Remembering My Dad…

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Remembering My Dad…

By Don Keefe

As I write this, it has been a little more than 12 hours since my father, Charles A. Keefe, Sr. lost his decade-long battle with dementia. He was 84 and in spite of his illness, he remained healthy and active until about two years ago.

As fathers go, my brother Charles and I were very fortunate. He was tough, he didn’t tolerate bad behavior, backtalk or disrespect and when we misbehaved enough for our mother to utter the words “Wait until your father gets home,” we knew that harsh punishment awaited us. I can still remember the fear and dread that phrase brought. In a way, it was like living in a Clint Eastwood movie and if you ever had him glare at you with those steely blue eyes, you know what I am talking about- it was like a scene straight out of Gran Torino. He commanded respect and most of my friends were terrified of him well into adulthood.

On the plus side, he was a lot of fun. We loved watching Saturday morning cartoons, went on all sorts of adventures together, exploring local boatyards, going out on Saturdays and meeting up with his friends at various dealerships, all the while gaining a love of all things mechanical. One time, when I was about four, we went to the old Hallman Chevrolet on East Avenue in Rochester to visit his friend Irving Crane. Mr. Crane was a world-champion professional pool player who worked at Hallman’s at the time. They actually had a pool table upstairs where he would play and work deals with customers.

I remember him as a tall, thin man who was actually very friendly to me. While he and Dad were talking, I slipped away and crawled under the velvet ropes and into the 1957 Corvette SS experimental racecar, which was on display in the main showroom. It had been retired years before but was still worth millions even then. After another salesman whisked me out of the car and told me I wasn’t allowed in it, I remember thinking how it was well worth the scolding. I think my interest in experimental cars was ignited that day. The day he brought home a bright orange 1969 Firebird had me hooked for life- I was four and I can still remember the gleam of the grille in the late-afternoon sun as I looked out the front door. Dad even bought a matching car seat for my brother, who was just a few months old at the time. It was also parchment and had the same interior pattern as the car.

His working at Pontiac dealerships for much of his career instilled a sense of marque loyalty that I took to completely ridiculous levels. In the years that ensued, I stayed a car-crazy kid, who went to college and got a journalism degree so I could write for car magazines.

Pontiac fanatic could mean a lot of things to different people but I did get a very special form of fanaticism as a result. I mean who actually starts a magazine devoted to a brand that is no longer being built? Oh yeah, that would be me.

Dad taught us how engines worked, how to fix and maintain cars and boats and he showed us that there was an elegance and artistry in well-designed vehicles. He loved Duesenbergs and Packards and also appreciated the precision of German engineering. Chris-Craft mahogany runabouts, Pontiac 2+2s and Super Duty Catalinas were also among his favorites. He was a huge fan of the legendary Mac McKellar and he was really impressed that not only did I get to meet Mac but we became friends back in 1990 and stayed in touch for the rest of his life.

I remember when I was still in college and I dragged home a completely beat-up 1966 Grand Prix. He dressed me up one side and down the other for buying such a neglected vehicle. Yet, once he regained his composure, he said, “Well, we might as well get this heap so it will stop safely- we already know that it will go!” He was the first one under the car and after an afternoon of laying new brake lines and rebuilding the brakes, the old GP was roadworthy.

A few years after that, I was living in New Jersey and the Grand Prix was my daily driver. I was planning on meeting up with my cousins in the Southern Tier of New York for a weekend get-together. I made it to Owego, New York on Route 17 when the wheel bearing let go and wiped out the 8-lug drum and the spindle. I was halfway between New Jersey and my destination and about two hours from my parents’ house. I called my dad and told him what happened. He said he would get the parts and meet me down there to fix it. It was about 90 degrees out and he went to a junkyard and pulled the necessary pieces, along with a 5-lug drum and wheel off what was left of my first car, a ‘66 Bonneville convertible, which had been there for several years.

