-by Greg Hoots-
I’ve always loved cars. New ones, old ones, and everything in between, automobiles have always caught my eye. The first car which I drove to high school was a 1965 Dodge Coronet, a hand-me-down from my parents. A four-door sedan with a slant-6 engine, it wasn’t too sporty of a ride at that time, but I loved driving the Dodge, and I wish I had it today.
When I moved to Topeka, Kansas in 1977, I started looking for an antique car as a hobby and, perhaps, as a daily driver, at least in good weather. In the summer of 1979, I found a 1947 Chevrolet Stylemaster Coupe for sale at a Hoyt, Kansas farm. Nowadays, it’s chic to refer to unrestored antique autos as “barn finds.” The ’47 Chevy Coupe was one step below a barn find, it was a stored in a “chicken-house-lean-to”. Fortunately, it appeared that it had been some time since chickens had been housed in the building, and the owner revealed that the car had been stored there for about ten years. I rented a tow hitch and pulled the Chevy home on the back bumper of a 1976 Maverick Grabber. I should have taken a photo of that.
The ’47 Chevy was my daily transportation for about five years, and it demonstrated amazing reliability during that time, never leaving me stranded. In the summer of 1982, I purchased a 1968 BMW 1600. The BMW was a lot sportier car than the old, reliable Chevy, but the BMW needed a valve job, and I needed to check the oil levels, regularly.
By the end of the year, I had purchased a 1970 Mustang; one might say it was an impulse purchase. I had been driving the BMW in a very rural area, and it coughed a couple of times before dying quietly at the side of the road, the fuel pump having expired. Fortunately for me, in the exact location where my BMW had rolled to a stop, there was a 1970 Mustang sitting in the front yard of the house with a For Sale sign on the front window of the car. I promised the owner of the Mustang that I would return for my BMW, and I drove away in the green Ford.
While I was coming dangerously close to becoming a car hoarder, I was still looking for another car when a “car collector” whom I knew mentioned that “since I liked that foreign shit”, I should go look at an Alfa Romeo that a friend of his had for sale. I got the Alfa’s owner’s phone number and called him the next night. Sure enough, the guy said he had a 1957 Alfa Romeo Sprint Veloce for sale. He said that it was a disassembled race car, and he mumbled something about it being one of five specially prepared cars brought to the United States by a European racing team competing in sports car racing. The guy said that I could come see the car the next day after work, and that the price of the car was $400.
It’s interesting how “collectors” store their cars. At the top of the heap, one step above the barn-find, is the coveted “garage material.” Thousands, maybe even millions of classic cars are stored in garages across America, oftentimes buried under a wide variety of objects sharing storage space. Then, at the bottom of the heap, the most common spot to store antique cars is “out-back”. In a city, this might be a backyard or near the rear property line. In rural areas, it’s often just a matter of where the car was sitting when it was retired. The Alfa Romeo was a backyard find.
I made arrangements to borrow a friend’s car-hauling trailer, and by 6:00 pm, I was parked in front of the house where the Alfa Romeo lay in waiting. I knocked at the front door of the house, and when no one was home, I ventured “out back”. The Alfa languished in the yard, out of sight from the street. The interior of the car was packed to the roof with flattened cardboard boxes stored for well-intentioned recycling that had not yet made it to fruition. When I opened the door of the car, an unmistakable aroma of decaying vinyl, eroding rust, and sun-baked mouse urine wafted from the car, causing me to close the door quickly.
It wasn’t long before the owner, Larry Ripperger arrived home from work. He enthusiastically told me of the car’s unique status as a historic race car, having campaigned in the United States, Mexico and Europe. He escorted me to his garage where the disassembled engine, transmission, driveshaft, headers, exhaust, and all of the miscellaneous parts were carefully stored in cardboard boxes. Then, we went to the backyard, and Ripperger showed the aluminum hood, trunk, doors and window frames, along with plastic side and rear windows, all specially added to reduce the race car’s weight. I asked the seller, “would you take $300?”, to which he responded with disgust, advising me that it was time for me to leave. Quickly, I pulled my wallet from my pocket, muttering something about, “just wondering”, and peeled four one-hundred-dollar bills from the billfold’s pocket. Ripperger began unloading the cardboard stored in the interior of the car, advising me that the car’s tie-rod was broken, as it had been once used unsuccessfully as a point to attach a tow strap. After some work, we managed to push the car from the backyard and onto the trailer in reverse while we guided the arrant front wheels by hand. In a couple of hours, the car moved from Mr. Ripperger’s backyard to mine. Insofar as I had no available garage space, I placed all of the miscellaneous parts and pieces of the Alfa onto my dining room floor.
