A Chat With Alf Gebhardt Spans BMW Batmobiles To Go-Karting With Kids, In That Order
Photography by Hayley Holmes
I grew up in a tiny town outside of Tulsa, Oklahoma, and had long heard stories of an enigmatic character just outside of the city whose love for motorsports ran deep, as well as his collection of odd cars tucked away in various garages at a go-kart track. The stories were mixed. Some said they could hear the howl of one of his Frankenstein BMW-based creations prowling the track at night, (probably true). Others said most of his cars are roofless because he is just too tall to fit in anything else, (definitely true). Regardless, I wanted the full story, his story. So, I called Alf Gebhardt one rainy afternoon and asked if he would have time for an initial phone interview. He said, “I think you had best come out and see for yourself.” Our afternoon together is as follows.
I arrived at the track a day after our phone call on a brisk day in late November. Fall days in Oklahoma are unpredictable, and this one happened to be a mixture of chilly rain and unrelenting wind.
I had also heard that Alf doesn’t like to be bothered. Leaning against the wind and water, the hands clutching my camera are tense with nerves, and before I see any cars to point it at I come across a donkey lazily ambling across the pavement in front of me, followed by a lively pack of dogs ranging in size from tea cup to blurring the lines between canine and equine. Then I see Alf holding a door open on the side of the large structure, “Come in, come in! Before the wind blows us all away.”
A large cat cat sprawled atop an immaculately preserved E9 raised its sleepy head as I approached the nearby table to set up. Alf took his seat across from me and quietly folded his hands and his voice took on a more serious tone than before: “Well, where would you like to start?”
Hayley Holmes: I’d like to just start from the beginning. What first got you into cars?
Alf Gebhardt: I was trained as a tool and die maker in Germany, in Nuremberg. My dad and I, we owned a company—well, he owned it, I worked for him. We made tools and dies for pretty much everything, little camera companies, etc. Then BMW came along. BMW ordered some dies to be made for their 700. This project was so big, we couldn’t test the dies in Nuremberg, so we always had to drive down to Munich. That’s how I got started in cars, making dies for the little 700, dashboard pieces and intake manifold components.
HH: How did you move into racing, what did your path to competition look like? When did you start training to be a racing driver?
AG: Training? My friends and I just figured it out by ourselves. You go out there and you take a corner and the next time around you say, “Well, that didn’t work. Now I need to figure something else out.” My friends and I built little go-karts to run on the street to start, but we got stopped by the cops. Then we began slalom racing, and this was a point in my life where I really learned a lot. We started out just in parking lots, then before long, we had a little club. Then one night at one of our club meetings, three American soldiers came by and they wanted to sit in and see what we were doing. Unbeknownst to us, they had been doing the same thing at their base in Nuremberg. So, they invited us to come to their next slalom race. Of course, we’re all, “Great!,” because you know, there we are as young boys, back in 1958, when 60 horsepower was something that could make us say “wow.”
HH: And how did this informal international motorsport event pan out?
AG: So, we go to the base with the American soldiers and our eyes went wide. There were Corvettes and all these powerful American cars that they’re driving, but as it turned out, horsepower didn’t really make much of a difference. Typically, the bigger the car, the more horsepower you had, the slower you were on the clock when it came to slalom. My friends and I mainly drove little English cars and whatever we else could find. We did really well with these little cars, and the soldiers invited us to the next one, and the next one, and so on. We ended up traveling all over Germany running slalom races with them. It was wonderful.
HH: That sounds like a great start to a racing career—what kind of car were you running mostly at this point? You mentioned English stuff a moment ago.
AG: Right, so I started out in a yellow 1959 MGA 1600, and you know, one day I said to myself, “I’d like to have another MGA.” It was a fine car, I had such fond memories with it. Two weeks went by after I made that remark, and my friend comes to me and says, “You won’t believe it, but I found an MGA just a mile up the road.” So we drove up there and I’ll be damned, there’s a yellow MGA sitting in a weed spot so high you couldn’t even see the car. I bought it and stripped it completely down to the frame and restored it from the ground up. It’s down there in the clubhouse now.
HH: There must have been a lot of good times with your first one to leave such a lasting impression. And so what happened after your slalom racing tour with the American soldiers? What was the next step?
At this point, the cat slinks down from the E9 and into Alf’s lap. His lap was never without some manner of animal companion for the rest of the interview.
