Monday, January 26, 2015

Citroen DS-21

Citroen DS-21

When I was in college, one of the professors had a French car called a Citroen DS. It was bright yellow and very distinctive looking. I became fascinated by the Citroen and found out that it was an extremely innovative car. 

When it came out in 1955 it was years ahead of other makes in handling, braking, and styling. It was one of the few front-wheel drive luxury cars of the era. I test drove one at a Wichita dealer in 1970, but decided not to buy it simple because I needed a pickup more than a French luxury car. For about the same money I got a new Ford F-100.

The DS series remained in production until 1975. It came in second in a vote among auto journalist as the most beautiful car of the 20th century.

When Louise and I visited Paris in 1983, the city was fogged in for the entire week we were there. We never saw the top of the Eifel tower, but we looked everyday just in case the weather cleared for minute and we could get a glimpse of the top.

One day as we were walking by I saw an old Citroen DS sitting by the curb. By 1983 the DS was just another old car, but to me it was a find. I got out my old Plaubel Veriwide and made one exposure of the Citroen and the fogged in Eifel tower. It has become one of my all time favorite photos.

Plaubel was a German specialty camera manufacture. They made less than 2,000 Veriwides between 1959 and 1965. It had a 47mm Super-Angulon Schneider lens which gave a 100 degree coverage on a 6x10 cm frame. This is seven  shots on a roll of 120 film.  I don’t recall ever seeing another one other than the one I had. I owned it for about 10 years and have a lot of great photos that I made with that camera including this Citroen/Eifel Tower photo. I think I traded it to C&J Photo for a new Canon SLR in the late ‘80s.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Castle Enchante - Nice, France

Castel Enchante
It was late afternoon when we drove into Nice. We still had plenty of time to find our hotel and go out for dinner. The directions we had turned out to be less than reliable as we drove around looking for something that sounded familiar. We were also confounded by the lack of street signs. Very few streets in Nice are marked, and when they are the system seems pretty random. We eventually stumbled across a sign that was on our map and by combining our wits we were reasonably convinced that we had found the street leading to our inn.

The web-site said the small inn was close-in with great views of the city, so we knew we were looking for a hill. As the winding road started to climb our confidence soared. By now it was dark and we were all past hungry. But very soon the road narrowed to one lane and began to deteriorate. There was no place to turn around because the mountain was on one side a sheer drop was on the other. As the road got steeper I realized that we were losing traction. If I stopped, we might not be able to get going again on the loose gravel. Then we leveled off and there was a light. It was an old house. A lady came out with a couple of large dogs. We asked (in French) if this was Castel Enchante. She replied that we had passed it on the way up the mountain. She then walked over to the edge and pointed down.

Back in the car, we edged our way down the sloping road that seemed barely hanging to the side of the hill. Then we saw the small sign tacked to a post only visible from this direction that read “Hotel Rooms.” We turned in the drive which was about six feet wide and about a 45 degree angle up. I gunned the little diesel engine and popped the clutch. I then slammed on the brakes at the crest and slid into small spot inches from going over the cliff. We looked around and saw a light coming through the trees, so I dispatched my companions to see if this was really the Castel. They returned a few minute later while I was still gathering my senses, saying we had found it. They wisely chose to walk from there, since me or the car making it any further was anything but certain. I was told to just park the car in the parking lot and come on in.

I got out and surveyed the situation and realized that there was another equally steep and narrow road behind me. After a series of three-point turns, I climbed the hill and slid in behind an aging BMW. I figured that it either belonged to the innkeeper or a previous guest who decided that abandoning the car there wasn’t a bad idea.
We were shown to our room in the beautiful 16th century mansion where I collapsed on the bed. As I waited for the blood to return to my knuckles, going out for dinner seemed like the last thing I wanted to do. Instead we dined on wine and chocolate accumulated on the trip.

The next day we awoke to a find ourselves in a beautiful house with a lovely garden, and a gorgeous view of the city. After a great breakfast and conversation we decided it was time to see if we could make it down the hill. The world looks better when you are well-fed and the sun is shining. But in the daylight it was obvious that the Lord was clearly guiding us, because the road was every bit as treacherous as it had seemed the night before.

We drove along the Mediterranean to Monaco where we pretended to be royalty, eating like kings. On the way back we stopped in old town Nice for more amazing food, putting off as long as possible the trip back up the mountain.
By now we knew what to expect, but this time there were screams of terror from the back seat, with some suggesting that they might want to walk. I realized that the night before my companions were too scared to utter a sound. By the third day I was picturing myself battling it out with Al Unser on the Pikes Peak Hill-climb, as I smoked up the hill, sliding around the hair-pin turns with the Michelins clinging to the side of the mountain. I was not sure my companions would ever get in a car with me again.

