Surrounded by reclaimed dealership service signs, piles of impossibly hard to find new-old-stock parts in their original packaging, eye-popping tchotchkes, and an ever-changing menagerie of vintage Ferraris (as well as the odd Jaguar, Rolls Royce, and American classic) in various states of repair, Callaway breathes life back into the wayward husks of the cars which have had the good fortune to find their way into his care. While he’s kept a relatively low profile over the years (Callaway believes in attraction over advertisement), true cognoscenti of the Ferrari marque consider the man to be one of the absolute best in the world when it comes to rehabilitating and restoring the pride of Italian autos.
Anyone that’s spoken to Donnie Callaway will tell you that his passion for these cars is infectious, but what exactly sets his work apart from the other upper echelon restoration wizards out there? What makes Callaway’s one-man airstrip operation on the edge of the fucking desert first call when it comes to massaging the absolute best out of some of the rarest (and most beloved) cars ever made — many of which will ultimately rumble past the droves of blue blazers and sundresses to be judged at zenith car shows like Pebble Beach or rip laps around the hay bales of Goodwood? Donnie Callaway’s lifelong obsession with Italian cars hasn’t just provided him with the antiquated techniques required to properly rehab these cars, but an elemental understanding of these cars that his clients would argue rivals that of those who swung hammers and turned screws in Maranello when these cars were initially built. And because Callaway outright refuses to compromise when it comes to the minute details that elevate these cars from functional sculptures to myths of metal.
Callaway’s love affair with Ferrari is part and parcel of a charmed life as fit for cinema as his sprawling hangar workshop: The restoration wunderkind’s youth was split between Hawaii and Los Angeles and his early days in the business were spent learning at the legendary Hollywood Sport Cars during the lawless ‘80s. While it’s common for kids to get the sportscar bug, Callaway never really stood a chance: His father owned the early ‘50s Ferrari 212 Export Barchetta that was featured in the Kirk Douglas film the Racers (an 18th birthday gift, if you can believe it) and the elder Callaway is said to have raised no small bit of hell around Southern California when the film’s hero car was in his possession. While his dad’s exploits with the famed 212 planted the seed, Callaway found himself well and truly in the thrall of Ferrari after discovering a copy of Jess G. Pourret’s book the Ferrari Legend in his old man’s library at the extremely impressionable age of 8 years old.
Callaway’s career has been riddled with incredible run-ins with the celebrities of yesteryear (at their best and at their worst), remarkable cars which have entered his life, left, and then returned as if bound via cosmic destiny, and the travails of getting a foot in the door the hard way and learning clandestine skills the right way — directly from the masters. Callaway has collected seemingly infinite stories involving mega cars, larger-than-life characters, and uncanny circumstances which he’s all too happy to share. The affable obsessive also happens to be a helluva raconteur that can’t help but wax poetic about everything from the most mundane car parts to the knuckle-busting work involved in working on vintage Italians. Despite having no shortage of opinions about the restoration business, it’s interlopers, and the collector car establishment, Callaway is anything but a snob and his passion for Ferrari extends far beyond the racing-focused thoroughbreds of the golden era and the grand tourers of the ‘70s to include a soft spot for the often misunderstood poster cars of the ‘80s. In fact, Callaway frequently jumps in his personal black ‘89 Testarossa to tear up the canyons after a day’s work.
In part one of our comprehensive interview with Donnie Callaway, the man details his quest to gain entry into the secret society of Ferrari mechanics, how a finicky Alfa Romeo Duetto landed him on a Hawaiian shrimping boat, wild times at Hollywood Sport Cars, and what it’s like getting into an altercation with Miles Davis over a 308 with a burnt-out clutch. Callaway’s stories are fabulously entertaining, imbued with the charm of simpler times and a long forgotten LA, and should not be missed regardless of whether or not you’re a fan of the prancing horse.
How did you initially get involved with working on Ferraris?
DC: I fell in love with Ferrari as a kid, but I got an Alfa Romeo Duetto when I was living in Hawaii as a teenager. I had chased the Alfa’s original owner down in Kona, but he wouldn’t sell it. I finally saw the guy again, but without the car. I asked “Where’s your car?” and the guy says “Oh, it broke down and I gave it to the wife — she’d probably sell it.” He gave me her phone number and I picked it up for $500. It wasn’t actually that bad; there was a condenser in the trunk which I put it on the car and it fired right up and I drove away.