AG: You like cats?
HH: I do, I love them.
AG: Ah, me too! They’re so true to who they are, what they are.
He pats the cat’s head with the hint of a smile. I could see his demeanor begin to soften in the company of his furry friends.
AG: So ok, hill climbs. That was the next piece. I started with a Porsche 356, and it was something special; if you have never seen a hill climb in person, you wouldn’t believe it if you just arrived at the start one day. In Germany, just about every little town had a hill climb, and your standard equipment in the trunk was a pair of rubber boots—there was always a nasty, muddy, dirty, rain going. But you didn’t care, because you arrived to a little place called Whatever and there was a line of cars parked a mile out. There were no walk ways, you just had to climb through the bushes and trees to find a neat spot off the road to experience the cars. And the cars were incredible. The people were incredible, and in large numbers too, thousands sometimes.
We had a hill climb in my hometown that ran up to a lake I recall. In fact, I raced against Hans Stuck’s father there, who seemed like an old guy at that point. I was just 17 or 18, of course not knowing at the time that I met all of these drivers around me who would later become great racers. I became friends with a lot of them. Guys like Hans Stuck’s son, you know. We were young, not knowing how our paths would cross later down the road.
HH: What does your early career in hill climb racing look like?
AG: We started another little club, maybe with 10 English cars or so. We traveled the countryside in Germany making ourselves goals like, find the best bratwurst or potato salad, you know, all the best food in these little hill climb villages. We did this for years, traveling all over, hearing people we’d meet along the way say, “Well, have you been there?” And we would go to wherever “there” was the next weekend. There’s a world out there that I never knew existed.
HH: That sounds like a dream, so what prompted you to relocate to America? How old were you?
AG: I was 25, I think. My dad had passed away, you know he was in the war, that type of stuff. I ended up selling his company and just started traveling. I just got in the car and started driving with no idea where I was going to go. I had a 300 series Mercedes at the time. I started going over to France and down the coast, all the way to Gibraltar. You know Gibraltar is pretty much the end, you can’t go any further, so I had to make a decision about where to go from there.
I thought “Well, it would be nice to see Africa,” so I put my Mercedes on a boat and shipped it to Morocco and drove it all the way to the Gold Coast to Ghana. Doing this trip is something you can really never describe to anybody though. I saw entire villages made out of oil drums cut in half and flattened out to make houses. To them, it was normal. To me, it was an incredible lesson on the way people live.
Then on the way back from Ghana, I stopped at Casablanca. It was here that my Mercedes broke down. There was a problem with the rear axle and there was no way I could either repair or replace it down there. So, one evening, I ran into the police chief, and it turns out he really loved that car. He wanted it so bad. Shortly after that, I met some American soldiers. I’d mostly run out of money at this point, but I told the soldiers that I would like to go on to the United States. They said, “Well, we can get you on one of the troop charters.” It would cost me $600 (don’t you know that went straight into their pockets!) I didn’t have $600 then, but I had a car. So, I sold my Mercedes to the police chief for $600, got on the ship, and sailed to New York.
HH: That’s one way to do it. What happens when you arrive?
AG: Almost immediately I flew down to Houston. I had some friends there, so I stayed with them for about two weeks, but you know you have to do something else eventually. I didn’t speak any English though, so that was a bad deal in the beginning! Out of desperation, I opened a newspaper one Sunday and there was a BMW logo inside. I couldn’t read what the rest said of course, but I knew that logo. The only other thing I could make out was the phone number, so I called. And I’ll be damned, a guy from Holland picks up the phone. He was Dutch, his name was Tony. I still remember him: big, red beard, matching red mustache. I said, “Well, Mr. Tony, here’s my predicament. I am out of money, I can’t stay here much longer without some, and I know a lot about BMWs.”
“It just so happens that we opened a new BMW dealership in Fort Worth, Texas,” he says, “If you want to come, I’ll pick you up tomorrow morning.” Certainly I didn’t know where Fort Worth was, but I said, “Great!” Good as any.
HH: Letting cars lead the way. What was the move like for you?
