Guest Authors: A Tale of Two Astons

Written by on April 23, 2016 in Aston Martin, Guest Blogger with 0 Comments

ARTICLE & SELECTED PHOTOGRAPHY BY BOB & RUSS TAFT

Russell and Frank Taft Aston Martins

Russell and Frank Taft, and, oh yes, the Aston Martins.

The Aston-Taft Dynamic

In 1964, our dad, Russell P. Taft, (“Parker” to his friends, pictured above on the left) decided to celebrate his ten-year anniversary of practicing law by the purchase of a car for him and his wife Betty. This, coupled with the fact that his “Pushbutton” Chrysler 300 was on its last legs, spurred our hero into action. (We, his sons were six years old, and our sister Leslie was three at the time.) Such a car must say “Success” without being ostentatious. MG: too cheap. MBZ Gull Wing: A possibility, but too difficult to get in and out of gracefully. Jag: also a possibility, but too common. Rolls or Bentley: remember ostentatious?

Parker, along with his brother Frank, attended a seminar by the Caliofrnia Highway Patrol (CHP), during which an officer asserted that “American cars do better in crashes than foreign cars, you only need to look in a junk yard to see the results.” Dad’s brother, Frank Taft was somewhat of a car guy, and offered input and advice on the matter. Frank and Parker went to see Bob Kukuruzas at Bob’s Tow in Vallejo, to investigate.

Frank had recently built a relationship with Bob, by helping him import a car from Europe pro-bono! Frank had recently purchased a Porsche Speedster in Germany, and imported it, so he knew just what forms were needed, and what hoops to jump through. While investigating the CHP’s assertion at Bob’s Towing and Storage yard, they found a 1957 Aston Martin DB2/4 MkII. (This car even had room for kids!) Parker, not having ever heard of an Aston Martin, was informed by Frank, that “this is a very desirable car,” and is used by a fictitious spy named James Bond in a novel that he was reading. It was called “Goldfinger” by Ian Fleming. This was good enough for Parker! Even though the car was not for sale, as it had been stolen, recovered, and was awaiting disposition by the insurance company, our two plucky heroes Parker and Frank got a battery and some fuel, fired it up, and brought it home, anyway! Upon seeing it, Parker’s wife Betty politely insisted that as the Chrysler was on its last gasp and he had three young children, perhaps he should set his sights on a car that didn’t need so much work: a tree had fallen on the hood (American for bonnet), it needed a windshield (American for windscreen), and although it ran, it needed work on the interior, motor, and transmission (American for gearbox). So they brought it back to the tow company, and there it sat.

1957 Aston Martin DB2/4 MkII

1957 Aston Martin DB2/4 MkII

The two brothers did some other legal work for the owner of British Motors in Vallejo, Larry Albedi. Parker set up their corporation, and was given the lofty title of Vice President of British Motors in Vallejo. That and $0.10 would buy him a cup of coffee, as it was in name only! They mentioned the Aston (MkII) to Larry, who told Parker that he knew of another Aston, that was a black 1959 DB2/4 MkIII, very similar to the first, but a “Convertible” (that is American for “Drop-Head Coupe”). At the time, it was offered for $2,500 but Parker had only $2,000. He called his friend, the manager of the Mechanics Bank, and asked if they would honor the check if written for the purchase price. The manager said yes, just bring the car by, so he can take pictures of the car, to use as collateral. Parker went to San Francisco and bought it (at this time, a house cost around $5,000). The car had the current license plate that read “AUD 007” at the time of purchase. Parker brought the car back to the bank so that the manager could take pictures of the car. The bank manager was impressed, saying over and over “what a beautiful car! I want it!” He finally turned to Parker and said, “For God’s sake, Parker, don’t make the payments!” (Remember, it was used for collateral!)

