Passion Play

Rallying behind Craig Ekberg’s impeccable automobile collection

For as long as Craig Ekberg can remember, he’s had a fascination with cars. “I started playing with cars when I was 16,” he says.

As a teen growing up in Palos Verdes, his fixation began with the purchase of a Porsche 914. A tireless worker, Craig refurbished the car completely on his own. After he was done fixing the body and the paint job, he drove it around the South Bay, hunting for a buyer. Once he sold it, he began the process again, seeking out in-demand cars, restoring and then selling them.

terranea-life-car-collectingA pragmatic businessman, Craig viewed cars as investment opportunities from an early age. “It’s technically the best investment out there. It’s outpaced real estate and artwork,” he says.

And according to CNBC, classic cars were considered to be one of the top collectable investments for 2014, delivering higher returns than other collectibles—including wine, jewelry and antique furniture—over periods of five and 10 years. “You can park money in something that makes you happy, instead of a bank account or a building, and these are more fun,” he says.

However, as the retired owner of a successful roofing company, auto investments are no longer top priorities. Instead he focuses on collecting cars that reflect his passion for classic auto history—and his love for pulse-pounding speed. Owning a car steeped in history, like Craig’s rare sun-yellow 1915 Stutz Bearcat, gives him a chance to step into the past, to explore the high points of an industry and a culture that’s been on the forefront of his mind since he was a child.

“When you’re out racing [in a car tour],” he says, gesturing at his car collection and grinning, “you can envision what it was like back in the day to own one of these.”

terranea-life-car-collecting7Helicopters and small planes drone above Craig’s hanger at Torrance’s Zamperini Field airport. Inside he keeps a number of cars, motorcycles and two gleaming planes (a Nanchang CJ-6A and a Yak-50) nestled close together.

Every surface gleams and shines. The polished floors squeak underfoot. Craig’s rare, historic cars are seemingly kept in pristine condition, their chassis polished to a mirror-like luster, reflecting the overhead lights. Soft jazz plays on overhead speakers as he highlights the key pieces of his collection.

Craig participates in several car tours and rallies each year. His favorite, The Colorado Grand, is a non-competitive driving event that involves cruising down 1,000 miles of roads in the Rockies over the course of five days in rare, vintage cars (dating from the early- to mid-20th century).

These tours typically feature cars from specific eras, ranging from early car tours (around World War I) to sports car tours that feature autos from the mid-century. Thus Craig’s top cars fit nicely within a number of different automobile eras. “When I get to a rally, I have something that’s out of the ordinary for each of those years,” he says.

The one car not present in the hanger—a 1933 Packard Super Eight—perfectly encapsulates Craig’s intention with car collecting. The Packard captures the epitome of car design during the 1930s (with its soft, graceful lines and an early-20th century sense of stately luxury). Made during the Great Depression, the car was one that few could afford, so its limited production makes it an excellent collector’s piece.

Craig, who’s also a FAST flight instructor, begins his car tour by talking about his Mercedes-Benz 300 SL Gullwing. A beautifully crafted mid-century car, it was one of the first product sports cars to feature a direct fuel injection system—in other words, it has the soul of a race car. “At the time, it was one of the fastest cars in the world,” he says.

A rather distinctive feature: The car’s doors are hinged at the roof. It’s no wonder why the 300 SL is one of Craig’s preferred cars to take to tours, especially The Colorado Grand.

The next car, a Mercedes 230 SL Pagoda, isn’t as rare as the Stutz or the 300 SL, but it’s just as prized. A sleek two-door with a bright red paint job, it’s the car that Craig drove when he first met his wife.

“I got this car as a starter car, and I’ve toyed with selling it, but my wife always reminds me that we met in it. Our first date was in this car,” he says.

The Stutz, one of the most valuable cars in Craig’s collection, is a rolling piece of history. An ideal Brass Era car, it was built by Harry C. Stutz. The designer, who rose to fame in the early 1900s for building a car that actually finished the grueling Indianapolis 500 (a pretty masterful feat in those days), sought to build a sports car that would highlight America’s ability to produce top-notch racing cars. The Bearcat was that car.

Looking at it now, the car lacks clean lines or any sense of comfortable luxury. It features two bucket seats that are completely exposed to the elements, along with a wide, open floor. It was, at the time of production, enormously expensive.

“Only the most wealthy had something like this,” Craig says, adding that without a roof or any real storage, it was entirely impractical. “It was simply a go-fast car.”

But the Stutz was, deep down, one of the first true sports cars. Craig says that he can hit speeds of up to 65 mph, and the 1915 model featured an electrical system (which included electric lamps and a starter—a vast improvement over the gas-powered lamps and hand-cranked starter of the previous year’s model). So it’s still surprisingly convenient to drive. He notes, though, that the Stutz’s clutch is complicated and that any parts that need to be replaced need to be remade completely.

The final car, the Allard J2X, which dates from around the 1950s, has turned into Craig’s everyday car. Built by Sydney Allard, the J2X is a powerful racer—one that’s prized for its handling and speed.

It also represents a key facet of auto history. Sydney hired Carroll Shelby to drive an earlier model J2, and it’s believed that the performance of the Allard racer helped influence Shelby’s designs for the AC Cobra.

Craig is quick to point out that his cars represent the top of the top for automobile collectors. “These are iconic cars,” he says. “These are the cars that are the equivalent of an art collector seeing an original van Gogh on a wall.”

All of the cars are rare, and some of them—like the Gullwing—are rare enough that most collectors won’t even drive them. But Craig enjoys driving his cars (including the Stutz) throughout the South Bay. For him, meeting other drivers and reveling in a shared love for classic auto history is truly addicting. The simple act of driving these iconic cars—taking them on the road and stepping back in time—is what drives Craig’s collecting and his need to take his cars out on the town.

He says, smiling, “When people see [my cars] on the road, especially people who are older—these cars were their super cars of the day—and when they see them, they come unglued.”

To view more amazing vintage automobiles, visit the Palos Verdes Concours d’Elegance at Los Verdes Golf Club on Sunday, September 20 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. For more information, visit pvconcours.org

Written by Stefan Slater  |  Photographed by Jeff Berting