Peter Fonda

Peter Fonda is a proper petrol head. When he wants to drive from his ranch in Montana to L.A the 66 year old counter cultural icon will not be climbing apologetically behind the wheel of a Prius or even taking a jet but weighing the benefits of BMW R100RS against his Ferrari Modena. But more often than not he will be slipping into the leather clad embrace of his trusty and much loved Mercedes 450SEL 6.9.
He has owned this piece of German grossermuscle since new in 1978 but Fondas Mercedes addiction started with a 1954 300SL gullwing that he owned aged 21 in the early sixties.
‘I had a 300SL at the same time as a Facel Vega’ he says ‘I gave the Facel to my wife and I took the Gullwing. It was a fabulous car but I sold them both ‘ like a fool! ‘and bought 64 Buick Riviera (which was really hot) and a station wagon. My wife got headaches in the 300SL. It was hard to keep it cool. But I loved it, should never have sold it.
Growing up in the forties and fifties Fonda became enamoured with Grand Prix racing and got to meet his hero Fangio. His father, Henry Fonda, bought him a VW Beetle when he was 17 but Peter already had well-developed tastes and, with some Monte Carlo gambling winnings bought himself a Lancia Aurelia convertible.
‘That was a beautiful little car. I shipped it over to America, drove it around for a while and then sold it to a guy who was a total Aurelia freak. He made me an offer and it was too cool. Also I never wanted to explain how I got the Aurelia. I didn’t want to explain to my father that I’d been gambling!’ An MG TF 1500 replaced the VW but as his acting career began to gather momentum in the early sixties (he appeared on Broadway in 1961 and made his film debut in 1963) he soon moved on to bigger, better things like hot rod Corvettes.
By the mid sixties his boy-next-door image was beginning disappear as he went into the rebel biker phase with films The Trip and The Wild Angels. These Roger Corman directed flicks were the groundwork for Easy Rider, the 1969 film that not only defined his career, but captured perfectly the feel of a time and place. It inspired many imitators and changed film making in America in the seventies. It also made Fonda enough dough to continue indulging himself in big Mercedes. In those days no real star was complete without a 600 in his life (out of the Beatles only McCartney didn’t own one) and for Fonda, a family man, it was obvious choice.
‘The 600 was one of the greatest cars ever built’ he says ‘It was just fabulous. It carried a lot of people comfortably, it had a huge burl wood dash bit it didn’t have a partition between the front and rear; it was a 600 personal limo. The 600 Grand was the stretch we called the Bismarck. You didn’t want to have your arm out of the window when you put it up, it was instant: you could drag a cop for 500 yards if he got his hand caught.
In 1971 Fonda bought a 300SEL 6.3 which he collected in Stuttgart while on a promotional tour for his new film The Hired Hand. He accompanied by his co-star and buddy Warren Oates. The scene was set for adventure as the pair blasted across Europe in a cloud of marijuana smoke. Collecting the car Fonda recalled how a German film crew of longhaired radicals were concerned that ‘Captain America’ was about to buy ‘the car of the burghermeister’. ‘What do you think I should be driving’ he retorted ‘a Citroen Deux-Chevaux?’
When he turned up at the factory Mercedes had his name down as ‘Mr Vonda’ but once he’d convinced them he had already paid for the car he was soon on the autobahn to Munich, cruising at 130mph. In his memoir Don’t Tell Dad he recalls that although the 6.3 was an ‘executive used’ car and was already run in it used a lot of oil, although the only smoke emanating from the car was coming from the massive joints Oates was trying to smoke in an attempt to get rid of as much weed as possible before crossing the boarder into France.
After Paris they ended up in Zurich, the 6.3 now christened ‘Janis’ after Janis Joplin who had sung of her love of Mercedes Benz and had a not dissimilar drinking problem.
It was while Fonda was embracing one of his many European conquests in a passionate farewell that Oates, keen to hit the road, reversed over his friend with the 6.3. ‘The differential of the 6.3 was just next to our heads’I hollered up to Oates to put the car in ‘park’ and pull the white knob that was just below the speedometer. Slowly the hydraulic suspension raised the car four inches and put Alex and myself in a little less doom-impending position. Later, crossing the boarder heading for Milan and tired of waiting for officials to deal with his papers, Fonda used the 6.3’s air suspension to kid a boarder guard it was a different car driven by different people simply by raising the ride height by four inches. It worked! At the end of the trip Fonda shipped the 6.3 from Rome to the states.