We met at the truck stop I was stranded at and we found a gas station nearby. The attendant was a teenager who had no idea how to operate any of the machinery. My dad just went into the shop and took charge. He turned the drum and mounted the tire from my 8-lug rim onto the 5-lug wheel- he even balanced it for me. I still remember the look on the kid’s face after Dad was finished. I thanked him for letting us use the shop and it was obvious that he wasn’t authorized to do that, judging from the nervous look on his face. Dad said, “Don’t worry kid, I won’t blow you in to your boss.” That was Dad…

My father was certainly the product of a bygone era, one where family came first, your word was your bond and you helped your fellow man whenever you could. You held the door for ladies and you lived up to your responsibilities- no matter what. He was a man of great faith and my parents had a marriage that was inspirational to anyone who met them.

Even though he was diagnosed with dementia in 2008, he continued to live a mostly normal life until he had a heart attack in May of 2015. He recovered but his cognitive function really started to slip from there. He was upset that he could no longer drive but he pushed on and did the best he could for as long as he could.

Last March, his health slipped to a point where he could no longer be cared for at home and alternated between assisted living and hospitalization and finally, a nursing home. Mom visited him almost every day and showed everyone what “for better or worse” really meant. Her devotion to him was absolute.

About four years ago, before his dementia took most of his memory and far too much of who he was, my dad told me, “You know, I have lived a great life and I got to do everything I wanted to- I traveled the world while I was in the Army, I married a wonderful woman, I raised two great kids. If I die tomorrow, it would be fine- I have no regrets.” We should all be so lucky to have lived such a complete life. Godspeed, Dad, I love you…

 

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The True Value of Your Stewardship …

The True Value of Stewardship…

Sometimes, I feel like I am in a soundproof room screaming at the top of my lungs. I have spent the last 20-plus years trying to expand the hobby by welcoming the next generation to the fold. It has been a tough sell for a lot of reasons, though I think that the gravity of the situation is starting to sink in for a lot of people.

I became much more aware of the potential of the Millennial Generation after I made a Millennial of my own. My son Rob was born in September of 1995, and within a few short years it became quite obvious that this generation was going to be large and have a lot of buying power.

According to an article published in April of 2016 by the Pew Research Center, a non-partisan think tank based in Washington, D.C., the Millennial Generation is now the largest living segment of the U.S. population, with 75.4-million people, surpassing the Baby Boomers’ 74.9 million. Obviously, the total number of births between 1946 and 1964 was higher but those total numbers are beginning to dwindle. Additionally, the total number of Millennials is still climbing, with immigration levels at an all-time high, expecting to peak at 81.1 million people by 2036. That is a lot of people and a lot of potential customers.

Whether all of the bad press that the Millennial Generation has received thus far is justified or not is open to debate, the facts are that they comprise almost the entire 17-34 age demographic and their dollars are the most sought after by retailers. Market researchers were gearing up for their market demands since they were in diapers.

Why aren’t we- as automotive hobbyists in general and Pontiac hobbyists specifically- aiming our sights at them? Even if a small fraction of 1% could be enticed to join our ranks, there would be zero need to worry about the future of the hobby. Yet, for the most part, we complain about “those damn kids” without trying to understand who they are, what their interests are and that with some proper stewardship, we could easily make them the very worthy heirs to the legacies that we are so enamored with.

As far as I am concerned, the national clubs as a whole don’t get it and some don’t want to. While they are wasting their time trying to entice “older guys who aren’t in the club” (aka guys who swore them off 20 years ago), they are completely ignoring their own mortality as organizations and driving them full speed into the abyss. This is exactly not the way to do it. How many times have you heard something to the effect of, “We need to bring in the young people but we don’t want to change anything.” Sure, that is working so well already.

Typically, when younger enthusiasts are discouraged from participating at an event, it usually boils down to two things. It is either fear of young people or it’s their car. While it is technically allowed and is technically a Pontiac, it might be a front-driver or has a corporate engine. The purists either put it in the back of the show so no can see it or they simply turn it away altogether. I have actually heard people saying, “We don’t want those kinds of cars at our event.” Yeah, you showed them all right- just don’t complain about how your show size keeps getting smaller every year. If you’re looking for answers, the mirror is a good place to start.

On the flip side, the younger people are going back to their friends and saying how poorly they were treated by the event organizers. Most of their peers give the standard “I told you so” response and those would-be members will never return. Don’t tell me it doesn’t happen, or they are isolated incidents- I know better.

