Hooniverse Asks- Who's Your Automotive Hero?

On TV and in the movies, heros usually have some sort of superhuman power, or undertake unbelievable deeds of daring- escaping without so much as a hair misplaced. In real life, heros are those people who go above and beyond, who are catalysts for change, and who typically are more interested in the outcome than calling attention to their actions. And automotivedom has had its share of movers and shakers, whether it’s racing them, building them, or writing about them. Is there one that you would put above all others as the person you most admire?
Many an automotive legend has had a dark side, which is often glossed over- Henry Ford put the nation on wheels, but was also derided as anti semitic, Carroll Shelby gave us the Cobra and GT350, as well as a stirring racing career, but has a penchant for suing anyone who looks at him funny. John Delorean gave us the muscle car, but. . . well, you know.
But we love flawed heros- people who seemingly exceed our bounds, but who are grounded in reality. That humanness makes them seem more real, their achievements more tangible and aspirational. A hero is someone you aspire to emulate, and while many of these men and women have done things that are less than heroic, that just makes their bigger than life efforts seem within easier reach.
So, is there a car guy – or woman – that elicits your utmost respect and admiration? Is there a person, who, should you actually meet them, would cause to to stare at your shoes and mumble something about what an honor it is, and could I have your autograph if it’s not too much trouble? Which car person do you hold in highest esteem, and why?
Image sources: [Circletrack.com, Solarnavigator.com]

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  1. Uncle_Bo Avatar

    <img src=http://i2.cdn.turner.com/nascar/2009/news/features/01/26/top.five.inaugural.hall.class/petty.richard.510.jpg>

  2. Feds_II Avatar

    Fred Smith
    I grew up near the shop, and went to school with his daughters. First person I knew who actually made a living in the high-performance biz.

  3. lilwillie Avatar

    I know it sounds cliche' but I have to say my Dad. Your first impression if you meet the man wouldn't go well I bet. He is 66, seen it, done it and lived it all. He could care less about his appearance or his achievements in life. A majority of people don't even know he graduated from UW Madison with a Ag-Engineering degree. He swears a lot, drinks a lot and offends a lot but when it comes to turning a wrench old school style I wouldn't have him any other way. There is just a knowledge built into the man that people don't know about. He may get his facts and figures mixed up when he talks automobiles but he will always refer to me if someone is talking facts, figures and technical stuff. Hell, he has never touch a keyboard in his life but there isn't a week that goes by that I don't holler for him to come over and look at what I am doing and tell me how it should be done.
    He used to race when it was dangerous. Mainly Ducati's and Harley's, hill climbing and circle track. He built some wicked fast cars in his youth and never worried about getting rich doing it. Just so long as he can have his Beer at 3:30 every day.
    People wonder why I am called "lilwillie", it is because I will never be as big as the original Willie.

    1. CptSevere Avatar

      Wow. I'd love to sit down and have a beer with your Dad in his garage and listen to some of his stories. Hell, I'll buy the damn beer.

      1. lilwillie Avatar

        Thanks. Just make sure it is Miller High Life or you'll never hear the end of it. 🙂

    1. Feds_II Avatar

      I never realized how much Colin Chapman looked like Jack Leyton. Uncanny

      1. franchitti27 Avatar

        I'd have to say Colin is mine too.
        Feds_II, good call. I've never even thought about it before, but you are so right.

  4. scroggzilla Avatar

    Offhand, I can think of several……Stirling Moss, Jack Brabham, Tony Brooks, Dan Gurney, John Surtees, Jackie Stewart, Mario Andretti, Jacky Ickx, Parnelli Jones, Ari Vatenan, Stig Blomqvist, Paddy Hopkirk, Rauno Aaltonen, Nino Vacarrella, Vic Elford, Emerson Fittipaldi, Richard Petty, A.J. Foyt, Bjorn Waldegard.

    1. AteUpWithMotor Avatar

      And Sam Posey.
      A couple of years ago, Posey wrote a lovely little book called Playing with Trains: A Passion Beyond Scale, not about racing, but about how he and his kids got into model railroading. Really a delight.