Fonda lost the 6.3 in the divorce from his first wife (although it his now back in family, his daughter Bridget having bought it from her mother) so he replaced it with the 6.9.
‘I bought the 6.9 because I knew it was the last year they going to build the hot one, 1977-79. I bought one that was built in March 12th of 1978. Its magnetite blue. It’s incredible. They rang up and said ‘We’ve found one for you Mr Fonda’
‘What colour is it?’
‘I don’t want a blue Mercedes’
‘Well come down and have a look the Germans say it’s their best paint’
‘Well I went down and saw the car and it blew my mind. I said: ‘right chrome those wheels, do this, do that but don’t touch the paint!”
‘So they prepped the car but they blew the paint because they put a power polisher on it and it heated up and it pulled the paint on the hood. I was their buying it for cash at this Mercedes dealership in California, Hermosa Beach; there was a German Mercedes rep there and he said ‘Zis is the Daimler-Benz finest paint.’ It was so deep when you looked down the side it was almost purple. Incredible paint! So I bought the car. I still have it today and its still great paint.’
He could have gone for more options and really loaded the 6.9 which was then Mercedes flagship apart from the low volume 600. ‘They asked me if I wanted the heated seats in it when I bought it. I said no its no about that, I don’t want anything extra. This car is about going extraordinarily fast very comfortably.’
Comparing the 6.9 with the earlier car Fonda says: ‘The 6.3 was faster coming out of the gate because it was a lighter car and wasn’t as big a car but the 6.9 is more comfortable for cruising.’ One thing he does miss is the dual tone horns of the 6.3 and 600. ‘So I might do a bargain with my daughter who never knew that there was a different ‘country’ horn on the 6.3. If you’re not going to use it let me have it! It gives it a big noise ‘ PHAARP! – out on the highway rather than this ‘peep’.’
Fonda has done a fair bit of work on the 6.9 him self.
‘I took all the re-breathing shit off it. Its back to the autobahn package as I call it. It doesn’t have the bumperettes, that’s how you can tell when you see another one coming. It’s a 28-year-old car with 112,000 miles on it and it still runs like a top. I’ve had to replace fan belts and drive belts ‘ two fan belts and three hoses. I just remanufactured the hydraulic hoses from a tractor ones which will take a lot more pressure than the Mercedes ones did. I’m replacing the heater servo and the air conditioning servomotor which was built by Chrysler (but never put in one of their cars) for Mercedes Benz. It’s a piece of shit’although it lasted for 28 years. But I found an aftermarket one on-line that is just so much better and it costs $490.’
Because Fonda uses the car on long trips sounds are important but he was managed to bring it up to date without compromising the originality of the cabin. ‘I didn’t want tear into the interior of the 6.9 to put a stereo in so I didn’t bother with one. Its still got its original Becker Europa fitted, a really good radio but I didn’t want to drill into the doors ‘ which have pneumatic hoses for the locks – with extra speakers and all that shit but now they make these smaller inverters than invert 12 volts to 110 so I put one of my bags on the back seat ‘ they one we don’t have to take into the hotel room ‘ and put a little Bose sound system in the bag which is like a $2500 stereo system in the car and works on a remote control.’
Tracking him down via emails for this interview he mapped out a punishing motoring schedule; Montana to L.A then Austin Texas, then Canada to shoot some scenes for a new film; from their packing up a house in Arizona, back to L.A and then a return to base in Montana, then back and fourth to L.A a few more times.
Much of that mileage will be consumed by the 28-year-old Mercedes. I asked if there were enough gas stations between Los Angeles and Montana to keep 6.9 fed?
‘If I don’t do 100 plus I get 14mpg on the highway’if I do what the car was meant to do all day long without ever overheating I watch the gas gauge and the speedo climb in a conspicuous decadent synch.