Fortunately, I have seen some progress in three areas of the hobby, two national events and one local one that particularly impressed me. First and foremost, the Ames Performance Pontiac Tri-Power Nationals is the largest and most successful Pontiac event in the country and they do this by not turning people away. I know, it’s crazy but Pete and Andrea Woodruff of Super Duty Promotions, the owners of the event, have classes for any and all Pontiacs ever built and whether you have an original 1963 Super Duty Catalina, a GTO Judge, a race car or a clapped-out Grand Am with a pizza sign on the roof, you are welcomed and encouraged to participate in both the show and race programs. With car counts usually passing 1,000 cars, they have what it takes to keep the momentum going for many years to come.

Our hats are also off to the Trans Am Nationals in Dayton. These folks left all of the “no corporate nonsense” BS at the door and welcomed all Pontiac Firebirds regardless of year or powerplant. Right now, the second-generation cars are the most abundant, but if yours came with a 305 Chevy or 403 Olds, or whatever else, you are welcomed and treated like royalty regardless of whether your car is worth six figures or not.

Finally, I would like to take a moment to give a shout-out to the Widetrack Warriors car club from Orlando, Florida. You will see coverage of their annual event elsewhere in this issue but one point about them that I wanted to make here is that in the fall of 2016, they opened up their club to owners of other GM divisions. They now accept Buick, Cadillac, Olds, Saturn, GMC and even the stateside Holden derivatives, like the Chevy SS. They understood that their survival depended on opening up the membership to other GM cars, and interestingly the makeup of their events hasn’t really changed much but the membership numbers and the dues they generate are up. By remaining a primarily Pontiac-based organization, they can stay true to their mission, while casting a wider net with which to attract more would-be Pontiac fans.

I give the Widetrack Warriors a lot of credit for doing what they did- it definitely took some courage and I am sure there was some pushback. It may not be for every organization and it wouldn’t work for this magazine, but for them it is working. They are providing a realistic path to get at younger people and open up new opportunities to get these younger car guys and girls interested in the Pontiacs that we grew up with and love to this day. By being friendly and inclusive, everybody wins.

-Don Keefe

The Glorious Outcome of Unrestrained Passion, or Finding Pontiac’s Spirit in Auburn Hills…

Tim Kuniskis extolling the virtues of the first production car able to pull a wheelie- we really like this guy…

 

The Glorious Outcome of Unrestrained Passion, or Finding Pontiac’s Spirit in Auburn Hills…

By Don Keefe

Like many of you, I sat and watched the incredibly bold and dramatic reveal of the 2018 Dodge Challenger SRT Demon on April 11th and I was struck by two things: just what a fantastic car it is and how General Motors would never have launched a car in that fashion. It was too anti-social, too irresponsible and just way too far out of GM’s corporate culture to ever pass the multiple layers of legal departments and public relations managers. Yet, that take-no-prisoners mindset was exactly what was needed to launch such an over-the-top vehicle. Once again, Tim Kuniskis, head of FCA brands in North America, nailed it on every level. Part John Z. DeLorean, part P.T. Barnum, he personally launched the Demon in a way that would have brought tears of unadulterated joy to Jim Wangers’ face. Who’s kidding who-it probably did…

While they certainly have the resources to release cars on that level, such as the race-only COPO Camaros, General Motors would not have rattled the cages of everyone from the EPA to Bible Belt church ladies in the process. The whole mission statement of the Dodge Challenger SRT Demon defies logic and that is the whole point.

“…This is a project that was born in the shadows of FCA, a project where the only reverse engineering was finding a way to move the business case forward. It’s one of those projects where the only thing you can count on was the bean counters killing it. And the typical car company lawyer? Well, they would have redlined this thing out of existence. And that’s fine, because at Dodge, making the suits nervous is how we know we’re on the right track…because when we do it right, when we are true to our core, we deliver products that would never have gotten off the ground at a typical car company.” -Tim Kuniskis

 

When was the last time you heard a message like that coming from a car company? Easy, when the Hellcat was released in 2015. Same guy, same passion.

I have been watching Mr. Kuniskis (a fellow Rochestarian by the way) for quite a while now and what I see in him is a true car guy who worked his way up in the company in a meaningful fashion. He was not one of those Harvard MBAs who was dropped in without any field experience. He knows the business because he was fully immersed in it.

