Dick Merritt: Remembering car enthusiasts’ true friend at NHTSA

Richard Merritt profile
Richard F. Merritt: 1931–2021. Courtesy Ferrari Club of America

Richard F. “Dick” Merritt passed away in March 2021 at the age of 90. If you are into cars, especially exotic cars, you should know his name. Dick was one of the Founders of the Ferrari Club of America, an early supporter of the brand, and owned many Ferraris now worth in the multiple millions when they were worth a few thousand. His early mission was, as hard as it is to believe at this time, saving worn out old Ferrari race cars and parts from the scrapyard. As if all that wasn’t important enough for the collector car hobby, as he was later instrumental in helping American enthusiasts legally import vehicles from other markets.

I should back up some.

After serving in the Air Force and then graduating from the University of Colorado, in 1956, Dick moved to Detroit and worked in the design department at Ford.  He was assigned to the Edsel Division, which, as we all know, didn’t end well. Before it was over, though, Dick went back to the University of Colorado and returned to Detroit, this time securing a job with General Motors. Moving on to West Palm Beach, Florida, he sold cars at a VW and Porsche dealership.

Ferrari Sports and Grand Turismo Cars book
Amazon.com/Bond Publishing

In 1968, Dick Merritt partnered with Warren Fitzgerald to write Ferrari: The Sports and Grand Turismo Cars. Back in the day, we called it “the Fitzgerald-Merritt book,” and it was the standard, the Ferrari bible. It was also, when I was introduced to it in 1972, the spyglass into the Ferrari world to my teenage eyes. Decades later, it still stands up with valuable information about Ferrari automobiles.

Years later, in the 1980s, I first got to know Dick on a personal basis. It was at the AACA Hershey swap meet, held every October in Hershey, Pennsylvania. Dick was ebullient that day, as after crawling through piles of alternators and generators on the muddy ground, he had come up with a valuable and impossible to find gem—a generator used on very early Ferrari automobiles. He knew what it was worth, he knew who needed it, and, before the end of the day, he had cash in his pocket and a greasy hunk of metal had a new home. We went that evening as a group to dinner, and Dick regaled us with many stories of Ferraris bought, sold and traded before there was much value to cars that are today worth millions. According to his son, Kendall Merritt, his dad owned more than 50 Ferraris, and he just might have received a speeding ticket or two while driving them as Enzo intended.

1958 Ferrari 250 GT Berlinetta Competizione front three-quarter
It’d be a slight exaggeration to say Dick Merritt owned classic Ferraris before they were cool (because they were always cool), but he did own many before they were prized collector cars. This 1958 Ferrari 250 GT Berlinetta Competizione ‘Tour de France’ passed through his garage in the 1960s, according to RM Sotheby’s, which sold the car in 2015 for £4,76M ($7.23M). RM Sotheby's/Tom Gidden

The final chapters of Dick Merritt’s life were every bit as important to collector cars as the first few. Dick worked at the U.S. Department of Transportation as a safety analyst, but specifically, he was the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s Vehicle Compliance Officer. If you were planning on importing a non-U.S. compliant car with a “Show and Display” exemption, Dick was the man that you would want to know. In that role, one can only imagine the phone calls received from border agents and customs inspectors he received. At least one high-end dealership, engaged in “federalizing” gray-market cars, was said to have his direct phone number written on the shop wall in case emergency questions needed quick answers. Dick was the guy who knew most of the answers in a labyrinthine federal government system. And most of the time, he got it right and was a help to his fellow car enthusiasts.

Dick used to say, “I’m the only bureaucrat that actually wants to help people”, and perhaps that was true. In the meantime, next time you see an unusual one-off car that made it to the States on a “show and display” exemption until it reaches the ripe old age of twenty-five years, think of Richard F. Merritt, who worked at a large government agency until he was 87 years of age for one reason.

He really did help out his fellow enthusiasts.

This story originally appeared on Hagerty Insider.

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