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The Lyon's Pride

Shaun Tolson

General William Lyon spent his childhood years in Southern California harboring a passion that, at least to his family, was hard to explain. As a young boy in the 1930s, he was consumed with a love for automobiles, especially luxury coachbuilt cars—Packards and Duesenbergs and Cords (with the occasional Cadillac thrown into the mix). His father appreciated Buicks, but not to the extent that his son obsessed over the eventual classics; and Lyon’s older brother saw cars merely as a way to get from point A to point B.

To Lyon, Hollywood’s biggest stars were far less interesting than their means of transportation. “We were in Westwood across the street from a drug store and Norma Shearer pulled up in a beautiful Cadillac convertible,” he recalls. “It was a 1934 Cadillac roadster. The car was immaculate.” While most boys his age would have swooned over the Hollywood starlet, Lyon was content to stand in the parking lot, ogling her car until she emerged from the store and drove away.

In 1939 he bought his first car, a dilapidated old Ford Model T that had been separated from its roof long before. The car’s owner, a 20-year-old living on Sunset Boulevard, drove the young car aficionado around the block and taught him the basics of operating the vehicle. “He said, ‘[the pedal] in the middle is reverse and if you really get into trouble, just slam on that and the wheels will lock up and you’ll stop,’” Lyon recalls.

Satisfied, the young auto enthusiast paid $8 for the car (about $128 by today’s standards) and took it home. He promptly painted the car red and drove it for the next two years. When the time came to part ways with the Model T, he sold it to a junkyard for $5. “I’d say I made out pretty good in that deal,” he chuckles.

Almost five decades later, Lyon began teaching his 13-year-old son, Bill, how to drive. By this time, the general had amassed a respectable collection of classic automobiles, but— ironically—he taught his son how to drive in a 1929 Ford Model A roadster pickup truck. “I didn’t know any different,” Bill says of the difficulty associated with driving the manual- transmission vehicle built 44 years before he was born. “I didn’t have anything to compare it to. I think the first time I drove a modern manual transmission I was probably in high school driving a rental car and I couldn’t believe how easy the clutch was!”

The father and son share a laugh over the story now, but it speaks to the relationship that they’ve developed through a mutual appreciation for automobiles. “It was fun and normal for me,” Bill says of his childhood spent surrounded by classic cars. “There were certain cars that I liked and certain ones that didn’t do anything for me. I liked the classics and the sportier ones in particular; and for whatever reason, I was attracted to the sports cars of the ’50s and ’60s.”

Though the Lyon family’s automobile collection began with the general’s obsession with the great American classics that he recalled from his youth, it has evolved to reflect his son’s growing interest in postwar sports cars and racecars. Today, the collection consists of almost 100 automobiles spanning various genres, but as both father and son profess, each car—and the collection as a whole—is significant for the family memories that it provides.

When asked to name their three favorite cars within the collection, father and son wrestle with their answers.

“On a different day of the week I might have a different top three,” Bill says, prefacing his eventual answer. “When I think back on the cars, it’s the memories that I have of them. My favorite cars aren’t always the most valuable cars; it’s what we’ve done with the cars together that often makes them special to me. The collector car hobby is pretty diverse. You can find people that are in love with some car that might not even be that valuable, but it has some family meaning for them.”

His father needs less time to formulate an answer, but his initial choice reflects his son’s perspective on family influence. The general’s favorite is a 1929 Duesenberg Model J LeBaron Dual-Cowl Phaeton, chassis number 101—the first Model J that Friedrich and August Duesenberg completed. “It’s the first J Model Duesenberg in the world and there’s never going to be another one,” the general declares. However, the car enjoys its place at the top of his list for another reason: it was a 60th birthday gift from his wife, who, as the general explains, went to great lengths to acquire the car.

The other two vehicles on the general’s podium are a 1935 Packard convertible sedan, the first classic car that he purchased and subsequently restored; and a 1935 Duesenberg SJ Gurney Nutting Speedster built for the maharaja of Indore, which claimed best-of-class honors at the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance last year. “The design is so different, even from any other Duesenbergs,” he says. “It’s a beauty.”