Along with the many boxes of Alfa parts were a couple of Alfa Romeo Giulietta service and repair manuals, and I soon purchased two more books, both of which addressed the history of the Alfa Romeo company and Giuliettas in particular. The Giulietta marked Alfa Romeo’s return to production cars, as their factories had been destroyed during World War II. Alfa Romeo produced the running works of the Giulietta-based cars while three separate Italian coachbuilders built the cars’ bodies. Bertone produced the coupe body, known as the Sprint; Pininfarina produced the convertible Spider; and Touring produced the four-door sedan, known as the Berlina.
In addition to the standard-tuned version, Alfa produced a high-performance version of their Sprint and Spider cars, both designated with the surname, Veloce. And, among the high-performance versions there was yet another subgroup reflected in their name, Alleggerita, meaning lightweight. Some careful examination of my Alfa’s Vehicle Identification Numbers which were stamped on the engine block and firewall revealed that my car was an Alfa Romeo Sprint Veloce Alleggerita, and even more surprising, the matching engine and firewall numbers verified that the car was a 1956 model and not a 1957.
In later years, Alfa Romeo produced two high-performance versions of their Giulietta and Guilia models, the Sprint Speciale and the Sprint Zagato, but in 1956 when the Giulietta was released to the public, the Veloce Lightweight version was the car of choice of sportscar racers in the 1300cc division. In 1956 a total of 252 Sprint Veloce cars were produced by Alfa Romeo, and just a handful were specially prepared for racing, and amazingly, one of these exotic Italian race cars had made its way to a backyard in Topeka, Kansas, where it had rested for years.
The car’s 1290cc engine featured an all-aluminum block with cast-iron sleeves and high-domed aluminum pistons operating under a hemispherical head. Specially designed twin chain-driven overhead cams operated the valves, and the power plant was matched with a four-speed tunnel case transmission. Twin dual-throat Weber side-draught carburetors fed gas to the cylinders while headers were mounted on the exhaust side. Thus tuned, the 74-cubic inch engine produced 90 horsepower, and when placed in a lightened body, the free-revving Sprint Veloce was a formidable competitor on the race track.
It was a circuitous path that led the Sprint Veloce from Italy to a backyard in Topeka, Kansas. The Alfa was first assigned to Auto Koenig in Monaco, where it was acquired by racer Fred van Beuren, who raced the Sprint Veloce from 1957 through 1961, competing at Sebring in 1958 and 1960 and in six Grand Prix events in Mexico during the same period.
Without explanation, in about 1963 van Beuren’s Sprint Veloce landed at a car dealership in Fairfield, Iowa, and it was there that Topeka resident, Rick Davis noticed the car. Davis was enrolled in college in Pittsburg, Kansas and had been involved in a serious automobile wreck in his Triumph TR3, and the car was a total loss. Hospitalized from the accident, Rick Davis called his brother, Ron, asking him to go to Fairfield, Iowa immediately and purchase the Alfa Romeo that the younger Davis had seen. Ron Davis purchased the car and drove it back to Topeka. He recalled that it was in the fall, and that the Alfa had no heater, a feature whose absence I had noted when driving it during the winter. “The car had plenty of power and ran nice,” Ron Davis recalled, “but it didn’t have a heater at all.” After owning the car for a few years, Rick Davis sold the car to Steve Marling who drove the car for a couple of years before selling it to Topeka SCCA sportscar racer and car collector, Col. Loren Pierson. Pierson never drove the Alfa but was responsible for its disassembly. Col. Pierson sold the Sprint Veloce to Larry Ripperger.
When I began the arduous job of reassembling the car, it was much like a three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle. I pored over the pages of my service manuals, and I soon discovered that numerous pieces of the car were missing. While missing pieces were problematic in rebuilding the car, the fundamental running works that made the Veloce unique were present. The passenger seat was missing, and numerous braces and brackets had been lost in the multiple transfers of ownership of the car. The bumpers, badges, hubcaps, and chrome trim were all missing, as were the steering wheel horn ring, the heater, and the radio. There were lots of odds and ends missing that were not essential for the operation of the car.
Through Hemmings Motor News, I met Dean Russell from Dearborn Heights, Michigan, a great guy who operated an Alfa Romeo repair shop and an Alfa salvage lot. Dean was not only able to provide me with many of the parts fundamental to restoring the Alfa Romeo to the road, he was my most important technical advisor in the reassembly of the car. In two years, the car was roadworthy.
