Bay Area Resident’s Epic Garage Full Of Legendary German Cars
I’ll be the first to admit that I talk about cars more than most people would care to hear about. I can’t spend 5 minutes driving without babbling excitedly about why a car I’ve seen is special, unique, or important. People usually tell me to shut up, but I won’t be doing that any time soon because it’s how I met Francis Rodriguez, the man with one of the most exciting car collections in the Bay Area.
On a Starbucks run with friends, I stumbled across a black Volkswagen Phaeton with the chrome badge indicating it has a 6.0 liter W12 engine under the hood. That’s two VR6s stitched together to form one epic engine that cranks out a massive 444 horsepower. Knowing this and how rare it has become since its discontinuation, I immediately nerded out.
Amidst my gasps and excited explanation for the odd behavior, one of my friends told me its driver lived right across the street from my former swim coach. Knowing this, I couldn’t wait to get a chance to meet him, especially after I drove past his house and learned that he also has a Porsche 911 GT3, a classic Audi Quattro, and an Audi S4 from the first year it appeared in the US. Can you say gear head heaven?
After setting up the interview, I made the short drive to Francis’ house, and was greeted with a friendly wave as he beckoned me into the house. As we started talking I was blown away by his knowledge of the cars in his impressive collection. Being in the presence of someone with such encyclopedic bank of information was an absolute pleasure. After we finished the interview, Francis went on to give a partial history of the gem of his collection, the Volkswagen Phaeton, and how Ferdinand Piech played a role in its development. When we finished chatting, Francis invited me back anytime I want to talk cars. After our conversation, I’d be happy to oblige.
Below is the interview in full.
TD: Before we talk about your current collection, I was wondering what your previous car history was. Was it always this immaculate?
Rodriguez: No no no no, my first car was a 1967 Cortina GT, an English Ford. At the time it was a fun car. Right now, it would be considered a dog. 0-60, I think it was 13 seconds, and then that was fast. So that was my first car. After I graduated from college, I got my own money and bought a Volvo 1800 ES, which is a rare car. You probably haven’t run across one. Back in the 60s, Volvo had a sports car, and then in the early 70s they took the same chassis basically and then made it into a sports wagon. Basically it had the lines of a sports car but now it had a hatch.
TD: Like a shooting brake?
Rodriguez: You got it. and then the hatch was all glass, so you could see through the car. Very practical. And that car, when I finally sold it (I had it for four or five years), I actually cried. Not for the car, but for what the car meant to me at that point in my life. I did a lot of things in that car. I met a lot of people in that car and when I had to let it go, it really… yeah.
After that I had some Fiats, and you know the reputation, fix it again Tony (he laughs). They’re not great cars. I went back to school and then I didn’t really have money to spend on cars. I had older cars, I don’t think there was anything… I did have a Mazda RX-7! It was fun, Wankels are unique.
And then when I retired, I now have time and it let me see what I really want to do. Slowly I got the cars that you see in the garage. The first one you see is the Volkswagen Phaeton.
In 2003, I get this letter. I’ve had a series of Volkswagen Jettas, Passats, what have you. I guess my age group, somehow Volkswagen North America thought “Ok this person is in the age group and has money to spend.” So they sent me a letter saying “We’re going to be introducing this car to the North American market called the Phaeton, would you like to have it for a two day test ride?”
I thought, why not, so my wife and I picked up the Phaeton in San Francisco in the Westing Hotel and drove to Mendocino. Oh my goodness I fell in love with that car. At the time I had a Passat that I had souped up. It had a bigger turbocharger-it was a fast car! It was probably in the 280-300 range, front wheel drive, so when it was wet, forget it- you couldn’t get any traction. It’s easy to get those cars to go fast, they have turbos and you put in software and that’s it.
So anyhow, I had been very pleased with my Passat, but after driving this car, I realized what a piece of junk I had been driving. So it spoiled my enjoyment of driving those Volkswagens (he laughs). Anyhow we spent the weekend in Mendocino and on Sunday we returned it to the Westing and they said the car is not on sale yet. So I asked, “Well how much is the car going to be selling for?” and the reply was “Well we haven’t set the MSRP yet but the one that is a W12 and fully loaded,” it even had a fridge in the back, “is going to be upwards of 100K.”
Well you know my son was going through college and I didn’t have that kind of money so I said, “Ok great! Nice car! See you later!” (he laughs).
That was in 2003. In 2004, they start selling the car and the car didn’t sell that well. They brought it back in 2005, and again the numbers were very low. They were maybe selling 300 cars a year. People weren’t willing to pay that kind of money for a Volkswagen. If they had relabeled it, maybe.
