911 Obsession

All my life I’d been enthralled with cars, but that 1974 TransAm—that was the one that got me hooked on owning serious automotive muscle.

As much fun as it was to drive Ed Butler’s luxury cars, I was beginning to see the chinks in his armor. I admired the business he’d built, and I sure as hell enjoyed sharing in his lifestyle, but I knew I didn’t want to be the guy who says anything to sell a Toyota, and driving borrowed cars was only fun for so long.

The TransAm started me on collecting American muscle cars. There was the 1971 Oldsmobile 442 convertible 455 ram air 4 speed (which I only finally sold in 2015), and then…

  • 1969 Shelby GT 500 drag pack
  • 1969 Camaro Super Sport convertible
  • 1970 442 Oldsmobile
  • 1973 Mustang convertible 351 CID 4 speed
  • 1973 Corvette convertible roadster
  • 1969 Corvette 427 435 HP roadster

That list might have gone on indefinitely, if not for the day my friend Dave Mercer and I were driving back from Newport and took a detour past Picard Porsche in Warwick. There it was: a 1975 Anniversary edition Porsche 911 coupe. It was easily the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen on four wheels.

I became fascinated with Porsches. The American model for making cars go fast was all about brute force. Take a massively heavy vehicle and just load it up with enough horsepower to make it crank. Even European race cars more or less subscribed to this theory.

Porsche upended that idea.

They built a small, light car with a smaller motor and precision handling. It could go faster with less horsepower. By reducing the body weight, the car became more nimble and used less fuel. How to even compare it to American cars? It was the difference between a heavyweight boxer and a ninja.

Light. Fast. Effective as hell.

Porsche reshaped the racing world. And when I drove a 1978 911 SC coupe, that was it.

I’ll never forget looking down over the hood and seeing those two fenders, hearing the scream of the boxer engine on acceleration. There is still nothing like it in the world.

This was a vehicle that demanded skill from its driver. You couldn’t just press the pedal to the floor and go. Because it was so light, with the engine in the rear, the back of the car wanted to pass the front. The 911 earned the dubious nickname of “doctor-killer,” because a doctor’s salary could buy a Porsche, but the skill required to drive it didn’t come standard.

It was exactly the kind of challenge I was built for, and it was the beginning of an obsession that continues to this day.

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Diabolical beauty

Diabolical beauty

Flying

It may have stung me that Ed Butler’s whole “you’re like a son to me” line turned out to be one he used on others, but it didn’t surprise me.

I mean, he was a Car Salesman (caps intentional)—the kind that proved the stereotype. He’d made a fortune playing to people’s emotions. Why should he treat me differently than he treated anyone else?

It was information I filed away in a corner of my mind. I was constantly learning from Ed, and it wasn’t all about what I wanted to be. Sometimes it was about what I didn’t want to be. He had all the material stuff a guy could want, but looking back, I wonder if he had any genuine relationships.

I began to view our relationship as more of a trade. He had my loyalty. I worked, I got paid, I enjoyed the perks.

Ed’s Piper Aztek airplane, for example. It was one of his favorite toys, and he flew it all over the place. We’d fly into Fryeburg, Maine, get into the Chevy Blazer he kept waiting at the airport, and drive to his home in Artist Falls, North Conway. Or we’d fly to Nantucket, where he also had a home.

Of course.

Only the best, all the time.

Before long, he was teaching me to fly the plane. The years of being in school and feeling stupid fell away. Whatever I lacked when it came to book learning, I had in spades when it came to anything hands-on. In just a short period of time, I’d gone from barely knowing how to drive a stick shift to running race boats and flying an airplane. I don’t know if it was confidence or arrogance that realization built in me, but it was something.

And then, while still enjoying use of Ed’s many toys, I bought a dream car of my own: a 1974 Trans Am. It was a 4-speed in Buccaneer Red with black interior, and it had every conceivable option save one—the SD455 engine.

Jeff Lippitt at Honda Performance had ordered the car with that engine multiple times, and it kept coming in with the 400 instead. So he took matters into his own hands. He rebuilt the engine, turning the car into a custom high-performance speed machine. He drove it for 6 months, then sold it to me.

