Three is Enough
Owner and photographer: Li Wen
Year, Make, and Model: 1967 Sunbeam Alpine Mark V, 1968 Lancia Fulvia Coupe Rallye 1.3S, 1967 Porsche 912
Location: Los Angeles, CA
Photographers: Benny Chan and Steven Budy
Year, Make and Model: 1967 Sunbeam Alpine Mark V
Photographers: Benny Chan and Li Wen
Growing up in Southern California, I’ve always loved cars, their shapes, and their sound–these beautiful objects whose movement you shaped. My first car was a banged up Beetle that my Dad bought for me for a couple hundred dollars; not wanting to spoil me too much, he wanted to make sure I learned how to fix one up and earned the pleasure of driving. At that time, I was already interested in many industrial design objects and this was my initiation to becoming a gear-head. After fixing it up, I sold it for a more up-to-date Fiat 128, which I sold when I went off to college.
As a young adult, I moved to New York and then Europe where a car was not necessary so my love hibernated. I returned to Los Angeles as a young architect and several years ago, in search of a hobby that was design related, rediscovered that love. It started with my sighting a beautiful Austin-Healey Bugeye, but once I learned that originally its first gear was not synchronized, I ended my pursuit, as I wanted a car I could drive in today’s traffic! And given that I was in SoCal, I also wanted to have a convertible.
The first classic I purchased was this Sunbeam. I stumbled onto it online while still considering the purchase of a modified Bugeye. Upon seeing it, I remembered my fondness for this car as a kid, the fins harking back to that time in the ‘60s. Though British, it had hints of an American car but more streamlined, the designer having been on the team that produced the iconic Thunderbird and one could see the lineage in the “eyelids” of the headlamp detail. The car was in Bakersfield, an extra Sunbeam belonging to an enthusiast who had two pristine Mark IIs and didn’t need it. He put a Weber on it so that it ran more smoothly, rebuilt the steering rack, added a brake booster and the mag wheels, which I’ve kept as an ode to the car’s American influence. I bought it for $9,000, which was a lot less than the Bugeyes I had been looking at, so the price point didn’t hurt, and it had black plates, which was another feature I was hoping to get with my first purchase.
Of course, the car needed some work (I had the alternator and rear brakes re-built), and after a moderate body restoration was performed by Steven Alcala in El Segundo, it has been on the road ever since. It has turned out to be a great first classic purchase, not common (due to many models being raped for it’s bigger brother, the Tiger) but reliable, and most parts are easy to obtain; the finish on this one is nice but far from concours, so though I’m still somewhat careful with it, I’ve learned not to worry much about driving it a lot. Over the years, I’ve had to redo the front bushings and rebuild the starter, otherwise, it’s “change the oil and drive the heck out of it”.
I so do love looking at the car from all angles—the lines are so simple and fluid—the way the hood smoothly drops from the curved windshield, how the front fenders have a slight dip to the door line before rising subtly to the rear, how the trunk tucks between the tail fins. My mechanic always comments that the car’s style is simplicity itself and that is what I like best about the car—its classic simplicity.
This is my fun car and I take it out almost every weekend to drive in the early mornings on the Pacific Coast Highway, the tone of that simple in-line four engine being a perfect way to break the crisp morning air. It’s also great for bombing around town–with the low belt line, one feels completely outdoors and free, and experiences moving in the city in a completely liberated way. And I’m always amazed by how many positive comments I receive on the car—it’s nice to see that my aesthetic taste has company, but sometimes I think “if they only knew how much I paid for this.” But most importantly, it is my girlfriend’s favorite car.
Year, Make and Model: 1968 Lancia Fulvia Coupe Rallye 1.3S
Photographers: Benny Chan and Li Wen
After buying my first classic, I could feel that the bug had bit me, and the idea to expand to having another European country represented in my garage began to take hold. I started looking at more online ads and sites occasionally during the week and daily on the weekends. After a long day at the office, this hobby provided a quick form of detoxing from the day (and as I liked to tell my girlfriend, with no ill side effects…except to eventually spend more of my money).
I saw a beautiful Flaminia GT Touring Coupe in a local showroom and it reminded me of how cool the Stratos was when it first came out in the 70’s. This Lancia was very different of course, but its long hood and cat-eye shaping of the front and rear lamp details were just so cool. But being what these cars are, I frankly couldn’t afford it. But it launched a two-month research on all Lancias, which connected me to the local owner of LALancia (Adan Figueroa, which is how I discovered this site) who said he’d keep a look out for me. I had by this time narrowed my search to either a Flavia coupe or a Fulvia coupe—especially the Fulvia given its racing heritage—but anticipated a long wait given the rarity in America of either model, which was part of the attraction. Lancia has a more than respected, exclusive legacy without necessarily causing bankruptcy to share in it.