After some deliberation, Bill narrows down his own selections. The first, a 1930 Duesenberg Model J Murphy Torpedo Convertible Coupe, is one of the classics to which he says he feels most connected. “That one has a lot of great memories. We took it to Pebble three years ago and we were scrambling to get it ready for the show,” he recalls. “We had a few adventures on the tour and it was a great turnout for the weekend.”

Another standout for the younger Lyon is a 1940 Packard Darrin Victoria Convertible, which recently earned best-in-show honors at a national membership meeting for the Packard International Motor Car Club in Southern California. The general oversaw a thorough restoration of the car during Bill’s youth, and his son fondly remembers visiting the car each weekend and watching as it slowly came to life.

The third automobile in Bill’s top three is a 1927 Bugatti Type 35B. Although the car is a classic in its own right, the Bugatti represents the younger Lyon’s foray into his own area of interest—vintage racing. When the Lyons acquired the car in 1986, it was in pieces and being serviced following a recent vintage race. The thought of such classic racecars being driven on the track just as they had decades before intrigued the teenager and before long, Bill was entering vintage races himself. “He needed his own thing and he certainly did it,” the general says with a laugh.

Bill started out racing vintage Porsches and soon was piloting a 1960 RS 60 Spyder and a 1961 356 Carrera Abarth GTL. As he grew more adept behind the wheel on the track, he branched out to other vehicles, including the 1927 Bugatti. In researching the car, Bill discovered that it once was raced by the distinguished British driver Duncan Hamilton. “After reading about some of the abuse the car went through with him I was less worried about irreparably hurting it. Anything that I was going to do to it wouldn’t be as extensive as anything that he did to it,” Bill remembers thinking, which gave him the confidence to reach triple-digit speeds on the straightaway of Laguna Seca.

“We’re always happy when the day is over and he climbs out looking just like he did when he climbed in at the beginning,” the general says of his son’s participation in numerous racing events over the years.

Bill’s passion for racing has brought results on the Pebble Beach lawn, as well. In 2009 the father-and-son team entered a 1965 Alfa Romeo TZ2 Zagato Competition Berlinetta, which won the event’s Gran Turismo award. The postwar racecar is an example of Bill’s influence on his father’s initial collection of prewar classics; and as Bill explains, it contributed to some father-son bonding time. “It’s a racecar with a straight exhaust that terminates under the driver’s door, and my dad was brave enough to get in the passenger seat,” Bill says of their drive up to Monterey that year, explaining that they both had to keep adjusting their earplugs over the course of the trip.

“I think it makes more noise than any car that has ever been made,” the general adds.

When the general putthe finishing touches on his Southern California home in 1988, the residence included a 14,000-square-foot car museum built in the same traditional Colonial style. Fifteen years later, he and his son expanded the space, adding 10,000 square feet and turning the new wing into an Art Deco–style showroom for their favorite prewar classics. That showroom might persuade a visitor to believe that the world-class Packard and Duesenberg collection on display was a carefully strategized undertaking, but according to the younger Lyon, that’s not the case. “It seems to me that he never set out with a goal in mind to come up with the best Duesenberg collection or the best this and that,” Bill says of his father’s approach to collecting. “It seems like it’s the same way that I acquired cars—I just went after things that appealed to me when the opportunity was there.”

According to Bill, the public auction scene has exploded in recent years and now provides far more opportunities for collectors than what was available during his childhood years. “I can’t believe how many auctions there are now, and a lot of them are pretty substantial in terms of the number of cars and the dollar amounts that they bring,” he says. “But I don’t think that we’ve changed [our approach]; we’re attracted to cars that speak to us.

“A lot of it is very personal; it’s what it does for you,” he continues. “The thing that I learned most from my dad is that he’s never approached the cars from what’s going to be a good investment and what’s going to be valuable down the road. It’s always been about the cars that he liked, not because there’s some potential.”

The Lyons have participated regularly in various concours events and they say that that, too, is an aspect of the car collecting hobby that’s evolved over the years. With their maharaja-owned Duesenberg, they came close to claiming Best of Show honors at Pebble Beach last year, an award that’s eluded the father-and-son team up to this point. Some collectors might claim that they put little to no emphasis on winning such awards, but the general doesn’t fall into that camp. “Anybody who tells you that they’re not interested in that . . . they’re not telling you the truth,” he says. “You work years to get the car ready. It’s a competitive thing.”