On Michelin X tires, I ran it up to 140 mph. In that car, I was flying every bit as much as in Ed’s airplane.

But that Trans Am was all mine.

I’d owned cars before. I’d driven some of the very best. But that car was the one that took my love of automobiles to the next level. It was power and freedom on four wheels.

I was hooked, and if you’ve ever been hooked on anything, you know—the hook is only the beginning.

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Me, Ed Butler, and Joe Krawczyk on Nantucket. Cue the fashion comments!

Me, Ed Butler, and Joe Krawczyk on Nantucket. Cue the fashion comments!

H O T   W H E E L S

H O T   W H E E L S

I wish the picture did it justice. God, I loved that car!

I wish the picture did it justice. God, I loved that car!

Favorite Son

It was the spring of 1974, the kind of day just perfect for cruising Ocean Drive in Newport.

In, say, a soft top Maserati Ghibli Spider 5-speed.

At about 80 MPH.

My buddy Dave Mercer and I were doing just that, more or less. We actually only topped out at 80 on a straightaway. We took the curves at much more reasonable speeds — especially when you consider we’d discovered this car could do 135 like it was nothing.

Sadly, the Newport police defined “reasonable speeds” differently than we did. When the lights went on and the cruiser pulled out behind us, we did the first thing that came to our adolescent minds: we pushed the GO pedal to the floor.

At this point, I’d been working for Ed Butler seven days a week for the better part of a year. The Maserati had become my vehicle of choice, and though it belonged to Ed, I drove it more than he did.

It was one of the carrots in our carrots-and-sticks relationship. He’d unleash his temper on me regularly, a verbal assault designed to ensure I would do what he wanted, and fast. But then he’d just as quickly throw an arm over my shoulder, pass me the keys to some amazing car, and say, “Barry, you’re the son I never had.”

Looking back, I see that there’s another layer to what was going on. I’d been only 13 when my father passed away, and while he was alive, we hadn’t really connected. He saw my interests — music and cars and boats — as frivolous. He’d been 50 years old when I was born. His son from a previous marriage was 18 already, and I suppose he felt he’d been there, done that. He was distant at best, and he had no patience with my antics. William H. Bixby was a man I could admire, but “fun” was not a word he called to mind.

Contrast that with Ed Butler, who was every bit as exacting as my father, but rewarded my efforts with access to the vehicles I’d always been fascinated with. Fun was part of the lifestyle. If I resented the way he barked at me, I suppose running his cars off their wheels gave me the sort of passive-aggressive thrill all teenagers get when defying their parents.

Which is at least part of the reason Dave Mercer and I took Newport police on a chase down Ten Mile Drive. Dave had joined me working at Union Toyota, and we’d both quickly taken to the surreal total immersion in Mr. Butler’s world. It never occurred to us that we shouldn’t try to outrun the police.

And when we succeeded? It only affirmed in our warped young minds that we were the shit.

By the time we got back to Barrington, though, it was clear we’d done serious damage to the Maserati. It was running rough, didn’t sound right at all. We tucked it into Ed Butler’s garage and crossed our fingers.

The next morning, Dave and I sat frozen and breathless at the dealership, waiting for Mr. Butler to come in and unleash his wrath over whatever we’d done to his car.

Instead, he came in and grumbled to me in a low voice about the Maserati.

“Get it to Lee Girardi,” he told me. “It seems I didn’t warm it up properly.”

My eyes went to Dave, and we both exhaled for the first time that morning.

Still — our unease remained. Did Ed Butler really think he’d ruined the Maserati engine? Had we gotten away with something, or were we being given a pass? What if this was a test? Were we supposed to confess? Wouldn’t that be the right thing to do?

While my mind and conscience struggled, I overheard Mr. Butler addressing one of my colleagues.

“You’re like a son to me,” he said, patting him on the back.

I looked over at Dave.

“Come on,” I said, “let’s get that car out of here.”

Next week: Flying

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Mr. Butler's Maserati on Ocean Drive that fateful day...

