THE OLD DAYS WHEN A FERRARI WAS A MOTORCAR, NOT AN ASSET. MIKE AND GARY, LUSSOS, ANOTHER MIKE, RAY, AND PIONEER WOMEN!

Charles Betz

Volume 45 Issue 16

Aug 1, 2020

Over the years Fred Peters and I had many people who worked with us, some real professionals, many who wanted to learn how to work on exotic cars, some who simply wanted to help and be involved with Ferraris, and some to learn more about their own car. They were a very interesting and diverse group.

THE OLD DAYS WHEN A FERRARI WAS A MOTORCAR, NOT AN ASSET. MIKE AND GARY, LUSSOS, ANOTHER MIKE, RAY, AND PIONEER WOMEN!

By Charles Betz

 

    Over the years Fred Peters and I had many people who worked with us, some real professionals, many who wanted to learn how to work on exotic cars, some who simply wanted to help and be involved with Ferraris, and some to learn more about their own car. They were a very interesting and diverse group.

    Mike and Gary shared a house near Fullerton College where Fred was a professor in the Psychology Department where he met them. Among other things, Mike and Gary did bodywork and painting in the garage behind their house. Both were smart, talented and hardworking. Being the 1960s, they had a laid- back attitude toward life. Mike was handsome with a smile that would light up any room and was very smart as well. He earned a few extra bucks, here and there, ghost writing term papers and reports for students. He could turn out product very quickly on nearly any topic in a style and academic level that was consistent with the person who commissioned the paper. Fred and I, both being college professors, looked at this with something less than approval.

    The house usually had more than Gary and Mike in residence. Friends and romantic partners were often under the roof. Mike was irresistible for many women and at one point he had three generations of women, from daughter to mother and grandmother, living with him. They were not there to get help with their homework!

    The first car we gave them to do some work on was a 250 GT Ellena Coupe. It was straight and ran well but had poor paint. At this point in time, the 1960s and early 1970s, these were not a very popular model of Ferrari and were a very hard sell. Mike and Gary painted the car bright yellow with a black racing stripe that came to the nose and circled around the grille. It looked great but was no Lusso Berlinetta. A few years later the best we could do was to give it away as a donation to a museum. Not everything about the old days was good.

    The next job for Mike and Gary came about as the result of the vandalizing of my Fiat 850 Coupé. Pulling into the faculty parking lot at Cerritos College, a car, without a faculty parking permit, was waiting on the right side of the through lane. This was a common event as people dropped off, or picked up, students despite the signs saying not to stop in the throughway.

    I drove down the row as someone pulled out of their parking place and I pulled in the space. The car I had recently passed pulled up honking with the driver yelling unpleasant comments at me for taking his place. I cranked down my window, hey, this was the 1960s, and told him he did not have a permit and would be cited if he parked there. At this point he really lost control and escalated the rhetoric toward me, suggesting he was going to alter my appearance. Being young and more easily roused than I am today, I got out of my car and started toward the driver of the other car. At this point he decided to retire from the faculty parking lot while yelling additional, and even more colorful language at me.

    When I returned to my car later that day I found someone, I could guess who, had used a key or screwdriver to cut through the paint to bare metal all the way around the car. My immaculate red 850 now needed a complete repaint. I wanted to repaint the car the original red; my first wife, Linda, wanted the car painted a different color.

    I told Gary and Mike to repaint the car in the wildest color they could find. I was going to show her! Who, me, passive aggressive? They came up with a medium dark green with very fine gold metal flake. Once painted it was absolutely beautiful. Everyone loved it and everyone noticed it and commented favorably about how great it looked and that Fiat should start painting cars this color at the factory. I really showed her!

    For several years after selling it, I would see it on the road, it still looked great. Years later I found out we painted it a nearly perfect match to the Ferrari color Pino Verde Metallizato.

    Mike came to work for us at our Ferrari sales and service facility we had opened with Chuck Jones. He was a really good worker and a quick learner. Before long we could give him serious jobs. One of our numerous 250 Lusso customers brought in his car with noisy bearings in the differential. Mike pulled the rear end out of the car, Steve, our chief mechanic helped Mike set up the differential and reassembled the unit. Before Mike had finished the job another Lusso customer saw the other car and said he had a noisy rear end as well.

    As soon as the first car was done Mike started on the second. He had it out of the car very quickly and yet another Lusso customer comes in, sees what is happening and tells us he wants his differential bearings replaced as it had always been noisy. Mike finished the second car and then the third in what seem like a quarter of the time it took for the first car.