According to Bill, the judging of those events has grown more challenging over the years, due in part to the dwindling group of experts who were alive to see the classic cars as they rolled off the factory lines or were unveiled by custom coachbuilders. “How do you know what the stitching should be in a one-off custom car from 70 years ago?” he asks. “There used to be guys alive who could say that they knew, but there aren’t many of those guys around anymore, so you’re really relying on the restorer to be respected as an expert in that marque. The judges have to be well educated, but I don’t think anybody knows everything about these cars anymore.”

That reality—that the classics have outlived almost all who were alive during their heyday—tells the Lyons all they need to know about the positive direction in which many car values will be trending. Nevertheless, Bill says that won’t influence how he and his father continue to grow the collection; he also says that his own divergent interests in postwar sports cars won’t drastically alter the identity of the family’s collection as a whole. “There hasn’t been a shift,” he says. “My interests have just added a different variety to what’s already there and what we’re continuing.”

As for the general, he wouldn’t have it any other way. “It’s been a real bonding experience for Bill and I,” he says. “We’re doing it together.”

HISTORY LESSONS
How General Lyon turned his collection of WWII war birds into a memorializing air museum

General William Lyon’s first love will always be automobiles, but his second love is flying. Over the course of his teenage years and during his years as a college student at the University of Southern California, Lyon spent hundreds of hours in the cockpits of various civilian airplanes, but as soon as World War II broke out, he yearned to be an Air Force pilot overseas. Age restrictions and minor medical issues delayed the process, but he eventually served, accrued the training necessary to fly a variety of military planes, and was stationed in Cairo, where he flew missions throughout Europe, North Africa, and the Pacific.

Lyon piloted several missions during the Korean War in the early 1950s as well, and he remained in the reserves for decades. He also served as chief of the Air Force Reserve beginning in 1975 until he retired from the military in 1979. Lyon later purchased a few vintage World War II planes, but it was years before he discovered the best use for them. In 1991 he was asked to help out at the American Air Museum in Cambridge, England, which was committed to chronicling the events of World War II and honoring the pilots who risked and lost their lives during that time. Moved by the museum’s mission and recognizing that there was nothing like it in his native Southern California, Lyon dedicated himself to the task of creating a similar institution.

In 2009 the general unveiled the Lyon Air Museum (www.lyonairmuseum.org) at John Wayne Airport in Santa Ana, Calif., which displayed six war birds—a Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress, a Cessna O-1E Bird Dog, a Douglas DC-3, a Douglas C-47 Skytrain, a North American B-25 Mitchell, and a Douglas A-26 Invader—as well as various military automobiles and motorcycles. Furthermore, local families enabled the museum to expand. “When we first opened, we were basically a beautiful hangar with aircraft and a few related vehicles, but we had very limited amounts of memorabilia and artifacts,” says Mark Foster, the museum’s president. “As time has gone on, people have brought us treasures from their family to put on display and to better tell the story.”

Those heirlooms have included preserved military uniforms, newspaper clippings, and personal items, like one woman’s wedding dress fashioned from her husband’s parachute. However, some people donate their time, which Foster, the general, and his son, Bill, all agree is even more valuable and makes the museum much more impactful. Currently, 80 docents volunteer as tour guides or special guests, recounting their years of service during the war. From Pearl Harbor survivors to fighter pilots who were captured as prisoners of war, the volunteers bring an added element of reality to what museum visitors know of the war. “These guys tell some really incredible stories that reveal their character and what they did,” Foster says.

Once Lyon learned of the limited attention that Orange County schools devoted to World War II in their curricula, Lyon partnered with the local school district to arrange annual field trips to the museum. During those field trips, Lyon sees the resounding impact that the museum’s volunteers can have. “It’s fascinating to meet these people because they enjoy these surroundings and they want to share their experiences and stories with other people,” he says. “And it’s wonderful to see the attention that the young people give them; they’re sitting there with their mouths open, listening to these people who were a part of the war.

“Most of the teachers are young, but they’re so taken by the museum that when the presentations are finished, they leave with tears in their eyes,” he adds. “We don’t overdo it, but we teach the kids about the people who gave their lives. It’s been very gratifying.”

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