  5. Slow Joe Crow Avatar
    Slow Joe Crow

    The only famous car guy I ever met was Patrick Bedard, and I was only 9 so there wasn't much conversation. The guy I would have liked to meet was Helmut Fath, who was a brilliant tuner and even made his own engines, although he was more properly a sidecar guy.

  6. P161911 Avatar

    Smokey is a good pick. His 3 book autobiography set should be required reading for any Hoon.
    Zora Arkus-Duntov (I named a dog I had Zora.)
    Roger Penske
    Mark Donahue
    A. J. Foyt (wins at Indy, Daytona, and LeMans)
    Barney Oldfield
    Harry Miller
    The Dusenberg Brothers
    Juan Manuel Fangio
    Carrol Smith (helped more racers build and tune better cars than anyone else)
    Preston Tucker

  7. Benito Avatar

    Keeping up with the theme of fatherhood not only in this thread, but Hooniverse as a whole these past few days, I have to say my Dad. I wouldn't be anywhere near the Hoon I am today without him. When I was really young we'd climb into his GMC and head to the dump, dreaming up visions of building a hot rod together. Those talks never stopped, and as I got older they turned into stories about cars he had owned, which grew into cars we should own, which lead to a barn housing his '57 Bel Air, '74 Corvette, and my Trans Am. Without his interests I never would have found my way into the automotive world. I'd never know the feeling of barreling down a back road, t-tops out, exhaust roaring, without him being the first person to show me how damn cool cars are. No race car driver, designer, executive, or tuner will ever have that kind of impact on me as a car-guy, or a person altogether.

  8. engineerd Avatar

    As I think about it, I don't really have an automotive hero. Sure, there are many legends I look up to…including Henry Ford, Stirling Moss, Mario Andretti, Stig Blomqvist, and Dale Earnhardt Sr. However, I'm not sure any of them really are "heroes" to me. I guess the closest is Colin Chapman. At a time where "there's no replacement for displacement" was at a fever pitch, he stuck tiny engines in light cars and turned racing on its ear.
    Now, if we wanna talk aeronautics, there is no aircraft designer that surpasses Kelly Johnson and no pilot greater than Chuck Yeager.

    1. Han_Solex Avatar

      Kelly Johnson was as hoon as they come. Also Jack Northrop was pretty keen on doing sweet but unconventional things, so he's up there for me, too.

      1. engineerd Avatar

        Yep, Jack Northrop was fascinated with flying wings. Unfortunately, they weren't practical until computers could fly planes due to inherent instabilities.
        Burt Rutan is up there, too. He's never been one to think inside the box.

        1. Feds_II Avatar

          I had an old (c. 2000?) road and track where Rutan tested the Insight. In it, he basically laid out the entire design spec for a series hybrid (EREV/Chevy Volt/etc.). Seems pretty intuitive now, but for an airplane guy to hit the nail on the head 10 years ago is damned impressive.
          Combined with the mutton chops, he is definitely on my list.

          1. engineerd Avatar

            The mutton chops rule!
            Ever since the first hybrids came on scene, I couldn't figure out why they weren't series hybrids. The technology is proven in a somewhat larger scale with diesel-electric locomotives. Scale everything down to a vehicle size and it should have been a no brainer. I would be interested in why the parallel hybrid design was settled on.

    2. ademrudin Avatar

      Ditto Colin Chapman, and I can't disagree with Kelly Johnson. His crew at Lockheed back in the late 50s through the late 60s did wild things that in some ways are unthinkable nowadays.
      But I'm forced to disagree with Yeager. I mean, the guy's an amazing pilot, there's no denying that, but there were plenty of other rocket jocks at Dryden that were on par with him; he gets all the press because he happened to be the first pilot to fly faster than Mach 1.
      Scott Crossfield, Bill Dana, Milt Thompson, Joe Walker, Niel Armstrong, etc. were all contemporaries of Yeager who arguably accomplished much more.

      1. engineerd Avatar

        Very true. However, ever since I was a boy I've looked up to Yeager. No matter what his accomplishments before or after breaking the sound barrier, it took serious stones to strap himself to a rocket and head for a wall when the brightest minds of the time couldn't tell him what would happen as he approached the speed of sound.
        Plus, Yeager, in some ways, is merely a representative of all the test pilots around that time. Many of them gave their lives advancing the science of aeronautics. All of them were brave, smart, and very much hoonerable.