In 1985 I titled and licensed the car, and on one sunny spring day, I fired the Sprint Veloce’s engine for the first time. The sound of the free-revving engine was unique and unforgettable. Never mind that there wasn’t a radio; the sound of the engine was music to the driver’s ears.
For two years the Sprint Veloce was my daily driver, and at times, it was my only vehicle. I drove it everywhere. I washed it every day and waxed it once a week. My cat and I went on vacation to Florida in the Sprint Veloce.
In late 1987, I decided to sell the Alfa Romeo. I had spent quite a bit of money rebuilding the Alfa, and I hoped to recover some of it. I figured, after all, that I had driven the Sprint Veloce every day for two years, and that had some value in itself. I placed an ad in Hemmings Motor News, offering the Alfa for sale for $7,500. Before I even received my copy of Hemmings, the phone rang, and Ken Schaff, the most noted Alfa Romeo collector and vintage racer in America, was on the line. After getting the engine number and chassis number from me, Schaff said that he would send me $500 the next day, if I would send him some photos of the car. Then, he said that he would send the balance within 24 hours of receiving the photos. I sent Ken the “before and after” photos of the Alfa, and three days later, Ken’s first check arrived, followed in just a couple of days with the balance. Two months later a man with a car-hauling trailer arrived, and I drove the Alfa for the last time. I had moved to a rural area by that time, and I literally drove the car out of a red hay barn where I had stored it after Ken’s check arrived. The car had finally made a vertical move from being parked “out back”, becoming a true barn find.
Ken Schaff immediately began a complete full and correct historical restoration of the car. Schaff was meticulous in his attention to details of the restoration. At the same time, Schaff utilized his connections in the racing publishing world to trace the racing history of this particular Alfa Romeo. It was Ken Schaff who discovered that this particular Alfa was Fred van Beuren’s former race car, and Schaff obtained photographs of van Beuren competing with the car in several venues. Schaff successfully located van Beuren who lived in California, only minutes from the Schaff home. Fred van Beuren confirmed that the car had been his, and told of the car’s early racing history. Schaff recalled, “I called around and found where Fred was living then, as it turned out he was in Walnut Creek, only minutes from my house…So we visited and he verified that it was the car; he gave me photos of Sebring and other races it was run in throughout Mexico and the southwest. For Sebring in both ’58 and ’60, he drove the car to Florida from Mexico City (about 3,500 miles) won the 1300 GT class both years and then drove it home!”
Schaff worked tirelessly in overseeing the car’s restoration and in getting the car entered in his first Mille Miglia race in 1989. Early that year, work on the Sprint Veloce was completed, and Schaff packaged the car and had it shipped to Italy where he drove it in the 1989 Mille Miglia Historica, the most prestigious historic race in the world. After completing that race, Schaff took the car to the Alfa Romeo Museum in Arese, Italy, and the museum was so impressed with the car’s presentation that they invited Schaff to keep the car at the museum on display for four years. Schaff campaigned the car at three additional Mille Miglia races in addition to three Tour Auto France races between 1997 and 2003 before bringing it back to California where he entered the car in numerous concours events. In 1995 and 1996 Ken Schaff campaigned the Sprint Veloce at the California Mille, a race that Schaff helped organize.
On May 19, 2005, Ken Schaff passed away at the age of 76 from non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. There was never a more avid Alfa Romeo enthusiast, and there was never a nicer guy than Ken Schaff. After Schaff’s death, his family sold the Sprint Veloce to California sports car collector, Stanley Bauer. Bauer has continued to show and race the car at various rallies, shows and concours events in the Western United States.
The Sprint Veloce was the most enjoyable car I have ever driven. Now, even 35 years later, I recall the roar of the engine, the smell of the fresh paint, and the look of the bright red fenders, hood and dashboard as I drove the Alfa. A friend once asked me why in the world I ever sold the Sprint Veloce. It was an easy question to answer. I sold it for the exact same reason that I’ve sold many cars, for the money. I’m reminded of a quote by a noted Topeka author and sports car racer, Denise McCluggage. When asked why she had sold a particularly desirable car she replied, “Everyone always says, ‘if I still had every car I’ve ever owned, I’d be a millionaire’, but I always say, if I were a millionaire, I’d still have every car I’ve ever owned.”
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Categories: Biographies, Family Stories
You’ve led an interesting life, my friend!
Greg, a great car with a great story. They both seem to follow you around, like puppies!
And you also tend to a butterfly garden!! A man of many talents & interests! What a great story; thanks for sharing. Love all your stories. Keep them coming!