Before the Prius, the 105 freeway or Carmageddon, the South Bay inspired many auto enthusiasts to devote themselves to a successful life on four wheels. Meet three local figures who, through their own unique contributions, helped steer the South Bay car culture into the history books.
- Written byDiane E.
The Legend: Parnelli Jones
Raised in Torrance during WWII, Rufus Parnell “Parnelli” Jones credits horses with the very beginning of his auto-racing career. “I always loved horses, and when I was growing up, I hung out at amateur horse races,” he shares. “I exercised and trained other people’s horses to earn enough money to buy one of my own. When I turned 16, I sold my horse and bought my first hot rod.” To keep his prized new car running, he worked after school for a mechanic in a shop on Hawthorne Boulevard (a two-lane road at the time).
The daredevil, teenage Jones took to the streets in the South Bay and quickly became a nemesis for the local police. “I had a friend named Art who was my street race rival, and we raced everywhere,” he says. “My first experience with off-road racing was in the Palos Verdes flower fields to get away from the cops. The Torrance chief of police’s claim to fame back then was to say that he used to catch me.” With a pause and a twinkle in his eye, Jones continues, “But he never did!”
While Jones was dodging the law on city streets, his older cousin was racing a hot rod in competitions at California racetracks. He often tagged along and warmed up the car for his cousin before the races. “That was the hook that got it all started in the ‘50s,” Jones says.
At age 17, he was so anxious to race that instead of waiting until the legal age of 21, he had a fake identification made with the name Parnelli Jones. When asked why he chose the name Parnelli, he smiles and says, “When I was a kid, there was a freckle-faced girl at school named Nellie who my friend, Billy Calder, teased me about. He would yell, “Nellie loves Parnelli! Nellie loves Parnelli!” That was the name that I thought of when I got the fake I.D.”
The legend-in-the making’s first race was in 1952 in a ’34 Ford at Carol Speedway in Gardena. In the years to follow, if it had wheels, Parnelli competed with it and won with it. In 1956, a Torrance car dealer, Vel Miletich, sponsored the young jalopy driver, and a lifetime partnership was formed that would soon change auto racing history books.
In 1960, Jones competed in his first Indy car race and one year later was named co-rookie of the year at the famed Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The following year, he became the first driver to ever qualify over 150 mph, and in 1963 he not only did it again, he dominated and won the race.
During the ‘60s and ‘70s, Torrance-based Vel’s Parnelli Jones race shop designed and built cars that led the pack in open-wheel racing, and their team was recognized as one of the most successful race teams in the history of the sport. They competed in everything from off-road races in Baja to world-class international Formula One events—with a driver roster that included Mario Andretti and Al Unser.
In addition to making a name for himself in the auto racing world, Jones always had a keen and competitive business sense. He and his partner Miletich had a local Ford dealership together, and he opened his first Parnelli Jones Firestone tire store in 1964 in Torrance. One store grew to 47 stores in the western United States, and he later sold them in the early ‘90s.
Real estate was another passion of his over the years and still is. According to Jones, “We sold our former Vel’s Parnelli Jones headquarters and race shop to Little Company of Mary Hospital, which was converted to the hospital administration building that is there now.”
Today, Palos Verdes resident Parnelli Jones still dons his business hat, but he has hung up his helmets and now wears golfing gloves instead of racing gloves. He makes annual trackside appearances at the Indy 500 and attends celebrity events—while finding more time to enjoy the quieter side of life with his lovely wife, Judy.
Though their two sons, PJ and Paige, no longer race cars, two of their four grandchildren, Jace and Jagger, are now following in their grandfather’s tire tracks and at the ages of 9 and 12 are trophy-winning go-kart competitors. (South Bay law enforcement will be happy to know that the boys do not reside in the area.)
When asked if he misses racing, Parnelli Jones laughingly says, “Every day is race day for me. I have to go out with all of the crazies on our local streets!”
The Curator: Steve Tillack
Ferrari aficionado, collector and restorer, Steve Tillack was born and raised in Los Angeles and has been an automobile enthusiast since childhood. “I attended my first sports car race in 1952 when I was 4 years old. At age 10, I had a subscription for Hot Rod magazine, and before I had a driver’s license, I rode my bicycle to the San Fernando drag strip.”
What began for this South Bay resident as a hobby putting together plastic toy model cars evolved into a lifelong career in the specialty automotive world. In the late ‘60s, Tillack began building the first high-end audio systems for custom cars. After a move to Pioneer Electronics in the ‘70s, he was touted as the foremost authority on automotive sound systems in the U.S.