      2. BrianTheHoon Avatar

        You left off a few, namely Joe Cotton, Fitz Fulton, Chalmers Goodin and a few others that I'm missing. I grew up a spit and a stride away from Edwards. I was born in the mid-60's and the pilots of Dryden FTC were my childhood heroes – much the same as other kids worshiped sports stars, these were the autographs I sought to collect. A personal connection to these Gods of Flight was my dear ol' dad. He was the group life/health insurance agent in town that all business owners worked with and he was also an avid pilot/aeronautical hot rod fan.
        He actually worked with an actuary at Prudential to create a group life plan for the Society of Experimental Test Pilots that was/is headquartered in Palmdale. Before that, these guys had absolutely no options for anything other than the death benefit they received from Uncle Sam after they augured in. This was back in the early 60's and, as you might guess, flight testing was a much more dangerous profession back then than it is today. Because of Dad's connection, I got to meet most of the pilots from the golden age of Dryden. They were all among the best pilots on earth; where they differed was ego.
        Gen Yeager is the prince among them all, from personal experience. The down-home good ol' boy never left the man and his humility was astounding. No, Yeager got the press because he deserved it. Never mind the fact that he was a fighter Ace in two wars, the guy flew anything they threw at him. When the X-1 came around, Goodin wanted a boat load of money to test it. When Yeager was asked how much he expected, he said words to the effect of, "I get a paycheck from the government to do this already." He hooned for the sake of hooning and never expected to be treated differently because of it.
        Most all of these guys were true heroes and deserved my hero worship (they still are). Except Crossfield and especially Goodin; those two were honestly kind of douchey.

        1. engineerd Avatar

          You have my eternal jealousy.
          From reading Yeager's autobiography years ago his humility and "awe shucksness" definitely came through. He comes across as a real stand-up guy. Especially when you consider he stayed married to Glennis Yeager until her death and, as far as I know, was a faithful husband.
          I haven't read much about the other test pilots of that era, and I know that egos were incredible…the still are in the test pilot biz. Thanks for your insight and impressions of some of the other guys!

  9. Maymar Avatar

    I want to be Peter Egan when I grow up.

    1. Feds_II Avatar

      Actually, I was just thinking that. THERE is a man I'd like to have several wobbly pops with. Racing vintage spridgets, artilleryman in Nam, bikes, planes, VW's, etc, etc, etc…

    2. Feds_II Avatar

      Actually, I was just thinking that. THERE is a man I'd like to have several wobbly pops with. Racing vintage spridgets, artilleryman in Nam, bikes, planes, VW's, etc, etc, etc…

  10. AteUpWithMotor Avatar

    Edsel Ford. A man of remarkable taste and considerable integrity, strong willed but far less of an asshole than his father. If you look at a thirties Ford in good stock condition, note its fine proportions and detailing — you can thank Edsel for that, and also the original Continental. He didn't design anything himself, but they bore his stamp just as GM cars from the thirties to the fifties bore the stamp of Harley Earl.
    Yutaka Katayama, former president of Nissan Motor Company USA and the father of the Datsun 510 and 240Z. Plucky, infectiously enthusiastic, and very smart, the only people who didn't like him were stuffed shirts back in Japan. His career would make a fun Hollywood biopic, one of those uplifting comedies about triumphing over adversity.

    1. lowmiles Avatar

      Edsel is my pick as well. If Henry had been left to his own devices, he would have bankrupted the company by churning out the Model T forever. During the long period between 1920 and Edsel's untimely death, Edsel was not only responsible for encouraging innovation, he also tempered his increasingly autocratic managerial style and cleaned up his political and social messes. I have to imagine Edsel, as educated as his father was ignorant, died a little each time his father went off on the Jews (which was frequent, to say the least). Edsel also kept the government from nationalizing Ford because of Henry's opposition to the war by pressing for the utilization of Willow Run to produce B-24s. Mercury, Lincoln, and the '30s Fords – all of that was Edsel.