Mr. Butler's Maserati on Ocean Drive that fateful day...

Two by Sea

“Barry!” Ed Butler barked. “Come over here!”

This was the summons I’d learned to respond to on cue.

“I need you to go to the white church. I’ve got a delivery coming in from Don Aronow. I need you to lead the guys to Stanley’s.”

To say my curiosity was piqued would be an understatement.

Don Aronow was the powerboat racing legend, and the most successful powerboat builder of all time. I knew Ed Butler and his brothers knew him personally, and had visited with him in Miami. But nothing prepared me for what was about to arrive.

Two brand-new Toyota FJ Land Cruisers pulled up. One was towing a 28’ Cigarette SS and the other was towing a 27’ Magnum Starfire.

The Cigarette was bright red and white with a red and white interior, teak and holly deck in the cockpit, and a pair of big 350 horsepower Mercruisers. The Toyota pulling it was red and white with the Butler family nautical flags on the front doors.

The Magnum was yellow and white — as was the Toyota pulling it, of course — with the same power, but without all the fancy trim. This one was made to go fast. Magnum Starfires were built on the same hulls as the Cigarette boats, but were cut down to the bare bones, with no usable cabin. The idea was simply that it would go like hell.

I led this impressive caravan to Stanley’s Boat Yard, almost out of my mind with excitement.

Have I mentioned that the gasoline running through my veins was drawn to toys that ate up salt water just as much as to those that tore across asphalt?

Ed Butler had my number. He was a tough guy to work for, demanding an impossible 110% in all areas.

But here’s the thing I’ve realized with age: for those of us enthralled with things that go fast, it’s not really about the cars or the boats or the motorcycles or whatever.

I mean, it is, sure—but not entirely.

It’s about finding your people. It’s about connecting with those who share your particular passions, the folks who understand why the jolt of acceleration or the feel of wind drawing tears from behind your sunglasses gets your pulse racing. It’s about feeling understood, spending time with people who really “get it.”

In Ed Butler, I found a man who got it. There were many sides to him, and he had one hell of a temper, but the part I connected with instantly was the big kid playing with the world’s most expensive toys. He did with his fortune exactly what 18-year-old me would have done: he had an absolute ball.

Tearing around Narragansett Bay in that Cigarette racing boat gave me the thrill that made me willing to be at Ed Butler’s beck and call 24/7.

And of course—he knew it.

Next week: Favorite Son

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The legendary Don Aronow

The legendary Don Aronow

Not Ed Butler's boat...but close. You get the idea.

Not Ed Butler's boat...but close. You get the idea.

Can you even stand how sexy this boat is?

Can you even stand how sexy this boat is?

The Learning Curve

Could I drive a stick shift?

That was the question posed to me as I started my first job in the car business, working at Ed Butler’s Union Toyota dealership.

Could I drive a stick shift? Pffft!

Of course… I couldn’t.

And of course I couldn’t admit that I couldn’t. I was an eighteen year old guy. Ego was everything.

So I found myself behind the wheel of a truck I needed to deliver to a body company called Janel up in Woonsocket, where they were going to install a box on the back of this Chevrolet C65 cab and chassis. I started it up and looked at the shifter and just about had a heart attack.

What the hell had I gotten myself into?

I took a deep breath. I had a general idea of how standard transmissions worked, so how hard could it be? I pressed the clutch, gave it way too much gas, and I was off.

The truck had no weight over the back end, so every time I would let out the clutch, the rear wheels would spin like crazy, and every time I touched the brakes, it would skid to a stop. It had a split rear axel I never did figure out. I ground the gears all the way from East Providence to Woonsocket.

On the plus side, by the time I got there, I knew how to drive a stick shift.

Back at the dealership, my first job was probably the worst in the business. I was assigned to wash cosmoline off new Toyotas. For the uninitiated, cosmoline is rust inhibitor they used to put on cars being shipped overseas. It’s a thick, waxy, yellow-gold material that eliminated the possibility of corrosion that might occur in the marine environment. If you think about its purpose, you have an idea of how difficult it is to remove.

