California dreaming

My story begins a long time ago. In the second half of 1984. I was 18 years old, in the 3rd class WTB of the MTS in Doetinchem and had to do an internship that year. I, with my urge for adventure, had gotten it into my head to do that internship year not in the Netherlands but abroad. After some insistence with the drama coordinator of the school, I got permission if I met a number of conditions. I contacted my aunt in Los Angeles, California and asked her if I could move in with her for a year and if she knew of a nice stage place for me. She seemed to have no problem with that and had a bedroom. She knew a couple of people who could get me started right away.

I have been driving a Dsuper5 and a DS23IE for a while now. Both cars were neatly stuffed into the garage before I left for LA to wait for a year for me there so that I could drive them again when I got back to the Netherlands. Right after the school year ended, I think it was the end of June beginning of July, I left for LA. And believe me, 18 years old, getting on a plane for the first time to a far away unknown country was really an adventure. I felt strange and had to vacillate between being excited and sad. But there was no way back.

When I arrived in LA, I needed a few days to get used to all the new impressions. It was also clear to me that it is not easy for a foreigner to work in the USA without a green card. When I reported to my aunt’s friend where I was to do my internship and he asked me if I had a work permit, I was immediately told: ‘sorry, but without a work permit you are not allowed to work here. So there I was, in LA, without an internship address. What to do now?

After a few attempts at the emigration service and some other hopeless actions, it was clear that it would not work out legally. After about 4 weeks in LA, my aunt came up with the idea to visit her old Citroen garage. She had always driven a DS in the 60s and 70s and maybe the owner could help me. So, with many doubts, I left for Pico Blvd. in Santa Monica where the garage was located. It was a small garage on a corner. In the showroom there were 2 Citroens and outside another 10 projects. I walked onto the premises, saw a man in his 50s standing there and asked if he was the owner.

His answer was affirmative and I told him that I knew about Citroëns and was looking for an internship. My English was bad at the time and it sounded like ‘I know Citroen’. The answer was yes. Then you can start tomorrow,’ he said, and five minutes later, on the way back, I was still surprised at his answer.

I worked in this Citroen garage for a year. The owner Don was married with a French woman and had been a Citroen dealer from shortly after the war until 1973 when Citroen stopped exporting Citroens. After that it was difficult for him to keep his head above water, but since he was infected with the Citroen virus he persevered. He had more and more problems finding good mechanics and after the last mexicans were fired, he kept working on his own. During that year it became clear to me that I was a kind of gift from heaven for him and his garage experienced a small revival.

I learned a lot of DS and SM in that year and had a great internship year. I also picked up my English well and got my pilot’s licence. Don also had his own little plane and with him I made several trips to the dessert where he has a range with his own airstrip.

In the meantime, 20 years have passed. After my MTS I started working in aviation and until now I earned my money as a mechanic and later as a pilot. At a certain moment I exchanged my Citroen hobby for aviation and all other things in life like working, having children and getting married. But when I saw a DS, I noticed that it touched a nerve. The well-known virus.

A few years ago, now a pilot on a business jet, divorced and a girlfriend, the Citroen virus starts to play its role. I decide to get back in touch with my old trainee boss Don and start looking for a pike again.  This all gets into gear when I get fired at the end of last year. Don had already let me know on the phone that he was desperate for help with his Citroen Projects. And wise or not I booked a ticket to LA to start a new adventure. The next part is a report of this trip.

1 march 2004

My flight KL601 departs at 11.20 from Schiphol. Everything goes according to plan and we land at LAX at 14.30 LT. Don is now 79 and he comes to pick me up from the airport. I do not expect that he will recognise me quickly so I have to pay close attention. In the arrival hall, I quickly found him. Sitting on a chair a little further down the hall, he has not changed much but he does look a little older. We greet each other and it immediately strikes me that he does not walk so easily anymore. He had a new hip a year before and he was also being monitored for his heart. We go to the car park where his car is. I had fully prepared myself to leave the airport in a DS or SM but to my surprise he drives an old Jaguar.

On the way back, we drive over Pico blv. and stop at the old Garage that he now rents out. The owner pays him the rent and we chat about cars and the past. Don keeps telling me how my first words were when I walked into his place in 1984. Then we drove to a paint shop where one of his SM’s was newly painted and waiting to be picked up.