more April 16 2011 at 14:49

Ladybird Book of Motor Cars

The Ladybird Book of Motorcars, infrequent reviews in full colour of what was latest in motoring around the world, were my literary introduction to cars. In the early nineteen seventies there was limited child orientated information available for kids with a thirst for automotive knowledge. Grown up magazines seemed grey and indigestible at 7 years old and all you could find in the library where worthy general works about ‘Transport’. These slim hard-backed Ladybird volumes acknowledged an innocent enthusiasm for the world of cars that probably wouldn’t be acceptable today not only because modern parents might perceive them as nasty, smelly things that are choking the planet (or that run you over) but also because many children no longer see our four wheeled friends as especially exotic, rating them slightly above the family fridge in the charisma stakes: not so surprising given the dreary fridge-like vehicles people drive these days. Cars were moving into the realms of the consumer durable in my early seventies childhood but thanks to my Ladybird books I felt I could name almost everything on the road and everything, from the latest Vauxhall Viva to a rarely glimpsed Silver Shadow, was intrinsically interesting.
I went from Ladybird books to reading CAR magazine, via The Daily Mail Motorshow Review, and managed to largely miss out on the dryness of the Observers series.
The format of the books, published in Ladybirds ‘recognition’, where comfortingly familiar: 72 of the worlds most interesting cars arranged in order of size and usually starting with a Reliant Regal. The first book of cars was 1960 (a rare edition) revised in 1961 and 1963 and thereafter refreshed every two or three years. The last one was published in 1972, six being published in total always priced at 2/6 or, in the case of the post decimalisation 1972 edition, 15p.
Curiously they would sometimes feature cars that were no longer in production – the Lancia Aurelia B20 featured in the 1960 edition but had not been sold new for two years ‘ and a handful of real oddballs; the chances of spotting, say, an Allard of a Frazer Nash Continental were pretty slim but they spiced up the cross section of family saloons, sports cars and exotica.
The charm of the books, which you can still find in second hand shops or the web (see ) was and remains the beautiful pictures; some taken from brochure shots but retouched to make them look as if they have been painted.
The descriptions of the cars were obviously written to appeal to kids but didn’t talk down. They pointed out the rarities, gave you some basic facts (top speed, length, number of seats) and a depiction of the cars badge. The cross section of models was broad with no bias towards British cars, taking a typically Ladybird even handed view of the world and all its wonders; they weren’t even rude about American cars which were always described in terms of their luxury and ‘effortless travel.’
In fact American cars feature quite heavily across the series showing how they were a much more prominent part of the British motoring landscape thirty or forty years ago, where there was a thirst for their glamour in an England that was still a bit austere and black-and-white when the first Ladybird Book of cars appeared.
I think I got my first bit of anorak information out of a Ladybird book of cars: the Volga diesel, I learned, had the engine out of a Land Rover. As well as these mini car catalogues there was the Ladybird The story of the Motorcar, a general automotive history taking readers through to the early sixties and a happy world of Mini Coopers, E-Types and Silver Clouds. Even though I no longer have the books (I liked ‘redesigning’ the cars in felt tip) the depictions are forever imprinted, the E-Type shown passing through the gates of a grand house with a Daimler Dart going the other way, the cheerful enthusiast drivers greeting each other.
Other car related Ladybird editions included the How it works Series and Tootles the Taxi which seemed dated even at the time, depicting fifties vehicles – Tony the tractor, Archie the Ambulance – Stumbles the steam-roller, Larry the lorry, Co-Co the caravan, Minnie the milk-float etc ‘ with slightly disturbing faces and accompanied by rhymes.
The Books ‘ there seemed to be hundreds of them – covered noble subjects like ‘The Public services’ (whatever happened to that idea?) and were designed to make kids think what a ‘lovely’ world they lived in.
Other subjects in the ‘recognition’ series included trains, planes and the Ladybird book of commercial vehicles.
I learned to read on Ladybirds Peter and Jane series, a brother and sister of the never-had-it-so-good years who’s dad drove a two tone Zephyr Six, a car you never saw on the road by the time I was reading the books. Perhaps mindful of such things the publishers gave the books a seventies makeover and made Peter look like Donny Osmond. As if to emphasise how cutting edge the new look 70s Peter and Jane were one high street scene featured an orange NSU Ro80.
Ladybird books after 1972 changed somehow in format and feel, a bit like when, around the same time, Dinky and Corgi models lost the rubber tyres and went on to those cheap looking (and no doubt cheaper to make) whizz wheels or new cars started appearing with ugly reflective yellow/white number plates. It was as if everybody had suddenly got lazy, didn’t care anymore about what things looked like.
Considering Loughborough’s greatest export got me thinking about David Carey. He illustrated and wrote the Book of Motorcars editions and others in the ‘recognition’ series.
His real name E.C.Borst-Smith – the Rover Car Company’s Assistant Publicity Manager during the 1960s and into the 1970s.
He was known as Carey (his second Christian name) and David is thought to have been his son’s name. He headed the small department and wrote copy for Rover brochures.
‘He was very private’ says Roger Brown who worked with the great man at Rover in the early seventies ‘ immaculately turned out in tweed suits, bespectacled, and smoked a pipe – one got the impression that he would have been far happier to still be in his Rover P4 days – when he could wear his hat when driving. We all knew he did the Ladybird books as a ‘foreigner’ ‘
Lady books in general terms were a sort of kids guide to the world, fairly serious but not too dry. They exuded optimism, decency and innocence but from my early 70s perspective seemed to come from an era that was passing. The depictions of adults all had wore baggy fifties clothes and had plastered down oily short-back-and-sides hair, the women sensibly bouffant and mumsy.
Covering austerity Britain through to strife ridden early seventies the classic Ladybird series was aimed at the middle classes and portrayed them in a favourable light. I liked their lashings-of ginger beer world but never felt quite part of it; I was more a dandelion and burdock man.

more April 16 2011 at 14:47

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