AG: He picked me up like he said he would, we drove to Fort Worth, and the manager rented me an apartment right away. They imported only BMWs at this point, you know, 2002s, 1600s, that stuff. I was working as a mechanic, and I figured out really quickly that these guys had no idea how to work on BMWs. These cars were so simple though. They were shipped in without air conditioning, as customary in Germany, but you know we were in America, so, we had to start installing the air-conditioning systems at the dealership. The manager said, “I’ll tell you what, I’ll pay you $100 a unit.” While the other guys were taking a week or more to install them, I was putting in three per day. The manager was loving it, and I made a lot of money very quickly.
Then I told the manager one day that I had done quite a bit of racing in Germany, and I would like to try again down here. He said, “Well ok, just take a car off the lot.” Not bad. I chose a red, used 2002.
HH: Where did you compete with that?
AG: They had recently opened a new track in Fort Worth, Green Valley Raceway. It was a drag strip made into a road course. I raced there for almost three years with the SCCA. There was a change in ownership at the BMW dealership that caused me to quit, but my last race from there was very memorable. I went up to Ponca City, Oklahoma to a road course around a lake. None of my friends wanted to go, so I just loaded up my Lincoln Continental tow car by myself and went.
There was a pre-race party on Saturday night, and I met a wonderful girl. She was a hostess on an ice breaking ship that went to Antarctica. The sailors were in the grips of drunkenness ashore, so she got a bit of time off. She decided to visit her family in Oklahoma, which included her uncle, Anatoly Arutunoff. Uncle Toly invited her to Ponca City that weekend to enjoy the racing, and so the stars were perfectly aligned for me. From ‘72 on, she went everywhere I went. And I mean, we went all over the country, every track there was, we pretty much raced it. We eventually got married in ’78, and I’d quit the SCCA in ‘74, it was so political. The rule book was about 300 pages thick. I joined IMSA that same year and asked them to send me a rule book. It had about eight pages, and that’s the way I like it.
HH: IMSA is a pretty serious step, what were you racing around that time in the mid-to-late ‘70s when all this is happening for you?
AG: After joining IMSA, I started building my cars up better, bigger, and faster. Between ‘74 and ‘80, I mainly raced the 3.5-liter CSL Batmobiles, and they were wonderful cars, as well as the camaraderie and environment of the whole series. I was mainly racing at Daytona.
In the fall of 1981 at a Daytona race, I got a call from a friend in Germany who told me that the BMW M1 that was raced at the 24 Hours of Le Mans was now up for sale. I had a good rapport with BMW at this point, and they offered me a price I couldn’t refuse. This was the car that was France’s entry in 1980 that was painted white with a street map of France with all of the BMW dealers noted. It was really unique. But they didn’t want to sell the car with this paint job, so it was changed to its original white with Motorsport stripes, and that’s how it was delivered to me at Daytona. While we were building this car, I needed to find some drivers. The drivers I knew here in the United States didn’t really have the capability of handling this car, and I needed someone who was familiar with it. So, I called up my old friend Stuck and said, “Hans, would you like to…” and before I could even finish my sentence, he said, “I’ll see you in two weeks.” I said, “Well, bring somebody else with you.”
AG: So, he brought another old friend of mine, Walter Brun. They tested the car over that Wednesday and Thursday, and by Thursday night, Stuck decided the transmission wouldn’t last for the 24 hour race at Daytona. “Let’s get a new one.”
He called his contacts in Switzerland and had a brand new transmission flown over by Saturday morning. Things were pretty tight. I mean, the lineup at Daytona usually starts at 11 o’clock. We hustled to put the transmission in, did a quick test drive, and that was it. At 12 o’clock, the race started. Stuck was the first one in the car. After one hour, he came around the north banking into the pit area and the transmission seized up. He locked the two rear tires, slid off the banking, and landed right there in our pits! That was a wonder right there. We changed back to the old transmission, and discovered that the mechanic, in his hurry, had forgotten to tighten the drain plug. The only drain plug! It dumped all of the oil onto the track. It took us one hour to put the old transmission back in, and by now it was 2 o’clock in the afternoon. By 12 o’clock that night though, we were in first place, and we kept soldiering on all night, running through tires and fuel, making driver changes every one and a half hours. By the next day, the checkered flag fell and we finished first in our class. Sixth overall. I think that was the best win for BMW in an M1 at Daytona. They never finished another 24-hour race at that track with the M1. There were four or five other M1s that started alongside us, but everybody else petered out except ours.
HH: What was your experience driving that car? What was it like to compete at Daytona with it?