Back in the ’70’s the solution for removing it was clean terrycloth towels—and kerosene. I would pump the kerosene out of 55-gallon drums into a metal container, then saturate the towels and pour the rest straight onto the body panels of the cars. Then it was just a matter of rubbing (and rubbing, and rubbing) until the stuff came off.

We did this all in a wash bay, so that mix of cosmoline and kerosene ran right out into the city sewer system. I’m no environmental scientist, but when I think back on how my hands looked at the end of the day, that could not possibly have been good. Alligators had better skin.

The cars, however, absolutely gleamed.

It was dirty work, but can I just tell you how thrilled I was to be doing it?

Seriously.

School was not my thing. It made me feel stupid, but I've come to understand it just wasn't built for the way I learn. Vocational school was a step better, and once I was given the freedom to clock out at 10:45 a.m. and head for my job at the Toyota dealership - that's when I discovered I had a skill set that really was useful and versatile.

Working in the automobile industry was such a dream come true for me, there was no job I ever considered below me, and nothing I didn’t aspire to achieve. I wanted to learn every last aspect of the business, and I was in the right place to do just that.

Before long, I would be working for Ed Butler 7 days a week...

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Yeah. That's the stuff.

Yeah. That's the stuff.

No Lesson Necessary

So—I had gasoline running through my veins.

You know what I didn’t have as I left Logan Airport in Ed Butler’s Rolls Royce?

Enough actual gas in the tank to get any further than back to Barrington. Or any money in my pockets, for that matter.

Which wouldn’t have been a problem, I suppose, if I’d just gone straight back to Barrington.

Which is what I would have done, if I’d had a clue as to how.

Remember, kids: this is pre-GPS, Waze, etc. I was 18 years old and had never driven much outside of my small hometown. And come on—that turnoff for Route 3 is damn sneaky. Anyone could have ended up on Cape Cod.

Yep.

Cape Cod.

That’s where I stopped for directions and said the panicked prayer that must’ve been what got me home. When I say I coasted into the driveway on fumes, I mean it literally.

Having made it home, though, it was all good. I had use of a Rolls Royce until Ed Butler’s return in two weeks, and at that point, I’d start working at his brand-new Toyota dealership.

It was so brand-new that it was still under construction when I reported for work on July 5, 1973. The man I’d been told to report to, Don Marcella, was standing there in the show room waiting for me. Ed Butler arrived a few minutes after I did, and while he talked with the construction workers, Don and I walked over to the existing Butler Chevrolet building. That was a construction site, too, with the building partially torn down to make room for the new Union Chevrolet dealership.

I met the used car manager, Don Penta, and while he and I were talking, Don Marcella picked up the phone and started to have a conversation. Don Penta apparently wasn’t a patient man. He used his cigarette to set the papers on Don’s desk on fire.

“Come on, kid,” he said to me as the papers burned, and Don Marcella worked frantically at putting out the fire. “Let me show you what I expect.”

Frankly, at that point, no lesson was necessary. As I followed him out into the parking lot, I made a mental note not to tick Don Penta off.

Before I could catch my breath, a dark blue Excalibur came flying into the lot. It had a beige soft top and was driven by a heavyset guy with a wild head of blonde hair. He had two young women as his companions, and their heads whipped about as the driver stood on the brakes and came to an abrupt stop inches from where I stood. He hopped out and without preface, started talking to Don about cars he wanted to sell him.

It turned out his name was Billy Martin, a wholesaler whose exploits would ultimately render him infamous—it’s not often an independent car dealer can bankrupt an auto auction. But that’s a story for another time.

At that moment, all I could think was that enough had happened in my first hour at my new job to make me certain this was going to be an exciting line of work. Danger, adventure, and risk appealed to me pretty much since birth, and here was a place where I felt sure they were headed my way.

So when the question came — “Kid, can you drive a stick shift?” — I answered emphatically, “Yes!”

You can guess the truth, though, right?

Next week: The Learning Curve

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I hate to date myself, but...yeah. This ad came out in my first year at Union Toyota.