Eventually, the Alfa needed work and a guy at a local shop said he could rebuild its Weber carburetors. I had no idea how much money the work was going to be, but I had $100 on me. I watched the guy take the carbs apart and when he was done, he wanted $90 for the work. So I gave him the money and drove away and the car ran worse than when I brought it in. I was furious and at that point I made the decision that I was going to learn this shit no matter what!
Eventually, I blew up that car’s engine and it was sitting under a kiawe tree next to a boat ramp on Keauhou Bay in the dirt. I started rebuilding that engine with no real tools at all — crescent wrenches and screwdrivers. I went out to sea and worked on a shrimp boat to afford parts for it and everything I was doing was for this little Alfa Romeo. I figured it out and rebuilt the thing. I was 18 then and I moved to Los Angeles and shipped the Alfa behind me. When I got to LA, I thought ‘I actually really enjoyed rebuilding that engine and I want to work on Ferraris.’ I was also like ‘I’m never going to pay a mechanic who will rip me off like that guy did again!’ That experience really bugged me. Around the same time, I’d had a family friend tell me “That car is going to be the death of you! Why don’t you just get rid of it?!” and those words really sunk in and hit me hard. I never saw the guy again, but his words resonated and all I could think was ‘Fuck you! I’ll show you!’ It was this catalyzing moment. Between getting burned for $90 and that old fuckhead telling me that bullshit, then blowing up the engine and having to fix it myself, I decided I was never going to abandon that car. It was a mission, like “I’ll show the world!”
I wanted to pursue this passion and I had grown up between LA and Hawaii, and I’d ride my bicycle around to all the sports car shops in LA as a kid. Whether it was a dealership or a mechanic’s shop, I’d go and see the cars in the window and drool and go in and ask if I could sit in them and get the typical “Get outta here, kid!” responses. When I came back to LA, I’d already gotten to know all of the shops from hanging around them as a little kid, so I started asking those shops for a job. They’d ask what my experience level was and I’d say “Well, I rebuilt this stupid little Alfa Romeo” and they’d say “That’s not going to do it!” I’d been to probably a dozen shops before I ended up at Maranello Motors — which was owned by my friends Bruno and Luciano — and they always had old race cars and real Ferraris like GTOs in that garage, which was on Melrose. They tell me “You’re doing it backwards; you have to go work at the dealership first.” I say “They’ll never hire me, I have no experience” and the guys at Maranello go “Exactly! They’ll train you at the factory and then you can go out on your own!”
I went straight to Hollywood Sport Cars, which was a legendary Ferrari dealership, and went to the owner Cris Vandagriff and said “Hi, I want a job.” Cris was such a fucker, he goes “Why don’t you come back in 3 months and 2 weeks on a Wednesday afternoon.” So I went back exactly when he said and I’m like “Hi! I’m back” and Vandagriff goes “And who the fuck are you?” So I reminded him and he’s like “Oh, right! Ok, come back in 2 weeks on a Wednesday at 3:15 precisely.” So I run off and came back again exactly when he told me to and he’s like “Oh, you’re that fucking pest.” I had started hanging out with the mechanics in the shop there by this point and I’d tag along to lunch with them. I’ll never forget sitting down to lunch with those Ferrari mechanics and thinking to myself “I can’t believe I’m sitting here! They all have Ferrari patches on their uniforms!” I might as well have been sitting backstage with Elvis or the Beatles. So I’d made friends with these mechanics and when I came back to ask Vandagriff for a job again, one of the mechanics I’d made friends with was there. Vandagriff starts to tell me to come back again and this mechanic slaps him on the shoulder and says “Why don’t you just give the kid a fucking job already?!” Vandagriff looks at me and goes “You start tomorrow, don’t be late!”
That’s incredible. What kind of work did they have you doing to start?