AG: It was wonderful. It was, I think, the best prepared and the best engineered car I had ever driven, at that point. Stuck sent me some pictures from when he got off the plane back in Germany with the trophy. There were 700, 800 people there. You know, I’ve always said, Daytona is not a race to finish first. You race to beat the track. But we did both.
HH: So, I understand it’s been sort of a love affair between you and the M1 ever since. How many M1 street cars did you bring in?
AG: Well, when they were popular, I called up my friend at the BMW factory and said, “Look, I want to order ten M1s.” At the time, they were like $100,000 cars. I called my banker and told him what I just did, and I still remember him getting white in the face! “Jim,” I said, “I just ordered 10 M1s.” And he replies, “Well, let me sit down for a second and digest that.”
Out of those ten cars, 8 actually got delivered. I got so popular that Lufthansa Airlines actually called me all the way out in Tulsa, Oklahoma and asked if they could fly my cars from Frankfurt to Dallas. I said, “We’re talking about a lot of money here.” “How about we fly them for $2,000 a car?”
I was of course okay with that deal, and so I went to go pick up the first one soon after. I was always the one who picked up the cars. I couldn’t trust anybody else with them. So, one time I go down to Dallas to pick up a Lapis Blue M1. Gorgeous car. Back then, the restrictions at the airport were nil. You and I could just walk in, you know. So, I walked in, unstrapped the car from the pallet, rolled it off, and drove it out of the hangar. As I was driving out, there was a guy walking a white tiger of all things. I don’t know whether it was Siegfried or Roy, all I could think about was how I swore that tiger was bigger than the M1. And of course I didn’t have my camera with me!
Anyway, out of the eight cars, I kept two as personal ones. Both red. Mine had a big wing and my name on the side, and my wife had one too.
HH: Too cool. Jumping ahead a few years now, can you tell me more about how this track came to be?
AG: Sure. I stopped racing in ‘92. I thought, well, with all of this knowledge I’ve built up, I need to do something to share it. I decided to open up a driving school for kids. We built our own cars, little open-wheeled cars that looked a lot like Formula Juniors; I welded the frames up and made forms for the bodies, you name it. And instead of having the kids pay for it, I went to the schools in the area and had the children write essays about why they wanted to race. I picked usually about 10 kids for my program, which lasted seven weeks. To me, this was really a wonderful experience, and I believe I learned more from the kids than they learned from me.
We put them in these cars and set up little slaloms that were short, 5mph-type tracks, you know. And every Saturday, we went a little faster. After 7 weeks, they would surprise the hell out of me. These kids were ready to race. So, I thought, what am I going to do now? That’s how the track came to be. That’s a quarter mile long, and we put these kids out there racing against each other at 60mph. And these were young kids! Eight, nine, ten years old, up to 12 where we’d draw the line. That’s when I learned that you either have it or you don’t when it comes to racing.
HH: So, you think racing is essentially something one is born to do?
AG: Absolutely. You can practice and make almost anyone competent, but you have to have that true passion to excel. I always stress the importance of seat time, but that passion has to be there. If it’s not, there comes a point when you simply stop improving. The truly great drivers, I think, understand this.
So anyway, these kids would come in—some timid, some rambunctious as hell—and it was amazing to watch them change over just a few weeks. I would sit them down in a circle around a board and we’d go over diagrams, “To go down the straightaway with speed, you need to start that corner here, you need to come out like this,” etcetera. Then we would go out and apply it on the track. I talked to them like adults, and it was all done in a very quiet, subdued environment.
If they made a mistake, I’d see the parents getting after them sometimes, but I had a different approach. We would stop, sit down, and just have a conversation. “Look, you spun out a third time here. Why don’t we try this instead?” And it worked wonderfully. It gave them something to hold onto, and they just bloomed. They had the passion, they just needed the confidence. My rule was to bring me their progress reports, because their grades needed to be at a certain level to be here. And the kids would step it up! Because they wanted to race. They just wanted to race. And they all came out different from when they first walked in, not just in terms of skills behind the wheel. That right there I think is my greatest achievement, helping these kids. Some still race today even!
HH: That’s invaluable, surely. So, what do you do today besides instruct? What else is the track used for?
AG: I just use it for my own pleasure, mainly. At some point I started thinking, “What am I going to do with the rest of my life?” I like building cars, I know how to do it, so I started restoring and building what I liked. I have so many restorations at this point, and I don’t think I have sold one in 25 years!