Well, lo and behold, two weeks later Adan informed me of one being sold locally, off-market, and put me in contact with the owner. A Car and Driver writer owned it and was selling it to fund a more practical daily driver. In fact, I had seen the car in an article he wrote about it, and it was that very article that had convinced me to pursue a Fulvia coupe. Now that same car was within my reach. It was meticulously documented, and outside of a few paint blemishes, almost perfect, pretty much all stock—and purred like a kitten. I bought it, repaired the paint, and have been enjoying it ever since—a totally reliable car that has a ride like a Cadillac in the city and then transforms into its rally car self when tackling turns in the hills—truly the engineering marvel people think it is.
As a Rallye, it has the aluminum bonnet, boot lid, and doors. And compared to the Sunbeam, it is far more sophisticated mechanically with its four-wheel disc brakes, independent front suspension with transverse leaf spring design, and of course that DOHC V4 rotated forty-five degrees. Lancia was notorious for over-engineering their cars which led to small or no profits—I thought that a fitting and appropriate legacy for an architect to inherit.
The car is just a joy to drive. When up to speed, it is so smooth that it feels amazingly modern for a car almost fifty years old. I take it out in the early mornings, the sunlight glistening off the polished stainless steel hood lance as I pick up speed on the empty city streets. The exhaust tone on this car is delightful, a full baritone that is unmistakable. This car is also my vehicle of choice when driving through the city to evening events—its style is just formal enough, and its dark blue color a nuanced difference from all the black cars.
Lastly, I just love looking at the car, its fit and finish, its sculpted lines and unique details—like turning the ignition and pushing in to start the car—and the fluted rear end is so seductive, SO Italian. I often describe the shape of this car as “the child that would result if a BMW 2002 and an Alfa GTV got together.” And of course, there are those who say it looks like a Fiat. I just smile and think how ignorance can be so amusing. But in the end, what I like best about this car is that it is most everything I am not: complex, refined and elegant. And I usually only feel that way when I’m driving this car.
Year, Make and Model: 1967 Porsche 912
Photographers: Li Wen and Steven Budy
After the Sunbeam and Lancia, the idea of having three European four-cylinder cars from the ‘60s took hold. I had some friends who were into Porsches and I had seen several early 911s during my numerous drives, and began being seduced by its simple aerodynamic form. And the mechanical set-up for its place next to my other two made sense. But I also didn’t want to pay the significantly higher price for a 911 with its 6-cylinder engine. I remembered that Porsche had made a 912E in the ‘70s but preferred the ‘60s and early ‘70s body style. In researching the period, I discovered the original 912 and began looking into them. Their better balance was attractive too given how I had read the early 911s were tricky to drive for the uninitiated.
The 912 shown here is actually my second one, which I purchased this summer. I actually learned how to drive a Porsche (and I’m still learning) on my first one, a 1967 Polo Red that I bought up in Sacramento two years ago and drove back down to LA in one day with my girlfriend who was brave enough to accompany me on the trip. So I learned about the car’s idiosyncratic driving characteristics on that car and the corresponding habits one had to have with the car (like having at least a half a tank of gas so as to weigh down the front), which helped me to look for the right things on this, my second one. As it turns out, I had to sell that first 912 for a real estate venture, but soon after I sold it, I regretted it.
After a long search, I found this one on ebay; an individual who restored cars was selling it locally in Newbury Park. It had been his grandfather’s car so it was essentially a one-owner car, had never been in any incidents and still had its original black plates. This owner had made some intelligent modifications like an electronic fuel pump, bump steer kit, and Bilstein strut inserts to name a few. The engine had been rebuilt with a big bore kit, Webers, and a Bursch exhaust, and the car had been lowered to the European height. And the semi-outlaw look made it look very contemporary. The minute I drove the car, I knew this was the one—the engine roar and the tight dynamics made it superior to my first one. I was hooked and bought it offline. After a little more sorting, like replacing the voltage regulator with the right one, this car was good to go.
Simply said, I love driving this car, from the moment I get in and feel the efficient, ergonomic German design, to the second the engine snorts and roars to life, and the squeak of the tires as I turn it out of the garage, to the rasp of the exhaust as I accelerate. I love taking it up into the canyons where I can be alone with my thoughts and focus my efforts on working the car. And this car will make you work, but it sticks to the ground with little body roll. The suspension is the stiffest of my three cars but it pays off when one takes it out to run. I’ve told my girlfriend that my Sunbeam and Lancia aren’t fast enough or have enough acceleration to get me in trouble with the law; this 912 is different. Though obviously not as fast as today’s modern cars, it is quick enough to make one sometimes forget how fast one is going.
At three, this is probably it. I’ve thought about adding others but who has enough time to drive more than three cars? I take out whichever one fits my mood at the time; each provides a unique experience. The varying dynamics make for distinctly different drives, and the varied body styles highlight this; each car is a clear idea and together, hopefully, they assemble another clear idea. As an architect, I appreciate that. I am fortunate to have these choices, and to be able to, in a technologically driven world where everything is connected, separate from all of those distractions and have some good old-fashioned fun.
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