Ladies, Start Your Engines
Women, cars, and the joy of driving
by Jan Schlain
From the November, 2020 issue
"I come from a car family," says Holly Fischer. "I got the bug from my dad." A small-town doctor in Minnesota, "he loved cars. So did his dad.
"He may have liked the hunt of it. He used to tell us, 'some cars are a dime a dozen. Find one that's collectible.'"
He "really liked the Rolls-Royces and the Duesenbergs--the elegant and luxurious, and also the fast and furious." And he liked cars by Italian designers.
When her father moved into retirement and began parting with his collection, her brothers got the Italian cars: the Alfa Romeo went to Tad, and Fred got the Ferrari ("He works on his cars. It was a no-brainer for him," Holly says). She just wanted something "that I could afford--and I always wanted a convertible."
So she asked for her father's 1972 Volkswagen Karmann Ghia: a gorgeous Italian-designed convertible draped over the chassis of a vintage VW Beetle. In 1995, Fred trailered it to Ann Arbor.
The car "was drivable, but aesthetically it was in rough shape," she recalls. "It was green with a camel top," but the underside of the engine cover was orange. Her mom had named it "Fahrfy," short for Fahrvergnuegen, a VW slogan at the time that means "driving pleasure."
I have been a car girl ever since I was a teenager, driving my mom's Oldsmobile Toronado (jade green with white leather interior) down the Lodge Freeway to a summer job at Detroit's Fisher Theater. When I bought my first car, all I could afford was a blue AMC Gremlin--no power anything, vinyl seats--but I loved it anyway. I still smile when a Gremlin shows up on the auction website bringatrailer.com.
Though I don't have the money to collect cars, I wrote about them when I worked for the late David E. Davis, Jr. Davis brought Car & Driver to Ann Arbor in the 1970s and founded Automobile magazine here in the 1980s, but this
was in the 2000s, when he had a small office in Ypsilanti.
Later, in New Mexico, I met another legendary automotive journalist, Denise McCluggage. Over tea at her Santa Fe home, she shared some of her own great car stories. In 1949, a few years out of Mills College and working as a sportswriter at the San Francisco Chronicle, she fell in love with an MG TC at a newly opened dealership called British Motor Cars. She had seen that exact car before, in a Life magazine article about the sporty foreign cars that were beginning to hit the American roads. It included a full-page photograph of a woman driving the car, its windscreen folded down, under "one of those tall, gangly, lumber lifters on wheels," she later wrote--and she "ached with a hankering" she hadn't known since childhood.
When Britain devalued the pound and the MG's price dropped from $2,400 to $1,850, McCluggage called her father in Kansas, got a loan, and bought it. With the top and windscreen down, she sped down Route 1, through Big Sur and on to L.A.
Later, in New York City, she hung around Greenwich Village with another MG owner, a "waif-like" young actor. She and Steve McQueen became "a Village item," parking their cars nose to tail on Cornelia St. They parted ways, but ran into one another again in the early 1960s, when both were racing at Sebring.
When Denise died in 2015, I was holding her hand. And though I'm not in her league--she was an extraordinary person, writer, and race driver--I have had the thrill of driving high-performance sports cars. As Denise used to say, "They create their own trips. They give us a reason to go somewhere." Behind the wheel of a friend's Ferrari 456 (racing green, tan interior), accelerating around a sweeping curve on a mountain road, my heart opens wide as Bruce Springsteen sings, "Take Me to the River."
After their father died in 2009, Holly and Tad sold his last remaining car, a Rolls-Royce. With "a pot of money," she decided to spend some of it on Fahrfy.
Linda French, owner of Ypsilanti's Sidetrack Bar & Grill, "had a super-sweet Beetle. I asked her, 'who restored your car?' and she said Bruce Phillips, who at that time had his restoration shop right next door," Fischer remembers. "We hit it off."
Phillips later moved his shop to the same building where David E. Davis had his office. I met Phillips when I worked there, and he's the person who put me in touch with Fischer.
"Originally it wasn't her plan to completely restore her Karmann Ghia," Phillips recalls. "She just wanted it to be repaired to drive it." But "one of her brothers had seen my work, and he said, 'Let him go to town.'"
She did. "As long as you have a car," she says, "you might as well have a nice-looking car."
Over the next eighteen months, Phillips did a frame-off restoration. He replaced much of the body, put in a more powerful engine, redid the interior, and upgraded the suspension and electrical system. When he delivered it in the spring of 2012, he was thrilled to see "Holly go gaga over her Karmann Ghia."
The car was featured in Automobile in 2014. "The first day it came out in Automobile, a guy called and said, 'I want one just like Holly's,'" Phillips recalls. "I told him, 'It's a very personal car.'" And he warned him that it hadn't been cheap: "It costs as much to restore a Volkswagen as a Ferrari."
"She was one of the first woman customers I had that let me express myself with her car, and she did everything that she could to contribute to the outcome of that," Phillips says appreciatively. Fahrfy has won prizes at car shows, and even been driven around the Indy 500 Speedway.
Usually, though, Fischer just takes her out Huron River Dr. to Mast Rd. to North Territorial to M-52 through Chelsea and back to town on Scio Church. "It's a nice ride," she says. "I can be having a crappy day, and I get in that car and I feel joy," she says.
"You hear her butchy engine, then you see her beautiful paint and interior, and with the top down she's a dream come true," Fischer says. "It's kinda loud, and I have my thoughts with me. I think about my dad, my grandad.
"It's not an easy car to drive--I don't want anyone to bump into me. But it's such a pleasure to drive. It takes extra attention, but I love it. It's nothing but pure joy when that car's running."
Right now, unfortunately, it's not: "She hit a road hazard recently, and it collapsed the front end," Phillips tells me. "So it's in the shop again."
"My driving fun is over with Fahrfy this year," Fischer confirms. She should be back on the road by spring [or whenever].
[Originally published in November, 2020.]
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