I hate to date myself, but...yeah. This ad came out in my first year at Union Toyota.

Fuel for Adventure

I have gasoline running through my veins.

I’m not sure how it happened. My father wasn’t a car guy. I didn’t have siblings with an affinity for engines. Yet for as long as I can recall, I was drawn to anything motorized. I took apart every lawnmower my family ever owned—and luckily, put them back together again.

As a teenager, I turned my attention to my mother’s ’66 Rambler Rebel. At age 15, I blew the transmission. My father had passed two years prior, and my mother took my advice as to the next vehicle she should purchase: a 1970 Chevelle. 

I took it apart immediately—replaced the 307 cubic inch motor with a small block 400. I turned the air cleaner lid upside-down so you could hear the carburetor making noise. My mother, a dignified suburbanite and professional Town Clerk, found herself driving a hot rod.

In hindsight, I see how easily the story could have ended there. Cars might have just been a hobby for me—something to tinker with in the garage on weekends, a pursuit to sustain me through a dull work week at a sensible job.

Instead, everything changed the morning my mother looked out the window and said, “There is a very fancy car in the driveway.”

Indeed.

It was a 1968 Rolls Royce Silver Shadow drop-top. Gold metallic with beige interior. I knew the car, and I knew the man driving it. Ed Butler. Together with his brothers, he was the sole distributor of Toyotas in New England, and of Subaru in New York and New Jersey. He owned 7 retail dealerships. I’d met him only once, under amusing circumstances, and he’d offered me a job. I’d declined. And now here he was, dressed so impeccably he seemed an extension of his luxurious car, ringing the doorbell at my modest home.

“Come with me to Boston,” he said. “I need you to drop me at Logan and bring the car back to Barrington.”

I may have hesitated.

“Use the car while I’m away,” he added. “I’ll be gone about two weeks.”

And so, at age 18, having never driven outside my small Rhode Island hometown, I found myself in Boston, a Rolls Royce in my care and keeping.

The moment was as surreal as it was significant, but I doubt that registered in my young mind. As I watched Ed Butler disappear into the airport terminal and aimed the Rolls back onto the highway, I had absolutely no idea what lay on the road ahead.

The gasoline running through my veins was about to fuel an adventure.

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Mom's ill-fated '66 Rambler Rebel

Mom's ill-fated '66 Rambler Rebel

1968 Rolls Royce Silver Shadow drop top. If you show up to high school in one of these, trust me - people notice.

1968 Rolls Royce Silver Shadow drop top. If you show up to high school in one of these, trust me - people notice.

SHIFTING GEARS IN THE NEW YEAR

I don't know about you, but 2017 brought a lot of change - both good and bad - into my life.

Of course, I'm a glass-half-full kind of guy, and it's the good I plan to focus on as I move into the new year. Already 2018 promises to be full of opportunity and excitement, not the least of which is this blog I am launching (TA-DAH!) and the book and podcast I have in the works.

If you know me, you know it's a big deal for this old dog to be learning these new tricks. While advancements in automotive technology feel second-nature to me, social media and communicating through a computer are not my thing. I'm all about spending time in person, chatting over cars & coffee or on a long drive with the top down on a brilliant summer's day.

Perhaps fittingly, it's all my memories of those good times spent one-on-one with friends and fellow automobile enthusiasts that led me to undertake these new ventures. I have so many stories, and have been blessed with a lifetime of experience doing what I love most.

The recent passing of one of my very best friends reminded me that none of us has forever on this strange planet. And while I certainly intend to stick around long enough to become one of those old men who annoys everyone around them by spouting car trivia and telling the same stories over and over (and over) again, I figured now is the time to start sharing those stories in earnest, and in a format I hope will entertain.

And don't worry - while I'm shifting gears a bit, I'm not going on sabbatical or into early retirement. No way. I'm still driving fast, taking chances, and working with clients old and new in search of that perfect vehicle.

I'm grateful for your business, your friendship, and your patience with my inevitable typos and missteps as I move into this new venture.

Here's to the road ahead!

All my best,
Barry

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