When Manhattan was the Epicenter of Car Culture
"Car culture" -- especially in the 1950s through the 1970s -- is synonymous with Southern California. The southern end of the Golden State's open, inviting highways, scenic vistas, perfect weather and disposable income meant that cars became a part of the landscape unlike anywhere else on earth through the first oil crisis. But surprisingly, it wasn't some suburb that defined car culture on the East Coast. It was New York, and one small area of Manhattan was where it was all happening. Cars in New York City seem almost counter-intuitive today, but three features made cars a part of the culture since the time automobiles started to roam the landscape: First, despite being headquartered in Detroit, Ford, Chrysler and General Motors all had a significant presence in Manhattan, because while Detroit was building cars, Wall Street was building fortunes. In the 1950s and 1960s, European imports started flooding into the United States, and significant importers were located there. As they began building their own headquarters in the United States, they focused either on the city itself, or the suburbs in New Jersey as perfect locations. Second, racing was huge in places not far from the city. Following a series of road races held between 1949 and 1953, Bridgehampton Racing Circuit opened in 1957 and played host to legendary national events. Street racing was happening in and outside the city. Finally, New York City was a publishing dynamo, and car magazines were a huge part of the industry, from The Horseless Age in 1903 to the early days of Sports Car Illustrated which would become Car and Driver in 1961. Hundreds of publications like High Performance Cars and Popular Mechanics and National Speed Sport News were all had headquarters within miles of each other.
There were a handful of places where the people who circulated in these three worlds all met, browsed, ate, drank and shopped, and they've all but disappeared. Here's a look back at a few of them:
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A national hero in France, René Dreyfus was also a Jew. Not just any Jew, mind you: one who had humiliated Rudolf Caracciola and his Mercedes-Benz Silver Arrow in 1937 for the Prix du Million at the Autodrome de Montlhéry in 1938. When the Germans overran France, Dreyfus was in the United States, and wisely stayed there, eventually enlisting in the US Army. Following the war, he and his brother Maurice opened Le Gourmet, a French restaurant in 1946. They sold that restaurant and opened Le Chanteclair at 18 East 49th Street in midtown Manhattan, directly between Rockefeller Center and the Waldorf-Astoria.
It became the defacto headquarters of automobile racing culture east of the Mississippi. On any given night, you'd be shown to your table by a man who had once beaten the Bugatti factory team in his own car by 22 seconds. At the next table, you might see Stirling Moss or find Phil Hill at the bar. In a time when top-level professional race car drivers are as isolated as Hollywood stars, it's incredible to think that anyone with enough scratch to buy a drink at the bar could hobnob with the greatest racing drivers in history.
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The restaurant closed in the late 1970s.
Sardi's is famous for a lot of things, but since 1957, every second Tuesday, it's been famous for influential people in New York City who were involved in auto racing, auto writing and the OEM side of the car business, known collectively as the Madison Avenue Sports Car Driving and Chowder Society. Dreyfus's Le Chanticlair was the original meeting site for a more informal group of automotive luminaries, but it quickly outgrew the size that the French restaurant could accommodate. Sardi, was a sports-car racer himself, and volunteered a luncheon venue in 1957. “Rene couldn’t accommodate a large group regularly," remembered John Fitch in an article in Autoweek in 2007, "so we moved to Sardi’s, and the Society was born.”
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It eventually turned legendary: "In 1973," reads the Autoweek story, "a Richard Nixon look-alike alighted from a presidential limo at the UN, hopped onto a bicycle and raced sports-car drivers, including Guthrie, crosstown." In other notable events, a batch of 1978 Ferraris raced taxi drivers in something called the Crosstown Challenge Rallye, in which Phil Hill was clocked at 93 mph through Central Park, before crashing the Ferrari he was driving into a cab.
Hoffman Motor Cars
Max Hoffman is essentially responsible for every European brand even existing in this country. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, he took the risk on brands like Jaguar, BMW, Mercedes-Benz and Volkswagen before any other importer would. His showroom on 443 Park Avenue in New York City was a shrine to automotive greatness.
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Designed by Frank Lloyd Wright in 1953 and opened in 1955, it was a building so significant that it was featured in a two-page spread in Architectural Forum in 1955. The showroom featured a revolving display turntable for three to four cars, as well as a ramp that rose from the back and wrapped around the building onto a cantilevered balcony. It was Wright's precursor to the Guggenheim Museum, which opened in 1959, featuring a continuous ramp that spiraled throughout the entire building.
Mercedes-Benz took over the building in 1957, and ran it continuously throughout 2011, when the brand built a new $30 million structure. The Wright-desinged showroom was sold off and gutted, and in 2013 became a bank.
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Gael Green was New York magazine's restaurant critic starting in 1968. She wrote the following review in a 1970 issue of the magazine:
“Autopub, underground at the General Motors Building. Bucket seats, rumble seats, love seats in open and closed cars. Or dine at the drive-in movie (Dear John, Hiroshima, Mon Amour, Cool Hand Luke, cartoons on Saturday). All chrome and tufted leatherette with dazzling Indy racers parked on the ceiling. Sinuous fuel dispensers in zip-up jump suits. Barmen in “Getty” mechanics’ coveralls. Limited menu. A gas from Ellman-Long-champs.”
Autopub was cool enough that during the early runnings of the "Cannonball Baker Sea-to-Shining-Sea Memorial Trophy Dash," it was the headquarters of a reception (read: "rager") prior to the start of the race.
Sound familiar? Autopub was the inspiration for the fictional restaurant "Jack Rabbit Slim's" in Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction.
R. Gordon & Co.
We found one rare photo from R. Gordon's thanks to the help of Nick Carr, who writes the fantastic blog Scouting NY. The photo comes from the December 24, 1973 issue of New York magazine, recommending R. Gordon's as a Best Bet for finding rare books on cars, racing and flying.
Today, all you're likely to hear about this place is that it was legendary. R. Gordon was a bookstore located directly next to the St. Regis on 12 East 55th Street. The proprietor had one request for a book called Motor Racing with Mercedes Benz by George Monkhouse, originally published in 1946, and it set the proprietor on a mission to become the most comprehensive automotive bookstore in the city. The shop was stocked with "just about every automotive publication in print...repair manuals, racers' memoirs, and classic-car-club magazines."
When I asked Karl Ludvigsen -- the editor who renamed Sports Car Illustrated to Car and Driver -- if he had an photos or memories of the place, he wrote back, "It was a great and vital force in our world."
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