Martin Swig

Instigator of the California Mille…

Martin sadly passed away in 2012. His sons, David and Howard, proudly carry the tradition of the California Mille. 2015 marks the 25th California Mille.

Video clip about Martin's Life

MARTIN L. SWIG – The Instigator

February 8, 1934 – July 3, 2012

Martin L. Swig, business entrepreneur, automotive writer and classic car collector…

Martin

A quintessential West Coast “car guy,” he organized the California Mille (a thousand-mile historic race-car tour on the back roads of Northern California) in 1991 after discovering and driving Italy’s most-famous open road race (the Mille Miglia) in 1982.  Summing up his priorities in the historic motorsport world, he dedicated his event to “Great cars – Little Roads – and Wonderful Friends.”  He kidded sedentary TV sports types with his annual January 1st Anti-Football Drive; and with his Double 500 (five hundred kilometers in a car not worth more than $500), created the predecessor for the well-known 24 Hours of LeMons for cars not ordinarily honored by vintage car collectors.

Mr. Swig’s love affair with cars began when he earned his driver’s license at 14. In 1957 he joined San Francisco’s European Motors on the showroom floor and in 1969 acquired his own Datsun dealership on Van Ness Avenue.

By 1982, after adding several more dealerships, he converted an empty building on the site of Seals Stadium and created the San Francisco Autocenter – perhaps the nation’s first one-stop automotive shopping center with some 17 different makes – ranging from Rolls-Royce to Suzuki – under the same roof.

In 1998, Autocenter was reborn as Potrero Center, an upscale neighborhood shopping center.  At that time he exchanged full-time dealership work for full-time collecting, purchasing a wide assortment of historic cars that included a 1925 Lancia Lambda, a 1928 Alfa Romeo 6C 1500, a Tatra T87, and several vintage Chryslers. “When I found I had about forty [vintage cars] I made a deal with my wife,” Swig loved to say.  “Each time I bought a new old car, I agreed to sell one. I’m running slightly behind on my half of the bargain.”

When he wasn’t collecting, driving and organizing car events, Swig wrote a monthly auto column for San Francisco’s Nob Hill Gazette and placed provocative stories and commentaries on a variety of automotive blogs.

Born in New Jersey, Swig moved with his family to California in 1946 where Martin attended Palo Alto High School and Stanford University, graduating in 1956 with a degree in economics. His father, Howard Swig, was the brother of Benjamin Swig, past owner of the Fairmont Hotels.

He is survived by his wife of 34 years, Esta; their sons David and Howard Swig of Sausalito, California; his daughter Annalisa Swig Poirel (Sebastien) of Hohengoeft, France; four grandchildren (Anders, Solveig, Isolde and Jacob); his sister, Lura Bastek of Naples, Florida; and his brother Richard Swig of Council Bluffs, Iowa, many nieces and nephews, and close friends who shared his passions and irreverence. A memorial service will be held Friday, July 20, 2012, at 1:00 PM at Temple Emanu-El in San Francisco.

To read how Martin Swig started the California Mille, please see California Mille History…
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 Martin Swigisms:

“The yellow center line on a twisty road is merely a reference point”
“Loud pipes save lives”
“Peace & Prosperity with Drum Brakes”
“When approaching a blind corner, check which way the power poles go, the road will follow…
most of the time.”

The Ballad of ol’ Martin

(TO THE TUNE OF  “DON’T FENCE ME IN”)
APOLOGIES TO COLE PORTER
MARTIN SWIG LOOKIN’ MIGHTLY PALE
WAS STANDIN’ BY THE OLD ROADSIDE

WHEN THAT CHP’IE SAID I’M SENDIN’ YOU TO JAIL
MARTIN RAISED HIS HEAD AND CRIED

OH GIVE ME ROADS WINDIN’ ROADS
UNDER CLEAR OR CLOUDY SKIES
DON’T FENCE ME IN

LET ME DRIVE MY OLD CAR
WITH THE ENGINE SCREAMIN’ WILD
DON’T FENCE ME IN

LET ME DRIVE DOWN THE COAST
WHERE THE AIR IS CHILLY
IN MY OWN EVENT THE CALIFORNIA MILLE
SENDIN’ ME TO JAIL WHY THAT’S JUST PLAIN SILLY
DON’T FENCE ME IN

