Is it genetic, or is it environmental?


My first 911

Photos by Sean Smith

How does something as simple as car become so important in your life that it verges on a religious experience? It takes you from point A to point B, it carries your stuff, it leaves you stranded by the side of the road, and it unendingly rips dollars from your wallet.

How can you love something like that?

There is a large cult of these believers; I count myself as one of them. This is my story, and I’m sticking to it.

My parents were both illustrators in the 40’s, working at the Charles E. Cooper studio in New York City. If you wanted to get out of the city at week’s end, you needed a car. For trips to the country, my father chose a very spiffy, used Cord convertible. It didn’t last long, as it tended to break down…and he never did like the pre-selector gearbox. He worried that he would accidentally put it in reverse; my mother had to shine a flashlight on the column at night so he felt comfortable. Luckily, another artist in the studio really wanted it so he and his wife could have his and hers Cords. Off it went.

The next car was a massive 1941 Lincoln. Plenty of room, it drove wonderfully, but it was a BIG car.

My brother Ian was born in 1946, and two years later they followed their friends from the studio to the country. Illustrator Coby Whitmore found two homes for my parents to choose from, so they didn’t have far to go for the weekend cocktail parties.

So does this family of three in the suburbs keep the sensible Lincoln? Not a chance. Their year-round car became an MG TC. Pre-child car seats, pre-SUVs, pre-seatbelts! My mom stuck my brother in the space behind the seat and did her thing.

The MG lasted a number of years; eventually my dad developed the itch for something different. The TC went to a new home; my mom cried when it left.

Next came an Austin Healey 100-4. No room for three, no roll up windows, but very sporty; somehow it worked out.

People often talk about the car they were brought home from the hospital in. My mom drove me to the hospital in that 100-4 to be born. In December!

Now we were a family of four. Something had to give. No family Truckster; my dad bought himself a 356 Porsche, the Healey went away, and my mom got a VW bug.

Here is where the science comes in. Is it the environment, or is it in the blood?

My first cars were air-cooled.

Ian was around the TC, the Healey and the Porsche. He got toy racers for Christmas. Did he love cars? Not really. A couple of years before he could get his license, our parents got him a non-running 52 Ford. He had some short-term dreams of customizing it, even went out and bought some wrenches, but he realized very quickly that wasn’t his direction in life. I spent far more time in it playing taxi driver with my mom! After a while, it got towed away, with no hot rodding even attempted.

Ian was not chomping at the bit to get his license; it waited until well after college. All the cars he has ever owned since then have been station wagons: the selling point was whether he could fit one of his paintings or a sheet of plywood in the back? So his surroundings didn’t influence him, and yet his blood came from the same source as mine.

Cars seem to be genetically printed on my soul.

I’m on the roof.

At two and a half, I became the cocktail party entertainment. All the men would open pages from Road & Track and other magazines and show me pictures of cars, and I could tell them what they were. And if the first gift I opened on Christmas morning was a toy car, I pretty much forgot about everything else. On the 4th of July when the sky was full of color and light everybody was looking up I was looking around and yelling cars, cars!

I have really no memories of that first 356 or the Healey, other than from pictures, but I do remember the second one.

At about the same time I was born, my father switched from being an illustrator to being a photographer.  The cars always ended up in his photos, whether he was making samples or shooting jobs. In one of my first memories of his silver 1600, I was sitting on the front steps of our home. My dad had been shooting a series for Cosmopolitan and he was using one model for each of the stories; that day she was dressed up as a jungle woman.  As they pulled up, as I ran as fast as I could to the back of the house, all I could think was “What has dad brought home now!”

Come on! I wasn’t even into girls yet and she had a necklace of claws around her neck! Claws!

Even though that 356 brought a scary creature to our house, I loved that car!

For a time my dad shot Chevrolets, no comparison. I didn’t even look twice when he brought them home. They didn’t fit in the garage anyway.

