You know the hour-long drive is worth it when the first thing you see as you walk into the shop is a RUF CTR3. One of six. But this was just the warm up, the opening act. Allow me to set the stage.
A neighbor of mine recently acquired this 1969 Ferrari 365 GT 2+2 that wasn’t in the greatest shape. Gorgeous car, with a red wine exterior, but the owner knew what it could become if he restored it properly. So one morning, my dad walked over to see the car for himself. I had already seen it a couple days prior, but when my dad arrived, he met with one Donnie Callaway.
Donnie restores cars. Obscenely nice, rare, and unique cars (see above). Phil Hill’s Packard, the Miura prototype, and a brushed aluminum Shelby Cobra, to name a few. Undeniably the stuff of legend. How my neighbor found him remains a mystery to me, but my dad meeting Donnie is what catalyzed an unexpected but incredible turn of events. My dad told Mr. Callaway about me, my passion for all things automotive, my foray into automotive journalism, and my newborn fascination with this late 60’s Ferrari. Donnie gave my dad his card and told him that I should email him, so I could come down to his shop and write about my experience. A few emails later, and I was venturing down the 405 to see what I got myself into.
Back to that CTR3. It was a matte silver that had hints of purple and green from certain angles, along with a red interior. I was already in gearhead shock, but it wasn’t hard to tell that it wasn’t Callaway’s cup of tea. In the same room, to the right of the RUF was a 458 Challenge racecar, a matte brown SLS roadster, and a vintage Ferrari next to it, possibly another 365 GT 2+2. Up to this point, Callaway and I had only shook hands and introduced ourselves, and it wasn’t until we walked over to my neighbor’s 365, which has found a temporary home in the shop, that I started to learn who Donnie Callaway is. It started with a question.
“What’s a good car magazine?” he asked.
I panicked. I jumped to the conclusion that this was clearly a test, that he conducting a litmus test of my knowledge of automotive journalism.
“I’m a huge fan of Evo,” I confessed, “Top Gear and Motor Trend are pretty good too”
I screwed up.
“You should read these,” pulling out copies of Sports Car Market, Forza, Cavallino, Octane, and a couple others. Each of the issues focused on Ferraris, some covering the classics and recent auctions, others highlighting the new 488 and the rumored F12 Speciale.
“You smell that? Vinyl interior. Smells like shit” he continued, gesturing towards my neighbor’s 365. He was right, it filled the room with an artificial stench that sent me back to boating with friends in summers past; sunburns, wipeouts, mosquito bites, and bass-heavy music, not exactly what you want the interior of your vintage Ferrari to smell like.
“I’m going to have to strip all of that and replace it with leather. You don’t keep a vinyl interior in this sort of car, you just don’t,” Donnie explained. I didn’t doubt it.
We chatted more about cars he’s worked on and taken to various shows or concours. If, for some reason, you aren’t already impressed, this guy took a Lamborghini Espada to the Pebble Beach Concours a couple years ago and was told by a judge that, if he entered it in the show, he very well could’ve won second place in its class. That story alone deserves serious gearhead credit.
We cross an ocean blue Ferrari 365 GT4 BB (almost same spec as above) and make our way to Callaway’s desk, where classic rock is filling up the room just as much as that vinyl interior. He starts to frantically navigate through hundreds of thousands of pictures, an Iso Rivolta here, an E-Type there, and Ferraris filling in any and all gaps. However, one car, and the story behind it, stood out among the others.
For those of you who know what an Autobianchi Bianchina is, I applaud you. I had never heard of it until Donnie Callaway showed me one that he bought, restored, and ended up selling for over 100 times what he got it for. These pictures tell the story in greater detail than I ever could, but when he got the cute Italian minicar, it was a fine example of gross neglect and disrepair. If I were to see it, I’d think there was absolutely no hope for bringing it back to life, let alone to award-winning condition. But Donnie Callaway is an automotive necromancer, and this Autobianchi is one of his most impressive projects. Over the course of several months, he meticulously breathed new life into every single aspect of the car. Every wire, every switch, handle, dial, light, and button, everything you do and do not see, is finished perfectly, in cleaner and better condition than every before. Birth-of-Christ-immaculate. I wouldn’t be surprised if the car was in a better state after this restoration than when it originally left the factory.
Before he had to close up and head out, Callaway had one more car to show me. His fingers slammed down on each of the keys, desperately searching for a very specific video. He tried YouTube and Vimeo, and used every arrangement of the keywords “Ferrari 212 Export The Racers Movie”. He found plenty of pictures and other videos, but the single video he wanted couldn’t be found. He went on to explain that the car once belonged to his father, and was used as one of the main vehicles in the 1955 film The Racers starring Kirk Douglas. Callaway already proved his passion for Ferrari, but this sealed the deal. He had loved this car from an early age, and it’s arguably what catalyzed his love for cars. We car people all have that moment, car, race, or driver who ignites that spark, and for Donnie Callaway, it was this 212 Export. A few weeks after this meeting, he sent me the video. Give it a view, it’s worth it for the noise alone.
My visit to Donnie Callaway’s shop proved to be eye-opening and educational. Meeting other car enthusiasts is always great, but spending time with one who possesses infinite catalog of incredible stories and such a vast knowledge of all sorts of cars is quite the experience. Donnie Callaway and I are very different people, this was apparent when I turned off the Porter Robinson I was playing on the way there and stepped into his classic rock-filled shop. I want to thank Mr. Callaway for granting this opportunity, and for showing me a refreshingly new part of the automotive world.