At first they stuck me on the lube rack and they started me out on Jaguar before I made my way over to Ferrari. The best part of the day-to-day was that Hollywood Sport Cars had a pick up and delivery service, so I’d show up to work early and ask him if I could pick up some cars, and I’d ask for the Ferrari that was the farthest away so I’d get more time behind the wheel. I’d end up driving a dozen different Ferraris a day and I learned which ones were the best cars very quickly.
I’d stay late after work to deliver cars back too, and one day I took a Ferrari 412 back out to Malibu up the PCH. The car had an early car phone in it — this was 1984 — and one of the numbers was labeled “Julie Rolls Royce.” I show up to this house on the beach on the bluffs of Malibu, and there’s a Rolls Royce in the driveway. There’s a bunch of really cool kids around my age (I was 21 then) hanging out and they’re like “Ah! You work on Ferraris? That’s so cool! You hungry? Come on in!” So I’m in the kitchen of this gargantuan, beautiful house hanging with these kids and waiting for someone from the dealership to pick me up from the delivery, and it’s going to be a while because this house is way out there. In walks Julie Andrews! Mary Poppins walks into this kitchen and I’m like ‘Oh shit!’ and these kids are like “Hi mom!” and it turned out it was Blake Edwards’ Ferrari that I had delivered.
I know you interacted with a lot of celebrities and have some pretty incredible stories from your Hollywood Sport Cars days. Your Miles Davis story in particular is really insane, but especially to anyone that knows how difficult he was to deal with in those days.
Oh, I had so much fun! James Coburn used to bring his (then) burgundy 250 GT California SWB in and I got to drive that car and play with it a bit. He was always really cool and a sweet guy. Mark Knopfler from Dire Straits was in there occasionally and Steve Yeager from the Dodgers had a turbo put on his Ferrari. I used to get speeding tickets doing deliveries and I’d have my uniform on and I’d watch the cop write the ticket and say “No, no, make sure you spell it right: F-E-R-R-A-R-I” and the cop would look at me and say “Really?!” and I’d be like “You kidding? I’m collecting these things and putting them on the wall!” As seriously as I took working on the cars, I was still 21 and I’d do anything! I didn’t give a fuck if I got fired because I’d have been fired driving a Ferrari! I had a blast.
With Miles, there was a little black 308 that had to be returned one day. Usually any car I delivered to a customer was already fixed and cool, but they were like “This asshole wouldn’t fix his fucking clutch, get it out of here.” I was like “Aw man, what else is there?” and my boss said “Do you like this job? Fucking take the car and get out of here!” So I get in the car and sure enough, it’s horrible. I’m stuck in traffic in Santa Monica and the house is way out there. I knew all kinds of secret routes and good back roads at that point, but that car was just not having it. By the time I get the car to this guy’s house, I’m fuming. The guy opens the door and all I see are those eyeballs popping out at me. I’m pissed, but I’ve got the uniform on and I give him the keys and I’m cool about it. Out of nowhere, Miles goes “You motherfuckin’ ripoff motherfuckers! You’re trying to charge me all that money!” in that distinct voice of his. I’m like “What are you talking about?! You own a Ferrari and you have this beautiful home! What the fuck is wrong with you?!” and he’s like “Man, don’t you talk to me that way!” So I said “Come on, man! You don’t deserve this car! What are you doing with this car? You’ve got to fix it! What person in their right mind would even send this thing back to the dealership thinking the work was going to be cheap or free? You’ve got to pay just like everybody else. Fix the fucking car!” I was pissed and I honestly had no idea who he was at that point. So we went back and forth and he just kept saying “You ripoff motherfuckers just charge that money, that’s all you do!” and I’m like “Dude, who cares? Fix the fucking thing! Maybe if you knew how to drive it, you wouldn’t blow your fucking clutch out!” Now remember, I’m just a 21 year old asshole myself — I didn’t give a fuck and I didn’t know who he was yet. Finally he says “You know what? You’re alright! You take it back and you have it fixed.” And I’m like “What?! Are you fucking nuts?! Fuck no I’m not driving this thing again!” There was no clutch, it was horrible
What was the cost of a clutch service at that point?