After graduating from the State University of New York with a Bachelors Degree in Business Administration, Kuniskis did it the old-fashioned way, gaining real-world experience, step by step. He started in the Syracuse Parts and Service District in 1992 and moved into the sales end shortly after that. His first car? A 1977 Firebird Formula that he purposely blew up the original 350 in, so he and his dad could install a 455. He may work at FCA but he’s one of us. Kuniskis understands the business because he has been involved in every level of the Chrysler organization. This is in stark contrast to the time-honored tradition of hiring people with the best-looking credentials and no regard for the fact that they don’t have a shred of experience in the car business.

As an enthusiast, Kuniskis understands the passion that fellow car nuts have, and just how viscerally the quest for the ultimate automotive experience can grab someone. They mercilessly exploited that notion with weekly teasers on social media that heightened interest and buzz about the new Demon to agonizing levels. Under his direction, Dodge has become a car company that gets it better than any before it. Others have had that level of passion before but no one was able to get things approved like he has.

Without a doubt, there is a very different mindset at Fiat Chrysler America (FCA), one that allows not only for the development of such outlandish “halo car” programs but also, their release. There was no last-minute rejection to this program like the ones that killed the legendary Ram Air V and other great innovations at Pontiac.

Just think where Pontiac would be today if GM brass had let passionate engineers like Mac McKellar, Herb Adams, Bill Collins, Tom Nell, Jeff Young and others get out there and let their imaginations run wild back then and nurtured that mindset to the present. What could Jim Wangers have done to get the word out about Pontiac without GM brass hampering his every move? I am confident that not only would there still be a Pontiac but they would be at the top of the horsepower wars today.

Cars like the Demon, the Hellcat and the rest of the Dodge SRT line don’t come out of focus groups or traditional planning committees. They come from passionate people who are willing to put their careers on the line to make it happen. Dodge has positioned itself as a performance division much like Pontiac did in the 1960s. While full-line carmakers like Chevrolet, Ford, Toyota and others offer very competent performance cars, Dodge is the only one who doesn’t treat it as a niche with their “me too” entry.

Like Pontiac before it, Dodge’s performance message is at the forefront, no matter what the segment- I mean really, they are coming out with a 707-horse SUV this fall, so they aren’t just phoning it in. The big difference is that no one is tying Dodge’s hands at every turn like GM did with Pontiac. I really do wish that Pontiac was still around because I think that the competition between these two companies would bring out some amazing vehicles for fans of both.

In Memory of Eric White

EricWhite

It has been over a month since Eric White passed away and in that time, we have had some time to reflect on the impact that he had and continues to have on the Pontiac hobby. For the May issue, we put together a tribute to him to call attention to the work that he did and to give him the best sendoff we knew how.

There is always the thought of immortalizing those who have left us in some way, both as a marker to their place in history and also to provide some degree of comfort to those left behind. With Eric’s body of work, in the form of his artwork, photography, and The GTO Association of America Pontiac GTO/GT-37 Identification Guide, his place in history is assured and very significant. This magazine and the Pontiac hobby would not be the same without Eric’s contributions and for that reason, he will always be on our masthead.

To my mind, there is also the responsibility to continue his work in the area of the preservation of automotive history. My own personal situation has given me a unique opportunity to help continue his work in an interesting way.

Ever since I was a child, I collected car magazines. From the time I was nine years old, I put down comic books and moved into a world that was much more exciting than anything DC Comics or Marvel could provide to me. I was lured in by such titles as Hot Rod, Car Craft, Popular Hot Rodding and High Performance Cars, the lone East Coast title I read back then. I was hooked. I started mowing lawns to earn enough money to buy them on my own. Every once in a while, my mom and dad would treat me to a magazine on our trips to the grocery store but for the most part, I bought them on my own.

The lure of the world of car magazines inspired me to pursue a career in the field. As a result, I went to St. John Fisher College in Rochester, about a mile from where I live now and graduated with a Bachelors degree in Communication/Journalism. It is hard to believe that it has been 30 years since I donned my cap and gown and crossed the stage.

The truth was that by the time I went to college, I already learned how to write based on the writing styles of the late greats Roger Huntington and Tom Senter, two writers who without their knowledge, helped me find my own voice and later, my advocation. I ended up talking to Mr. Huntington on the phone once and told him what a great influence he was and also passed that message on to Mr. Senter’s widow about ten years ago.