    Three Lusso differentials redone in less than two weeks by a part time worker! All three owners were ecstatic about having quiet differentials; one who had bought his car new said it was the first time it hadn’t had a howl coming from the rear end. At this point in time people actually used the cars. What a concept! One of the cars had 250,000 miles on it, the others each had about 70,000.

    Remember this is 1969 or 1970. Mike began to come in late; he still worked hard and did a good job, but he became unreliable about showing up for work. We talked to him about it but the chemical distractions of the time became too powerful for him. With a smile he told us it was OK to fire him. Gary got a full-time job and was no longer painting cars for us.

    More than a decade later I walked into an automotive parts store in Santa Ana and Mike was behind the counter! I was really happy to see him and he gave me that unforgettable smile. We talked briefly and he gave me a conspiratorial look and asked me to step into the back room. We talked a bit and he whispered to me that he had gone so straight that he even had a savings account! I told him I would come back on Monday and take him to lunch to talk about old times and catch up with what had gone on in our lives. When I showed up Mike was not at the counter. The owner told me that over the weekend Mike had gone back to drugs. We never saw or heard from him again.

    While we were still at Meridian, we had two women Lusso owner customers. Ann and Beverly. Beverly was an engineer at Douglas Aircraft in Long Beach. She was a really interesting woman who drove her Lusso every day and had a trailer hitch added so she could tow her sailboat! At the time we had a very talented body man and painter, Dick Pantzer, in the shop next door to us. Beverly was thinking of repainting her car.

    One day during the week she comes into the shop with a handful of wild California poppies fresh from the field and she asks Dick if he could match that color. Dick went to work on the spot and came up with the precise color of the poppies. Beverly was excited and left the car to be painted. It was spectacular when done and she was really happy with the new look. Beverly was way ahead of her time making her way in a male dominated world.

    After leaving Meridian, under less than the best circumstances, Fred and I were still owning, and working, on Ferrari cars, now in Fred’s backyard and garage where we continued to work for nearly fifty years before Fred died in 2018.

    One of our Lusso customers was another Mike, a high-level creative pioneer in the development of HMO and PPO plans. As nearly all Ferrari owners did, he complained about the cost of repairing and servicing his Ferrari. We had worked on his car for a couple of years and he decided to take two weeks of vacation time and come and work with us on his car and show us how it should be done.

    Naturally, it was summertime in Southern California and the weather was hot and he was often working outside, cleaning and dismantling components. He was a really hard-working, careful and capable worker who followed directions and and stuck to the job. He also got incredibly dirty and sweaty every day. About the third or fourth day he looked up at me as I walked by and he said: “you guys don’t charge anywhere near enough for what you do”.  At the end of the two weeks he had learned a lot about his car and what was involved in working on it. He never again complained about how much it cost.

    Another of our customers, Ray, owned a nice Lusso with a very tired motor. He decided he wanted to rebuild the motor but was very concerned about the cost. He asked us to take the heads off the engine and start taking it apart in his garage so he would know what he was getting into. When we pulled the first head off the car and turned it over it soon became apparent that Ray was a very lucky man.

    One valve was fully open and holding it open was the valve seat that had fallen out of the head casting. One more revolution of the engine would have broken the seat, bent the valve, ruined the piston and then really caused a lot of expensive damage. On the road this would have been a disastrous experience. Seeing this, Ray’s complexion went toward pale white and he realized he had used up a lifetime of good luck. He asked us if we would like to buy his car. Of course, we said yes, and that is how we acquired S/N 4705 GT. We rebuilt the engine, painted the car, and enjoyed it for many years. We sold it to a SoCal pioneer import car dealer and SCCA racer who owned it a number of years before selling it for a price four times what he paid us. Not many years later it was reportedly sold at auction in Europe for a multiple of more than five times the price at which he had sold the car.


 

    I seriously debated whether I should edit these remembrances from Charles Betz. I myself have had experiences with people and customers that could fill an entire chapter in a Ripley’s book.

    Wasted talent, crazy customers, even the appreciative customers, all leave an indelible mark that can make being involved with Ferraris an incredible journey.

    Charles Betz has captured the essence of the times. Things seemed simpler when owners wished to learn more about their cars and Ferraris were driven like everyday transportation.

    Fred Peters and Charles Betz were on the cutting edge of restoring and preserving these Ferraris for future generations. Their contributions in servicing and saving these cars cannot be overstated.

        Jim Weed