About a year later, Parker received a call from “Bob K.” with Bob’s Tow Service. “Were you still interested in that old Aston Martin?” as it was soon to be auctioned. Parker considered it for a Parts Car, and was mildly interested (but it turned out that the cars were too different for the MkII to be used as a parts car. The MkII was an unusual configuration. Aston had made most of its hard tops with a swept back (or hatch-back) calling it a “Saloon”, but this had a convertible body with a non-removable hard top, a “Notch-back” or Fixed-Head Coupe was the official designation.

The call came, and the car was on the auction block. By this time Frank was a little short on cash, so he didn’t bother going to the auction. But neither did anybody else! It was a rainy, stormy day, so Frank gets another call from Bob K., and the conversation went something like this:

Bob: “You want that car?”

Frank: “Yeah, but I don’t have a lot of cash.”

“You can have it by bidding $10, and paying the $300 storage fee. I’ll spot you the $10, but you gotta pay the storage fees, and you gotta take it TODAY!”

“Hold on” said Frank, and he ran down to the bar below their office, and asked the owner “How much you got in the till?” “About $300.” “Great, can I borrow it?”

“Sure” he runs back upstairs where Bob is holding, “I got the $300, I’ll be right there!”

The next day, he receives a call from the insurance company, “Are you Mr. Taft?”

“Yes.”

“Did you buy an Aston Martin yesterday, at an auction?”

“Yes.”

“Well, Mr. Taft, there’s been a terrible mistake, and the car shouldn’t have been sold. We’re prepared to offer you what you paid for the car, plus $500 for your trouble.”

“Sorry, the car’s not for sale,” and Frank hung-up.

About a week later, a check for $1,000 arrives in the mail, with a note “Dear Mr. Taft, Enclosed is a check… blah-blah-blah… car shouldn’t have been sold, blah-blah, please return the car. Frank just wrote across the check “No Thank You” and sent it back. Remember, Frank had to borrow the $300, and was pretty broke, being a new lawyer and all, so it killed him to have to send the check back, but if they were willing to do this, the car must be something special!

1959 DB2/4 MkIII

1959 DB2/4 MkIII

After several months of work, a couple of favors from some body shops, Autosport, and a windshield cut from a Studebaker out of a junk yard, the car was a driver, and although not restored, looking pretty good!

The brothers enjoyed driving them and showing them on occasion. They enjoyed parking their Astons in front of their law offices in Vallejo. Years passed, and Frank Decided he wanted to enter his Aston in a car show in 1976, and Russ (the coauthor) stopped by on his way home from school every day for a couple of months helping Frank get ready for the show. (Translation: under the car on a creeper, with a putty knife, some mineral spirits, and some rags scraping and cleaning the years of gunk from the underside of the car.) Frank, knowing full well that he wouldn’t win anything at the car show, said “If we win a trophy, I’ll let you take it to the Vallejo High School Prom!” Russ scraped and cleaned like a mad-man! Well, the car won 3rd in its category! Disaster! He now had to make good on the promise, and let his 18-year-old nephew drive it. Further disaster: to his horror he found out that the prom was not in Vallejo at the high school gym as he surmised, but in San Francisco at the newly opened Hyatt Regency!!

Of course when Russ told Bob that he was to take Frank’s Aston to the prom, Bob naturally asked his father Parker for the same privilege. Well, Parker was put in an awkward position: he couldn’t let his son Russ take an Aston, and leave his other son (Russ’s twin brother) Bob without one, when one was available, now could he? He went to talk to Frank (“What the hell are you thinking!?!?), but Frank insisted, “a deal’s a deal,” and he can’t go back on his word. So Bob and Russ drove the two Astons to their Senior Prom in a rare lack of judgment by the 2 attorneys (instead of the Girls dad’s waiting up all night, it was the twins’ dad and uncle who did).

For Parker’s 52nd birthday, Bob, Russ and their grandmother had a new convertible top made to replace the leaky Canvas original top in 1978, and replaced some of the interior leather that had been weathered.

The car continued in daily use by the family for the next several years.