Probably $2500. It was still expensive and it was still dealership work, and it wasn’t warranty work because it was a clutch — but it was a brand new car! So I drag the car back to the dealership and they’re like “You got that motherfucker to do the job?!” I’m like “Hey man, fuck him and fuck that car!” and they’re like “You got Miles Davis to give you back the car and have it fixed?” and I’m just like ‘Who the fuck is Miles Davis?’ My boss is like “You dumb motherfucker!” Sp I went home and looked him up and I’m like “Oh! He’s this guy!”
Unreal. So while you had your fun, you were also becoming a master at hand-forming aluminum bodywork, tuning carbs, and rebuilding engines. How did you learn those skills — particularly the bodywork, which isn’t something one would learn servicing cars at a Ferrari dealership in the ‘80s.
For the carburetors, I didn’t know shit and the Webers that were on that Alfa Duetto were insane. I would sit there and tweak it a quarter of a turn on the jets because I just had to make it run better, but I didn’t have a synchrometer and I didn’t understand any of it. There was this old mechanic named Salvatore who worked in the back of a place called Alfa Ricambi on San Fernando road, which is where I’d get my Alfa parts. One day I’m in there and I say “I cannot figure out Webers to save my life” and there was a Ferrari 250SP sitting there and Salvatore says “I’m about to tune the Webers on this, check it out.” So he fires it up and says “Just watch.” I’m watching and he asked if I saw what he’d done, so I said I had, and he goes through and de-tunes them and fucks them all up again and says “Here’s a screwdriver, your turn.” I said “What?!” and he’s like “I’ll guide you through it.” I learned a lot that day, but it took me around 10 years to master Weber carbs. It was like waking up with an epiphany and one day I was just like “I get it!” and I’ve been able to tune them practically blindfolded since.
For the bodywork, I had a couple of Ferrari books and magazines growing up and I’d get really stoned — just totally baked — and drool over the beauty of the lines and the shapes of the cars. I had an uncle in Hawaii named Arnie Roberts who was a pretty famous car guy who used to build dragsters and work on old Ferraris. Uncle Arnie lived close by on the windward side of Oahu and once I figured out who he was and what he did, I ended up over there a lot. My dad would take me over and uncle Arnie would always say “Hey John, give me your kid. Let me buy your son.” I was enamored with him and his work and I ended up moving back to Hawaii and living with Arnie for around 10 years, and he taught me how to hand-form aluminum bodies the right way. He put on Pete Lovely’s 500 TR Testarossa’s body after it had rolled at Spa or the Nürburgring; all they gave him was a 4×5 black and white photo from the factory and he had to remake the body from that picture. You could barely tell the thing was a Ferrari aside from the Webers on top of the engine in the photo, and he completely hand-formed this aluminum body. He had a shop in California back in the day and rebuilt TDFs and all kinds of crazy Ferraris that had been wrecked in the days when they were really just race cars that people would use for that purpose. So I learned from someone that knew these cars deeply. Arnie taught me how to anneal aluminum, how to hand-form shapes — everything! Hawaii was a very weird and interesting place then. I had picked up an Aston Martin DB6 for nothing and that was my daily driver until I smashed the nose of it in. So Arnie was like “Let’s cut the front clip off” and I was like “Oh my god, it’s just a dent!” Arnie went “No. This is how you do this.” So the amount of work that went into all of that was a lot, but I learned how to hand-form and really work aluminum bodies the right way.
You have a really impressive operation in your hangar now, but you worked out of a two car garage for a while. Tell me about that time; what was the most unexpected car you worked on in that garage?
I had a little Ferrari shop at Uncle Arnie’s ranch and there was this muddy, crazy dirt road with vines hanging down from the trees like the entrance to the Bat Cave or something. I had F-40s and Testarossas, Rolls Royces, Bentleys, E-Type Jags, and I would rip them up and down this muddy road. I always really loved that scene and people would almost crash when they saw an F-40 screaming out of the jungle up a road like that. There’s always something to be said for set dressing and having a scene. Around the world, but especially in America and Southern California, everything cool happens in a garage. If it doesn’t happen in a garage, it’s probably bullshit, you know? When you start a business, you have to start a business starving and broke — the less money you have to start a business, the better the business will be eventually. So I had that in the back of my mind and I felt like I had to absolutely do this thing out of a house’s garage. My mom had a little ranch house and I took over her garage there when I started my restoration business and it was the same thing — I had Daytonas, 365 Boxers, the gamut of great Ferraris in there.
