Robert Cumberford: The Curious Count of the Willys Interlagos

Martin Swig, the car guy’s car guy, seems to spend a lot of time thinking up neat things for people to do with cars. His seminal California Mille event has sparked many others to organize fun runs on good back roads with the cooperation (more or less) of the motorized revenue collectors who keep our public highways safe and our public coffers filled. I’ve never been on a California Mille, which is pretty much a high-roller’s deal for which you are just barely accepted if you’re driving a pre-Fiat Ferrari or other pricy exotica. And whatever you choose to run, it has to have been built before 1957, the last year of the real Italian balls-out, fast-as-you-can-go thousand-mile race.

But Martin is no snob. He just likes to have fun with cars, and to see — and help — others to have fun, too. And if he can do his part to make future cars better looking, why not invent a way to support future car designers? So last year he organized a different kind of back-roads run to benefit the Art Center College of Design. The cars participating didn’t have to be old or rare, but he did ask that they be “design-y.” The entry fee was only one, instead of many, thousand dollars, and there were no fancy resorts or wineries involved. This time I could go, provided I could come up with a suitable car. Martin suggested that the Fiat 500 was surely an example of good old/new design, so I called Italy and was aimed at that Italian new-world stronghold in Auburn Hills, Michigan, from which I was directed to Los Angeles for a nice, new, blue 500 Sport, which means something about the trim level, not the power.

I asked my old friend Rex Parker to come along. Rex has had the same works-perfectly-every-day Ferrari for the past 34 years, but it wouldn’t hold the luggage I’d brought from Europe and his duffel for the week on the Monterey Peninsula. The Fiat was fine; I wasn’t. Jet lag. So I prevailed upon Rex to do most of the driving on our first day, and a fine job he did, too, persuading the 101-hp 500 to behave as though it had enough power, sweeping us along narrow tracks with panache. And as he drove and I kind of navigated, he regaled me with tales of his recent purchase, the first less-than-utilitarian car he’d bought since acquiring the Ferrari 308 decades ago: a Willys Interlagos. Yes, Willys like Jeep, Interlagos like the Sao Paulo grand prix circuit.

You likely don’t know what a Willys Interlagos is, and I only kind of knew because I’d been negotiating to go live in Brazil about the time it was made and had studied that nation’s fledgling car industry. Basically, it’s a Renault Dauphine hot rod but with genuine provenance, being a license-built Alpine A108, immediate predecessor to the A110 that swept European rallying in the late ’60s and early ’70s. “I’ve known about this car for years. It’s in great shape, and with the owner’s death, the family wanted to sell. So I’ve got the only one in the U.S.,” said Rex. He was raised in Brazil, and those license-built Alpines were as much a part of his youth as flathead Ford hot rods were of mine.

As we entered Lebec, a little town on what used to be known as “the Ridge Route,” it seemed prudent to fill the 500’s tank, as I’d been using it for a few days, last filling up in Palm Springs, a long way and a couple of days behind us. Martin Swig was in the same station performing the same practical task for his Audi A4 V8.

Martin and Rex both know Shin Yoshikawa, the wonderful artist/craftsman who can limn the finest detail of a complex car on paper or pick up his tools and make one. And as it was nearing lunchtime, why not stop by his place, catch up, and invite him to join us for a sandwich? Which we did, but first Shin wanted to show us what was going on in his shop, close by his office. He had just finished making an updated, all-aluminum Toyota 2000GT, but he really wanted to show us his latest acquisition…a Willys Interlagos. What are the odds? Now that we know there are two of them, I’m inclined to think in terms of that old cliché, “never two without three.” I’m pretty sure that somewhere in our great nation, there is at least one more proud owner who’s convinced that he or she has the only Interlagos in the United States.

Nope. A car has to be more exotic than the Interlagos to be the only one in a nation of 313 million people. Count on it.

-Robert Cumberford

Photos courtesy of Rex Parker

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