Ken Roberts – King Farouk Meets James Dean in a Garage with a Jaguar Hearse
Queen Creek’s Ken Roberts will pick you up in his Jaguar XKE hearse and you can chat about James Dean’s Porsche 550 Spyder, the one that became the 24-year-old actor’s coffin September 30, 1955, at a California intersection. And Egypt’s King Farouk: He loved cars, too.
Roberts and wife Glenda enjoy their eclectic car collection in the far East Valley, near the San Tan Mountains.. They are both retired, he from oil and gas exploration for energy companies, she from assisting him build their successful business.
His car journey began in native Seattle.
There, he graduated from Ballard High School, where he was the managing editor of the weekly newspaper. Gypsy Rose Lee had proceeded him as a graduate; in later life, she far outstripped the fame of all her schoolmates.
Next stop was the University of Washington’s School of Communication, whose deep-toned alumnus, Chet Huntley became national anchor for NBC Nightly News. While in school and after, Roberts worked for Hearst Corporation Newspapers but left the business because of the low pay.
For the next 45 years, he struck success in the high-paying oil-and-gas-exploration industry, with, first, Standard Oil of California, now Chevron U.S.A Inc. By 2008, he was the largest lease broker on the west coast, overseeing 60 employees, he explains.
In 2003 and 2004, the couple visited the Phoenix area; they decided to move in 2004, planning a desert retirement.
Both were first focused on pars rather than cars. He is the sole surviving nephew of the founder of the Augusta National Golf Club, site of the prestigious Masters Tournament. His father’s older brother, Cliff Roberts, founded the club in 1930 with Bob Jones in the legendary golfer’s native Georgia.
The course opened for membership play in December 1932 and hosted its first invitational tournament in 1934, “The Augusta National Invitational.” The name changed to the “Masters” in 1939, the year Ralph Guldahl won. ‘Slammin’ Sammy Snead wore the first green jacket given to a Masters Tournament winner in 1949. Jones never won the Augusta Invitational or the Masters tournament, reluctantly playing in the first ones to promote the course, Roberts says.
Through his uncle, who paid for part of his college education, he met many notables, including Tom Weiskopf, Gary Player and Mamie Eisenhower, who often stayed in “Eisenhower Cabin” at the club before her death in 1979, ten years after the president’s death.
In Arizona, Glenda gave up golf courses to raise show quarter horses. In 2015, two of her mares were Arizona State Grand Champions.
Roberts shifted to cars. His interest started when he was 29 in 1972, when he was best man at a wedding at the DoubleTree Inn in south Seattle. Simultaneously, the Rolls-Royce Owners Club was having a luncheon; the parking lot was shimmering with cars of the great marque.
“I had never seen such an elegant and impressive display of so many automobiles all in one place,” he recalls. “I was hooked on the idea of owning such a car and started shopping that very day.”
Unexpectedly, he saw a Silver Dawn Rolls Royce for sale on a street in Seattle. “I couldn’t believe my luck in finding the car, particularly when considering that Rolls Royce made less than 800 Silver Dawns –– primarily as an experimental forerunner to the Silver Cloud series, of which thousands were manufactured,” he says.
The Roberts were married in the back seat of the RR by a justice of the peace standing outside, with the beautiful lake at the University of Washington’s Arboretum in the background.
Eleven years later, that Rolls-Royce sold for more than three times what he had paid in 1973. His present car collection, except for a 1987 1/2 Rolls Royce, was assembled after moving to Arizona, including a Porsche 356, which they have gifted to daughter Kathy, who adores it.
Fairways, a Reformulated ’58 ’Vette and a Fateful Spin
Here are some of Roberts’ moving joys:
•1932 Ford Golf Cart – He’s had three golf carts, including a custom-built Rolls-Royce cart to match the couple’s Corniche convertible, an Escalade six-passenger and this one, a souped- up Ford that will take you for a swinging ride to 43 mph. “I realized that the main reason I played golf at all is that the game was giving me an excuse to ride in those cute little carts,” he explains.
This one, styled to match a 1932 Ford, has custom leather upholstery installed in white with red piping to match the paint on the cart. The rear seat was remodeled and reupholstered; it has a cooler and room for golf balls, ball markers, tees and golf such.
This year he decided to retire from duffing and use the hot cart for gardening, as his home has 100-plus flowering plants.
“Early this year, I placed matching red-and-white golf bags on the rear of the cart, but instead of filling the bags with clubs, I added rakes, brooms and a gas-driven vacuum for leaves. Then I welded a hitch for a small trailer to carry yard debris,” he says. “Most mornings I get to use the cute little cart without the obligation to do what playwright George S. Kaufman warned us about so many years ago: ‘Golf: a good walk ruined.’”
•1934 Mercedes-Benz 500K (replica) – In 2010, after a four-year search, Roberts found this gorgeous replica of one of the world’s most beautiful cars in the San Francisco area.
In 2012 at Monterey, an original sold for $11.2 million, Roberts says. “That’s a good reason to go with an excellent replica,” he says, smiling.
