It seems appropriate that Tom Warth likes long distance trips, since he’s chosen to live almost 4,000 miles from his hometown.
The 85-year-old resident of Marine on St. Croix, Minn. was born in England. He immigrated to the States in 1960 thanks to a sponsorship from an 8th Air Force B-17 gunner who got to know the Warth family while he was stationed in the UK during World War Two.
Warth seized the sponsorship offer and never looked back. Over 60 years later he still sports a British accent that seems utterly unaffected by decades of bombardment by American voices — though other parts of his personality have been unequivocally Americanized.
Warth loves vintage cars of all shapes and sizes. He owned Classic Motorbooks in Osceola, Wisc. for many years, which specialized in selling and publishing automotive books. After he sold the business and retired in 1988 he needed something to do with his time and money, and what better to keep both occupied than classic cars.
He also founded the non-profit Books For Africa during that time, which provides books to libraries all across the continent. The organization donates an average of three million books a year, and has given away over 50 million books since its creation.
Warth has undertaken all kinds of long-term and slightly absurd trips in conjunction with Books for Africa fundraising, including walking from Michigan’s upper peninsula to the South Dakota border and taking a train from London to Beijing.
“I don’t know what it is,” Warth said. “Long distance trails just have got a certain romance.”
Naturally the time came when Warth combined his love of long distance adventure and his love of classic cars. Around seven years ago Warth drove a 1965 AC Shelby Cobra from his home in Marine to Monterey Calif. for the Pebble Beach Car Show. The AC Cobra is widely regarded as the fastest sports car ever made during the 1960s, and was powered by a Ford V8 engine. The Pebble Beach show was held in honor of the 50th anniversary of the AC design and there were Cobras there from all over the world. Warth’s car was one of the only in attendance however that was driven to the show, rather than being tucked into a nice, cozy, covered flatbed trailer for the journey.
“I didn’t wash it for the show and it had salt from the Bonneville Salt Flats and cow shit from Wyoming all over it,” he said. “I wanted to make a point that cars are to be driven — not pampered.”
That sentiment seems to sum up so much of Warth’s personality. Right off the bat you can tell he’s confident, assertive, and doesn’t much care what other people think. The low hanging fruit here would be to make a comparison to Bond, what with the British accent and sports cars. But the reality is Warth also seems far too joyful and caring for that.
At 85 he still has a genuine excitement for adventure, which is why he just returned from another trek to California in what might be the slowest car ever made in the 1960s.
The 2CV Citroen was France’s answer to the VW beetle. The first models had a 325cc engine and a top speed of 40 miles per hour. It was originally marketed to French farmers, one of the selling points being that it could drive over a bumpy farm field with a basket of eggs in the seat without breaking them. In later models the engine was upgrade to 602cc, which gave the car a whopping 29 horsepower.
This August Warth left from Marine in his 2CV alongside his friend Tim Parker and traveled back to Monterey for the same series of car shows. It took them three days to reach their destination traveling at the Citroen’s top speed of 65mph.
“The 2CV is a cheap little car, where the Cobra was very valuable, but it doesn’t matter,” Warth said. “They were both fun to drive.”
Citroens have a five-gallon gas tank, which means fuel stops were frequent.
“I tell people that there’s a parallel between the capacity of the 2CV’s gas tank and our bladders,” Warth said.
Warth’s interest in the Citroen began early. He had one as a youngster in England before he immigrated, and has owned two since coming to the States. The cars were not originally sold in the U.S., the CV Warth owns now was imported by a man from Baltimore.
For the trip, the duo traveled west through Wyoming, Montana and Idaho before cutting through a corner of Utah and dropping down into Nevada. They crossed Donner Pass on I-80 before the final downhill slide to the coast.
“The car ran like a Swiss watch, it just never missed a beat,” Warth said. “We joked that it’s such a simple car that the only tool you need is duct tape. We had tools but I don’t think we ever broke the kit open.”
The 2CV was a hit at the car show and drew more attention than most of the Ferraris and Porsches sitting by its side.
“People come up and say ‘cute little car!’ and they all pat it and look at it. Where the Cobra was kind of impressive like a muscle car — there’s a wow factor,” Warth said. “But I enjoy both of them.”
Warth has spent the better part of his retirement helping raise money and awareness for Books For Africa and other causes, but said personal trips like this are just as fun.
“This trip wasn’t a fundraiser, but it was a fun-raiser,” he said, followed by a nonchalant chuckle. “I’ve got to stay active.”
Warth’s affection for life is manifested beautifully in his voice. It has a rugged weight to it, but is balanced with an easy-going lightheartedness. He laughs a lot and has a fast, appropriately self-deprecating sense of humor. It’s refreshing to listen to, and makes you want to share a journey with him — if only so you might be a character in the next story he tells.