Category Archives: Cars

More Beautiful People: Wheels of Change Road Trip Comes to Benicia

Some of the world’s most beautiful, intelligent, and well-read people came to Bookshop Benicia in Benicia yesterday to celebrate the publication of my new book, Wheels of Change. What, you think I’m exaggerating? No way. Just scroll down these pictures to see some of the attendees, and I know you will agree.

JaclClaudia Albano, Leyna Bernstein, Jennifer Kaiser, Alison Barnsley

Marti & Joe FuccyMarti and Joe Fuccy

Max and DanMax Lateiner, Dan Crouch

LeongsEric and Colleen Leong with their sons Evan and Riley

Annette & LeynaAnnette Kaiser, Leyna Bernstein

KaseyKasey Kath

Elizabeth JacksElizabeth Jack

Darrell, Devon, HankDarrell Haber, his son Devin Jack-Haber, Hank Nelson

Gabe NelsonGabe Nelson

KatieKatie Lynn

Lance and VickyLance and Vicky Barnett

Brian and ClaudiaBrian Parker and Claudia Albano

Dale & ClaudiaClaudia and Dale Hagen

Sue HutchSue Hutchinson

Tom DalrympleTom Dalrymple

Mike and BeckyMike and Becky Maggart

TrybullsThree of the Trybull family: Jeff, Leslie and daughter Jennifer

Bob BurmanBob Berman

Barnsley-LeeAlison Barnsley, Vernon Lee and their children Aero and Cielo

Christine & JenniferChristine Mayall, the host of this fabulous soiree and the owner of Bookshop Benicia, and the most beautiful person of all, Jennifer Kaiser

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Filed under Adventures in Writing, Books, Cars, Wheels of Change

James Dean’s Last Drive: Correcting the Record

James Dean 75

“God,” said Mies van der Rohe, “is in the details.” If that’s true, then car people are very godly people because they love, and appreciate, and relish in, the details of automobiles. I experienced this yet again the other day when I received a letter from Steve Conlin, an ex-bartender at the Bar at the Hotel Bel-Air, one of Southern California’s most famous see-and-be-seen cocktail lounges.

As Steve says, he has “shaken cocktails for everyone from President Ronald Reagan to O.J. Simpson, from Clint Eastwood to Britney Spears.” Among his interests are automobiles and James Dean, seen above in a photo from Wheels of Change, probably at a race in Palm Springs in 1955, the year he died. Although the book is not out yet (but soon, very soon!), while perusing the Net Steve came across the excerpt from the book about Dean on my website. Enlivened by brisk detail, here is a piece of what he said:

Hi Kevin, Here’s wishing you great reviews and huge sales for your soon-to-be-released California auto book. I was browsing random Internet files when I came across an excerpt, your story on James Dean’s fatal drive in his 1955 Porsche Spyder 550.

As a California native and UCLA alumni you might be surprised to learn that the gas station fill-up photo you referred to as being taken at Blackwell’s Corner was actually snapped at the corner of Beverly Glen and Ventura Blvd., in Sherman Oaks. This was perhaps two blocks from Dean’s home at the time, and where he probably had a credit account. James Dean at gas station

You are correct that it was the last picture of Dean alive [the picture you see here], but it was snapped as his caravan headed from Hollywood through the San Fernando Valley for the drive north on Highway 99.  Photographer Sanford Roth had taken a few action shots of Dean driving along the Hollywood Freeway and along Ventura Blvd. just prior to arriving at the station.

The old station office still stands, although it has been converted to a funky flower shop. The extended roof over what was once the pump bay is newer, heavier, and the two slender support columns that can be seen in the James Dean picture have been strengthened to hold it aloft. Interestingly, the footprints of the three red 1950s gasoline pumps are still preserved on their original concrete island. The fill-up photo you mention was actually taken by Rolf Wutherich, Dean’s mechanic and passenger, with Dean’s own Leica camera. The sturdy Leica survived the accident and Dean’s family had the film developed shortly afterward.

Kevin, most of this information is based on the research of my friend Warren Beath, author of The Death of James Dean.  I can send along a few of my own photos of the station, if you’re interested. Best regards, Steve Conlin, Los Angeles

I thanked Steve for his letter and his desire to correct the record on some of the details about Dean’s fatal last drive. On his way to a race in Salinas, Dean smashed into another car near San Luis Obispo while speeding in that silver Porsche Spyder and was killed. The star of “East of Eden” and “Rebel Without a Cause” remains a top Hollywood earner despite being dead for more half a century. The Wall Street Journal said in a piece last week that Dean’s estate netted $5 million in licensing fees for his image.

Steve and I have exchanged e-mails, and perhaps we’ll meet at one of my speaking gigs for Wheels in southern California in November and December. Tomorrow I’m off to The Book Seller to talk about the history of cars in historic Grass Valley. My radio interview with Eric Tomb of “Booktown” of KVMR Radio aired on Monday; if you’d like to listen to it you can find it here on his blog. Just click on the link at the bottom that says “to hear this program.”