Then we went to his house where we had something to eat and drink. A plan was made when we will travel to the range in the dessert to work on the cars. It is a 5 hour drive by car. Don makes a list of all his Citroens he has there and to my great surprise there are not just a few but more than 40 of them. Mostly Dsen and SM’s but also 2cv’s HY and tractions. After a dinner with a bit too much wine, I switch off at around 8 pm. I had been on my feet for 24 hours.

2 march 2004

As it should be with jetlag, I was of course awake far too early. Don’s wife was up early too and had made coffee. Don himself had to go to the doctor for a check-up and I had time to make a few phone calls and catch up with Lisette. It soon became clear that she is not happy with the Lemon escapades of her husband. He is a dreamer, she told me. Don puts all her real estate money into restoring his cars but there are 40 unfinished projects and too expensive to sell them at a profit.

Apart from that he is 79 years old, very slow and terribly stubborn. I tell her that I understand him a bit and that she thinks I’m a dreamer, that I want to start a business in old Citroëns. I am a bit bewildered, but I also have a good idea of how the situation stands. I do feel that I have a unique story for Citroen freeks and decide to put the story on paper and make lots of pictures.

In the afternoon I go with Don to Jerry Hathaway of the famous SM world. He has taken care of the engine and gearbox of Don’s SM. I take the opportunity to ask him a lot of questions about the engine and parts I need for my own SM.

Apart from some social contacts not much happens that day.

3 march 2004

Today, I am going on a trip with an acquaintance from the Netherlands. He imports cars from the USA and asked me to go with him. Via a number of addresses we arrive in Long Beach at the transporter. It is a Dutchman. Roy has to quickly take care of a few things and put a box of parts in one of his boats, which are waiting on the premises for transport. This gives us the opportunity to walk around the terrain. Roy had seen an SM there and I was curious as to where they would be going. The terrain isn’t that big and I count 5 SM’s waiting for transport. They are all in a lousy condition but none of them has traces of rust. I decide to call the transporter later to find out more about these cars.

I visit some old acquaintances later that day.

4 march 2004

The next morning I tell Don that I have finished all my social engagements and that I am ready for the trip into the dessert and to work on his Citroens. We decide to drive that day. Don is always very taciturn and he also walks slowly. I pack my suitcase. That morning we first go to a number of shops to buy the necessary things. A new battery for a DS and several oils etc. Finally we leave his house in LA at 2pm and are on our way. It is a long drive and at about seven o’clock. We talk about Citroen’s, the time I worked for him, the cars on the ranch and even about the newer XM and C5. In the evening, we pass the last opportunity to do some shopping. It is then still a 1.5 hour drive. We buy the Jaguar completely filled with provisions for the next 2 weeks and continue our way. At about 8.30pm we arrive at his estate and drive with the Jaguar along the runway towards a number of Citroens, some of which look familiar from the time I worked for him. After unloading our gear and enjoying a plate of home made macaroni with a glass of wine, it is time to go to sleep. The next day, our work will begin.

5 march 2004

The big day has arrived. I am awake early. 5 o’clock. I write something in my computer and at 6.30 I am having coffee with Don. He cuts two oranges from the tree for breakfast. I can’t wait to go outside and look for the Citroens. Finally, at 7.30am I go out on my own to look for Citroens. Via the back of the ranch I walk along a hedge between a caravan and some trees in the direction of the hangar.

Suddenly, I am standing face to face with more than 15 cars. There is a row of tractions, a row of SMs, a row of Dsen and a row of DS breaks. In between are a couple of 2cv’s and a HY. I can’t believe my eyes. Slowly, I walk across the entire site. Left and right, between three large containers and behind the hangar are dozens of cars. They are all complete cars, without a trace of rust, but they have clearly suffered heavily from the sun.

A little later Don joins them and opens the hangar. In the hangar are 7 more Citroens and his plane. The containers are loaded with new and used parts. Also outside and in the hangar I see new and used parts everywhere. There are dozens of gearboxes and engines from DS, SM and Traction. It is too much to mention.

We make a plan for the day. First, we are going to take care of the DS 21 in which Don last drove. He became unwell during a drive in the neighbourhood and drove into a tree. The right mudguard and the bumper need to be replaced. We are busy all day until 6 o’clock when night falls and we can’t see anything anymore. Tomorrow I want to rebuild this pike so that I can start on the next SM.

