Dad Taught Me About Cars

My father Robert Kunz with his Triumph TR3, circa 1957.

People often wonder how I ended up getting the “car gene” in my makeup. Sure, your environment can shape your knowledge and passion of any subject. Mine included growing up in the San Fernando Valley, an iconic place in Southern California’s car culture.

But obviously there’s more to it than that, and for that reason I can partially thank my father. He’s never been the classic “gearhead” — one of those fathers I knew growing up who spent every spare hour in the garage tinkering with one four-wheeled project or another.

Dad did have fun with cars long before I came along, though. As a young man raised in Burbank and coming of age in the 1950s, he was exposed to hot rod culture, and then the early days of sports cars that started becoming fashionable in the post-WWII era. He even got to take a trip to Muroc Dry Lake as a young teen to see high speed time trials, thanks to a neighbor who thought he might enjoy it.

His first car was a ’34 Ford, “with a cracked block” that he bought for $50. He always like to remind me of this as an automotive version of “I walked eight miles to school each day, uphill both ways, through the snow,” in the way that parents sometimes do to tell their kids how much better off they are.

After other cars (including a ’36 Buick that to this day he says was his favorite car ever), he discovered the joy of British sports cars after a stint in the army during the Korean war. He had an MG TD, then bought a new Triumph TR-3 from a local dealer named Jay Chamberlain.

He would go on to become friends with Chamberlain, hang out at his “foreign car” shop on Olive Avenue, and even help out in his pit crew at sports car races in California in the late 1950s. Torrey Pines, Palm Springs, Santa Barbara, and other temporary race circuits were Dad’s play place as a single guy with a good job and an interest in cars going fast.

At one point, he even got a chance to drive in a cobbled-together jalopy that some would-be Enzo Ferrari had built using a Cadillac engine. Thankfully, Dad’s racing career stopped there, as safety equipment was almost non-existent back then.

As the 1960s dawned, he got married and took on a good sales job that brought with it a company car as a perk, so away went the Triumph for a sensible Chevrolet Impala. Starting a family had become a priority, and his other hobby of acting (at places like the Toluca Lake Little Theatre) left little time to tinker with a sports car.

But those kinds of cars were always in the back of his mind. After we moved to New Jersey for a short time in the mid-1960s, we returned home to the San Fernando Valley. Needing a second car for my mother to run errands in, he added a newer (but still used) Triumph TR-4 to our garage. It was on this car that I learned about things like iffy British electrical systems, genuine knock-off wheels that were installed and removed with a mallet, and the art of shifting a non-synchronized manual gearbox.

In his later years, Dad still has a twinkle in his eye about the fun days of being part of the sports car scene. Each year as I head to Pebble Beach for the concours d’elegance, he reminds me that he was there when a guy named Ernie McAfee died crashing his car into a tree racing on 17 Mile Drive.

He also appreciates a car with muscle to this day, his Lincoln Mark VII LSC and then a Buick Roadmaster (with a somewhat detuned Corvette engine) testaments to that. Obviously he doesn’t go around challenging guys to stoplight drag races (with age comes wisdom), but there’s still muscle under his hood.

I’ll be spending Father’s Day with Dad on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills as I’ve done for the past ten years or so, taking in the sights of beautiful machines on display at the annual car show. And I’ll probably thank him for passing on the car gene.

I’ll see you down the road.

Dave Kunz is the automotive reporter at KABC-TV Channel 7 and can be heard on “The Car Show” Saturdays at 8 a.m. on KPFK, 90.7 FM. E-mail Dave at TVCarz @ pacbell.net Twitter: @dave_kunz.

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