The Good Old Days

After a 25-year hiatus, Jack Castor and his Cal Spyder are back on the road again.

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October 19, 2012

Jack Castor likes old things. When I first meet him at his home in Half Moon Bay, California, he’s in the middle of the 1936 movie “Come and Get It,” starring Frances Farmer. Lining one side of his living room are a half-dozen Penny Farthing bicycles, which Castor, who once rode one solo across the U.S., tells me aficionados called “ordinaries” (versus the later “safety” bicycles that have two wheels of the same diameter). Antique gas pumps fill his dining room, and his kitchen contains numerous antiques both culinary and otherwise.

When it comes to automobiles, Castor’s cars aren’t simply old—they’re classics. In his driveway, for example, sit a ’53 Kaiser Traveler and a ’62 Corvette roadster. Other machines in his impressively eclectic collection include a Hudson Metropolitan, a Messerschmitt microcar, a BMW Isetta, two Alfa Romeo Giulietta Spiders, a Jaguar XKE and a D-Type (the latter is a replica), an Apollo roadster and two BMW 507s. And then there’s the reason I’m here today: a 1959 Ferrari 250 GT California (s/n 1425GT).

There’s nothing historically significant about s/n 1425—it was never raced or owned by royalty—but this Cal Spyder is striking for two reasons. First, it’s unrestored, and looks it. Second, it’s a driver. “I drive this car now far more than I did back when I first bought it,” says the 75-year-old Castor. “Most Cal Spyders are restored, perfect, and are trucked to shows. I like this one the way it is, so I don’t have to worry about getting a scratch. I can just drive it and enjoy it.”

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CASTOR’S INTRODUCTION TO SPORTS CARS came in 1961, when, as a newly minted aeronautical engineer from Penn State, he drove his Model A coupe cross-country to his first job, with the Convair aerospace company in San Diego. “There were 13 Penn State graduates who went to Convair, and they all bought sports cars,” he recalls. “I wanted a Morgan, but couldn’t afford $3,500 for a new one since I was making only $525 a month. I bought a used Jaguar XK150 roadster instead. I got that for $2,150.”

His interest in sports cars only grew after he took a job at Lockheed, south of San Francisco, in 1963. “I joined the Lockheed sports-car club,” he recalls. “We thought we were the best in the Bay Area. We put on two autocrosses a year. At the end of the year all the participants who drove in autocrosses would rate them, and we would always win the best autocross of the year. It was a great club.” 

Castor’s car collection swelled steadily during the 1960s, as he regularly bought but rarely sold. “That was the start of my storage problem,” he quips.

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Then one day in early 1969, a Lockheed engineer named Johnny Johnson brought his red Ferrari convertible to work. “At lunch we all went out and looked it,” says Castor. “I said, ‘Jeez, Johnny, what is it?’ Well, it was a 250 Cabriolet that he bought from a young American in Modena named Tom Meade. So I said, ‘I’m going to Europe in June, I already have my vacation planned, and I want to contact this guy.’ So Johnny gave me an address and I wrote to Tom Meade and said I’m interested in a Ferrari California or a Mercedes 300 SL roadster. And he wrote back and said he had a Mercedes roadster and two Californias.”

With letter in hand, Castor quickly headed to his credit union to inquire about getting a car loan. He secured a personal loan for $1,500, but the credit union wanted collateral before offering him any more money. Recalls Castor, “I said, ‘I’ve got a paid-off VW Beetle,’ and they said, ‘We’ll give you another $1,200 on the Beetle.’ So I financed my Beetle to buy my Ferrari.” 

At that point, Castor was earning around $700 a month. Cal Spyders had cost roughly $12,500 when new, but after a decade of depreciation, Meade wanted just $3,000 for s/n 1425. “Most people find that hard to believe,” says Castor, “but hell, most people didn’t know what a California was! If you look at Merritt and Fitzgerald’s book [“Ferrari: The Sports and Gran Turismo Cars”], you’ll just find one reference to the Cal Spyder prototype. It was later that people finally realized what these cars were and wrote about ’em.”

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Indeed, Castor doesn’t remember how he knew to ask Meade about a California in the first place. “I know it was covered in 1959 in Sports Car Graphic or Car and Driver,” he says, “but I probably had never seen one. They were fairly rare, just 50 long-wheelbase cars.”

In any case, as soon as Castor arrived in Modena, he went to meet Meade. “He told me a Texan had come through the week before and bought five cars,” says Castor, “then he said, ‘I saved this one for you.’ But I wasn’t overly impressed with the Ferrari. He took me across town to an old man who was just putting the car back together; it had been painted, and he was fitting the headlight trim and bumpers and stuff. It was in a one-car garage, so I really couldn’t stand back and see everything. I never even heard the car run, but I figured, ‘Well, I can always sell it when I get home and maybe pay for the vacation.’”

WITH THE DEAL FINALIZED, Meade had the car crated, trucked to Genoa and loaded on a boat for San Francisco. “The crate he made was not what I would call structural,” says Castor. “It was more like dust-proof. It wasn’t strong, and of course the Italian dock workers put something on top of it, which crushed the windshield frame and broke the windshield. So there’s all this broken glass, and the guys at the dock in San Francisco were not helpful: ‘Hey, you gotta get that crate out of here!’ We had uncrated the car and started it up, so we ended up putting the remnants of the crate on the trailer and my brother drove the car home.”

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The windshield was soon replaced with a Lexan one, supplied by Ferrari owner Johnny Johnson. The windshield frame was repaired by Scaglietti in late 1972, but the new windshield Scaglietti supplied at the same time was a bust. “I don’t know to this day whether they gave me the right windshield,” says Castor. “I tried to put that one on the car and it really didn’t want to fit quite right. I later bought another one from Mike Sheehan for $1,000, and that’s the one that’s on there now.”

