Dan Withers: A Builder Builds a Car Collection
Dan Withers’ memorable classics are classic memories, too.
When he was 4 in Pittsburgh, his mom, June, saw a local ad placed by a man who wanted someone to transport a 1956 Cadillac hardtop to Phoenix. She arranged with the owner to make the journey so that she and the family could leave what was then a sooty rust-belt city. Her mother-in-law lived in Phoenix and often spoke of blue skies and year-long sun. Dan’s dad was in Korea, serving with post-war troops.
Dan Withers never forgot that Caddy.
Today, the retired founder of D.L. Withers Construction looks down from the mezzanine of his 22-foot-ceiling showroom and warehouse in Tempe and enjoys his 45-car collection.
Purchased in 2014, the 30,000-square-foot garage is the third for his collection. The former restaurant supply space retains its exhibition kitchen, where cooking demonstrations were once held. He has parties here occasionally, most recently one honoring Robert Burns, the great Scottish poet. Withers recalls: “We had lots of haggis, Scotch and bagpipes!”
In his upsized man cave, he displays classics, resto-mods, hot rods, muscle cars, racers, exotics and supercars. Most are taken to shows, driven in rallies and raced.
“The collection is an eclectic group that represents many different types and eras in the automobile industry,” he says. “Much like the changes in the industry over the years, I’ve changed my focus, so you will see a wide range of types and years.”
He has no master plan. He’s just committed to stewarding masterful cars.
Among the pre-war cars are a Good Guys Rod & Custom-winning 1935 Ford 3-Window Custom Coupe; a 1940 Ford Woody Wagon from the acclaimed Pratt Collection in Chandler; and a multi-trophied 1948 Chevy Pro Mod truck that has put down 6-second quarters at 220 mph with a Kenny Duttweiler-built dual turbo and a Hughes Powerglide tranny. “Lots of fun,” he says.
Others include an award-winning 1952 Hudson Hornet, finished in original plum, which he purchased man to man from the owner at an Arizona Concours. Hornets stung regularly in early NASCAR, winning because of uni-body construction, a low center of gravity and drivers willing to push them to their potential. “Wayne Carini almost bought it two years ago,” Withers recalls. “It’s big and well appointed. You can get four adults in the back seat. I know; I’ve done it.”
From the 1960s is a spectacular resto-mod yellow “Aluminator” from Detroit Speed Shop. “It’s a ‘69 Camaro that looks like stock on the outside, including black racing stripes, but packs a 900-horsepower motor and suspension underneath,” Withers says. “We detuned it to 650 horses plus to keep it manageable.”
Also in the Withers collection are two 1969 American Motors Scramblers, “Johnny Lighting,” with the original 390-cid powerplant, and a beautiful replica equipped with a 502-cid crate motor that does 8-second quarters. Dan: “The guy who I bought the first car from comes to visit it. Last time he was here, he saw the re-creation for the first time and cried.”
And, from the decade of muscle cars, he has a pristine Chevy 409/409, also from the Ron Pratt Collection, and two Resto Mods, a 1967 Nova and a 1964 Pontiac Bonneville, built by the inimitable Gabe’s Interiors of San Bernardino. In addition, he has a one-year-wonder 1963 black split-window Vette.
Generally an uninspiring decade for American high performance, the ’80s are eloquently spoken for by two Buick Grand Nationals, a GNX, #221 (of 547) with just 68 miles, and a drag car built by the great Duttweiler, which has run low 9s.
From the ’90s is the first-year 1991 Acura NSX, a rare automatic car (one of 208 made), and a 2017, when the model reappeared. “I took the first one right out of Bell Honda and drove it up to Jerome through all of the switchbacks. When the new one came out, I had to have it; I love it, a great rally car and comfortable ergonomically,” he says.
Recently, Withers has joined Porsche enthusiasts, with a 2015 918, a hypercar brandishing 2.2-second 0–60 performance, and a 520-horse 911 GTS RS, which he regularly drives to, from and at the APEX Motor Club track in nearby Maricopa. “It’s amazing,” he says. “I can take it from here in the showroom 30 minutes south to the track, run it for as long and hard as I want and drive it back without issues. Porsche really has the track cars figured out.”
Three trailers, one a 48-foot IKON behemoth with a 13-speed automatic, ensures safe multi-car delivery to tracks throughout the West, Texas to Vegas to Pomona. For every day he drives a Chevy Denali. “Well, I’m a contractor,” he says with a smile.
