sports car racing and in Europe. After getting a degree from Stanford University in 1956, Swig entered the car business. He joined European Motors on Van Ness Avenue in San Francisco as a salesman selling Alfas and Fiats. This was just as well, because he recounts that the car that really "set him off" was the 1958 Alfa Romeo Giulietta, which he describes as a "good all rounder".

Swig's office is a paradise of rare and unusual automotive artifacts from all eras. Not sure how he manages to concentrate on business...
His recollections of the foreign car business in the 1950s are quite humorous. The overall impression one gets is of an auto industry struggling to find its footing after the war. During that period, war-ravaged Europe was designing smaller autos for a gasoline-shorted continent (opposite of North America for the period). As an example of where the thinking was, Swig recounted the story of the hapless Lancia service manager who was given a 900cc-engined Appia van by his company in Italy and ordered to go "service his customers" in the USA. "The poor guy found himself over his head having to traverse the country with a 900cc engine" said Swig. The innocence of what it took to do business in America was obvious.

Shivu caught this unusual decal but we are not sure of the event. In any event, the name is Piero Taruffi, winner of the last Mille Miglia.
Imports: The Dream and the Reality
To Swig, Italian cars of the day, such as Alfa Romeo, were designed and engineered like jewels; however the old stereotype of total lack of a service culture and spare parts management is true. Alfa Romeoís U.S. dealerships were very poorly supported; terms such as "customer service", according to Swig, had not been invented in the same sense we know them today. So a theme appeared for owners of Italian cars of the day here in the U.S. and it went something like, "It was fine until something broke". This continued until the end. In the 1970s, Swig recounted a story underlining the wrong approach, when he had a personal encounter with Alfa Romeo executives. As one of the prominent Alfa Romeo dealers in the country, he was invited to pay a visit to Alfa Romeo North American Headquarters to share product impressions with visiting Italian executives. He offered that the GTV6 should be compared directly with the 2nd generation Toyota Celica Supra. The executives of Alfa Romeo wouldn't hear of it, claiming not to have driven one before. They did not even seem interested in driving the competition's unit to compare product quality, handling and power. The attitude spoke for itself and the rest is far as sales in North America were concerned.

Swig is not, however a one-make enthusiast. The Fiat TV grille emblem is a taste of what's to come in Part II of Martin Swig.
Multiple Car Dealerships
Swig was busy during the 1960s as European Motors added Mercedes-Benz to its list of marques. By the end of the 1960s, he had struck out on his own by buying a Datum dealership in Northern California. His assessment of the Japanese entering the U.S. car market was surprising. In the 1960s there was the usual order and chaos in the car business. As car companies struggled with formalizing manufacture, retail and distribution processes, a watershed event was taking shape. Swig was unequivocal in stating that the Japanese revolutionized the automobile business in many important ways, beginning with quality built into every unit and ease of repair. To Swig, the arrival of Japanese makers in the U.S. market was a revelation in how to run a successful and profitable car business. As the 1960s became the 1970s, his car business grew in volume and variety; he added marques to his list of franchise dealerships. By the early 80's he had developed his list of franchise dealerships to include over 10 marques from North America, Europe and the newcomers, Japan. These were Fiat, Alfa Romeo, Rolls Royce, Bentley, Audi, Saab, Plymouth, Oldsmobile, Chrysler, Mazda, Suzuki, Toyota and, of course, Datsun. Car sales and service departments were divided along lines of which continent the car came from. In the 1980s, Swig was responsible for the development of the concept and reality of the first Auto Mall where the idea was to house multiple makes under a common retail roof. In 1998, Martin Swig retired from the car dealership business after 40 successful years.

The Organizer
Today, Swig is primarily involved in organizing international vintage car events such as the rallies he has come to be associated with. The company he founded that undertakes the organization of vintage rallies and events is called 'Amici Americani Della Mille Miglia' (translated to be 'American Friends of Mille Miglia'). As we sat talking about the events/rallies that Swig has been responsible for conceiving and organizing, the topic turned to the fact that the California Mille has become quite a prominent social calendar event. He humorously lamented that the mention of the event in the Robb Report tends to occasionally attract attention from the wrong kind. In having to address inquiries from such parties, Swig has devised a small ruse that goes something like this:

