Monday, May 30, 2011

Watkins Glen in the Gold Country: Marty Stein's '52 Siata 300BC

I took advantage of Liv being out of town this weekend to do something that's been on my list for years: I drove up to the Gold Country to visit Marty Stein and check out his Crosley-powered 1952 Siata 300BC.
Marty has been in the West Coast Crosley Club almost since the beginning, and he and his Siata were at the the very first meet I ever went to, back in '97.  The Siata was in good company back then: Ernie Mendicki brought his Siata, Des Telmont brought his Jabro and Don Baldocchi had his '53 Nardi.  I remember thinking at the time that I'd have no problem finding a Crosley-powered sports car since they seemed to be everywhere!

It seems like it's been forever since Marty's had the Siata out to the meet so I've been itching to take a close gander at the car since I've started to learn a bit more about Hmods.  Marty's car is a far cry from the homebuilt specials like the car in my garage (for one thing, the Siata has a slick aluminum body), but it was cars like the Siata that inspired the special builders.  And the Siatas were probably very inspiring: they weren't called 'baby Ferraris' for nothing.
Though Siata was a prominent player among the etceterini, they were not like factory-built cars.  Like most postwar Italian small special makers Siata tended to borrow some components from Fiat Topolinos, but there was plenty that was scratch built.   One thing I hadn't realized is that these particular Siatas were delivered sans engine.  Marty explained that the buyer simply installed the powerplant of choice... which explains how some Siatas ended up with Crosley engines.
Marty got his car over 30 years ago - in boxes.  His pal Ernie Mendicki had encouraged him to buy the Siata even though it was a 'roller,' meaning a project car that was partially disassembled.  Mendicki offered to help with the restoration, but an ugly divorce sidelined Ernie, so after six months of looking at the hulk Marty decided to start tinkering.  He'd never restored a car before, but amazingly, he not only got the car together, but got it on the racetrack.

Marty's early racing career left a lot to be desired, and he credits the late Bob Graham with helping him get the car in competition trim.  Graham built a hot motor and advised on other tweaks, and before long Marty was running strong in the 'Over the Hill Gang' of Hmods.
All that would be impressive if the car had been nothing more than a rare Italian sportscar... but Marty's car sports an eye-popping pedigree: it was raced at Watkins Glen and Sebring.  Racer and Crosley dealer Otto Linton ran a 1951 Siata prototype at the Glen in 1951- he made enough of a splash that he took three orders for Siatas that day.  Months later, one of those three, a racer named Tom Scatchard, picked up his brand new Siata 300BC with a Linton 'Speed Craft' prepared Crosley motor already installed.  (Unbelieveably, Marty got the original receipt with the car!)  Scatchard ran the Siata as #52 at Watkins Glen in 1952, the same year a tragic accident permanently ended street racing in New York State.  He came in 25th.
Marty knew that his car was supposed to have been run at Watkins Glen, but it took years of research to track down the details.  Marty eventually got hold of Henry Wessels, one of the other racers who had also ordered a Siata after the 1951 showing at the Glen.  Marty knew that Wessels and Scatchard  had driven together at Sebring in 1953, but he was shocked when Wessels told him that they had split the driving chores in Scatchard's Siata! 
Like many old racecars, Marty's Siata has suffered some indignities, not the least of which was a fifties or sixties conversion to street car that involved hacking out a big chunk of the tub to fit the convertible top!  The car has now been in Marty's hands for more than half its existence, and Marty has put a few wrinkles in the history too.  A seized engine destroyed the rear end and sent the Siata into a barrier not long after Marty started racing, and a few years later a catastrophic brake failure caused the car to roll, flipping the car multiple times.   After each incident he's simply put it back together.
Given the car's extensive race history it's amazing how much is still original.  The grill is still the same one it left left Italy with, as are the headlight lenses!  Marty still has the unique Speed Craft branded original cam cover (not on the car) that was identified by Nick Brajevich as the second Crosley cam cover he ever made, and the original Siata logo pedals are amazing.  The original Italian welds on the firewall are stunning for their unlovely "get 'er done" quality - they may have made cars pretty on the outside, but there was some funny stuff out of sight.
All in all, a fun day of visiting the keeper of a real treasure.  Marty laughed when telling me that he paid more for the last engine rebuild than he did for the whole car in 1979 - such is the state of vintage racing these days.  Marty still races the car not infrequently (next weekend at Sears Point, for example) and if you get a chance to see him run - do it.  It looks even better in motion.
(Thanks to Cliff Reuter's Etceterini for the Watkins Glen pics!)

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