“The other day, I finished up a phone call that wasn’t all that pleasurable, but I immediately looked down at the collection,” he recalls. “Life, I said to myself, isn’t too bad after all.”
Classroom Prep, Worksite Experience, Business Success = Cars
When the family arrived in Phoenix six decades ago, his mom waitressed at the original Bill Johnson’s Big Apple restaurant on Van Buren Street in downtown Phoenix. After he left the service, his dad worked at another landmark Valley building, the Motorola Plant on McDowell Road.
He knows the value of a dollar and parts interchangeability. His parents had 1955 and 1956 Chevy’s, but the cars rarely ran simultaneously. “They swapped parts to keep them running,” he recalls.
He graduated from Mesa High School; he began drag racing. Three decades or so later, he started visiting the track again, in a 1957 Chevy Bel Air: He was 17 again.
Off the track, he completed a bachelor’s of Science at the ASU Construction School in 1974. “I was lucky to be one of those people who found his major and career very early,” he recalls. He picked right: “I just liked the business and the people.”
After working for companies in California and Phoenix, he founded D.L. Withers Construction in 1981, focusing on commercial building. Noted for his quality work and personal service, the company flourished, peaking at 150 employees. For years, the company ranked in the ENR Top 200 Contractors in the U.S. His company’s community efforts have been extensive, including support for the ASU Foundation and the Herberger Theater.
Success and a life-long passion for cars brought him to his first collector car in 2000, a 1947 Lincoln Continental. “It was not a good example, and I sold it for a loss,” he recalls. “After that, I decided to buy quality cars even if they cost a little more. I’ve never gone wrong with that decision.”
•1932 Ford Highboy Roadster –– Get your goggles out and a shovel! On August 21, 1954, the all-steel coupe was clocked at 142.97 mph at Utah’s Bonneville Salt Flats. Built by Miller Automotive, Chino, California, the car displays a tarnished dash-mounted commemorative brass plaque from the Southern California Timing Association certifying this. The owner returned to the Salt Flats the following year but couldn’t best the clocking.
Withers knows why. “I’ve had it up to 75 mph, and it’s scary. It’s basic and bare bones, a very unforgiving car,” he says, hardly a tenderfoot Saturday-afternoon racer. He’ll show you the ragtop’s few options: sand dusting the driver’s floorboard and dried-up, crumpled-up newspaper bits.
The sand is from Wildwood beach in New Jersey, where he participated twice in the Race of Gentlemen for cars 1934 and older, an event then held in June but now in September. “It’s a drag race in the sand; when you launch, half the beach blows forward, and what doesn’t go down the back of your neck goes onto the floor,” he recalls, scooping a handful to demonstrate.
He’s been able to read enough of the worn paper to know it’s from 1948 and somewhere in California. “That’s the insulation for the car,” he says, showing you some that’s been stored in a glass jar. “I’m going to humiditize it at some time, flatten it out and read the paper.”
The racer has a 221-cid flathead V-8, with Offenhauser heads, Stromberg trips and a Harman Collins magneto, Halibrand quick-change axle and Stewart Warner gauges. A well-patinaed blue covers the body.
Bob Petersen of the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles acquired the car and kept it until 2013, selling it to a private collector. Withers bought it at RM Monterey in 2016; he promptly refreshed the engine and electricals.
“I even got a 1932 Arizona license plate from someone locally,” he says pointing to the well-worn one on the back. It looks sand blasted.
•1938 Lincoln “Lead Zephyr” –– “I started collecting as a purist and wanted only cars that were restored to their original condition with a high quality of workmanship in mind,” Withers recalls. “I would never think of cutting up at car at the time. But later I realized that original cars can be modified and redesigned and create a whole new look and function. A friend of mine once told me, ‘Anyone can restore a car, but it takes a real man to cut one up!’’’
By these terms alone, the late Boyd Coddington was real: He cut, chopped and chiseled classics into neo-classics such as Chezoom, CadZZilla and this one, the Withers collection centerpiece. They helped make Hot Rods by Boyd in Whittier, California, legendary in magazines, car shows and on television.
“People such as Boyd and his student, Chip Foose, imagineered some of the most appreciated hot rods and resto-mods of our time,” Withers explains, noting that his collection also contains Foose’s reimagined 1934 Ford/1999 Prowler once owned by hotelier Dick Marriott. Ken Lingenfelter installed the LS1 engine and drivetrain.