Forty plus years after being blown away by the August, 1975 issue of Car Craft, my obsession has turned into a career and it also turned into a pretty huge collection of magazines, sales literature, press kits and books. I don’t even want to think about how much money I spent over the years, I am confident that I could have purchased a GTO Judge at current market price for the amount of cash I spent. A few bucks here, a few more there, a few more about 10,000 times and it adds up. I don’t even know how many magazines I have- I estimate that I have around 10,000, plus a large amount of books, brochures, promotional posters, calendars and other pieces of automotive memorabilia.

Here is where my dilemma comes in. Ann and I are planning to move to the Gulf Coast of Florida and downsize. I have been hauling these magazines with me on every move I made. No More.

When I got divorced a dozen years ago, I rented and filled a 10×20-foot storage unit with- you guessed it- car magazines. I have a lot more now and I have decided that if it is not actively used for research, it has to go. I had talked to a few people about taking the collection but the truth is, I think that most of them were taken aback when they found out just how large the collection has become. No one person seems to be able to handle them.

Ann teases me by threatening to call the producers of the Hoarding TV show but I steadfastly consider it collecting- my contention is that it is never hoarding if your stuff is cool. She is only kidding (I think) but the fact that my collection was well organized and on shelving indicates that I don’t have a problem. Okay, I am repeating that in my head and it does sound like something a crazy person would say- but I am not- you’ll have to take my word for it.

Eric’s passing brought his work with the Automotive History Preservation Society back in focus. He and I had spoken about it several times and in addition to founding the organization, he was very active in it, tirelessly scanning old magazines and sales brochures, compiling a huge online database of information.

After considering the options, I have decided to donate the bulk of my collection to the Society. I have some incredibly rare magazines and books as well as some very obscure Pontiac and Oakland sales literature as well as print ads that should be permanently preserved.

I contacted Bob Geromotta at AHPS and I have directed them to take all of my materials, scan them and then sell them off to help keep the operation running. With all of the stuff I have accumulated over the years, I am sure that it will help.

One thing that I learned at Eric’s memorial service was his appreciation of the military and those who fought and were injured in battle. At the time of his death, he was working with a local church organization to hire disabled vets to help with the scanning of materials for the Society. We hope that his vision for those employment opportunities materializes.

What about you? I can’t think of a better way to help preserve automotive history and make it available to everyone than to help the AHPS continue its work. They are doing a fantastic job of not only preserving automotive history but also helping to rebuild lives disrupted by injury and war.

Eric White was a wonderful man and everyone I know misses him terribly, myself included. In addition to continuing to run the AHPS ad without charge, I am donating my collection in memory of Eric and I hope that my contribution inspires you to pick up the torch and donate your cash and materials to the Automotive History Preservation Society.

For more information on the great work the AHPS does and how you can get involved, please visit the web site at ahpsoc.org.

 

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#PonchosUnited

DonKeefe

#PonchosUnited

The nearly 30 years of experience I have had in the magazine business and my immersion in the Pontiac hobby since early childhood has shown me a lot of things. First, I think that Pontiac people are the best in the hobby. The friendships that I have fostered over the years have really moved beyond the realm of friends- I consider many to be family and that is the highest compliment that I can give.

When I first landed at CSK Publishing in Hackensack, New Jersey, to start my position as Associate Editor for High Performance Pontiac, I was a wide-eyed kid who had a good deal of knowledge about Pontiacs and journalism and was eager to get started. I quickly found out, however, that I still had much to learn. Fortunately, CSK was the perfect place to be.

In a lot of ways that little publishing company blended extremely well with my college training. Both were relatively small operations and because of that, we learned all aspects of the business. Most car magazines at the time were much larger and had separate departments for editorial, road test, photography and other functions.

At CSK, not only was there only one group of people handling all of those things for High Performance Pontiac, we were also the staff for seven other magazines. If you look through the mastheads for late 1980s and early 1990s issues of High Performance Mopar, Musclecars, Vette, Muscle Mustangs and Fast Fords, Fast Cars & Rock and Roll, GM Enthusiast and Bracket Racing USA, you will find the same names. We did all of those magazines at the same time and it was the best training for anyone in the business- it was car magazine boot camp. Even today, having CSK Publishing on your resume is a badge of honor because that was a real “sink or swim” environment.