  11. Smells_Homeless Avatar

    Since Smokey's already been mentioned, I'm gonna have to go off the board and go with John Britten. Yes, he was a bike guy. But man, oh man, WHAT a bike guy! Sure the Britten 1000 may have been pink and blue. What can you do, it was the 90s? But he designed and built the engine completely by hand in his shed, including the castings! Sheer badassery, that Britten.

  12. WayFastWhitey Avatar

    I would have to go with Parnelli Jones. A stand up guy who would race just about anything hard and have a good time doing it. At Indy in a turbine driven car, Pikes Peak in a Mercury, Sprint cars, midgets, a Cougar and some Mustangs in Trans-am, off road with his "Big Oly" Bronco, SCORE racing, and NASCAR. After he retired from drive he owned an Indy team, a Formula 1 team, a SCORE team, and Baja 500 and 1000 teams.

    1. Curt Avatar

      PJ here too, altho I wouldn't argue with any of the good picks above. Jones is a gentlemen and a racer. The #15 Boss 302 is the quintessential pony car, and I saw him drive it on city streets (palm springs vintage car races, circa 1982?). Plus growing up in Torrance, I knew all about Vel's-PJ's and the Indy car team. Big Oly? I could relate!

  13. Mike_the_Dog Avatar

    If I can only have one, it'll be Bill Stout. Although he's more known for his aircraft than his automobiles, you gotta give him cred for putting this thing out there all the way back in 1932.
    <img src="http://graphics8.nytimes.com/images/2008/01/04/automobiles/06scarab-600.jpg"&gt;
    ” target=”_blank”>http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Bushnell_Stout

    1. citroen67 Avatar

      Good call! BTW did you happen to see the one that was at Woodward? I was blown away to see one out in the wild! I'm not sure how many exist, but it's got to be a single-digit figure…

      1. Mike_the_Dog Avatar

        No I didn't see the one at Woodward. If I had, I'm sure I would have pissed myself in excitement, which would have undoubtedly freaked out Mrs. and Mr. Engineered.
        I believe that of the ten built (nine metal and one fiberglass prototype), five still exist.

        1. citroen67 Avatar

          Yeah, I only caught the one at Woodward for a split second, but it was awesome! It was parked in a lot near Birmingham. I really hope that it was the real thing, but then again, I am not sure if any replicas of the almighty Stout were ever made.

  14. smalleyxb122 Avatar

    Jerry Weigert. His angular aesthetic may be questionable, and his business sense turned out to be lacking, but you gotta admire a man who actually endeavored to build what we all imagined a car should be when we were pre-pubescent cat nuts.

    1. BЯдΖǐL-ЯЄРΘЯΤЄЯ Avatar

      The question was Hero not Heroine.

      1. CptSevere Avatar

        Why aren't you running (REDACTED) do Brasil instead of that other guy I read about this morning?
        (headsmack) Of course. When it's time for Hooniverse do Brasil, you're da man.

  15. Derek Avatar

    Well, Smokey for sure, and then my neighbor Frank Banks in Sunnyvale, CA. He let this geeky kid watch him work on cars in his garage, and taught me MANY things, car related and not. He always had interesting vehicles around, the bug eyed sprite with the 289 in it was cool, and so was his El Camino with the 427 tri-power, that … was one amazing vehicle.
    My all time fave quote of his was: "If it don't GO, chrome it".

  16. dmilligan Avatar

    Jim Hall, the man who made the Chaparral. He's not so much of a hero to me as a man I admire one helluva lot. He made some of the greatest race cars to ever hit the track.

  17. BЯдΖǐL-ЯЄРΘЯΤЄЯ Avatar

    Colin Chapman for making me interested in automotive engineering
    Marcello Gandini to show us that beauty counts
    Mike Costin and Keith Duckworth for all the screaming sounds of their Cosworth tuned engines.
    Hofmeister for giving us the kink
    Hannu Mikkola for making the Escort Mk1 popular as rally car.
    Ayrton Senna……yeah do I need to explain?

  18. muthalovin Avatar

    My pops, yo. I admire him, automotively speaking, because he under takes project after project after project, and slowly, so very slowly, gets them to a running state. It is really amazing to see a thoroughly thrashed '69 'Cuda with a well-running 6-pack take shape, then tear ass around the block. It is awesome to see a ZX-10 with a well-deserved salvage title turn into an awesome streetfighter. My dad does these things not for acclaim, but for sheer enjoyment of the hoon. That is a hero in my book.
    Also, he thought me how to do burnouts when I was 11. A hero AND a teacher.