HH: What are a few of your favorites?
AG: I have a ‘55 Cunningham, the last car they ever made, number 37. It’s almost finished. I’m getting pretty fond of my latest creation though, the Mercedes 190. There’s actually two of them sitting back there, you’ll have to take a look if you can find a path back there. Of course, the M1 is pretty cool too.
HH: Which M1 do you have now? The Le Mans and Daytona car?
AG: It’s a reproduction of it, it looks just like my old car. I sold the Daytona M1 to one of my co-drivers’ bosses, one of the few cars I ever sold. It was raced for years after that, then it disappeared. I’m still looking for it though. I’ve researched for years, trying to find it. I think it may have ended up in Brazil somewhere, that’s the last I’ve heard anyway. But someone recently said it may have gone to Japan. There’s so many stories out there, but you have to follow up on them because you just never know when one is true.
HH: Good reason to with a car like that.
AG: Well, I basically have that car now, the reproduction. So, to me, it’s like the same thing. It makes no real difference if that’s my original car or not, because they’re nearly identical, and there just came a point too where I couldn’t go any further to find the first one.
At this time, Alf’s friend Doug joined the conversation and added, with a smirk,
“But if we did manage to find your original car, how long would it take before it was sitting back there next to the replica?”
Alf glanced out the window towards the track and just smiled.
* * *
I was invited out the following weekend to enjoy a day of dining and kart racing with a small group of his friends who meet like this every Saturday. It was warm and bright on this day thankfully, and as I entered the main building I found Alf tinkering on the Cunningham. He greeted me with a jovial laugh and a big hug. He was just spectating this day, so it gave us the chance, while the karts whirred around the track, to dive a little deeper into our conversation. We took a stroll down to the clubhouse, naturally with two dogs in tow. The morning light spilled over three very different cars inside (recall the mention earlier of Frankenstein BMW builds), but all sported a color that I quickly came to recognize as the signature “Gebhardt Yellow.”
As we entered the room, Alf stopped at a photo collage he had made containing friends and memories made along the way on his racing journey. His fingers traced the faces and the cars at times, and he laughed often. He stopped on a photo of the MOMO Porsche 962C driven by Gianpiero Moretti for instance. “Ah, Moretti used to make the best spaghetti sauce. It was always a given at any race, he would show up with his trailer full of pasta and sauce. We all gathered around after the race, and he was just cooking away. I can still taste it.”
We sat down with one of his old photo albums next. There was his first MGA, in yellow of course, and the early hill climb racer, the 356. Page after page, we traveled from boyhood to manhood, from Nuremberg to Daytona, and in and out of all of the charismatic machines along the way. “You have to have that passion,” he had said when I sat down with him that first day.
Well here it was, in the names of his friends and all of their achievements and notes scrawled out in German under each picture, and in the way he spoke of each car as if they were once distant lovers. Our cheeks hurt from smiling.
“Oh yes, I remember the day my friend bought this,” he said, as he pointed to a picture of a young man stepping into a Porsche 906. “He picked it up and drove straight to this little dealership I was working at in Germany. I was on the clock, but when your friend shows up in that, I mean, what can you say? We took off and absolutely bombed down the Autobahn, laughing our heads off the whole way. We passed some cops who had an awful time trying to catch us. By the time they finally did, we were back at the dealership with the car shut off and parked. One of the young cops touched the back of the car, still warm, and just smiled. We didn’t get a ticket, they just wanted to admire it.”
Before I left, Alf pulled me aside and said he had something he wanted to give me. He handed me a CD he’d put together filled with songs inspired by his journey from his hometown, to France, then to Africa, and finally to the ‘States. “It will help your story,” he said.
Several days later, as I packed the car and began my own trip from what was once my home, I remembered the CD. I waited until I hit the long stretch of I-40 headed towards California before I popped it in. “Not A GTO” was the name of the first song. I smiled. I thought of Alf, of M1s, and yellow cars in a dark room, and how I could totally go for a bowl of Moretti’s spaghetti. I thought of the words Alf said to me after looking through the photo album, “These stories need to be told, before they are lost.”
Alf, thank you for letting me be the one to tell your story. And If anyone has any information on the whereabouts of a certain BMW M1 with Le Mans and Daytona history, please do get in touch.