In 1982, Parker’s mechanic had dire news, the head gasket blew, and the cylinder liners were toast. Parker opted for a full rebuild. The block was machined, but when this was done, the machinist had inadvertently put a .008″ taper from front to back. This meant that the cylinder liners could not be installed. The mechanic had also said he had no Idea how to fix it. The block went to machine shop after machine shop to find someone to remove the taper, and no one would touch it with a ten foot pole (about 3 meters).

Aston Martin Restoration
Aston Martin Restoration

And there it sat, for thirty-two years. Meanwhile, the MkII enjoyed the limelight, was in several car shows, was pampered, repainted its original two-tone colors, had its motor rebuilt and ultimately was driven to Monterey in 2013 for Car Week.

In 2012, our sister Leslie put a note on the MkIII “Doesn’t anyone love me?” And she began cleaning the years of dust and grime off of the car, on her own. She returned some of the luster to the body. And that was the motivation to begin the process!

Leslie Taft

Russ and Frank, at the 2012 Monterey Car Week, discussed what was needed to get the car going again. We happened to sit with a guy named Mike Green (son of Aston Martin company rep Richard “Dickie” Green) owner of West Coast British, in Livermore, CA, about the taper, and he said, that if you’re not going to race it, he could get it to a point that it would only be about .0015, and that would be enough. (Mike should know, he takes care of his dad’s old MkIII, and shows it also!!) Plans were made to prepare the car, and it was brought to a local auto body shop, where it sat, for about a year.

At the 2013 Monterey Car Week, Parker decided to attend, at the insistence of his brother and sons. At one point in the Aston Martin tent at Parker and Frank’s table sat Mike Green and we discovered that Frank’s MkII was the very car that brought him home from the hospital after his birth; he also told Frank that the car was owned and driven by David Brown Inc. as D.B.’s North American driver. (When the Aston Martin brass discovered that Dickie Green was representing Aston, but driving a Jag, they sent the car to be Dickie’s company car. This was subsequently documented as such by a letter from Newport Pagnell.)

2013 Monterey Car Week

2013 Monterey Car Week

Mike, a skilled British car mechanic and racer, recalled the conversation from the previous year, and this time definite plans were made to rebuild the motor! So the family set out to find all of the parts that had been spread to numerous places; Parkers basement, garage, in boxes at Autosport on Vallejo, at Burch Engineering in Napa, at Parker and Frank’s shared garage in Benicia, and off of Frank’s MkII. (Turns out that there are a lot of common parts)

The Goal: To have the car running by Car Week 2014! This was truly a family Project. Russ took on the role of “project manager,” and coordinated with all of the sub-contractors, and box after box of MkIII parts were brought to West Coast British (sorry Mike). Over the years, many parts were lost or in such bad condition that new ones had to be made. The paint was a problem too. As mentioned earlier, it had sat, largely untouched, in the body shop for a year. There were dings and small dents as well as cracking in the original paint. A friend of Bob, Troy Ornelas, came by to look at the car and asked if he could paint it. He has painted Ferrari’s and Jags, but Aston was his “Holy Grail.” Everyone got into the act stripping chrome and insignia from the car, sanding the body, removing and delivering interior components to the upholsterer, M&J Upholstering in Vallejo, and sending the badly cracked steering wheel to Oregon to be repaired.

Parts were scarce, but through the Aston Martin Feltham Club, Steel Wings in the east, Kevin Kaye Restorations up in Redding, British Car Specialists and Jaguar Heaven in Stockton, re-purposing some Jag, Rover, MG, Triumph, Austin Healy, other English car parts (Lucas, Girling, etc.), and Russ and Frank machining parts at the shop in Benicia, they were getting close. Too close. With only days to go and the car still in pieces, Parker, Frank, and even Mike started to lower their expectations. Mike Green exclaimed, “This car ain’t going nowhere!” many times! “Maybe we can just trailer it down, and park it.”