Castor drove the Cal Spyder “on an occasional basis,” as he puts it, for the next decade, but one thing always bothered him. “When I took the Ferrari on a drive and went through corners, the oil pressure went way down, down to zero for a second or two,” he says. “I’ve since talked to [Ferrari restorer] Patrick Ottis about it, and he said it was not a problem if, once you got through the corner, the pressure picks back up. Apparently they all do it, but I didn’t know that then, so eventually I quit driving the car and parked it.”

THAT WAS IN 1979 OR ’80, and the Cal Spyder sat until the mid-2000s. It was then that Castor decided to put it back on the road. “I guess I just got to thinking that time was going by and that I wanted to get all these cars going again,” he says. “So I hauled it to a Ferrari guy up north, and that turned out to be a pretty bad experience.

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He wrote me an estimate for around $1,700 to go through the fuel system and the brake system so the car would be operational. Then one day I got an invoice, with all these pages of things he’d done, for $8,000. And a note that this wasn’t the final invoice.”

By the time Castor arrived with a trailer to pick up the car, the bill was up to $26,000. “I like to say that every time he walked by the car it cost me $100,” he says with a grimace.

After some intervention by a California state consumer-protection agency, the bill was cut in half. “He did a lot of work,” says Castor. “The problem was that it was things we hadn’t discussed! He should have notified me after he went through the $1,700, but I’d been through a lawsuit before and didn’t want to go there again.”

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Nearly adding injury to insult, the Ferrari’s right-rear wheel seized up the first time Castor drove it. So he put the car back on the trailer and hauled it to Patrick Ottis’ shop in Berkeley. “He told me that some of the linkage in the brakes wasn’t right, so he fixed that,” says Castor. “He did a couple of other things, and when he gave me the invoice he said, ‘You can take two grand off of that, because we’re supposed to be the experts but ended up doing a couple of things we didn’t need to do.’ I’ve since become friends with Patrick, and when I need something done that’s where the car is going to go.”

One thing the Ferrari won’t need, says Castor, is a restoration. “I’m planning to restore the Apollo and the 507s; I want them to be perfect. But the Ferrari is staying the way it is.”

From 20 feet away, you wouldn’t know what he means. Get closer, though, and you quickly start to see the Cal Spyder’s age. The paint on the edges of the hood is chipped, and sections of the front fenders are cracked and stained. The windshield surround is pitted, as are the door handles. The chrome on the bumpers is wavy, and the Borrani wheels’ knock-offs are rusty. Inside, the leather on the seats is cracked; the story is much the same under the hood.

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Some enthusiasts would consider this Ferrari decrepit and in desperate need of a full restoration, particularly in light of its current multi-million dollar value. Others would consider it heresy to erase the car’s patina. Personally, I think s/n 1425’s old-age looks and smells are far more special than those of any freshly restored car.

Besides, beyond its 43-year-old repaint, this Cal Spyder remains mostly unchanged from when it left the factory in 1959. “Meade sometimes modified the cars he sold, like putting side vents and headlight covers on the Cabriolets,” says Castor. “This car is an original covered-headlight car, but the headlight buckets are painted black and they should be body color. Meade was probably responsible for that. As far as the bumperettes go, I’ve heard that they were on the car when he got it, but that doesn’t explain the extra brackets on the back of them. The rear bumper is original; it has the car’s serial number, 1425, stamped on it.”

Most important of all, Castor still thinks the Cal Spyder is a thrill to drive. The engine fires quickly, with a puff of blue smoke and a surprisingly quiet vrum from the exhaust. Once seated in the passenger seat, however, I’m astonished at the wave of engine noise that washes over the cockpit at speed. The car is small and light—the tiny doors can be swung open with one finger and the floor flexes under my feet when I climb in—but, thanks to the relatively low seating position, I’m comfortably cocooned inside. We’re only driving slowly along the coast highway scouting out photo locations, but the Ferrari feels alive underneath me, from the way it hunches under acceleration to the engine vibrations that tingle my feet and the seat of my pants.

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“I add quart of oil every time before I take it out,” Castor calls out over the V12’s delicious wail. “It seems to throw that first quart off; you can see the smoke. It’s okay for a while, but once it burns off the next half quart, I start to see a flicker in the oil pressure. On this last trip coming back from Monterey [and the Pebble Beach concours], I got the feeling it was time to pull the plugs, gap ’em and clean ’em, and maybe the points, ’cause it feels to me like it’s a little bit off, it’s not making the right sound. But it’s been very reliable, it always starts. I’ve actually been a little surprised by that.”

When we stop for photos, drivers slow to look at the car and several pedestrians pause to take camera-phone pictures and ask questions. The most enthusiastic is a white-haired guy in his 60s, who can’t stop smiling. “That’s just an amazing car,” he says. “I love my Studebaker, but this thing is in another world.”

“What kind is it?” asks Castor. When the guy replies, Castor smiles excitedly and says, “Whoa, those are nice!” He then walks over to talk more about Studebakers, leaving his Cal Spyder behind. Jack Castor really likes old things—as long as they’re classics.

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Also from Issue 122

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  • Enzo Ferrari Museum opens in Modena
  • Collector of '80s and '90s Ferraris
  • Fernando Alonso leads F1 World Championship
  • Ferraris at the 2012 Pebble Beach concours
  • Market Update: Affordable V8 Ferraris
  • Legends: 312 PB
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