6 march2004

The jetlag woke me up early again. Despite last night’s barbeque, I still feel hungry. Don is also up early and we decide that eggs and bacon will be on the menu today. After breakfast, Don starts talking about the old days. He is a man of few words. Sometimes, there is dead silence for minutes and it seems as if he is preparing a sentence or a conversation. Then he talks, but the run-up to the subject is very long. But this time he clearly has an important subject. It’s actually an answer to my question what he is planning to do with his Citroens. He tells me that he wants to build a big barn to house all the other cars.

What cars he still wants to finish and finally he says that when he dies, he will leave everything to me that has to do with Citroens. He had already told me this on the phone so it was not a real surprise. He wants to put it on paper so he can give me and his wife a copy. He is clearly worried that all his things will end up with the scrap iron. There is nobody in his immediate surroundings who is interested in any Citroen. There is also a lot of Citroen-tools. From the Traction to the SM.

Don also showed me pictures of the mud the flow they had here. I had already noticed outside that there are several sand heaps filled with Citroen parts. A sad sight. My plan is to save as much as possible of what is outside from the sun during these weeks.

7 march 2004

I only realise later in the day that it is Sunday. I have completely lost track of time

Finished the grey DS 21 today and drove this car. No. 1 is finished. Made a start with project nr. 2 a white SM.

8 march 2004

The work on the white SM is not too bad. New battery and fuel pump. Clogged fuel hose on top of the tank and the float needles cleaned and there you go. Nr. 2 is driving again.

Even no. 3, a light blue DS, is running today. Continue tomorrow.

9 march 2004

 Today I had a little trouble with yesterday’s beans. I think I produced more gas in one day than slogteren in a whole year. Today was a bit of a fumble. I repaired the hangar door. Also moved a lot of sheet metal to a safer position. A real clean-up day.

10 march 2004

I have been collecting sheet metal outside all day. It is now more or less clear to me what the mudslide has done. Don showed me pictures of the hangar. And now that I’ve pulled this sheet metal out of the sand, I know what happened. I even pulled SM doors out from under the sand. Completely filled with very fine sand. Put it straight on and knocked it empty until everything was out. Luckily everything is still usable but it probably looked like new before the rain. Just had a shower.

It is late afternoon and we are about to drive back to LA to say goodbye to Lisette. She is going to Las Vegas for a few days and we have to take her to the airport and the dog with us. It gives us the opportunity to arrange a few things in LA and then come back to the Ranche before the weekend.

11 march 2004

This morning we brought Lisette to LAX. Then drove to SM World. Bought a steering rack, steering wheel and cylinder foot bolts for my SM. At least, Don paid them for me. All together about 620 dollar. We drove these parts to Long Beach the same afternoon and put them in Roy’s boat for transport to NL. We had Chili Con Carne with Don. During dinner I told him what I think about inheriting his Citroen stuff. I told him the pros and cons and the options to do it differently. The bottom line is that I would rather start now with one container removed per year than everything within three weeks when he is no longer around. The plan is to go back to the Ranche tomorrow.

12 march 2004

We packed everything and had the Jaguar’s tyre repaired. We had a flat tyre on the way here. I have now driven most of the trip. Found out that the ranch is on route 66. I vaguely remember him telling me the same thing 20 years ago.

Don wonders if he should be back in LA on Tuesday on his wife’s birthday. That seems only logical. So we have to go back on Tuesday. All in all it took us 5 days to take Lisette into account. A pity, but so be it.

13 to 15 march 2004

The last 3 days I just spent cleaning and tidying up the hangar. That is to say, I packed a lot of parts in one of the containers. This one was not efficiently cleared. I drove all the cars out of the hangar and shot out most of the sand. I sieved a lot of the sand to get small parts out. On Monday evening everything was back in the hangar. Cars washed, floor clean. There were two more cars inside than when we arrived. If the other side of the hangar is cleaned as well, we should be able to fit two more in.

16 march 2004

We were up early this morning. Left around 8 o’clock on the way to Los Angeles. I drove most of the way and Don slept. I think those two weeks of hard work have been hard on him. Back in Santa Monica we bought chocolate for Lisette. Tonight we are going out for dinner for her birthday. Two more days and I am on my way home.