  19. Benito Avatar

    Keeping up with the theme of fatherhood not only in this thread, but Hooniverse as a whole these past few days, I have to say my Dad. I wouldn't be anywhere near the Hoon I am today without him. When I was really young we'd climb into his GMC and head to the dump, dreaming up visions of building a hot rod together. Those talks never stopped, and as I got older they turned into stories about cars he had owned, which grew into cars we should own, which lead to a barn housing his '57 Bel Air, '74 Corvette, and my Trans Am. Without his interests I never would have found my way into the automotive world. I'd never know the feeling of barreling down a back road, t-tops out, exhaust roaring, without him being the first person to show me how damn cool cars are. No race car driver, designer, executive, or tuner will ever have that kind of impact on me as a car-guy, or a person altogether.

  20. Tanshanomi Avatar

    There are lots of names, but one stands head and shoulders above the others for his business savvy, his engineering genius in so many different areas, and his ability to lead people.
    <img src="http://www.hondacarindia.com/images/inner/founder.gif"&gt;
    Soichiro Honda
    1906 – 1991

    1. Han_Solex Avatar

      Good call! If I'd thought of Honda, I wonder if I'd still have picked Chapman …

  21. Trevor Avatar

    1) Spen King – for designing the automotive industry's only true work of art (it was shown in the Louvre) – The Range Rover Classic
    2) Jan Wilsgaard – The Chief Designer at Volvo (1950 – 1990) – Creator of such beauties as the 140, 200, 700, 900, et.al…. boxy, but good!!
    3) Ferdinand Porsche – The Beetle
    4) Henry Ford – Not just for the Model-T, but pushing for the production of the flathead V8 into the legend it is today.
    5) Harley Earl – Tailfins and the Corvette

  22. Tomsk Avatar

    In no particular order:
    -Dan Gurney
    -my dad
    -Rudolf Diesel
    -Bruno Sacco
    -Ed Cole
    -Gilles Villeneuve
    -Mario Andretti
    -Dale Earnhardt Sr.

  23. Alff Avatar

    My automotive heroes are known by their handles – ghnl, Tifosi and PapaJam. If you know who they are, you'll know why I am so grateful to them.

  24. RandomGuyWithaMazda Avatar

    I can't pick just one, so I'll cheat and submit one domestic (US) car hero and one car hero of mine from abroad.
    First up, John DeLorean. In my mind he can do no wrong (yes that even means the DeLorean DMC12) – and my bias will stay that way until my inevitably untimely death.
    And for abroad, Colin Chapman. He made Lotus in my eyes, and I can not wait for the new Lotus F1 campaign to do justice to this great man.

  25. Ambersand Avatar

    There's a lot of famous automotive heroes out there, but mine is my dad. He raised me to turn a wrench, think that anything was possible (read – able to be restored) and he raised me to generally appreciate the automobile as a whole. He also taught me how to properly drive/hoon a car. I remember sitting in the stands pre-double digits, at Slinger Speedway in Slinger, WI, watching him race those insane Crazy 8 races and spastically waving my tiny checkered flag. I remember him turning the wrench on the GTO in the garage and pulling all nighters to get the race car ready for the weekend always letting me help and patiently explaining everything in excruciating detail until i got it.
    Now he rolls around in his Caddy and plays bingo on Tuesday nights but still loves his cars and helps me out every chance he gets. Yeah, dad is definitely winner winner chicken dinner in my book.

  26. ledrocker555 Avatar

    Enzo Ferrari
    Sorry, but it is.

  27. ledrocker555 Avatar

    oh yah carl janin and martin mezzera

  28. W. Kiernan Avatar
    W. Kiernan

    Jim Clark was my hero when I was a kid.

  29. B-Real Avatar

    Stiggy and May.
    Two opposite ends of the spectrum, but both heroes in their own right.
    One has amazing driving skill the other has a….Fiat Panda….

  30. Jim 7 Avatar
    Jim 7

    Ak Miller, who raced everything:
    and P.L. Newman, who always did the right thing.