I WANT TO DRIVE MY OLD CHRYSLER
TO HEAR THE EXHAUST NOTES  SCREAMIN  LOUD
I WANT TO BLOW OFF THE PORSCHES
AND MAKE THE DETROIT GUYS FEEL PROUD

I WANT TO FOLLOW THE LINE OF THE RED FERRARI
IN MY OWN MIND I’M JUST LIKE NUVALARI
SEND ME OFF TO BRESCIA
AND YOU WONT BE SORRY
DON’T FENCE ME IN
From Ed Pasini, Las Vegas, NV, a California Mille vet

That is my Martin story for the day

I’m sure everyone has their Martin stories so here is one of my favorites. We (Martin and I) went over to Nevada in the early ’80s to layout a 500 mile course which we would drive in 5 hours including gas stops. We went in a brand new Toyota Celica coupe. It was shinny black and fresh off the showroom floor in short a demo. We spent the night in Sparks got up bright and early and started our loop in Fallon. We went west on Hwy 50 to just after Austin, we turned right on a very long straight road to Tonopah. We were ripping along this road flat out when we saw a side road sign to Manhattan. Well, we couldn’t miss seeing downtown Manhattan so we turned down the road. When we got to the town center we found a trailer with a women in fuzzy slippers, a house coat and hair in rollers standing in the door. Quite a picture. The other building was a bar with dirt floors and a tree holding up the roof. There were a couple of locals out front waiting for the bar to open. As we got out of the car one of them looked at the Celica and turned to Martin and said “Don’t get yer car dusty, sonny.” That started them laughing like they had just put one over on those “City Slickers”
Marshall Roath, Palm Springs, Ca

DadDavidSearsPoint1989

Martin Swig with his son David at Sears Point in 1989

Dear Esta, David and Howard,

With Martin I lost a piece of my life. Together with your dad and husband I run lots of adventures and loved unforgettable moments.
Martin will be always on my side for thousands and thousands runs.
I’ll remember him, together with Toni and Ornella, as a wonderful friend, a great organiser and an extraordinary actor of the motoring world.
His kindness, his capacity of being a friend until the end, without limits, and his happiness while driving his Alfa 1900, whose picture is always in front of me, will never leave me.
Pebble Beach week will never be the same without him.
I send you a big hug and I’m praying with you

Costantino Franchi

Dear David,

I realize you might not get this e-mail for a while considering the circumstances.
I am so sorry to hear of Martin’s passing.  It is truly a loss to everybody who knew him.  He might be a little more important to me than some other folks.
When I moved to the US he was the first to give me a job at the Alfa / Isuzu store on van Ness.  I stayed with him for 10 years.  He taught me an awful lot about the car industry and about old cars.  He was a good friend and he will be sorely missed.
Can you let me know of the arrangements, please?
My sincerest condolences to you and all of your family.

Ron de Vogel

Dear Esta, David and Howard,

It has taken me a couple of weeks to write to you, as words seemed to evade me, as I tried to express my sadness over the loss of Martin. As a friend of 18 years, dating back to my first CA Mille in 1995, I developed an enormous amount of respect and affection for Martin. My loss, as profound as it is to me, must pale in comparison to yours. Martin was smart, articulate, and informed. He was a true enthusiast who loved all cars irrespective of their value. During one of our last conversations, he insisted that I bring my Volvo on the Mille knowing that it would be the cheapest car there. Many humorous stories about my adventures with Martin in Italy come to mind, as I reflect on all the good times that I spent with him. My life is richer for having known him. His passing has left a big void in all our lives.  Hopefully, the wonderful memories of Martin, will bring you comfort.
Merle and I will be at the memorial on Friday.
With sincerest condolences,

Stan and Merle Bauer

Martin was and will remain a icon in the industry. Having known him for 55 years, when first introduced to him by my father at the young age of four,and who worked with him at Strasburger Motors in Menlo Park in the late 1950’s, this news brings great sadness.
Martin was a inspiration, and educator to all of us, enlightening us to his wonderful world of unique automobiles.
A innovator, establishing the first Automall on 16th and Portrero, encompassing eventually many franchises under one roof, when most manufacturers demanded single point stores of brick and morter. Truly a master stroke of ingenuity and negotiation.
I had the unique pleasure to work with him for many years in San Francisco, by which he gave me my first job in the Auto industry in 1978, working at Toyota of San Franscisco, and eventually the Autocenter, with the likes of Michel Caboor and Ed Koch.
His automotive events were unparalled in uniqueness, imparting a special quality, with a carefully selected group of automotive enthusiasts, who truly loved, drove, and enjoyed their cars.
The industry has lost a true motivator, and inspiration, and our hearts , and condolences go out to his family and associates. His passing was too soon.
We will all truly miss him, however his legacy will live on for future generations, as will the wonderful cars we are all simply the caretakers for.

