This story began in 1979 when I negotiated the purchase of the Henry Birkin Lord Howe 8C 2300 Alfa Romeo that won Le Mans in 1931 and a lovely 1957 Ferrari 500 TRC. Both the cars were in Oklahoma City and they were offered at a very reasonable price. Eventually, they were collected and delivered to my shop in Berkeley.
The 8C 2300 Alfa Romeo had had its chassis shortened while it was in New Zealand and had been fitted with a Ford back axle assembly. In those days there were no spares available. I had bought the car with the intention to resell it with the hope that it would stay with me to perform a full restoration.
This didn’t work out and a few months later I sold it to my friend Paul Pappalardo who elected to keep it as it was. A year later he sold it on and it went to the UK where another good friend Paul Grist did a full restoration and lengthened the chassis back to its original configuration for my then London roommate Peter Hannen. In 1991 the car changed hands again and went to well-known collector Kerry Manolas in Sydney, Australia.
I had met Kerry at Monterey some years before and we had become friends and when I moved to the UK we had once again connected when he offered me a drive in his Maserati 300S at the Silverstone support race to the British Grand Prix.
He was obviously happy with my result and as a result of this and the fact that he knew I was an Alfa man he invited me to participate in the 1992 Japanese version of the Mille Miglia. Kerry wasn’t a mechanical person and shifting and driving the Alfa was difficult for him so he decided that I would do all the driving and he would enjoy the scenery and take the photographs.
We met in Tokyo where the Mille Miglia started and collected the route map and all the goodies that they give you for these events. The weather was mixed, but not oppressive and the roads were in very good condition. There were two stages at race circuits Mt Fuji and Suzuka. I remembered Mt Fuji well and the “Griswold-san Champion” saga in the Hayashi Alfa Monza some years before.
I had only seen Suzuka on TV when the Japanese Grand Prix was taking place. I was really looking forward to driving there. The whole Mille Miglia was very well run and the cars were really an eyeful. Our idea was just to drive the car and enjoy the scenery. We had no interest in the normal stopwatch marathon that takes place and this was fine with me.
I only like real races, not time rallies. Kerry must have taken a 1000 photos on the trip to record every detail. At the end of the Mille Miglia we were classified near to the last place but in all other ways, we were winners from the aspect of a pure fun good company, wonderful food, and beautiful scenery. The car performed flawlessly.
With a few days remaining before heading home, we decided to go pay Takeo Kato a well-known collector a visit. It was about a 4hour drive from Tokyo so we set out in our rental car. Mr. Kato lived in a small village nearby to the sea. His house was located on a corner and was a 3 story affair. It was small compared to Western Standards, but this is the way many Japanese houses are. The front door seemed unusually large for such a small house, but the answer laid inside.
Mr. Kato greeted us in the hall and we took an elevator to the top floor and had a drink. He asked us if we would like to see some of his cars and motioned us to get into the elevator once again. He pushed the button for the bottom floor. When the doors opened we were in for a shock. There were two cars under covers. He went and lifted the first cover and there was a Ferrari 250 GTO. He lifted the second and revealed an Aston Martin DBR1 one of the most beautiful sports racers of all time and winner of Le Mans 24 hour race. Mr. Kato kept them in his basement so nobody could steal them. He used the elevator to take them up and then drove them out his oversized front door. This visit was the highlight of this wonderful trip.