When it became clear that there would be no time to put the car together at home before Monterey, Mike let us start assembling it in his shop, while he and his son Peter were working on the motor. But not only the motor. As the car had been sitting for so long, almost every mechanical system needed attention: frayed electrical wires, brakes, clutch and transmission, and a frozen driveshaft! There were many late and all-nighters leading up to the 15th of August. It seemed like every time we got something done, something would break, get lost, or go wrong. Wrong part, bad part, FedEx missing a Saturday delivery, hidden corrosion, you name it. (Typical of the trials: generator shaft bent, the head was dropped by UPS and camshaft broken). By the Friday before Monterey, the car had no chrome, lights, battery, rear motor mount, or exhaust system. The radiator was late, driveshaft frozen, distributor was on order, spark plugs or wires missing, oil filter canister was missing, and on order, and interior was done, not installed. Further woes; the new brakes were leaking, and the new clutch didn’t work.

1957 Aston Martin DB2/4 MkII and 1959 DB2/4 MkIII

Russ kept pushing. “We gotta get it going!” After a marathon couple of days over the weekend, things started to click. Parts started showing up on Saturday and Monday! Work was feverish, but still a long way to go! Tuesday morning, Parker confided to Mike, that he appreciated the effort, but he was resigned that the car was not going to make it. Mike got the oil filter installed, and spun the motor to see if oil pressure would build, Voila! Thirty pounds just on cranking! He then sent Russ for spark plugs, as he wanted to compression test it. While Russ was gone, the distributor was delivered! He sent Russ back out for spark plug wires, and he and Russ built a set. Then the moment we all waited for! It started for the first time since 1982 on Tuesday, August 12th, 2014. The next day some fine tuning, and several flushings of the gas tank, the car was DRIVEN onto a flatbed, and brought back to Vallejo to get mufflers and exhaust at Lipsey’s Tire and Muffler, who stayed late to get the job done. Now, it’s 9PM, and on to the Benicia Garage where the electrical was tweaked and the Massive Hood (Bonnet) was installed at 4AM Thursday, August 14th, 2014. At 8AM, it was brought to M&J Upholstery in Vallejo, for the interior, and was finished just in time for departure to Monterey THAT DAY at noon. It was driven for the first time, as a completed car to Casa Munras, in Monterey, and then to Laguna Seca the next day!

1959 DB2/4 MkIII

Epilogue:
Both cars continue to be driven to car shows, and to special events: We participated in several AMOC events, Blackhawk Museum’s Aston Martin Cars and Coffee, and several Cars and Coffee events around the bay area since. They also have been in the Danville d’Elegance, The Orinda Car show, and 2015 Monterey Car Week. On July 4th, the MkIII participated in a wedding, taking the Bride and Groom to their reception at Jack London Square. The MkII was at the English Only Car Show in Dixon, and won best in class, in May of 2015. There are still many miles left on the cars…and the brothers!

Special Thanks To:

  • Mike Green, West Coast British, Livermore, CA
  • M&J Upholstery, Vallejo, CA
  • Lipsey’s Tire and Muffler, Vallejo, CA
  • Leo & John Lockrem, Autosport, Vallejo, CA
  • Troy Ornelas, Napa, CA
  • Drive Line Service of Concord, Pittsburg, CA
  • Pankey’s Radiator Repair, Hayward, CA
  • Buchanan Auto Electric, Oakland, CA
  • British Car Specialists, Stockton CA
  • Kevin Kaye Restorations, Redding CA
  • Broadway Auto Body, Vallejo, CA

AND…

Our wives, children, and other family and friends who helped, and/or contributed to our passion for getting the MkIII back on the road!

A sampling of photos of the legendary pair—the cars that is…

Click on any of the following thumbnails for full-size photos with descriptions. You can navigate through the slides by clicking on the right and left-hand arrows on the photo or using the < and > keys on your keyboard.

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