THE LIFE AND TIMES OF KIRK F. WHITE

Jim Weed

Volume 45 Issue 10

May 9, 2020

Kirk F. White, a name well known in Ferrari circles, passed away on March 20, 2020. While some of his exploits and accomplishments are well known they can only scratch the surface of who Kirk White was.

    Kirk F. White, a name well known in Ferrari circles, passed away on March 20, 2020. While some of his exploits and accomplishments are well known they can only scratch the surface of who Kirk White was.

    I will make no excuse about what I have learned about Mr. White. I Googled him and found his story on his website, simply named kirkfwhite.com.

    There for all to read is a recounting in White’s words is an incredible tale of a life well-lived and filled with many adventures. Among those stories are a raw look into the tragedy and tribulations of a lifetime of living.

    In the 36 chapters and 920 pages of text is a great story that encompasses automobiles and motorcycles along with toys and trains. You would be correct to say White’s life centered around mechanical and whimsical novelties.

    White was raised near Philadelphia, PA., by his mother and father, who was a mechanical engineer. His father also had a well-equipped machine shop behind their house and was able to teach young Kirk much in the way of mechanical things.

    Unfortunately Kirk’s father, George Albert White, died of a heart attack when young Kirk was ten years old. This was to cause many hardships in the young boy’s life.

    While his mother found work, there was still a need to supplement the family coffers. One of the rooms was rented to a gentleman named John Jewell.

    Jewell took Kirk to the Hatfield Speedway one Saturday to see Midget auto races. The Midget racers would be running Offenhauser or flathead Ford V-8 60 engines. Seeing those racers sliding around the half-mile dirt with loud exhaust made an impression on Kirk.

    Money was tight but pleasures could still be found. A gift one Christmas brought a gas-powered tether car. Tether cars are raced on a circular track with the ‘driver’ holding the string. These gas-powered small-displacement cars required a bit of skill to make them travel quickly around the track.

    Kirk discovered a novel way of lying down and whipping the string around one handed that went against the conventional method of sitting and passing the string behind one,s back while changing hands.

    At The 1950 Philadelphia Sportsman Show Kirk  stumbled upon a speed contest sponsored by the Cox Thimble Drome Company. After observing several contestants, he inquired on how to enter. He quickly demonstrated his unique style and came away with the fastest 5-lap time.

    Cox gave a prize of a new Thimble Drome Champion car and an “Official Certificate”. The Philadelphia Inquirer newspaper listed twelve-year-old Kirk F. White as the Cox Motor Racing Champion of the World.

    As Kirk became older, bicycles became a common mode of transportation and modification came as a way to set him apart from the others. It would be clear that inside Kirk F. White was a bit of a hot-rodder waiting to get out.

    Between an older neighbor kid next door and his mother’s new Plymouth there was new-found excitement in automobiles. The neighbor had a 1949 Ford 2-door coupe he had hopped up with Edelbrock heads and Belond headers among other modifications.

    Kirk would have many experiences riding in that car to add with the clandestine excursions with his mom’s Plymouth. Kirk was even able to make some sly changes to the Plymouth without raising a questioning eye from his mother.

    Another pursuit was motorcycles. Cheap transportation and freedom is just what every young man wants. This was almost too much for his mother and the time arrived to get a proper car for Kirk.

    A short succession of cars ensued until finally a new 1955 Thunderbird was acquired. This was shortly modified into one potent T-bird and Kirk street and drag raced it all around the Philadelphia area.

    The 1956 NHRA Nationals were in Kansas City, MO, and Kirk with friends decided to take the Thunderbird out to see if the kids from Philly could run with the big boys. Through several rounds they moved up to the finals in their class.

    The final race with a fancy Corvette team was declared a tie and another runoff was done. This time the Corvette barely was ahead of the T-bird and 18-year-old Kirk went home without winning a trophy but he did win the admiration and hearts of the crowd.

    Immediately upon graduating from high school Kirk married and moved to Florida to seek fame and fortune as a racing driver. It was not to be. The plan was not well-thought-out and prospects were slim.  1958 was not a banner year and Kirk would return to Philadelphia by late fall.

    It was time to buckle down and consider getting a ‘real’ job with a real career. He applied with Penn Mutual Life Insurance Company as a clerk. While the work was mundane he excelled at completing every task given to him.

    Kirk was shifted to greater and more demanding positions to ultimately be salesman. As sales grew so did the salary. A new Austin-Healey Sprite was acquired which led Kirk to Lou Delaney’s Suburban Foreign Cars, one of the first sports car dealers in the Philadelphia area. It was there Kirk saw his first Ferrari.

