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AROUND THE VALLEY

Farewell, Innocent Flamboyance

January 01, 1996|JON D. MARKMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

My father's exotic car still shone in our driveway after 21 years like a new blue sun--brilliant and effortlessly powerful.

Its breathtaking curves still reflected a limitless sky and limitless future; even better, they reflected a happy past.

But the car was seldom driven anymore. Who dared? And memories of Dad behind its leather wheel--his cowboy boots pressed to the floor as he gunned it into the driveway with a throaty growl--had begun ever so gently to fade.

So the family gathered and admitted it was time. We rang up a museum curator, and he came with a contract. Then followed an appraiser, and finally a car carrier.

And so it was last week that a piece of our family history became a part of Los Angeles history. And we begin the new year without an old friend.

*

My father grew up in dusty, windy Great Falls, Mont., on the wrong side of the tracks. His dad, an immigrant from Bialystok, Russia, was a cigar-chomping fur trader who owned a scrap yard alongside the rail station. Opportunities were scant for Jews in the West at the turn of the century. His business card read: Sam Markman. Hides. Tallow. Junk.

My father learned to drive his dad's black truck before he turned 10. Occasionally, he and his sisters would drive to the nearby Blackfoot reservation together to pick up pelts. My aunt Chessa likes to recount that the chief and her father would exchange greetings of "Shalom!" She remembers feeling proud that her father could speak Blackfoot.

Soon after that, on a July 4 weekend, my grandfather died. And after selling almost everything they owned, my father packed up the family and drove to Los Angeles. My dad turned 13 the day they drove through the Cajon Pass.

*

Ah, Los Angeles. Los Angeles! The rich scent of orange groves and the rich golden sun and the rich blue sea made my father and his three sisters drunk with disbelief at their good fortune. Though they barely had enough money for two months' rent, they put down roots in the Crenshaw District, attended Dorsey High and conspired to make a new life.

My father worked two or three jobs during high school to help put food on the table, then headed to Alaska after graduation to find his fortune. He ended up driving U.S. Army trucks in the Aleutian Islands before being drafted for the war effort in Korea.

Cars and motorcycles were his passion, but paychecks always went home to his mom. And so dreams of new wheels would have to wait.

*

In the mid-1950s, the city spread out to a war veteran like an open checkbook. A little education on the GI bill, and the future was only bordered by a man's imagination.

Call it luck, call it fate, call it hard work veined with good karma, but my father stepped into the San Fernando Valley in the middle of one of the greatest consumer buying explosions in history. He started his own sales firm, representing mostly Japanese manufacturers of home electronics, and the blast-off in hi-fi purchases by baby boomers lifted him from a small office on Lankershim Boulevard to a warehouse complex in Van Nuys.

Along with prosperity came a renewed passion for sports cars--those quintessential emblems of the suburbs vaulting away from the city. My father first bought a Thunderbird, and later a Porsche.

But the marque that ultimately defined his colorful brand of individualism carried three powerful red prongs, the badge of the House of Maserati.

*

Giorgio Giugaro, the Michelangelo of car design, brought the Merak to life in 1972 as an exotic "economy" car on the cusp of the Mideast oil crisis.

The first six-cylinder progeny of a design studio that had previously produced the salaciously strong Maserati Ghibli and Bora, it "was really an environmental car," says Francis Mandarano, president of Maserati Club International in Seattle, with a laugh.

Some economy. My father's silvery blue Merak, which cost $21,700, sported flying buttresses, a sharply angled windshield, fat tires pushed to their fenders' edge, truly sensuous curves and paint polished like a gemstone.

Aaron Gee, a Maserati authority in Orlando, Fla., calls the Merak "animalistic--just sex on wheels." Eric Anderson, an auto columnist for San Diego Magazine, flatly calls it "quite simply the most beautiful car in the world."

It epitomized the era of soaring space shots and unending potential. Conspicuous consumption. Ostentation. Look at me.

Indeed, my father was proud of his arrival and rightly so. The car was a way of explaining something about himself. It was like a layer of clothing, or a second skin, that this immigrant's kid wore without apology or fear of pretension.

When you slipped into the sheepskin-covered seat beside him, and watched the Valley slip past those raked-back windows in a shimmering blur, a communication beyond conversation began against the thrumming cacophony of Italian carburetion. You were one-on-one with two forces of nature, one mechanical and the other human. For a son, daughters and friends alike, that roaring equation put the world in balance.

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