Unknown from SFGate.com

My friend and mentor Martin Swig died on July 3. Martin was one-of-a-kind, a successful businessman who had a great passion for old cars, especially Alfas. He was always direct and honest in his advice to me, and at the same time nurturing. I will think of him every time I turn the key on my Giulia Spider Veloce, and know that somewhere, he is smiling as I drive off down a two-lane road, going nowhere in particular, just as fast as the 1600cc will take me.

Keith Martin, Sports Car Market

So sad to hear about Martin, 78 is way too young to be sent off to the great car garage in the sky. My first introduction to Martin was in 1994. I tried to enter a car in the Italian Mille Miglia and it was rejected, so I placed ads in car magazines that I would pay all expenses if someone would let me be the co-driver.  Martin saw the ad and called me, and set it up so I could rent a beautiful blue Siata, which had already been accepted by the Mille organizers.When I arrived in Italy,  I did the pre-event dinner at the castle near Soragna and met him for the first time. A month later I did my first California Mille and met Costantino Franchi,  who ran the Mille Miglia, and was a close friend of Martin’s. Costantino use to come to Pebble every year and pass out a sheet announcing the next year”s Mille date. For several years Martin put on a cocktail party at the Mission Ranch, where the announcement was made.
The Mille Miglia has been a major commitment in my life, running a car in the event 17 years in a row, beginning back when he was instrumental in getting me in the first time.  So many of those years overlapped with the many years that he did the event. Reading the history of the Mille Miglia I was so impressed reading that a Lancia B-20 came in second in the 1951 Mille, beating all the Ferraris but one, that I had to have one, and leave it to  Martin to find one for me.
I have done the California Mille many times since, and when the Mille Autunno started, which I think was initially called the Mini-Mille,  in Morro Bay, many of us jumped at the chance to enjoy another special Swig creation. One December Martin called me and said he wanted me to ride with him in his New Years Anti-Football Rally, so early New Years morning, nursing a hangover, I flew into San Jose where he picked me up in an old sedan, which was the correct vehicle for the event.
To me, Martin was THE car guy, pioneering doing the Mille Miglia, creating his own copy of the event for all of us, his love of Alfas and all things Italian. If he ever cut himself, I have always wondered if a little motor oil might have run out of the wound with the blood.
God bless you, Martin.

Jack Croul

Godspeed to Martin. I always enjoyed seeing [him] at WAJ dinners and of course at the vintage races. His words still ring in my ears when I told him I was resurrecting a Formula Ford from the dead. “Make sure you are stupid enough to finish it and go racing!”

Dan Wise

Although we never met face to face, I have been heavily influenced by Martin Swigg …. from driving up to Automobilia (who used to run that store and/or work there? please chime in …. let’s hear some Martin stories) to reading about Martin’s road rally exploits …. our paths crossed many a time …. everyone I met had a good word to say about him …. and I am happy to add a few …. as one who has inspired many through my actions, I hope Martin knew the depth of the influence that his actions created …. it was simply the way he lived his life that made it OK to live with the ‘sickness’ that most of us have …. sports cars!
My condolences to the Swigg family, along with all the friends and associates …. Now I’ve got knuckles to skin and need to get some dirt in my eyes …. maybe I’ll get the ‘ol girl off the jack stands and make it to SF in ten days!
Thank you Martin …. no need for disc brakes in the afterlife, those four wheeled drums will be just fine!

Brian Weatherman -San Jose,CA

David–

So very sorry to hear the news about your dad.  You and Howard are lucky to have had him with you as long as you did.  We loved bumping into Martin whenever it happened.  You may not know that he was an important link in the “salvation” of The Candy Store back in the early 1990’s.  I had become president and the place was falling apart around me–original members were leaving/dying (Tom Perkins, Herb Boyer, etc).  Martin convinced Ralph and Ken to become members and try to jumpstart us back to life.  They did, and that gang was pivotal in restarting the place.
Please convey our sympathies to Esta, Howard and all.