    Other sports cars would come along, a Triumph TR3, and then a Jaguar XK120M Drophead Cabriolet. The thought of purchasing and reselling sports cars began to take hold. With the insurance business doing quite well this could add up to be a nice side endeavor.

    After scanning various newspapers like the New York Times, Kirk visited the showrooms of Bob Grossman’s Foreign Cars of Rockland and Ed Jurist’s Vintage Car Store to see more exotic offerings.

    The visits would come more often while learning the ins and outs of foreign cars. Until one day…

    At the Vintage Car Store in Nyack, NY, Kirk was shown a pretty 250 GT LWB Spyder California. The first drive of any Ferrari is magical and this was no different. The sound of a Colombo V-12 engine starting and the noises that emanate from the engine make a lasting impression.

    In June of 1964 the California went home with its new owner. The insurance salesman would arrive in style to his clients’ office. Clearly a successful salesman needs to drive a symbol of success. In addition, it was much easier to break the ice discussing sports cars than the need for life insurance.

    June of 1964 also saw the opening of a new Ferrari, Maserati and Lancia dealership in Rosemont, PA. Al Garthwaite had taken over a four-story brick building and Algar became another place Kirk could visit to see unique and varied sports cars.

    Garthwaite and White often saw each other and discussed Ferraris. Four years later, in January 1968, Al Garthwaite called Kirk White and made him an offer to work for Algar. It would be big change from selling insurance to becoming sales manager of Italian cars.

    Throughout 1968 Kirk was honing his sales, advertising and purchasing skills. He also was developing contacts with other foreign car dealers and customers that would pay off in the future. Whether he knew it or not, it was a valuable education.

    On a parallel track, an associate Kirk had met, Francis C. Grant III, known as “T”, was interested in developing a foreign sports car sales business.  “T” was also hired at Algar as salesman but continued to work towards his dream goal.

    In just a few short months Kirk had left Penn Mutual Life and gone to Algar. Now in April was leaving to join up with “T” to start Auto Enterprises of Chestnut Hill.

    News of the change was quickly noted and Ed Jurist from the Vintage Car Store called to offer a 250 LMB. “It looks like a racing Lusso, but with a nose and grille opening like a 250 GTO”. The ask was $5,800.

    The big question was “Who the hell ever heard of buying an old Ferrari race car? Why would anyone want one? What would you do with it?” Ever working the deal, Kirk bought it for $5,300.

    Less than two weeks later he had sold it for $7,800. Auto Enterprises of Chestnut Hill was off and running. Advertising helped bring in other relics from far and wide. A Testa Rossa here and 250 GTE there.

    As word got out, there would be many more old Ferraris cross the door. Unfortunately the cars Kirk was finding, buying and selling were not quite in line with what Auto Enterprises wanted. They were now a new car dealer for Fiat, Siata and soon to be Mercedes. It was time to move on.

    Carl Bross and Kirk White had become good friends and it was Bross who had first broached the subject of Kirk going on his own.  It was May 1969.

    It must be noted post- war sports cars were at that point in time between five and twenty years old. There was little information detailing models and nothing even close to pricing guides on these unusual cars. The Fitzgerald and Merritt book had recently been published and the only other Ferrari information book was Ferrari by Hans Tanner. There was a lot of unknown, no vintage racing and few people knew these Ferraris like Kirk F. White at that time.

    From a card table in the corner of one room in his house Kirk F. White Motorcars was now in business. Cars came from Carl Bross and John Delamater and others who answered advertisements in the New York Times and other newspapers.

    There was also the newsletter sent out to anyone who inquired. Newsletters detailed each car with a long description of the car and its condition.

    One customer stopped in and bought a Lusso on the lot. The buyer was so impressed he wrote about the decision process and what it meant to own a Ferrari. Writer Brock Yates waxed eloquently about the process heaping high praise upon Kirk F. White in the June 1970 edition of Car and Driver.

    One morning in July 1970 Roger Penske came to visit the garage office. Short and sweet he said “Why don’t you round up a handful of your customers, investor pals, buy a Ferrari 512, the necessary parts, a spare engine, etc. We’ll take it over to Newton Square and turn it into a real race car. We’ll enter it in the long distance races and run for the World Manufacturers’ Championship next year. Mark will drive it. Think about it.” And he was gone.