He also did something in the ‘70s that was a career game changer. He purchased his first Ferrari—a blue 1969 365GT 2+2. From that point forward, prancing-horse emblazoned Ferrari automobiles charted the course of his life.
The doors to his Redondo Beach-based Tillack & Company, Ltd. opened in 1979 offering service, parts and restoration for Ferraris, and in 1983, he added an exclusive automobile sales department. Tillack also became a key member of the Ferrari Owners Club and held various positions in the ‘80s that included president and chairman of the board. Currently, he is a consultant to the board of directors for Ferrari Club of America’s Southern California region.
Prestige has always been synonymous with Steve Tillack and his business. For 28 consecutive years, he has presented cars for competition at the Pebble Beach Concours d’ Elegance, the world-renowned collector car show of excellence, resulting in numerous wins and accolades. He has also competed in the Louis Vuitton Concours d’ Elegance at Parc Bagatelle in Paris, France and returned home not once but twice with the coveted Grand Prix de Bagatelle (best of show) award.
Tillack & Company cars have been seen on the pages of every major automotive magazine, and racing cars prepared by the company have competed in every major historic racing event in the world. Not surprisingly, Tillack’s passion and competitive spirit have also landed him behind the wheel in countless non-professional auto racing competitions over the years—most notably the great Italian road race Mille Miglia, the Monterey Historic Races and Classic Le Mans.
Today the mainstay of Tillack & Company is still Ferraris, though other limited production cars such as Maseratis, Lamborghinis and Aston Martins, as well as vintage racecars, can be found under Tillack’s stewardship. “I am regularly called upon to research, locate and negotiate the purchase of rare sports and racing cars for epicurean automobile collectors throughout the world.”
When asked if he has a mantra, he quickly responds, “Yes! No boring cars!”
The Legacy: Honda and Kurt Antonius
The U.S. legacy of Japanese automaker American Honda Motor Company is deeply rooted in Los Angeles, particularly the South Bay. What started in 1959 as a six-person storefront selling motorcycles on Pico Boulevard in Los Angeles (Honda’s first overseas subsidiary) has nationally grown to more than 26,000 associates (Honda-speak for employees), with close to 2,500 working at the 105-acre corporate headquarters in Torrance.
Kurt Antonius, a Redondo Beach resident and recently retired Honda executive, knows Honda’s local and national history better than most after a 28-year tenure with the company. In 1983, he left General Motors to start the public relations department at American Honda’s Gardena location and was instrumental in changing the face of automotive publicity. “When I retired, I had responsibilities for Honda public relations, Acura public relations, motorsports, auto shows and the Honda museum.”
In 1990, American Honda relocated from its 27-year Gardena location to its current Torrance campus. Mr. Soichiro Honda himself traveled from Japan to celebrate the official dedication of the new U.S. headquarters. Antonius, who was the emcee of the festivities, recalls the day.
“We had a special gift for Mr. Honda—an antique vase dating back to the ancient Anasazi Native Americans. Two associates presented it to him—the oldest was from the Pico office days and the newest associate who had just started working that day. Mr. Honda lifted the vase over his head and walked around the stage bowing to everyone. He didn’t notice a five-foot drop from the edge of the stage, and there is a classic photo that was taken of me diving from the podium toward Mr. Honda to steer him away from the precipice.”
The American Honda Collection Hall, a private museum devoted to preserving the history of Honda vehicles in the U.S., was one of Antonius’ favorite projects. It was conceived in 2003 by Tom Elliot, a retired executive vice president, and put together with cars that were stashed and stored in various warehouses. When Antonius took over management of the museum a few years later, he added more cars and enhanced it.
Currently there are 40 production and concept vehicles, 12 race cars, 24 production and race engines and about 20 motorcycles. All of the concept vehicles are one-of-a-kind and the only ones in the world. An important part of the collection is an N-600, which was the first Honda car that went on sale in the U.S. in 1970.
According to Antonius, “It sold for about a dollar a pound. It weighed 1,346 pounds, and it sold for $1,395.” Since Antonius’ retirement, the museum is now under the watchful care of Dave Heath, a senior manager who proudly carries the torch handed to him from his friend, Antonius.
Leaving the comfort of a 12-year General Motors career in 1983 for a Japanese car company that was not on the solid, proven footing of its American counterparts was a leap of faith for the ever-optimistic and adventurous Antonius. Would he do it again?
“Absolutely! Honda is a wonderful company to work for with a fabulous product,” he says. “You can work there and have a direct impact on the outcome. In many ways, it still operates like a small company—an amazing, interesting and gutsy company!”