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COLLECTING TROUBLE : Pasadenan's Rare Old Cars Are Just Junk to Neighbors and City Officials

December 10, 1987|ASHLEY DUNN | Times Staff Writer

PASADENA — Don Stocker's backyard has looked at times like the scene of a grimly brutal car accident frozen in time.

Strewn across the yard are oily transmission parts, dismantled engines and an assortment of car bodies rusting into the landscape.

The scene may appear grotesque, but Stocker explains that beneath the mayhem is a collection of some of the rarest, most arcane and just plain weird automobiles ever made--a 1959 Fiat Abarth Zagato, a 1966 rotary-engine NSU Spyder and a 1959 Berkeley sports car, to name just a few.

He likes to call them his "orphans," cars that mainstream society has forgotten.

But unfortunately for Stocker, the city calls them junk.

"They're trash," agreed one resident of the working-class neighborhood in northeast Pasadena, who asked not to be identified.

"A junkyard," said Director Loretta Thompson-Glickman.

"What an eyesore," said Director Jess Hughston.

After receiving several complaints, the city has cited Stocker with violating two ordinances that prohibit the storage of dismantled vehicles and other material in residential areas.

The Board of Directors has ordered Stocker to remove by today all cars not legally stored in a garage or driveway--which, in Stocker's case, could amount to 11 of his 16 cars. Failure to do so could result in criminal prosecution.

City zoning inspection Supervisor Joe Russ said inspectors will be flexible on the deadline as long as Stocker makes some progress in cleaning up his property.

But no matter what the deadline, Stocker said, removing that many cars would destroy his collection.

"It's going to ruin my life," he said. "This is something I would expect would happen in Russia."

Because of its variety, Stocker's collection defies easy description. There are no Ferraris or Lamborghinis; simply cars that he liked and were relatively inexpensive.

"They were cars that just seemed like they were begging to be saved," said Stocker, a 51-year-old bachelor who works as a Kodak service representative.

He began collecting cars after he suffered a heart attack three years ago and has been a devoted car-parts pack rat since then. His Tudor-style home is filled with generators and engine parts as well as a collection of clocks.

He said he found most of his cars through want ads in local newspapers and shoppers. Frequently he is seen hunting for car parts at swap meets and classic-car fairs. Car fanciers all over the nation have heard of Stocker's collection, and some of them noted its diversity as well as its disrepair.

People who have seen it admit a grudging admiration.

"I've seen a lot bigger collections, but this one is without a doubt the strangest," Russ said. "There's some real rare stuff there."

In general, the cars seems to epitomize the opposite of chic, said Stocker, who would not say how much he paid for any of his automobiles.

One of his favorites is the 1966 NSU Spyder, a German-made sports car that has the distinction of being the first mass-produced car with a rotary engine.

The Spyder, a two-seater made from 1964 to 1966, was revolutionary in its time--perhaps too revolutionary for the buying public.

Some early problems with its rotary engine, and with the engine in a later model called the Ro80, crippled NSU, which merged with Audi in 1969.

Max Troegel, a former NSU dealer and Spyder racer who now lives in Connecticut, said only 1,000 of the cars were built.

One of the most exotic cars in Stocker's yard is the 1959 Fiat Abarth Zagato. The car was built on the chassis of a Fiat 600, but it had a body by famed Italian designer Elio Zagato and was powered by a Abarth-modified Fiat engine. The car, which became popular with young people and movie stars in Italy, sold for as much as a Porsche in its time. Some experts estimate that a Zagato in good condition would bring about $10,000 today.

Alfred Cosentino, author of "The Abarth Guide," a book on the cars produced by the Abarth factory, said about 750 to 1,000 of the cars, sometimes called "double bubbles," were built. About 600 were imported to this country. Probably fewer than 250 are left in the United States today.

One of the rarest cars in Stocker's collection is his 1959 Berkeley, a British two-seater with a fiberglass body powered by a three-cylinder motorcycle engine.

The car was produced by a company primarily known for making trailers. It was reputed to be a nimble vehicle and could attain a top speed of 90 m.p.h.

Nat Stevens, editor of the Massachusetts-based Berkeley Exchange magazine, said about 700 Berkeleys of the type Stocker owns were built from 1956 to 1961. He estimated that only about 200 survive, most of them in England.

Not all of the cars in Stocker's collection are rare.

His 1970 Porsche 914-6 (about 3,300 made) and 1956 Porsche 356A (up to 22,000 made) seem almost commonplace.

Two of Stocker's favorites are the 1959 and 1960 NSU Prinz--cramped, boxy German cars, each powered by a two-cylinder, 600-cc engine, that were made by the tens of thousands.

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