Purchased by Withers in 2018 at the Monterey RM auction, “Lead Zephyr” was Coddington’s come-back car after his client-forced bankruptcy, Withers notes. He started with a John Tjarrda-designed 1938 Ford Zephyr and made it even more worthy of the Greek god of the mild west wind (“Zephyrus”) than the original, with sinuous lines that changed the car world.
Marcel and Sons first shaped the bare steel, working with Coddington. Then, he fitted an Art Morrison chassis and built an air-suspension system. A 430-cid/500-horsepower Ford block was connected to an AO6 automatic, Coddington steering wheel, wheels and gauges.
Finally, Coddington sprayed the car with Dupont Char-cool and Body Mellow Yellow, and Gabe’s Custom Upholstery finished the interior and trunk. Voilà, automotive history.
“Look at the details,” Withers notes. “The gapping is perfect, and the ridge line running across the hood and top is fabulous. He even molded a drip line off the top,” he says, pointing. “The night after I acquired it, I got some Corona, sat down by the driver’s door and just looked for hours.”
•1955 Mercedes 300SL–– This fine, unrestored example of the 1,400 “Gullwings” produced through 1957 has the rare limited-production NSL motor, a 3-liter straight six with 240 horsepower and 202 lb/ft of torque linked to a 3-speed manual. These engines were standard in the 28 all-alloy versions of the hardtop but were optional otherwise. Weighing in light at 2,890 pounds, the supercar was the day’s fastest production vehicle, topping out at a potent 146 mph.
Withers is the seventh owner of the matching-numbers classic. Renowned marque expert Paul Russell looked after it prior to Withers’ purchase, a key reason for its outstanding condition.
He drives it regularly and is frequently seen at APEX Motorsports, Phoenix International Raceway, the Copperstate 1000 and the 300SL Classic. He’s even had it in Israel for the Holyland 1000. Following acceptance, he hopes to drive it in the famed Mille Miglia in two years.
“I’ve spent hours in it. It has a lot of power and I don’t have to worry about it mechanically,” he says. “I love it.”
•1955 “Newmad” –– He has two Nomads, which were Chevy’s top-of-the line station wagon in 1950s: a turquoise, which he once took employees to lunch in during Secretaries Day, and this magnificent resto-mod with House of Color Platinum White over Makik Blue Pearl Blue.
Famed Steve’s Restorations of Portland, Oregon, created the steel-bodied car for the former owner, Dave Hall of Ahwatukee, a foothills Phoenix community. “I told him he can visit the car whenever he wants to,” says Withers, who purchased it in August 2006. “The NewMad is a true work of art from some of the best metal craftsmen in the business,” said Hall in a 2002 interview with Hagerty.
Steve’s placed a 496-cid Arias aluminum big block, good for 540 horses and 565 lb/ft of torque, and a Hughes transmission. Budnik Wheels were chosen.
“It’s won every award a steel car can get and recently was shown at Pomona,” Withers says. “With the Buick GNX and the Lead Zephyr, it’s one of the three cars I don’t drive. Here, it gets standing applause every day.”
•1956 Cadillac Series 62 Convertible –– When Withers saw this car at Barrett-Jackson in January 2001, he had to own it. Not only did the ragtop recall the sedan from the same year he came West in when he was 4 but also because it was magnificently redone by the former owner, Eddie Daur of Sunrise, Florida, who has another ’56, Marilyn Monroe’s. Withers got into a bidding war that the auction crowd reinforced with their encouragement –– “They got louder and louder” –– and he took it home.
“It’s been judged a 99-point car, and I have shown it many times and won many awards,” he says. These include a First Place at one of the Arizona Concours events and a Grand National from the Antique Automobile Club in 1998.
A great driver at 4,672 pounds, it’s fully optioned, with the 305-horse V-8 and “Batwing” dual quads, air-conditioning, all-leather interior, signal-seeking radio, power windows and six-way power seats. “It even has the Autronic high-beam eye. They didn’t work then, and this one doesn’t now,” he says, with a bright smile below a white fedora matching the interior.
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Withers is often asked about his favorite. “My response has been that it’s really about the experience. They are all unique,” he explains. “Many of these cars represent new and creative perspectives on the automobile. Some are like sitting in a time capsule from the past. Others are about the challenge and exhilaration of their performance.”
They connect us with the past and with other car lovers. “Today we all have some relationship with the automobile that include memories both good and bad. It’s a way to connect with my past. Everyone that comes to the garage finds a favorite that always includes a memory.”
The cars have also taught him from their long experience.
“We’re not their owners,” he says. “We’re the caretakers.”
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