    512M S/N 1040 was soon acquired and Penske took over the project. Much has been written about the Penske/White collaboration and the trials and tribulations at Daytona 1971. The crash, the duct tape, repairs done on the fly, even help from Luigi Chinetti: it is an epic story that requires more space than allowed here.

    The 512 was used throughout the season with races at Sebring, Le Mans and Watkins Glen. Unfortunately only Daytona and Sebring registered finishes.

    There was an experience Kirk had in New York that changed the classic car market in profound ways. A car auction was held in a building and the automobiles being sold were being driven down the street and parked half on the sidewalk for bidders to see. The entire event weighed heavy on Kirk.

    A large parking lot was retained and a tent pitched at the St. Martin’s church in Radnor, PA. Bleachers were set up and box lunches were served. The auctioneers stood up on a dais and speaking at a much slower pace bids, could be understood while cars passed in front of the crowd.

    The crowd was expansive and there was even press coverage in many magazines and on network TV. Kirk was even interviewed by Barbara Walters for “The Today Show”.

    The auction was also put on in 1972. All Antique and Classic auctions as we know them today came from this humble experiment.

    Another Kirk F. White defining car was Daytona S/N 14271. Originally painted beige metallic it was painted Sunoco Blue immediately after Kirk acquired it. Shortly thereafter Brock Yates and Dan Gurney borrowed Kirk’s daily driver for a short drive to California arriving at the Portofino Inn in Redondo Beach 35 hours and 54 minutes later.

    There were other racing exploits with a Daytona at Daytona and the Kirk F. White name on the side of a Dan Gurney Eagle at Indianapolis with Bobby Unser.

    Then there was the sponsorship to rebuild a hot rod into a Bonneville speed racer. Ever the hot rodder he helped that team turn a 268 MPH on the salt.

    The auctions continued through 1973 and into 1974. The end of 1973 was difficult and as 1974 went along it became clear there were too many directions the company was taking and none of them were able to make a profit. Kirk F. White Motorcars was history.

    October 1974 Kirk closed the doors, went home and was promptly kicked out of his house. The marriage was ended and this became a difficult part of his life.

    Back to sales he worked for a dealership moving used cars on to customers or wholesalers. Keeping in contact with other sports car dealers finally paid off as he began to sell Mercedes-Benz working as an independent wholesaler.

    Slowly odd cars would be offered to Kirk. His massive phone contact list still was paying off. A rare Mercedes here, a Maserati there, things were starting to look better. In addition, he met Marilyn, life was looking up.

    While automotive sales were getting back on track, there were other obsessions that came to pass. Rummaging through a flea market with his son they found an old tin type bus. There were others Kirk bought and sold. Earning a bit on those sales helped fuel a new passion.

    Looking for tin toys also meant finding tether cars. Ever the salesman, he found purchasing and reselling those cars from his childhood to be satisfying.

    Motorcycles also came back into his life. Soon he was finding and selling unique motorcycles to customers. Ferrari, Maserati, motorcycles, tin toys and tether cars; the only thing missing was toy trains.

    Some of the best turn-of-the-century tin trains were made by Marklen from Germany. Kirk would find those rare train cars and by 1984 there were four active categories of collecting:

    1. European high-performance automobiles

    2. Antique European tin transportation toys

    3. Vintage gas engine tether or rail racing cars

    4. Vintage European performance motorcycles

    The place to sell these items were places like Carlisle and Hershey swap meets. So, Kirk and Marilyn occupied space at both these venues for about ten years selling all forms of their collectible hobby. By 1992 it was time to give it up.

    There are many more stories in the life of Kirk F. White contained in his website. I have tried to get the highlights of a life well-lived. He was at the beginning of the collector car movement. It was men like him that sought out old and derelict Ferraris from barns and backyards and was able to place them into the hands of others who could appreciate the history.

    He also improved how car auctions are run. We  look at the auctions we take for granted today and realize it was Kirk who elevated collector cars and how they are showcased.

    As with any successful businessman there were penniless times and times of luck that helped form this incredible journey. Often, there are names we have heard, even revered, as being one of the great personalities in the Ferrari world but most know nothing beyond the cursory thumbnails listed in books and publications. I hope I have provided a longer look into the life of Kirk F. White and highly recommend spending some time reading his book.

    The stories are a look back into a time when collecting was almost nonexistent. If you have been around a while you will recognize names that are still heavily involved in this crazy world. It will make everyone appreciate the times.

    I am grateful to have been invited to his home for a visit and inspect the photos, tin toys, tether racers and much more. I wish I had already read “the rest of the story.”

    “Don’t wash mine.” You’ll have to read it to understand.