You see the art and sculpture in every part of a car. There’s a real parallel and relatability to how you see Ferrari parts with the obsessive detail-focused minds of watch collectors.
You have American car parts, which are mass produced and literally punched out. All of the parts in those cars were punched out in massive numbers, and they’re cool and Americana. But then you have the Italians, and when you look at an oil pump or water pump off a Ferrari Boxer, or the intake manifolds or heads off a Ferrari 308 V8 — and we’re just talking production parts here — and you read and study how they made this stuff and what they made it out of, they become works of art. The body of a water pump or oil pump of a Boxer is just this gorgeous thing that I hate to put away because it’s going to disappear and hide inside an engine compartment forever. Everything that goes into these cars is something that someone put a lot of care into designing and producing. The other thing that’s a turn on is I have some direct connections to Ferrari which allow me to get parts that no one else can get ahold of, and I’ll get something in its original bag, with the original tag on it with the horse, and it’ll have Italian writing, and it’ll fall apart if you touch it the wrong way. But you know the air in this bag is from Maranello in 1959! It’s become an addiction and I’ll go through and start ordering stuff that I don’t need and they’ll send me this stuff in the boxes it originally came in from 1960! I’ll buy a gauge for a fiberglass 308 and it’ll still be in its fucking box with its original tape and that shit just drives me nuts! It can be hard to explain to people that don’t get it, but it’s an addiction.
That obsession is really aligned with the box and papers sect of watch collectors. It’s something that’s difficult to explain to the uninitiated.
Absolutely. I go to Padova, Italy every year and I’ll scour through the parts and look for little screws or little lenses and all of the real little detail stuff. Anyone can go ahead and make a car newish again, but I’m so over-the-top in my restorations and I’m so fucking insane that when I find a strip of leather in a car and it’s the original leather, I already know the basic leather grain that came in a given car — but there are things I need to know. How shiny was it originally? How thick was it when it left the factory? What did it smell like? Everything, and I mean everything, has to be duplicated to make the car like the day it left the factory. Anyone can paint a car, but it has to be the correct paint — it cannot be water-based paint. It can’t have Chinese bearings in it — I need the same exact bearings out of the box the day these things were manufactured. So it gets into a different category of intensive restoration.
Is there a place for survivor cars and cars with honest patina in your world as a restoration obsessive?
Oh, absolutely! They’re great and they get to a point where they’re right on the line and it feels like a car would be totally saveable, but it got rear-ended or something. Then we got to paint the whole thing and you can’t fake it at that point or fudge it in anyway. But if you have something that’s absolutely original, like Jonathan Segal’s ‘56 Maserati A6G 2000 Frua, leave it alone! Paint is coming off that car and that car is past the point of restoration because it’s become such a character itself. Mechanically, you have to maintain it and most importantly, you have to use it and drive it! So until you absolutely have to paint the car, why mess with it? If the interior is holding up, leave it alone. Bruce Milner told me a story about a 250 GT Ferrari he had, and it was one of the off pastel colors, and it had this gorgeous interior and nothing was ripped, but it was old and intact. When you opened it, it had that old Ferrari smell. Bruce had sold it to somebody that had promised they’d take care of it and they immediately stripped it to bare metal and ripped the interior out of it and that just fucking killed Bruce! And that just happened to a 275 I found a week ago in Santa Monica; the guy drove it cross country, blew a head gasket, and limped it home back in 1977. The car was parked outside or in a car port and just left there. When I heard about it, I immediately went to see the car and when I opened that door, that smell of a Ferrari that had sat out in the sun since 1977 hit me. Nothing smells like that! To look at everything on that car and the way the sun had screwed with it and what time had done to it, well that was once something you came across all the time, but it’s rare now and that was such a treat to encounter. I looked down into the passenger side footwell and the map that this cat used to drive cross country was unfolded and just sitting there, right where he left it the day he parked it. It’s just like fuck, this is beautiful and a time capsule.
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