A few of the hundreds of superb models which decorate the Swig premises. In the foreground are two 8C2900s.
How to Deflect the Wrong Kind of Attention from the California Mille
Caller: Hello is this the California Mille? (Pronounces it Millie)
Swig: Yes this is (slight frown appearing after hearing the word Mille become Millie)
Caller: How do I join in? What kind of car should I buy? I want to make sure I get in.
Swig: (figuring out that this is someone who is a. clueless, and b. not someone for the event) Well, I'm looking for folks to run a special car to run this event.
Caller: Yeah, what kind of special car?
Swig: It's called a Fiat Topolino (Cinquecento). It was a smaller car that was popular in Italy in the 1950s. Mille in Italian means mile by the way.
Caller: OK, I will go and check it out... (Hangs up) Swig: (hangs up) Phew That was close
Usually folks like this are not heard from again after this exchange.

According to Swig, it takes a special sort of personality to run and successfully complete the California Mille. Simply because, if things go wrong, Itís up to the participant to right it. It does take someone who is willing to do what it takes to solve problems with quick thinking, as well as dealing with people in a down-to-earth way. You never know who might need help from on the road.

Around the same time Swig was planning to leave the car dealership business, the first Mille Miglia Revival took place in Brescia, Italy in 1982. Determined to drive in it, Swig entered his 1900 Alfa Romeo Zagato, sharing the cockpit with Road and Track writer John Lamb. Since then, he has entered all but one Mille Miglia Revival.

Nor is Swig devoted entirely to Italian cars. Here is an immaculate pre war Tatra from Czechoslovakia.
By the late 1980s, Swig was organizing informal events that catered to those like he who had a taste for long distance (town to town) Vintage Car events. In 1990, the Colorado Grand was organized as the first Premier Vintage Rally in the U.S. Martin Swig entered it in his Alfa Romeo Giulietta Sprint Veloce. After the event, being impressed with the level of organization and the popular response, Swig and his fellow drivers sat in a Colorado bar chatting about the possibility of a California-based vintage event along the same lines. Spurred on by the fact that someone else will undoubtedly think of this idea and act on it, Swig began charting out a possible plan for what was to become the California Mille. Impetus for the plan came, initially, from a simple logo design. The logo was designed first and the event followed! The logo is still in use today.

Vintage Car Rallies and Events
Amici Americani Della Mille Miglia - 2003 Diary of Events
1. The California Mille 2003 (April 27th - May 1st)
Open to cars appropriate to the original Mille Miglia in Italy (pre-1957 European or American cars). The number of entries is limited to 65 cars. The entry list for 2003 is closed. The route comprises of one thousand miles driven mainly through scenic two lane roads of Northern California. The event flags off at the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco and ends at the Sonoma Mission Inn, Sonoma County. This year, there will be a hill climb event for pre-WW I cars on April 27th.

2. Mille Autunno Della Cinque Passi (Mid-September 2003).
The Mille Autunno is a 3-day tour covering approximately 800 miles over the scenic roads of Northern California. Entrants are limited to pre-1972 foreign and domestic sports cars. Entries cost $2000.00 for a team of two people. Gifts, food and accommodations for each two-member team are included in the entry fee.

3. Double 500 2003 (June 28th)
An unusual annual 500-kilometer jaunt for entrants in cars purchased for $500 or less, through the B roads, north of San Francisco, California. It is an open event (no invitations, entry fee or formal entry process required). To participate, be at a pre-arranged venue a week before the run to pick up directions and instructions (usually at Denny's restaurant on Paradise Drive in Corte Madera). Attendees to this event can range from those who would like to enter a fun road experience inexpensively; to the more affluent that treat the event as a lark. Arrangements are made to allow for people to donate their $500 chariot to a local charity after the completion of the run.

4. Past Events of 2003 - News Years Anti-Football Rally (January 1st)
Event is on New Years day and starts at 8.30a.m. Open to any and all interesting cars (suggestion: bring one older than 25 years). It is an informal drive for those who would rather be doing something than watching TV on New Years day. A leisurely drive of around 150 miles held in the back roads north of San Francisco, Bay Area.

For more information on these and other similar events, contact Martin Swig at (415) 561-8401.

Past Issues


Graham Gauld

Otto Linton

Giulio Ramponi Part 2

Giulio Ramponi Part 1

Curtis LeMay

Graham Robson Tells All

Jason Castriota, Pininfarina

Tom Tjaarda

Bob and Dennis Show

Ed Hugus, Obit

Joe Nastasi, Part II

Joe Nastasi, Part I

Tony Adriaensens

Otis Chandler Obit


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