Phil Hill's Road Cars
By Ian Wagstaff
Back in late 1988, Ian Wagstaff visited the late-Phil Hill at his Santa Monica-based Hill & Vaughn classic car restoration business to talk about road cars. The following, never before published, article was written at the time.
At first, it seems strange that Phil Hill, 1961 World Champion, three-time Le Mans winner and one of the greatest Ferrari works drivers, should use an Acura as his every day transport. Acura is the up-market marque Honda uses to sell its Legend in the US. Phil’s is a V6 LS four door ‘sedan’, which he has owned for a year. It is his first Japanese car, so, why did he choose it?
‘I’d heard people saying good things about them. Not extraordinary, just good things, and I thought that it might be interesting to own one. It is the only car I have ever owned where nothing has ever gone wrong, not one item – not one screw, piece of carpet, funny little latch or anything. It’s not terribly exciting but this is an extraordinary virtue.’
The Acura is backed by a Jeep Grand Wagoner. ‘It is a terrible car, the only reason we have it is that it is good for towing heavy antique cars.’ It is these historic cars that now give Phil his greatest driving pleasure.
During his college days, he drove ‘a family car put out to pasture’, a 1931 Pierce Arrow, which he still owns. In the 1950s, Phil restored it and took ‘Best of Show’ at the prestigious Pebble Beach classic car meeting.
‘Now I like it more than ever. Twice as much time has occurred since its restoration than before. It still has a good look to it, but it has many little faults that make it possible to drive it on the road and take the attitude that, if it rains, it rains.
‘I have more darn fun in antique cars. You can drive them flat out without being obvious!’
For 15 years Phil has tried to preserve all the work that has gone into the restoration. ‘It was a pain in the neck. I don’t want any more cars like that; it spoils the fun.’
He does, admittedly, own other classics. However, his attitude can be summed up by what happened to his 4½-litre ‘blower’ Bentley.
‘It just became awfully valuable. Count me out. I just don’t want to drive around in something worth that much.’ It was, accordingly, sold back to England.
Included in his collection of around a dozen cars is a 1915 Packard. It distinguished itself covering 70 miles in an hour at Indianapolis in the summer of 1914. It was quite a feat for a ‘stock car’ considering the 500-mile race was only being won at around 80mph.
Motoring for Phil began with a 1923 Model T in 1939, ‘when I was 12. I was walking with my aunt past a used car establishment. There was this low mileage Ford, sticking miles above everything else. I showed an interest in it just because it was such an oddity. They wanted $20 for it, double what they were going for. I don’t know what was in my aunt’s mind but she bought it for me. All I was able to do was just sneak it out of the garage, roar around the neighbourhood and put it back before the police came!’
The Model T was followed by a 1929 Model A Ford with ‘a considerably bigger engine than belonged in the thing’ and then by a 1940 Packard 6 convertible.
There have been many cars since, one of the most recent being an Oldsmobile Touring sedan. ‘It had a “woodsy” feel such as found in a British luxury car. It was nicely finished off, but the Acura has it beat on reliability.’
Another was a 6.3 Mercedes-Benz, ‘that little car with the monster engine. All it did was lay black strips of rubber. Between replacing the U-joints and odds and ends, it was quite an enjoyable car. The self levelling device was a constant wonder. For an almost top of the line car you expect it to be faultless and it wasn’t. I think the people that developed it realised that it was a “hot rod” and that aspect might take its toll but it was a lot of fun.’
Phil admits that has driving has calmed down. ‘Up to ten years ago, I wanted to go faster and pass whoever was in front.’ The need to do that has diminished, perhaps encouraged by the misery the authorities could cause.
What, though, about Ferraris? The classic image of Phil Hill is in nostril-nosed 1961 Grand Prix Ferrari 1 ½-litre. ‘We weren’t catered for in at all the same way as modern drivers, and besides, I did not want one. They made you such a spectacle.’ Phil does admit to having run a Ferrari 330GTC on the road for a while.
Phil, who has been described as one of the most intelligent men to sit in a racing car, now chooses to drive Japanese. Perhaps this is not so surprising. As World Champion, he disliked all the trappings of glory; this is not a man with a desire to be ‘flashy’, just to enjoy his motoring to the full.
View all books by Ian Wagstaff
Other articles by Ian:
- Part 2
- Part 3
- Part 4
- Part 5
- Part 6
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