John von Neumann---Remembering a Sports Car Pioneer!
John von Neumann may never have achieved the national or international notoriety awarded John Fitch, Carroll Shelby, Briggs Cunningham, Phil Hill (America’s first World Champion), or the many other speedy contemporaries representing racing’s “Golden Age.” Instead, von Neumann will undoubtedly remain as one of the few eminent individuals whose business sense and direct involvement in racing, especially on the West Coast, were the main catalysts sparking the unprecedented growth of imported sports car racing following America’s emergence from the World War II.
Born just a few years following the world’s first global conflict in Vienna, Austria (December 16, 1921), von Neumann spent many hours of his adolescence satisfying his voracious appetite for the automobile (especially for the more exotic species) at Max Hoffman’s showroom, also of Vienna.
With Europe on the brink of another world war, the von Neumann family’s affluence enabled them to escape the tense environment and migrate to America in 1939, setting up shop in New York City. A couple years later following the “day of Infamy” (December 7th, 1941), the U.S. Army was von Neumann’s new home, and his overseas’ duties afforded him the opportunity to experience Germany’s outstanding transportation engineering first hand, especially the very reliable vehicles manufactured by Volkswagen works.
With the war over, it didn’t take von Neumann long to trade the hustle and bustle of college life at NYC’s New York University for the University of Southern California, Los Angeles’ wide boulevards, and the Golden State’s milder weather.
And while Southern California (So-Cal) was incubating the Hot-Rod as a future American icon, California was also witnessing great growth in the sports car arena as well. Weaned on a love for foreign badging, von Neumann, after a few trades, was not only gathering with other area enthusiasts with his Jaguar SS100, but more importantly, joined Roger Barlow of Roger Barlow’s International Motors (L.A.’s largest foreign car dealership), and Taylor Lucus (an employee of Barlow’s) to form the California Sports Car Club (CSCC). At the club’s first organized outing at Palos Verdes (August 31, 1947), von Neumann’s SS100 posted the fastest timed lap.
What could be perceived as the next logical step, von Neumann found himself selling Healeys, MGs, Jags, and other badges for Roger Barlow’s Int’l Motors. And what may have been interpreted as mismanagement at the top, von Neumann left Barlow Motors to capitalize on its customer service shortcomings, and, to fill that void, started Competition Motors, an automotive service shop in North Hollywood. Competition Motors began selling MGs as a sub-dealer through Barlow as well.
To advertise his company’s preparation abilities, he began racing an MG TD (von Neumannn had raced a TC since ’48). Never resting on his laurels, von Neumann would additionally add the two German marques, Porsche and Volkswagen, to his newly formed Competition Motors Distributors, Inc. in 1952. To build awareness for the Porsche, von Neumann repeated his MG ”formula of success” by racing Porsches between ’52-’54, and then kept Porsche a winning marque by hiring West Coast racing star, Ken Miles for the ’56 season.
Married to Eleanor Bigelow, and adopting her daughter, Josie, all were involved in the business. In fact, Josie regularly joined John on the race circuit, actively competing in main events and was the first woman to be licensed by the United State Automobile Club (USAC).
As business flourished, John found himself enjoying the view from his very first Ferrari (a Ferrari 500 Mondial), capturing a second-place in class at Palm Springs in ’54. He would never look back as the Ferrari became his weapon of choice on the racetrack.
In 1957, a Ferrari showroom was added. With business continuing to grow, commitment and time restraints forced the end of von Neumann’s racing career seemingly when many of his peers were heading to the next plateau. His decade plus of mostly West Coast racing exploits might have ended at Valle de Bravo in Mexico City in ’59, but his legacy to the sport would not be his laundry list of successful accomplishments on the track, but his interminable zeal to promote the sports car as a racing platform and bring it to the forefront of racing.
Competition Motors continued to prosper as Von Neumann returned to Europe and partner, Sam Weill, now elevated to president, ran the company. John von Neumann sold out to Porsche and Volkswagen in ’71, but never lost his love for the automobile. He continued into old age enjoying the good life, and for the most part, from behind the wheels of one of his Ferraris. Sadly, his ride through life ended on Christmas Eve, 2003.....Walter Pietrowicz
Please Note: All Images ©Lester Nehamkin
September 8th ©2001-2004 All rights reserved