So in 2006, they pulled the plug. The sold a few, maybe a few hundred, but they said “That’s it, we’re pulling the plug.” The car has a very interesting history but that’s not for an interview (he laughs). I can tell you that another time. I know a lot about the Phaeton.
Anyhow, when a car is discontinued, the price drops like a rock. The car is no longer one hundred thousand, now you can get them for sixty. And again I wasn’t going to spend sixty thousand dollars on a Phaeton, but I knew the price was going to keep going down. Every now and then I would go check to see how they were going. And finally in 2008, I found one that had been owned by a Volkswagen technician. I knew this meant he had taken care of the car and done all of the major stuff and the guy was in Ohio, in Cedar Rapids. So I go over there, buy the car, and drive it back. Its been with me ever since.
It is a great touring car. They call it the poor man’s Bentley because really it shares a lot of stuff with it. For example the W12, the four wheel drive system is all Bentley, a lot of interior pieces are Bentley. So it is a Bentley at a much lower price range. The price just keeps going down and right now you can pick one up for, who knows, eighteen-thousand dollars or something like that. You have to keep in mind that it is still an expensive car when it was new. That means that the service and parts are still very expensive. It might not be a big expense on a normal car, on that car it’s big bucks. The dampers – it’s air suspension – each damper runs two-thousand dollars, so that’s eight-thousand right there. And you know they don’t last forever because it’s a consumable, it’s an air suspension. Each is a bag, so up-down-up-down they eventually leak and you need new dampers. They were replaced once under warranty but at some point they are going to fail. There are some things that are very expensive. I just went through a very expensive repair bill, because of the catalytic. I had to change all of the catalytic converters, it has six, eight oxygen sensors, two mass airflow sensors. The W12, you know, is two V6s, so it has one mass airflow sensor for one bank and one mass airflow sensor for another. It was a big repair bill. But it’s a good car and it’s a keeper. The folks at Volkswagen asked me if I want to fix it, and I said of course, it’s a keeper! I spent a good chunk of what the car is worth when I bought it, so the cost-benefit analysis wasn’t there. It was a losing proposition but if you like something, it is more than a material thing and you develop an emotional attachment.
So that was the first one. Growing up, eh not growing up but in college actually, in graduate school, I started to watch World Rally, or what would turn into it, what is now the WRC. I started to see these fast Audis spitting flames, going through the rally stages and that was nuts. If you see videos of how they did rally in the 80s. People were right there next the dirt road. It was crazy. There was this one story, where a rally car goes from one stage where they get serviced to go to another, and when they get to the stage, they were doing routine stuff, and they found a finger in the mirror. It was a matter of pride to touch a rally car as it went by, you have to be crazy. You can’t say they’re under total control, rally drivers sort of make the car go where they want it but it’s at the raggedy edge, anything can happen. And it was banned. That type of racing used to be called Group B, and there were a bunch of accidents where a bunch of spectators got killed, drivers and navigators got killed and eventually the FIA, which is the organization who run auto racing world wide, pulled the plug and said “No more Group B.” Then Audi found itself with some very fast cars and didn’t know what to do so they said “Pike’s Peak! We’re going to Pike’s Peak!” They got all sorts of race courses at Pike’s peak and then they went to Imsa GTO and GTP racing, which is road racing, not with that Quattro but with same motor – it’s actually a 2.1 [liters]. And they were putting through seven hundred horsepower-reliable horsepower. You could turn the boost and get more. Seven-hundred horsepower through five cylinders, 2.1 liters. Absolutely insane.
So anyhow I always said one day I’m going to get one of those cars. And they’re hard to find now, mine is an ’84, and in that year they brought sixty-five of them to the United States. The year before they brought a little more, but I don’t think they sold. It was a five or six year run, and if they sold all seven-hundred cars, that’s a lot. So with time most of those cars have crashed or disappeared, gotten stolen so very few can you find around. I was able to find one in Lake Tahoe, and I bought it as my retirement project. I said I’m going to restore it. I’m thinking “I’m going to restore it” (he stresses the “I’m” as to indicate that this would have been quite the endeavor). Well what I envisioned for the car, I realized, I wasn’t going to be able to do it so I found some great folks in Davis that know how to work on that particular Quattro and they did a fantastic job. I told them, by that time I’d acquired the GT3, one of my cars is a GT3, so I want this to be as fast. If not as fast, but I want it to go! So they made it. They put in a great suspension, it’s adjustable, coilover. And then the motor, they got from an RS2, which is an Audi that they never sold here, but it was a wagon that was very fast. Originally the motor is like 305 horsepower but they did more tweaks and got it to 375 and if I put race fuel it’s more than 400. But now reliability come into play.