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Filed under Adventures in Writing, Books, Cars, Wheels of Change

Pearl Diving at Banchero’s, and a Love Story (Part 1)

Kevin Nelson.CroppedI learned several weeks ago that my high school counselor and history teacher, Robert Berndt, had died, and in the way that memory can sometimes take you to strange places, it made me think of Banchero’s Restaurant on Mission Boulevard in Hayward.

Banchero’s is a family-style Italian restaurant that has been owned by the Banchero family since its founding in the years after World War II. I worked there as a dishwasher in my senior year in high school, when Mr. Berndt (I can only call him Mr. Berndt, never Bob or Robert) had me as a student.

I first heard that a dishwashing job had opened up at Banchero’s on a Saturday afternoon at the old Ritz Theater in Hayward where I was watching Jack Nicholson in “Hells Angels on Wheels.” You may not know this, but before his breakout role in “Easy Rider” Big Jack appeared in a score of lousy, dirt-cheap “B” westerns and motorcycle flicks. I must’ve seen all of them, at Saturday matinees at the Ritz, with nary a person in the theater but me.

“Hey Nelson,” said a voice in the darkness. “Nelson.”

I turned to see Donnie Schroer, my friend and basketball teammate whispering to me. Donnie was a genuinely great high school basketball player who had his quirks, as we all do. He drove a Volkswagen Beetle with mags, styled his hair with gel, and loved a girl named Dorothy. Actually, I’m not sure if Dorothy was her real name or not. What I am sure of, though, is how crazy jealous he was of her. Many a night we spent in front of her house, Donnie and me and maybe one or two other guys crammed into his bug, waiting for her to come home from wherever she happened to be. Donnie always suspected Dorothy of going out with other guys and wanted to catch her in the act of being dropped off after a date.

“Schroer?” I said. “Is that you?” “Yeah,” he said.

“What are you doing here?”

“I called your Mom. She told me you were here,” he said, still whispering, although we could have shouted at each other and no one would have cared because we were the only two people in the theater. “You want a job?”

We left Jack Nicholson causing drunken mayhem in his biker gang and went out to the lobby to talk about it.

Schroer, who worked at Banchero’s himself, explained that the former occupant of the dishwashing position had resigned to pursue other career options, leaving a vacancy. “But you gotta come now,” he said. “You start tonight.”

Although this was short notice, and I had to leave the theater before finding out how Jack Nicholson ended up his stint with the Hells Angels, I said yes. That night I started dishwashing (or “pearl diving,” as my mother called it) at Banchero’s, proudly joining the ranks of the many other East Bay boys who got their first job there.

I picked up another pearl-diving shift the next day and worked again the following Friday and Saturday nights, occasionally venturing out to bus tables in the main dining room but mainly staying out of sight in the overheated kitchen. It may have been after one of these nights at Banchero’s that Donnie took me on another late night stakeout of Dorothy’s house.

Most nights nothing ever happened. We sat there for maybe a half hour in the darkness of her street with the lights and radio of his car turned off, Donnie talking to me in that same conspiratorial whisper he had used that day at the Ritz. Donnie and Dorothy had what can be fairly described as a combustible relationship. They’d fight, break up, reunite, fight, break up, reunite, fight, break up, etc. But in one of those strange maladjustments that the male psyche is prone to, even when the two were not technically boyfriend and girlfriend Donnie expected her to be faithful to him, that is, not go out with other guys.

There was no logic to this. Donnie had many sterling qualities; logic, however, was not one of them, at least not when it came to Dorothy. So it came to pass that on this particular night we saw a pair of headlights coming down her street and stopping in front of her house. The lights and engine of the car clicked off. A moment passed. And then who should step out of the car but Dorothy!

I don’t recall the make of the car that dropped her off, but I am sure it was large, powerful and muscular, just like its driver. Donnie ignored Dorothy disappearing inside her front door and took off after her offending suitor. All of a sudden it’s like Steve McQueen in “Bullitt” only without the hills; we’re flying crazily around the flats of Hayward after this guy who’s got far more horsepower than us and probably a nine millimeter pistol in his glove compartment.

“What are you going to do if you catch him?” I’m saying in a panicky voice, but Donnie’s not listening, he’s just hell-bent on getting even with this guy who had the audacity to take out a girl he’s not even dating anymore, treat her to a nice evening and politely return her home, and at this point you may be wondering-

What the heck does this have to do with Mr. Berndt, a fine man who died and who was an early mentor of mine and a wonderful teacher to so many? Well, I’m getting to that, but because I don’t want to tax your patience with an over-long post, you’re going to have to tune in next time to hear about it.

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Filed under Adventures in Writing, Cars, Hayward, California, Personal