The next day was to be the autoroute back to Paris, but we wisely chose to take some back roads, winding through vineyards and enjoying the people and culture of the South of France.

I understand that there are people who would rather stay home. Sorry, I would rather scare my friends in the back of a Toyota on the French Riviera.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Antique Cameras

When I was in college I bought a couple of old Leicas just for fun. One was from the 1930’s and the other was post-war. Not what you would call modern cameras.

I started working for Kenny Young at Ben’s Camera Exchange in downtown Kansas City in 1971. Kenny was an avid camera collector and I got quite serious about learning about old camera and the history associated with them. I began by reading all the books I could find about the history of photography and cameras.

I heard about a book called “Glass, Brass & Chrome, a History of American 35mm Cameras.” I mentioned it to a customer who worked at the Kansas City Library. The next day he brought me a copy of the book. When I asked him when it was due, he said not to worry about. I read the book and put it on my bookshelf. Years later, after I became a Christian, I saw the book and realized that it was stolen from the library. I took it back downtown and dropped it in the book return. I then tracked down another copy of the book and paid about $50 for it. Well worth it to have a clear consequence.

After I started my own business and began having spare money, I started buying classic cameras. I shopped Shutterbug Magazine and traveled the country to camera shows. Eventually I owned hundreds of cameras, many unique and of great interest to collectors.

In 1990 I opened a Photography Museum in the lobby of Mathis Photo Inc. at 7801 Floyd, Overland Park, KS. After about five years, I began to sense that the cameras were becoming a chore to maintain if not a burden. Plus I went to a camera show in Independence. It was at a Holiday Inn. There were about 25 dealers setting around talking cameras and about six customers, none of whom looked like they were planning to spend any money. I then drove up the street to a gun show. There were hundreds of dealers with thousands of people inside and a line out the door.  They were all waiving cash and trying to buy all sorts of weapons including military style assault rifles that I thought were illegal. The contrast couldn’t have been greater. I realized that the world had changed and nobody was going to get excited about old cameras. Guys would rather pretend they were Wyatt Earp or Rambo than Ansel Adams.

I asked an international camera dealer friend named Roger Reinke to stop by the next time he was in Kansas City. I sold him about half of my collection. I didn’t have any seller’s remorse, so I had him come back and sold him most of the rest.

With the advent of the internet and eBay, I sold a few more. I now have just a couple of the most attractive ones left. Some of the most expensive cameras were not necessarily display worthy, only rare or historically significant.
In 1996 I decided to shift my pastime to music after 25 year away from playing. I still teach a few classes on the history of photography and have a little bit of classic equipment to show, but I just haven’t seen an outpouring of excitement for historically significant cameras in the past 30 years. Maybe they will come back someday.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Oldsmobile Toronado

Oldsmobile Toronado

I have always loved cars. Not just for the freedom of movement and the ability to go wherever I want whenever I want, but for their beauty and engineering.

However, whenever it came time to buy a new car, practicality always won out. In fifty years I have owned thirty-five cars, but none were really outrageous like a Corvette or a Porsche.  In the late seventies, I decided that I needed to buy a car just for fun, so we went to the Kruse Classic Car Auction and came home with a low mileage 1970 Oldsmobile Toronado.

The Toronado came out in 1966 and was an engineering tour de force. It was a huge high-powered front-drive two-door luxury car. Later the Mercedes Benz chief said that Mercedes did not make front- drive cars because front-wheel drive would not hold up with high output engines. By this point GM had already sold 500,000 400 hp front-wheel drive Toronados and Cadillac Eldorados without a single drive train failure. I guess the Daimler guys had not got in the habit of looking past their front doors yet.

The 1966 Toronados were gorgeous and kept getting better though 1970. The 1971s were worse and went downhill with the rest of General Motors. Toronados, and eventually all Oldsmobiles, were allowed to die without serious corporate support.

Since I liked cars, I thought I should be able to work on them as well. I took a few auto repair courses at Johnson County Community College but didn’t really excel. 95% of the repairs I attempted ending up being redone by the dealer within months. I could change the oil and rotate the tires and I could change spark plugs if I could see them.
I have since learned that my skills were only slightly behind the average mechanic at a franchise auto service business or even an independent garage. In the past ten or fifteen years, every repair I have had done by an independent garage or national franchise has had to be redone by the dealer within a year. I don’t believe that most mechanics are dishonest, merely incompetent. Considering the complexity of modern cars, this is to be expected.

Proverbs 22: 29 says, “See a man skilled in his work? He will serve before kings; he will not serve before obscure men.” That is because there are so few really skilled people. I am more convinced all the time that our skills, more than anything else, determine our status in life.