I went to Pike’s Peak in that car and drove up at a fairly good clip, not racing, but a fairly good clip. So it’s reliable. Fast, but reliable. If I go with the race at all I could blow an engine and it’s not that fun anymore. It’s a blast. It’s one of those cars you’re attracted to. You’re driving and the car next door, (Francis gives a thumbs up), and you go yeah! It gives you that satisfaction.
Let’s see. I didn’t talk about the GT3. I’ve always wanted a Porsche and I’m one of those guys that when I’m going to do something I go all the way. So I didn’t want to go into a soft Porsche, so I asked what’s the most track-worthy Porsche you can get? GT3? Ok! That’s why I got a GT3. You can see that it’s always there. Actually in August I’m driving it to Thunderhill for a track event so that’s what I do. I’m going to say once a month, but this year it hasn’t turned out that way, but normally I take it to the track. The car takes a beating, you know because you’re trashing the car. You’re revving to redline, braking hard, turning, so you’re really trashing the car. But they’re built for that. They can take it. That has also given me a lot of enjoyment. It’s not a practical street car. Once in a while I need to start it and take it around the block, take it to Starbucks or whatever.
And then, the last one, the S4, was purely impulse. I’m browsing the internet. I don’t need another car, it’s just me! Anyway I’m browsing the internet and there’s a website I always browse called “German Cars for Sale” I think. And I see that the guy knows what he is doing because of the way he staged the car for photos. It’s an Ohio car and he took the photos this winter. There was fresh powder. White snow. Maybe ten inches of snow. And then there’s this black car with painted windshields and it’s black. All the badges are painted black so it didn’t have any chrome. It was a completely black car sitting on top of snow and it just looked amazingly attractive.
But then I went to check how much the guy wants for the car and he wanted sixty-eight hundred dollars for the car and I said, “Well I don’t need another car but sixty-eight hundred dollars, even if it turns out to be misrepresented and I don’t get what I think I’m getting, well sixty-eight hundred dollars is not going to make me poor, though it’s not an insignificant amount, but it’s not going to sink my bank account. So I met the guy and started talking and I was like “Ok, I’ll buy, I’ll buy.” And I bought the car and shipped it here. I had to fix some things. I had to maybe put three thousand dollars into it, and I had to ship it which cost me a thousand dollars to get here.
Anyway it’s a great car, fast also, it’s chipped. It normally has like 220 horsepower, but this one 280. It doesn’t leak oil, it has one-hundred seventy-seven thousand miles, the motor had never been open, good compression, it doesn’t overheat. It’s rock solid.
TD: Is there a reason that your whole collection is Volkswagen Group cars?
Rodriguez: It just happened. It’s not that I set up to just get Volkswagen Group cars. Volkswagen Group is huge. I don’t know how many brands, ten or eleven at least, some don’t come here but it was just a coincidence.
TD: In terms of which one is your favorite, the one you’re most attached to?
Rodriguez: Attached to? That would have to be the Phaeton or the Audi, and they’re very different. There’s a certain emotional attachment with the Phaeton, because I drove it in 2003 with my wife, and she passed away some years later. So there’ s a certain amount of attachment there. The Audi has attachment because I view it as even though I didn’t restore the car, the car was restored to my specification. “Ok Francis we could do this, this, or this.” “Oh I want this.” For example the seats. I wanted good seats because I’m 66 and my back sometimes bothers me. So I look at all seats available and said “No I want the Recaro Orthopads.” So again I decided what kind of seats. It was custom made by me, I decided what to put in the car and what not to put. Sometimes they said it looks better one way and I said no I want it this way. That sort of thing. You buy a car and there are only so many options and configurations. If you’re restoring the car, you get what you want. So yeah I would say those two are the ones I feel attached.
The GT3 is just a fun car for the track. If I crash it, it’s not a big deal, I don’t have big attachment. Of course the S4 is new so I have no attachment. I like driving it, and that’s all I can say.
TD: Have you bought your dream car yet? Or is there something out there that makes you think, “Oh that’s the dream?”
Rodriguez: I like so many cars, if you had unlimited resources, oh yeah. I have known some private collectors and they start like and go oh there’s another one, oh that’d be nice to have. Before they know it they have twenty cars or something like that. But I’m very pleased with what I have. there are some cars that would be very nice to drive. Let’s see, what comes mind? I would love to drive the new Mustang 350R with the flat crank motor and all that kind of stuff. Would I get one? No (he laughs). There’s a lot of hardware out there that I’m sure would give you enjoyment. I would say you can never say never, but I think for the most part this is it. I jokingly say I have room for another car because I could probably squeeze another car there, but that’s not true anymore because that’s Ann’s place and the Prius goes there (he laughs). I don’t have room for another car and I’d have to get rid of one.