Mike and Jo Heffernan 

Dear  David

My name is Gerard Gilles , I am a friend of your Dad , we had been introduced a few years ago by Francois Castaing an old friend of mine
I remember I met you, at your home a few years ago , you owned a Renault 5  !!  at that time I was managing the French Racing Team COURAGE ( manufacturing racing Protos for Endurance in LE Mans) and some of our clients were racing at Siemens Infineon Race track , and I took this opportunity to visit your Dad .
And recently 3 weeks ago we got a lovely dinner with your Dad and Mom at his favourite Italian Restaurant in Sausalito .  Your mom was speaking French with my wife , who was delighted to meeting her.
With your Dad , we talked about you , proud of your job with Bonhams …similar point with me ….my son Benoit ( 33) used to be a car specialist at Bonhams Office in Geneva between 2002 and 2005 , his boss was Simon Kidston and we kept excellent friendship with Simon . Now he is in Paris, working for Generali Insurance  in Charge of Events and Communications
On my side I still own an AC Bristol 58 , a classic motorbike Triumph Bonnevile 72 , Benoit owned Alfa GT Junior (red!) , but I owned also  Big Healey 3000 , TR4, TR6 , Single Seaters Alpine Renault , Martini MK36 and recently F3000  March , I continue to race with the AC coupé in Rally and Hill Climb Races
During 2 years (2003-2005) I was managing Director of AUTO MUSEUM of Geneva International MotorCar Show …where I installed a corner promoting the California Mille ….one year I organized the Bonhams Auction Sales during the Car Show for Bonhams within the Museum , and I remember your Dad and Mom visited me in Geneva where I was living
So, David , I am with you with all my best positive thoughts to you and family , with a very great remember of your Dad , who will continue to be with all of us in all related matters with Classic Cars
Please forward to your mom my best thoughts after this recent dinner in Sausalito where I couldnot imagine  that so close departure
Very Warmful and  friendly  regards to all your family

Gerard GILLES

Harry Hart 
July 11, 2012

Martin had a great sense of humor.. He was asked to describe the appeance & condition of my Mondial cab by Keith Martin who was buying it sight unseen. The car was near perfect in every respect but when Martin phoned Keith he told him it was a major piece of junk. After much teasing by Martin, He told Keith that the car was beautiful, & if Keith didn’t buy it, that would be fine, because he would buy it himself.

John Clinard 
July 11, 2012

Every encounter with Martin was fun and informative. One quote I particularly enjoyed … “The decline of Western Civilization began with the advent of disc brakes. In the days of drum brakes, people were courteous and gave distance to each other. Now, they’re on your bumper honking their horns.”

MAHAR
July 11, 2012

I will miss Martin! We had qa wonderful moment together in the mountains of Patagonia. It was a Mil Millas event in Argentina, and we were going down the mountains near Esquel: I was driving a modern 150 MPH big 3.0 Opel Omega six cilynder I used to have and drive very long distances in then radar free South America of the nineties, and Martin was in his splendid white Chrysler 300B with a later 426 Hemi and Corvette brakes…. It had recently snowed…. it was flat out downhill and how it handled well the big behemorh! I never forget Martin.
Found him later at Brescia and always admired his way of living and his flawless humor. Correrai ancor piú vite nelle strade dal cielo! long may you run in the roads of Heaven…
Mahar
Rio de JAneiro, Braasil

Greg Moore 
July 11, 2012

Before I bought Cory Youngberg’s Lancia Flaminia Pininfarina Coupé, which Martin Swig had owned and driven for several years, I gave him a call, just to solicit his advice. “No, you’ll never run it in the Mille; it was built in 1959. Yeah, I know the leather is great. I did it right,” he told me. “If the car already chose you, and you can afford it, why wouldn’t you buy it?” Five years later it’s the best car I have ever owned.