Succeeding M-B’s 380K, this great touring car carried a 100-horse engine capable of 100 mph. Robert’s car has a more powerful Chevy 350 with a four-speed automatic. He drives it regularly, and people stop everywhere he goes.
The original owner had contracted the custom house, Heritage, to build it in its Florida factory. The magnificent livery is British racing green over silver with a green canvas top; inside are Connolly hides in silver with matching green piping.
“The man who commissioned the car spent a lot of time chasing down original 1934 Mercedes-Benz cosmetic parts: door handles, turn signals, spot lights,” Roberts says. “These original parts make this replica very special.”
Roberts went on to hide all of the replica giveaways such as relocating the electric window controls in the center armrest, the radio speakers under the dash and behind the seat. The contemporary radio was replaced with a new vintage mid-1930s version. And, the rear window was replaced with a small rectangular glass typical of the era.
Roberts says that Adolf Hitler gifted one of the factory cars to the 18-year-old King Farouk of Egypt on his marriage to Queen Farida in 1938 –– one of his eventual 1,000-car collection. He’ll also tell you about “Farouk U,” but you’ll have to sign up directly with him for that advanced class in risqué puns.
•1958 Corvette on C-6 Chassis – In July, 2013, Roberts commissioned work on a 1958 Corvette conversion. A new 2013 Corvette, with a C-6 chassis, was the donor car for the conversion done by Classic Reflections Coachworks (CRC) in Lakewood, a suburb of Tacoma, Washington.
They already owned a 1953 Corvette body, built on 50-year commemorative 2003 Corvette C-5 chassis by a coach builder in Michigan.
He sent his high school buddy, Don Kessler, who has bought and sold most of the cars in the couple’s collection, on a scouting mission to inspect the CRC factory and operation, operated by Doug Graf. With a positive report, Roberts traveled to Lakewood for a look.
After building about 200 of the 1962 model Corvette cars, Graf came up with a 1958 carbon-fiber body, designed to be fitted on any C-6 Corvette chassis. CRC completed the car in only eight weeks, with a white exterior and a torch red interior to match the two Corvettes already in the couple’s collection. The customized car is a little longer, wider and higher than an original 1958 Corvette from General Motors’ St. Louis factory.
The new CRC rendition has the look of a 1958 Corvette, but is, he explains, a contemporary Corvette with navigation, hydraulic convertible top, Bose sound system, six-way electric seats, power steering, power brakes, head-up display and the all-important accessory for the desert, a superlative air-conditioning system.
•James Dean’s 1955 550 Porsche Spyder (replica) – This beautiful replica will soon be doing new ownership time at Foulksrath Castle in County Kilkenny, Ireland. A collector saw Roberts’ car in Hemmings and purchased it with lots of green.
Fewer than 90 of Porsche’s first purpose-built race cars left the factory, and fewer than 40 made it to the United States. Because of this, and the James Dean story that rides with every car, they’ve sold at auction in excess of $6 million.
Robert’s replica has a worked version of the aluminum four overhead cam 110-bhp four-cylinder engine found in the factory cars.
Dean Jeffries, who had a shop next door to George Barris, the “King of Kustomizers” painted the “130” on the hood and “Little Bastard” on the rear cowling. One story is that film-studio owner Jack Warner nicknamed Dean that after he wouldn’t vacate the film studio owner’s trailer for the film, East of Eden.
“I’ve been told the car really doesn’t show its stuff until 100, and I finally drove it for the very first time in six years of ownership a few weeks ago,” he says, noting that it will travel to Ireland with just about 120 easy on-and-off-the-trailer miles.
One reason for this paucity of seat time is The Curse.
The young movie star, Dean, Hollywood’s new-style “bad boy,” purchased the 550 after completing the last scene of Giant, released in 1956. This had been preceded by East of Eden and the generation-defining Rebel Without a Cause (1955), with its infamous street race started off by a gorgeously wayward Natalie Wood on the way to her own sad ending.
Alex Guiness (later the superwise Obi Wan Kenobi in Star Wars) told Dean outside the Villa Capri restaurant in Hollywood: “If you get in that car, you will be found dead in it by this time next week. “This took place on September 23, seven days before he was killed.
A skilled racer, Dean was on the way to the Salinas Road Race, near Monterey, with Porsche factory-trained mechanic, Rolf Wütherich. Dean had already competed in his Porsche Speedster, including at Bakersfield, where on May 1 and 2 he had finished first in class and third overall.
A presage of the collision hours later, Dean had been cited earlier in the day by California Highway Patrol Officer O.V. Hunter for going 65 in a 55 zone.
But his death wasn’t Dean’s doing. At approximately 5:30 p.m., he crashed head on with a Ford Tudor sedan, driven by 23-year old Cal Poly student Donald Turnupseed who had turned left in front of Dean at the intersection of state highways 41 and 46. Today, the infraction is failure to yield. At the inquest, the ruling was accidental death with no criminal intent.
Almost decapitated, Dean died on the way to Paso Robles War Memorial Hospital, where he was pronounced dead at 6:20; apparently, the ambulance had a collision on the way, adding another more strangeness to the story. Dean was buried Oct 8, 1955, in Park Cemetery near his home town of Fairmount, Indiana. There he had been raised on his aunt and uncle’s farm.