One of the more interesting outcomes of my CSK years are the friendships from that time in my life. I am in regular contact with most of the people from that company- even though I haven’t worked there in 25 years. The camaraderie that I continue to experience from that period is very much a part of who I am. We had Mustang fans, Mopar fans, Pontiac fans, Corvette fans, sports car fans, racers, wrenchers, photographers and editors and we all got along. We got into a ton of mischief and we still get together and laugh about it to this day.

I find it fascinating that with all of the differences we had in ethnicity, politics, lifestyle and marque loyalty, that we got along so famously. I think most of it had to do with the notion that we were decent to one another. It really seemed to work. Who knew?

Why is it then that the Pontiac hobby, a single marque that is no longer in operation, has to be so fragmented at this stage of the game? We are all fans of an orphan make. Isn’t it time to start working together? Isn’t it time that we actually make the hobby more attractive to younger enthusiasts instead of shaming them at shows and telling them their cars aren’t worthy of display?

Yes, it does still happen and it really disturbs me. Haven’t those same people ever heard the old saying, “Be nice to your kids. They choose your nursing home?” It’s the same with cars. Do you want your car to go to an enthusiast or someone who leaves it in a field to rot?

Without a doubt, the portion of the hobby that gets the most media attention is the muscle-era Pontiacs, most notably, the GTO and Trans Am, as well as their various related A and F-bodies. While those are fantastic machines, there are so many other dynamic, interesting and active areas of the Pontiac hobby that many don’t even know about. How about inviting them to your events to get your show numbers up? How about giving little kids rides in the parking lot instead of yelling at them to stay away from your car?

I own two Pontiacs purposely chosen because they are somewhat outside of the mainstream: a 2000 Daytona Pace Car Replica Grand Prix GTP and a 1966 Tempest Custom four-door hardtop. My GTP has been called by a few self-proclaimed experts on the topic, “front-drive crap,” “not a real Pontiac,” “a Buick” and “a Chevy.”

Similarly, my Tempest has been called a “GTO parts car,” a “waste of time” and a “dead grandma’s car.” That last one may well be true, however, as Mrs. Mason, wherever she is, must have looked down with great pride to see the panic her and her husband’s Tempest caused when I pulled into the midway area at the 2013 Ames Performance Pontiac Nationals. Everyone was marveling at the original, intact California A.I.R. system and the amazingly original condition of the car. One observer said to me, “I have seen two of a lot of cars here today, but I haven’t seen two of those.”

If we were to just stop bickering about whose car was this or that and made a little room under the tent for the Pontiac fans with different tastes, this hobby would be nearly as large as the Mopar hobby. Think about it, if everyone welcomed the Fieros, the front-drivers, the Third and Fourth-Gen Firebirds, the late-model GTOs, the Solstices, the G8s, hell, even the Azteks, I think that the Pontiac hobby would be healthy enough for our great-grandchildren to enjoy these cars in a self-sustaining hobby.

When it comes down to the group who I think has the best attitude of inclusiveness in the Pontiac hobby, I would have to say that the Trans Am Nationals has the right idea. They welcome all Firebirds from all four generations. Best of all, they take no issue with GM small-blocks, V-6s or LS-power- quite a breath of fresh air.

Since the history of the Pontiac Firebird is six years longer without the traditional Pontiac V-8 than it is with it, they allow that the march of technology meant that powerplants come and go. While we can all have our favorites, it doesn’t mean we have to shun all others.

I have come up with an idea that I hope will unite the Pontiac hobby and help spread the word about this magazine. You hear people talking about “hashtags,” the pound signs that precede posts that are made on social media. They tie similar interests together in searches and help spread the word about whatever it is that the posters are interested in.

I therefore ask all of you, whenever you make a post about Pontiacs that you end it with the phrase, #PonchosUnited. That way, we can help promote the idea of uniting the Pontiac hobby and at the same time, help get the word out about Poncho Perfection. We are enthusiastic about the future and want to grow the hobby. Let’s start here and see where it goes.