July 6th, 2013
By founding the California Mille, an internationally known rally that runs vintage sports cars over 1,000 miles of hilly Northern California roads, Martin Swig ensured that people would see the cars doing what they were meant to do: devouring hot asphalt.
Mr. Swig, who died on Tuesday at 78, organized the first California Mille in 1991. The tour, for automobiles built in 1957 or earlier, lasts four days, starting on the last Sunday in April, and for many miles winds along strikingly scenic Northern California coastline. About 75 vehicles from all over the world join the tour every year, each owner paying about $6,000 to enter.
Mr. Swig, who also owned one of the first major multiple-franchise car dealerships in the United States, died in Greenbrae, Calif., and lived in Sausalito. His son David said he had a stroke on Sunday.
The California Mille is based on the Italian Mille Miglia, an endurance race from Brescia to Rome and back that ran from 1927 to 1957. Mr. Swig and John Lamm of Road & Track magazine participated in a 1982 revival of the Mille in Mr. Swig’s 1955 Alfa Romeo 1900 Zagato. He later drove in about 50 Mille events, in Japan and Australia as well as Italy and California.
The California tour requires unusually devoted drivers, Mr. Swig told Sports Car Digest in 2011. “They have to have a car they drive and don’t just take it out once a year,” he said. “You have to be at one with your car.”
Many car collectors focus on one make or model, but Mr. Swig’s collection of some 30 automobiles is eclectic. In addition to the rarities listed above, he had five different models of Alfa Romeo’s Giulietta, a pair of Datsun 510s and a 1968 Toyota Corona two-door hardtop. His most recent addition was a 2013 Subaru BRZ.
Martin Lewis Swig was born in northern New Jersey on Feb. 8, 1934, moved to Palo Alto, Calif., with his family in 1946. There he became involved in the burgeoning California auto culture as a teenager at Palo Alto High School. He worked at a used car lot in Menlo Park while studying at Stanford, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in economics in 1956.
He bought his first dealership, a Datsun franchise, in 1969 and in 1982 opened the San Francisco Autocenter, which brought together in one showroom as many as 17 franchises, from Suzuki to Rolls-Royce.
In addition to his son David, a specialist in cars for Bonhams auction house, Mr. Swig is survived by his wife, Esta; another son, Howard, who sells cars and has written for Car and Driver magazine; a daughter from a previous marriage, Annalisa Poirel; four grandchildren; a brother, Richard; and a sister, Angel Bastek.