Wütherich was thrown from the car, with extensive hip and femur injuries. In July 1981, he died in Germany as a result of an auto accident.
In 1977, a memorial was set up in Cholame, California, not too far from the crash scene, in Dean’s honor. Roberts leased that property and the crash site for an oil company in the mid-1980s and he began researching Dean and the accident. ”That experience eventually led me to buy the Porsche Spyder and attach all the Dean graphics to it,” he recalls.
And, in 2005 the junction was dedicated as the James Dean Memorial Junction, marking the 50th anniversary of the death.
The original Dean car has many ironies and of course, that Curse.
For instance, as Giant was in shooting, he and fellow actor Gig Young did a public service announcement for the National Safety Council, with Dean dressed as the movie character, oilman Jett Rink, chatting about how highway driving can be more dangerous than track racing. Instead of saying the scripted “The life you save may be your own,” Dean crafted “The life you might save might be mine.”
The wrecked car was then purchased for $2,500 by George Barris, “King of the Kustomizers,” later known for the first Batmobile and those souped-up sinister Munsters cars. As the Porsche was being delivered to his North Hollywood shop, it rolled off the delivery truck, breaking the legs of a Barris mechanic.
Two doctors purchased the damaged car from the insurance company and used the motor and transaxle in their weekend racers. One doctor was killed and the other seriously injured.
Barris sold the two rear tires to a New York man. They both blew out simultaneously.
The California Highway Patrol (CHP) asked Barris if the Porsche could be used in a safety traveling show. On the way to a presentation in Salinas, the flatbed destabilized, ejecting the driver; the car fell, killing him.
CHP then took it to a Sacramento high school. A bolt holding the car to the display snapped, and the car fell on a 15-year-old, breaking his hip.
On the way to another display, the cursed Porsche fell off a transport truck, causing another traffic fatality. And so on; there are more stories, running even bumper with the King Tut curse.
The Dean death car mysteriously disappeared in 1960 as it was shipped back to Barris from Miami, Florida, in a sealed container in a truck or a boxcar. When it arrived in Los Angeles, the seal was intact, and the car was gone.
•1967 Jaguar Hearse – Inspired by the car in the Harold and Maude motion picture, this one-off replica was built in the Phoenix area during a 40-month period ending March 2015.
The original movie Jaguar-hearse was destroyed at the end of the motion picture by being tossed off a cliff onto a beach at Mori Point, in Pacifica, California.
“The mother takes away her son’s car, a 1959 Cadillac hearse, because he’s creating fake suicides, and she buys him a new XKE,” Roberts says of the plot. “He then goes out and customizes the Jag with the hearse top and rear-end.” Take that, mom!
Roberts and his team studied 35 still frames lifted from the movie to ensure they had nailed down the details. The replica Jaguar-hearse was built, as with the original, from bits and pieces from various import cars, American cars and different series of XKE Jaguars.
The rear hatch opens by remote control; inside, a remote control banjo case holds items representing the fake suicide props, such as a samurai sword and a noose. A recording plays Cat Stevens’ “If you Want to Sing Out, Sing Out,” made famous by the film. The rear hatch, banjo case and music are all powered by an extra battery.
The couple takes it to concours events to compete in the “modified vehicles category.” Recently, the star car appeared at a movie premiere in Hollywood and a sanctioned Jaguar concours in Palm Springs, where it took another first-place trophy to lively applause.
•1987 ½ Rolls Royce Convertible – In 1987, Rolls Royce started building this series, Roberts explains. At the half year, upgrades appeared, including beefier components under the hood and a larger air conditioning unit.
His is triple Magnolia: paint, top and upholstery. This is the longest in his collection at 18 years. He adds only about 1,000 miles per year.
“The car has been babied. The interior, the upholstery, the walnut veneer woodwork and carpeting make the car look like it’s off a Rolls Royce showroom floor,” he says. “I have never shown the car in competition without it taking first place.”
The car’s original owner ordered every option, including walnut-veneer picnic tables installed behind the front seats. The Rolls also features cocktail recesses in both doors containing silver flasks inscribed with the carmaker’s logo and crystal wine glasses also etched with the logo.
Roberts has fitted the car with Turbo Bentley wheels, which were not available on the RR in 1987 but were on the Bentleys. He had four plastic center caps showing RR machined down to fit the wheels.
•2008 Lincoln Limo – This is one of the first with picture windows without side posts, which obscured views. After purchasing it new, Roberts used the 30-foot-long limo for oil- and gas-leasing reconnaissance in California. Now, he, family and friends enjoy it in Arizona for dinners and concerts. For that, he retains a chauffeur.
“It only has 50,000 miles and looks like new because we only put about 5,000 miles a year on it,” he says. In 2013, he refurbished the boat with upgraded air-conditioning, three new televisions, fiber optics and a premier sound system.
The car is very conservative, but the builders installed a funky, pulsating disco dance floor. Roberts eliminated the dance floor by covering it with a sheepskin carpet supplied by the same company that provides mouton overlays to Rolls-Royce –– just one more way Roberts’ retirement is plush, indeed.
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