Peter Brock
July 12, 2012

Wherever Martin went there were great (beautiful, interesting and historic) cars and good food and wonderful conversations! Some of the best days of my life were spent running over the back roads of California with Martin and the great people he collected to enjoy his adventures. He knew and really understood cars, and best of all many of the people who designed, built and raced them. Martin, I’m going to miss you. Peter Brock

Jim Fontana
July 12, 2012

When I first contacted Martin about three years ago I was looking for information and input into my novel “The 1000 Mile Dream”. I had no idea who he was nor his stature within the motorsport community. He was extremely helpful with information and advice and we ended up corresponding back and forth rather regularly. I called it the “California to Canada Connection”. He was generous with his help and time even though we had never met face to face i considered him a good cyberspace friend. His passing was too sudden. May he rest in Peace.

Robert F. Williams 
July 12, 2012

I entered the Historic Motorsports racing circuit in 1981 with my 1952 Siata Daina, and have been partcipating for the past 31 years.
Martin was always encouraging to me to keep participating, and wanted me to take my car to the Millia Miglia in Italy. I regret that I did not take his suggestion. Whenever there was a fallen comrade from the racing fraternity, I would always see Martin at the memorial service. I would remark that I noticed that his mother lived to be 98, and told him I knew he had good genes. I hoped that we both had many more years to enjoy the autosport. I was very saddened and shocked to see that he is no longer with us. Whenever I need some encouraging words to continue the hobby, I will always think of his kind, friendly, and encouraging words.

Ed Gilbertson
July 13, 2012

At my age, life goes way too fast. I have lost yet another great friend and one of my favorite car guys. Martin was always busy with tour and track things, and I was always busy with show and judging things. But I always enjoyed it whenever we could get together, driving at Mille tours, serving together as Honoraries, or just sitting and having a sip and sharing once again those old war stories where the cars get faster with each telling.

His replies to questions were priceless. Ask him why he did nutty things and he would respond “I have never grown up and I don’t intend to.” Ask him why a road was a bit too rough in the California Mille and he would put his hand on your shoulder and say “Sir, that is how we separate the men from the boys”. When I recently acquired a couple of early Ford roadsters, he smiled and said, “Ed, you are the only guy I know who has gone from Ferraris to Fords”. I am of the 50’s and always wanted a period Deuce and an original ‘34 Roadster. But best of all, I had achieved the Martin Swig good-carkeeping seal of approval.

Great guy, great loss. I am still shook; we had just talked about doing some cool things at the next Cars and Coffee run. Well, Sherry and I will be there on August 4. But rather than cool, it will be more like warm memories of ultimate car guy Martin.

Kate Nyland
July 13, 2012

I was honored to work for Martin for 8 years and watch the “birth” of hs dream, the California Mille. He was a gem of a man ! His eyes would light up when he came up with any excuse to get his friends out on the road. I remember the day we had to meet with the CHP to sell them on the idea of having the Mille, and to listen to Martin explain ( sell) that it would be 1000 miles with 75 cars on California backroads and watching the eyes of the officers get wider and wider, and somehow convincing them that no one would speed or cross a double line….the rest was history ! He sold them ! He lived his dream, it just ended too soon. The world will miss you Martin, but the memories of all of us who knew you , will keep your spirit alive! Thank you for all you brought to my life.

gaijinshogun 
July 14, 2012

During my college years in the early eighties, I coincidently ran into an ad for a part-time job at his new “Automobilia” store at the San Francisco Autocenter. I wasn’t looking for a job, but ran over there as fast as I could and passed the verbal automotive knowledge test given to me by his good friend Mr. Heigho. It was a dream job as I could talk cars all day, study when it was slow, and watch the stream of new cars go by in addition to watching vintage cars come to life after only knowing their existence from a book. The key position of the store in the front allowed me to eavesdrop on many a business conversation he had, from courting dignitaries/customers to dealing with difficult labor discussions. Mr. Swig, adorned in his signature blue blazer and khaki’s, was always firm and polite.

His passion for Alfa Romeo’s rubbed off, and my Garage today is adorned with his influence. I could think of nothing cooler than watching (and hearing!) him return to work after a business lunch driving his Alfa Romeo 1900 SS Zagato.

His respect for Japanese cars was clearly evident beyond simply being a successful business. I remember asking then about why he did not have an Alfa Romeo dealership, and it was related to how the Alfa execs would not even consider driving the amazing second generation Supra. How I wanted that Supra! He was one of the only ones that did not make fun of my immaculate final U.S. year Toyota Crown wagon. His dealership was adorned with both an early Toyopet Crown and an Isuzu Bellel at a time when most would comment negatively about them.

We will all certainly miss you!