I grew up in Santa Monica, California, in the early ‘70s. At the local library, I would indulge in an afternoon of car fantasy, reading through one of four out-of-date car books, mostly on the subject of racing. On Fridays, Dad would rent 16mm movies from the local library. Many of these movies were memorable, but there was one that stuck in my mind. Miss Esta Maude’s Secret was about a quiet school teacher and a little red race car she kept hidden from everyone. At night she would slip out and go on wild adventures. Her secret was that she liked to drive fast. It was the summer of 1973 and at 11 years old, I wanted a secret too.
I was thinking quite clearly the day I told my father I was ready to buy my own car. To his credit he didn’t miss a beat when he responded, “You’ll need to learn how to work on them first. The only thing more pathetic than a car that doesn’t run is a man unable to fix it.” Two days later, Dad presented me with my first set of Craftsman tools – and my journey to manhood had begun.
Some months later, I spotted an ad in the L.A. Times. It read simply: “Race car. Looks like small Ferrari. $1,500, comes with trailer.” I wasted no time getting Dad on the phone to the owner. With me barking out questions in the background, Dad confirmed critical data such as redness of color, neat looking “spokie” wheels, and why it would need a trailer. We made plans to make the 350-mile drive up to Pleasant Hill, California, the next day.
Early Sunday morning, we gassed up the 1958 VW van, greased up the trailer hitch and headed North up Highway 405. Several hours later, we arrived at the car’s home. It was already in the driveway when we arrived. The owner was clearing things from the garage when I jumped from the van and screamed, “This is it Dad! It’s PERFECT!” Years later, I would develop the fine art of calm and restraint when negotiating the purchase of a used car. But for my 11-year-old enthusiasm, the car really was perfect. It was not only red; it was speedy looking and just my size. As I stood there caressing the fenders, I couldn’t help but think that it was just like Miss Esta Maude’s race car. There was none of the typical bartering that I can recall. It just seemed the car was meant for me. We paid the price and moved on. In the end, the owner was very pleased to see that someone young and excited was buying the car.
The next morning I was up bright and early standing at the side of Mom and Dad’s bed. Although I don’t remember it, Dad swore for years that I stood there in my pajamas clutching my Craftsman tool set, waiting for him to get up. We uncovered the car and started unloading it that morning. Dad insisted on taking a written inventory of the parts as we removed them and placed them in the garage: engine #1, engine #2, a spare set of wire wheels, a set of gauges, some strange looking aluminum castings, etc. all part of the seemingly endless stream of parts that poured from the belly of the VW like colorful scarves from a magician’s hat. By mid-morning, my brother and sister had lost interest, but a steady stream of questions was still coming from the occasional passing neighbor. I was learning as I went along, so it was a challenge explaining it. “1953 Giaur.” Pausing while they would say try to pronounce the name with torture. Then I would reply “J-ow-er. Like tower, only with a J.”
After all the parts were in place, the time had come to unleash the car and bring her to life. I hopped inside and steered her down the rusty ramps. My legs hit the pedals perfectly and, although I had to put two phone books on the seat in order to see over the hood, I had grown accustomed to phone books from my earlier driving lessons. With our handwritten instructions for starting, I leaned inside, goosed the throttle and hit the starter. A flash of mechanical whirring and spitting spewed from the motor. In a few seconds, a symphony of explosions erupted from the exhaust. In recent years, I have come to appreciate this sound much like a mature palate appreciates a fine wine. At age eleven, however, I was still fond of nightlights and Bruno (my stuffed dog and faithful guardian against night monsters). Needless to say, I re-coiled my starter hand, covered my ears and was glazed in horror. Dad, now fully engulfed in laughter at my expense, waited appropriately and then calmly reached over and shut down the motor with a flick of the kill switch.
It took a few days, but after a while I got used to the sound and the feel of the car. Dad was too large to fit into the passenger seat, so when it came to the driving duties, I was on my own. We would trailer the car down to the VA parking lot, start it up and I would put it in gear and go. Dad would run along side, watching me, yelling “clutch, shift – pause – shift.” Often times, Dad would use the phrase “Aaugh!” between his “pause” and “shift” orders as I would grind a few pounds of gear metal. “If that gear box was beef we’d be eating burgers tonight.” Dad would snip at me. With no synchro in first or second, you had to match engine speed to rotation of wheels, pause and shift. Double clutching was far too advanced for someone with only four years of bicycling experience.
Over the years, I resisted the temptation to sell the Giaur. Many times I was close to selling. I needed the money more than once for college, down payments, and (reality knock) curtains and baby cribs.
In 1997, I decided to look into restoration. The Giaur spent almost three years at a shop – partly out of financial necessity to me, and partly due to the complexity of restoring such a rare car. The shop restored the car not only to a high standard, but it kept my desire to use and enjoy the car as part of the completed goals.
The decision was made early on to restore the car to the last-known competitive form. This would include the revised and updated dash, newer instruments, Aerojet 44 cu. in. engine, Weber carb. and offset hood bulge. Some of the technical specifications include 15” x 2.75” single laced wire wheels, aluminum finned drum brakes (Fiat Topolino as were many of the special parts), all aluminum body, Fiat four speed gear box, and 3 gallon fuel tank. The Aerojet engine is the advanced version of the original Crosley block. It is an overhead cam (head and black a single casting), configured with a double barrel Weber, Vertex magneto, and special grind cam. It runs 58 degrees advanced on premium fuel and will put out roughly 77 hp. at 10,000 rpm. High revs. for these motors is not uncommon. With the current rear end gearing, it will top fourth gear at 109 mph. I have another rear end which is for longer course racing and will increase the top speed to almost 120mph. That is very fast for a car this size. Remember, we are talking about a car that is smaller than a Bug Eye Sprite, a foot lower than a Ferrari, weighs nearly half that of a Lotus 7, and rides on tires that were considered thin for motorcycles in 1970.
The car was completed in mid-2001, just in time to be presented at the Concorso Italiano at Monterey. It was a big hit with the crowd and garnered the attention of the Pebble Beach selection committee to participate in 2002.
Last month I had the pleasure of meeting the original U.S. importer and driver of the car back in 1959, when it competed in H-modified races. He cleared up a great deal of the history on the car, as well as some of the specifications on the engine.
Today, the Giaur sits in my garage, keeping company with a modest collection of scale model cars and a few other interesting larger ones. My daughters love to go for rides. We take short, one-way trips for a few miles, and they are all smiles. I have yet to round the home stretch without Isabelle, my oldest, tapping my knee and yelling “More Daddy, more!” She helps out with the cleaning, and I teach her about the parts on the car. It’s perfectly restored, and she and her little sister are taught to be careful, but the car is never off limits to their helping or curious explorations. Isabelle likes the car for the same reasons I did when I was little. It is her size, it is exciting, and her daddy makes it all fun.
Once in a while I’ll park the car and let Isabelle sit in the driver’s seat. She will stretch her legs out fully and smile eagerly knowing that it’s only a matter of time before I keep my promise to her that the day her feet reach the pedals, I’ll teach her to drive. We’ll drive to a vacant parking lot, and I’ll run alongside yelling “clutch, shift – pause – shift” while she drives. And at some point she’ll grind the gears or shudder the clutch, and it’ll hit me that the dreams of my car-crazy youth will be passed on from one generation to another through a speedy little red car and the passion of those who refuse to grow old.
– Raffi Minasian
Walnut Creek, CA