Some friends from the city came for a visit in a brand new XKE convertible; they traded keys with my dad and we went bombing off around the back roads of Westchester. The E had that long hood, a wonderful growl—and lots of gauges. I love gauges. But I wanted to get back in the Porsche. It spoke to me in a way the Jag couldn’t. Our family friend John Fitch often came by in cool cars, but my allegiance always stayed with Porsche.

In 1966 my dad brought home a spaceship!  An Irish green 912. I had never seen anything like it! I was in love! I forgot all about the recently gone 356; this was the future!

My father used that 912 in many advertising images.

Having reached the advanced age of nine and a half, my father felt it was time I learned to drive.

We got in my mom’s Bug and I‘d drive it down the driveway; my dad would turn it around and I’d drive it back up. This could go on for as long as my dad had patience.

After a year or more of rehearsal, it was time to drive the 912. We went to the local grade school parking lot on a weekend and I got behind the wheel. I can remember just being able to see over the steering wheel and really, really stretching to touch the pedals. But off we went. I even got it into second gear for a short time.


Like the others before it, the 912 was featured in photographs. A couple of years later my parents split up and the Porsche went into the city with my dad. I saw it occasionally on the weekends. After a while my dad didn’t want to keep the 912 in an outdoor parking lot anymore. He gave it to my mom and asked her to sell it.

I was at least a year and a half to two years away from getting a learner’s permit, but I floated the idea of letting me keep the car.

My mother’s response was “If you have a Porsche for your first car, what will you want after that?”  My response to that was: “That’s simple. Another one!”

Mom was not amused. By way of revenge, she made me the unwilling salesman. A young guy came around looked the car over, didn’t haggle with a fourteen-year-old and took the car. I wanted to hate him, but he seemed really cool. And he had good taste in cars.

So for the next few years it was just car magazines and the occasional trip to Lime Rock to satisfy my Porsche fix.

The summer between my junior and senior year in high school I worked nights at the local Grand Union, saved some money and went in search of my first car. I went to the Mecca for exotic cars: The Penny Saver. I went British. I wasn’t able to replicate my parent’s TC, but I found a 1968 MGB. If I looked a little closer, I might have kept searching. It had all the traits of a MGB. It had a nice little growl to the motor, the top went down nicely, it had wire wheels, a wood rimed steering wheel, and another common trait: it broke down a lot. But it always got running again. One of the first times I put it in the garage the exhaust hooked on the lip of the entrance and the whole system left the car from the engine to the rear bumper. My brother followed close behind me to the local gas station with the pipes in the back of his station wagon.

If a cop stopped me for excessive noise and asked where my exhaust was, I was ready to point to the VW 412 behind me and say, “there.”

After high school I moved in to New York City to attend the School of Visual Arts and work at my dad’s studio. I didn’t need the MG; and with no place to store it, it went back in the Penny Saver. Another fool wanted it as bad as I did and even paid a bit more than I did. If I had kept it and worked on it over the years I might have a $35,000 car now.

I found out much later if I had gone to the Ps in the Penny Saver I might have seen a listing advertising a 356 Porsche Speedster 4 Cam, posted by someone who later became a good friend. It wasn’t much more than I paid for the MG, and it was running and in great shape.

I’m glad I didn’t, because I more than likely would have sold it like the MG—and we all know what those cars are worth now. I’d still be kicking myself.

Cars still crept into stories when I was working with my dad for clients like Cosmopolitan and Town & Country. I remember the Lamborghini Countach with gold patent leather interior much better than the very wealthy young socialite we were shooting. The make-up artist wanted a percentage if she made a romantic connection between the two of us; and for the car, I would have given it to her.

Many times cars played a part or were in the background of my own commercial and editorial work, but I was tiring of all the games. What finally changed my direction was a meeting with a prospective representative. He noticed my area code was not 212 (NYC) so he asked if I was serious about my work.

I was.

I told him what to do with his 212 and left his office.

