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Don Ricardo; Big Band Leader, Antique Car Buff


He loved music and he loved cars. He used one to get the other.

Don Ricardo, leader of big bands including the NBC Orchestra in the 1930s and an award-winning collector, restorer and racer of antique automobiles, has died. He was 92.

Ricardo died Aug. 15 in a Pasadena convalescent home, where he had lived for more than a year, said family friend Jim Riddick of Martinez, Calif.

Even in his late 80s, Ricardo and his stable of vintage Mercedes-Benzes and other treasures were familiar sights at the Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance and at shows in such venues as Pasadena's Ritz-Carlton Hotel and Fullerton's Muckenthaler Cultural Center.

He frequently staged his own shows for charity at the Pasadena estate he liked to call "a 14-car garage with a house attached."

And in his younger days--until at least age 60--Ricardo was seen behind the wheel of his impeccably detailed cars, which he kept running with the precision of a Swiss watch, at such races as Bonneville and the Pomona Winternationals, setting several records for touring cars.

Ricardo played drums and the violin from age 7 and started his first band in 1927. Don Ricardo and the Californians, with their Latin rhythms and big band dance tunes, found steady work at Los Angeles' Biltmore Hotel and in Lake Tahoe showrooms.

With the band's growing reputation, NBC Radio soon came calling and in 1937 put it on the air as the NBC Orchestra. Ricardo continued providing music for the network's radio shows for a dozen years.

Ricardo worked in his teens as a printer's apprentice. Even then, every spare cent went into building a machine shop, at that time for customizing Model Ts.

Ricardo took on a somewhat different engineering project during World War II. Signing on to use his automotive machinist skills as a tool-and-die maker, he was assigned to a special project at Caltech. He headed a team of 50 workmen developing parts for a new "anti-personnel bomb" and did not learn until war's end that he had been working on the Manhattan Project to build the atom bomb.

Returning full time to making music after the war, Ricardo increased his fortunes and elevated his taste in the rare autos he was able to collect, priding himself on Mercedes-Benzes and gull-wings of any make.

Over the years, his treasures--once valued at $20 million--included a 1911 Benz Victoria Touring Car, a 1923 Targa Florio 28/95, a 1927 K model sports roadster built originally for Rudolph Valentino, a 1928 Mercedes-Benz supercharged SSK, two 1955 Mercedes-Benz 300SL gull-wings, a 1938 Horch convertible coupe, a Lynx D-type replica, and DeLorean and Bricklin gull-wings.

In 1960, Ricardo attracted headlines by purchasing the 1935 Mercedes-Benz roadster custom-built for Nazi Gestapo chief Heinrich Himmler. Ricardo got the 3-ton car from a U.S. Army major who had bought it in 1957 from Himmler's estate.

Hidden by Himmler's family in a basement after World War II, the one-of-a-kind car was in good condition, Ricardo said, with one important change: The holes drilled in the rear seats for machine-gun mounts had been filled.

"The car was used mostly for show by Himmler," Ricardo told The Times. "It's a rather odd feeling to be driving the car that carried Himmler and other Nazi bosses in parades and other ceremonies."

Ricardo had no illusions about the economy of his collector's items, noting of the Himmler car: "I get 10 miles to the gallon if I'm careful."

Even without its treasures, Ricardo's garage would be the envy of car buffs. Ed Hellwig wrote in a column for the automotive Web site a decade ago that it was "the mother of garages, an inspiration to men throughout the nation . . . a place to pay homage to the automobile."

Hand tools and memorabilia, including posters from long-ago races and car shows, were mounted on the finished walls. Workbenches lined the perimeter of the garage, and hose reels ready to dispense air and water were suspended from the ceiling.

Within its confines, the dream garage also contained a complete machine shop where Ricardo could make from aluminum stock any illusive parts he was unable to buy.

"I've loved cars all my life," the then-octogenarian told Hellwig, "and what's in this garage is my life. Sometimes, when I can't sleep at night, I'll come down here and sit in the gull-wing and relive the memories all over again."

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