Feature: Restoration Legend
Stephen Griswold ’58 gets the motor running on some of the world’s most famous cars
Jana F. Brown
In 2016, it was rumored that a 1962 Ferrari 250 GTO once purchased by auto restoration pioneer Stephen Griswold ’58 for $13,000 – decades prior – would sell for $56 million. It turns out, the vintage Ferrari in mint condition sold earlier this year for between $45 and $50 million, though Griswold had sold it for $150,000 long before the retired racing car became one of the most expensive vehicles ever to change hands. “My dream was to have a Maserati 250F,” says Griswold, without regret. “I sold the GTO for that.” It’s worth noting that Griswold had sold his 212 Export Ferrari Barchetta Touring Spider to pay for the GTO at the time.
Ferrari made only 39 GTOs comprising series 1 and 2 and including the four-liter prototypes, while only 26 of the Maserati 250F were produced. Griswold is a virtual encyclopedia (or Wikipedia, by today’s standards) of vintage racecars. He is known in Northern California – and around the globe – for his precise restorations to pristine condition of some of the world’s rarest automobiles. When Griswold first opened his auto racing shop in Berkeley, Calif., in the 1960s, there were no spare parts, so reviving classic racecars required a working knowledge of machining and engineering. Fortunately, Griswold had grown up learning the trade skills needed to be effective. His father, Frank ’32, owned a business manufacturing precision machine tools. By the age of 10, Stephen was an apprentice of sorts, running lathes and milling machines under the watchful eye of the shop foreman. The business also was an importer of Lodge sparkplugs, Weber carburetors, and other auto parts, which mixed well with the elder Griswold’s other job – as Alfa Romeo’s North American importer from 1948 to 1956. The Griswold family maintained a small workshop on its property in Radnor, Pa., where Stephen could be found “fiddling with motorbikes” after school. By the age of 11, he had taken apart and put back together an Austin 7 and a Maserati 6CM.
“It was hands-on, and I liked working with my hands,” he says. “You can’t duplicate that today. These days, cars are basically computers on wheels, so you never get a chance to fix anything.” A love of racecars was in Griswold’s pedigree from the start. His father owned the rare eight-cylinder Alfa Romeos made in the 1930s. As family lore has it, the elder Mr. Griswold was racing an Alfa Romeo P3 in Indianapolis on May 28, 1940, the day Stephen was born. When Griswold went to St. Paul’s (following his brother, The Most Reverend Frank T. Griswold ’55), there were few opportunities for the hands-on mechanical work he so loved – but still he found one. In his Fifth Form year, he and Bill Ruger ’57 discovered a 1914 American La France fire engine in the woods on the old School farm and got permission from SPS officials to rebuild it. The boys did so in place, working under the cover of trees, and eventually getting the engine running well enough to drive the vehicle triumphantly out of the woods.
It was during his college days at UC Berkeley that Griswold started his own business, servicing Abarths and Alfa Romeos to help pay his tuition. He admits that the desire to live in “the land of milk and honey for cars like Alfas and Porsches” was the prime motivation for attending college on the West Coast. A three-year restoration project for Scott Newhall, editor at the time of the San Francisco Chronicle, earned best in show honors for the refurbished Mercedes 500K at Pebble Beach. But Griswold’s true love remained the old Italian racecars. “They are generally considered the most beautiful and the engineering was absolutely fantastic,” he says. “The Italians have always been good at making things – sculptures, paintings; there is beauty on every corner. It’s part of their DNA, and it translates to their cars.”
For the next two decades, Griswold became a legend of vintage auto restoration in Northern California, selling and servicing Ferraris, Alfa Romeos, Maseratis, and (British) Aston Martins. Those who apprenticed with Griswold came to learn his attention to detail. For the famed GTO, for example, Griswold disassembled the vehicle and stripped the body in an acid tank. For parts that were too corroded to be reinvigorated, Griswold manufactured his own replacements. Every nut and bolt from every car was cleaned and washed and restored to its original vitality. He made diagrams (today, one would use a smartphone) of all the pieces, for ease of putting them back together. Griswold continues to work with that level of detail today, though he understands that a beautiful paint job (the most tedious and dirtiest part of restoration) is what the customer will see, not what is inside the engine or the gear box. “I can remember all the technical details and can visualize how it all goes together, because I worked on the cars myself,” he says. “I knew the answers. I was able to get such good people to work for me because they had respect for my ability and I could bring them along as master mechanics. It became a real profession.”
Instead of refurbishing cars, Griswold’s process is more akin to building the vehicles from scratch. For a guy who studied history and English at UC Berkeley, there is a lot of math involved. “My machining background set me on the course to be successful,” Griswold explains. “For the racing cars, there is a lot of engineering if you have to make the pieces; it’s all machining. Math comes into re-dimensioning everything. You have to reproduce pieces that don’t exist, because most of the cars have no spare parts. There is nothing more worn out and in sadder condition than an old racing car that is not competitive anymore.”
Griswold is credited with launching the careers of many of the most successful master mechanics of vintage racecars in his 30 years as owner of Griswold Restorations. He set parameters that mechanics had never before been seen, and his standards have been maintained by those he has trained. Phil Reilly met Griswold on the auto racing circuit in the 1960s. The opening of Griswold Restorations coincided with the launch of the Monterey Historic Races, which gave purpose to racecar restoration enthusiasts – and Griswold was at the forefront of that group. Reilly joined Griswold’s shop and learned on the job. Before coming to work with Griswold, Reilly says he “didn’t know an Alfa 8 from a truck, and most of the people who worked for him would say the same.”
Reilly recently retired after many years of running Phil Reilly & Company, a vintage auto repair shop in Corte Madera, Calif., that still emulates the bar established by Griswold in the 1960s. “The notion of taking a 10-year-old racing car and restoring it to be usable was unheard of,” says Reilly. “Not only was Stephen a great advocate and enthusiast for these cars, but he also was intimately familiar with them. He knew how to work them and had a very good talent for passing along both the knowledge and enthusiasm.” The Griswold automotive operation moved to Britain in 1983, where Stephen continued to restore rare vehicles. He eventually sold the business to a former employee and now resides in Portese, Italy, near Lake Garda, where he works as a consultant for Ferrari. He is advising the company, among other strategies, on how to create a course for their academy to train salesmen to deal with Ferrari classics and selling the dream of a Ferrari as a luxury item.
“I’m one of the few guys left who raced, restored, and sold their older iconic cars,” says Griswold, who is a five-time winner of the Tanner Trophy at Pebble Beach for Best Ferrari and a two-time winner of the Pebble Beach Cup. “I may be the only one who can tie the past to the present.” Looking back on decades of work, Griswold lists his most challenging project as his beloved Maserati 250F, the only 12-cylinder the company ever built. The car took 10 years to restore, before Griswold took it to Monza, Italy, to race it on the vintage racecar circuit. “I made it reliable,” he says, “which the factory was never able to do.” Griswold’s favorite cars remain the eight-cylinder Alfa Romeos to which his father introduced him.
The years have not diminished Griswold’s passion for what he does. His latest project is a 1936 Bugatti 57S (one of only five competition cars the factory built), which he expects to complete for an American client by the end of the summer. As for what he is currently driving? “A rental car – I blew up my Alfa Romeo and haven’t got around to fixing it.”