Time to start over. I started searching out cars to shoot. The car community was very welcoming and I started putting a portfolio together. I started to shoot for Automobile Quarterly, Motorsport magazine, Bonhams, Gooding &. Company, RM—and a few private commissions.

It was time to get deeper in the game. So I went searching for a 911.

My friend Bob Millstein who owns Briarcliff Classic and Imported Car Service (he was the one with the Speedster) told me one of his customers wanted to sell his ‘87 Targa. BCI had taken care of the car for years so I knew it would be a good one.

I went, I saw, I loved—I bought! But it didn’t last long. About six months into my ownership a kid in a BMW was showing off to his buds in the car and decided to do a hole shot at a stop sign. I was coming the other direction. The kid quickly lost control of his car and all of a sudden a 328 was filling my windshield! I made a hard right, so instead of head-on the Beemer almost ripped the left front wheel off the car and continued down the left side. At that point I was half in someone’s front yard and the BMW was sideways in the middle of the road. The kid came running over yelling “Sir, sir are you OK!?” I looked at my wrecked 911 and told him to keep far, far away from me. The kid started to try to move his car, and I screamed at him to leave it where it was. When the cops showed up, they looked at the scene and said they could see whose fault it was. Luckily the kid’s daddy was super-well insured, and his company gave me eight grand more they I paid for the car.

A friend told me “A few more good accidents like that one and you’ll be in a Turbo.”

The search began again. I found another ‘87 in the PCA club magazine, this time a black coupe. I told the seller I needed my shop to sign off on it. No problem; he brought it to BCI. I arrived and it was up on a lift. The mechanic told me it was better than my first car. Off to the bank, back with a check. The seller was sitting in the waiting area at BCI looking a bit green. He looked at me and croaked out… “What am I doing!?”

My response? “You’re selling me your car.”

He did.

Along the way I started finding more cars to shoot, but no one to write about them. So I had no outlet for the pictures.

I had been in contact with Casey Annis, the editor of Vintage Racecar/Roadcar with story ideas for cars on the east coast. He told me he didn’t have any writers near me and it would be cost prohibitive to send one.  

So with what I thought was an altered state of mind, he told me, “Why don’t you write the stories?”


Luckily there was no deadline looming. I didn’t know what I was going to do. This was so totally different from having a camera in my hand.

I finally sat down and started writing. (I love spell check!) After a while I found the same passion for describing with words what I had been doing with images. I also started collecting stories on owners; and they were as intriguing as the cars themselves. This was cool. I’m having more fun! I want to do more of this.

The 911 was always a great icebreaker no matter what car I was doing a piece on. It spoke to the universal language of car love. I understood people’s dedication to their rides, and they understood mine, so we all got along up front. They saw my passion, so they shared theirs.

Above: My father often used cars, motorcycles, and even taxis in his shoots. These came from a series he did for Cosmopolitan Magazine “Sex in Cars” and Sex in Cabs.” Below: So is it genetic or is it environment? Like father, like son, I use cars as props and locations in my own fashion work as well.

I can think of all the times I lay awake filling my hypothetical huge lottery pay off garage with all types of European sports cars. That space got REALLY big!

I started editing “my collection” after a while. Even though I “had” ungodly stacks of cash, did I really want all these cars? What could I not live without? I got it down to four cars. Two from the west coast, one built by Rod* and one built by Rob** On the east coast one built by Richard*** and one direct from Zuffenhausen****. So it would be a nice, cozy garage filled with Porsches, and maybe an Austin Healey 100-4. “ OK… five cars, I can dream, right?”

And a Subaru parked outside. Here I go again!

Lucky for me I have a great friend, Lee van Laer. He’s not a car guy, but he is a great editor. If I can keep him entertained, I’m pretty sure the car people will get it.

*Rod Emory 356 Outlaw  ** Rob Dickinson Singer  *** Richard Schickman The RSR Project

**** Zuffenhausen a 4 Cam Speedster. As you can tell I’ve got it bad.

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