Simanaitis Says

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ZILPHA’S COMMANDOS comes immediately to mind with car schlepping in days of yore. In the early days, R&T staff members did their own fetching and returning of test cars. Then along came Zilpha’s Commandos, of which more anon.

Wife Dottie remembers regular Newport Beach/Los Angeles car trips. At its most efficiently orchestrated with a single automaker, this could be a one-for-one swap. More likely, it involved two or more of the staff schlepping multiple-automaker products.


Subaru 360. This and the following images from R&T, March 1969.

One of Dottie’s more memorable schlepps was the 1969 Subaru 360 Kei car. This miniscule aberration of the Japanese home market was powered by a 356-cc air-cooled two-cylinder two-stroke propelling, albeit only modestly, the rear wheels. The car listed for $1346 (around $8750 in today’s dollar), weighed 980 lb., had a top speed of 56 mph and took more than 40 seconds to reach this terminal velocity (you’ll excuse the phrase).

Just the thing for Dottie mixing it up on Los Angeles freeways in the musclecar era.


In retrospect, Dottie says she was afraid of the car because of its size. Other staff members admitted the car might have been short-term entertainment, but no one wanted it for a weekend. The March 1969 R&T contents page read, “Subaru 360—fun, but would you want your daughter to marry one?”

1971 De Tomaso Pantera

De Tomaso Pantera, a Ford-powered mid-engine exotic offered in the U.S. between 1971 and 1992.

Another of Dottie’s adventures was rather more than a schlepp: She piloted a De Tomaso Pantera from Detroit to the tip of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and back. Dottie recalls that when she picked up the car, a chauvinistically endowed PR guy asked whether she could drive a five-speed manual.

“Sure,” she replied, “I’ve just driven a World War I truck with a crash gearbox.”


World War I Standard B “Liberty” truck. Image from the U.S. Army Transportation Museum.

Which brings me to Zilpha Nowlin and her Commandos. For the benefit of her church, dear Zilpha ran a car-delivery service here in southern California. Principally, she and other church ladies would schlepp cars for rental agencies with imbalances of their fleets at airports or other locations throughout the region.

Zilpha and her Commandos (as I came to call them) also performed test-car schlepping for R&T. Driving often fairly potent machinery, they were invariably well-organized, confident and reliable. I recall one story she shared about working for a team of Detroit engineers in getting cars from one location to another. The automaker guy offered her a minute-by-minute plan of the trip, including scheduled restaurants and the like.

“Waste all that time?” Zilpha bristled. “We pack our own lunches and eat them at the rest stops!”

Zilpha made New York Magazine’s Daily Intelligencer, July 12, 2015, in “The Triple-Digit Club: Meet 5 Centenarians Who Don’t Act Their Age.” Now 101, she is quoted as saying “I swim every day! But only if the water is 90 degrees—we have eight solar panels on the roof just for the pool. Until last year, I would hand-crank the pool cover off every time. Now I have an electronic one.”


Zilpha Nowlin, of Zilpha’s Commandos. Image by Sally Peterson from New York Magazine, July 15, 2015.

I’ll bet dear Zilpha still remembers how to drive a five-speed too. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2015


  1. Terry Parkhurst
    September 14, 2015

    Back in 1991, Ashley Knapp, a fellow auto scribe who ran the Auto Advisor, connected me with the two auto press fleet operators in the Pacific Northwest, those being Page One Auto and Specialty Transport. One of them – recall it being Specialty – got me into a little car no other auto journalist wanted: the Subaru Justy.

    Equipped with a three-cylinder engine and a four – or was it five – speed manual transmission, it was a challenge to drive; but having had a ’65 VW Beetle in the late Seventies; and then, a ’66 VW Beetle, I got with the basic zeitgeist of the Justy.

    I drove that little bugger from Seattle, past Tacoma, onto the Narrow Bridge and over to Gig Harbor, to a car show – and back home to Seattle.

    There’s hardly any left anymore and it seems a shame. Those other auto journalist snobs didn’t know what they missed. Where would we be without the press fleet folks?

    • simanaitissays
      September 15, 2015

      Agreed about the Justy. Growing up in the snowbelt, I’d have kept one in the garage next to the snow blower.

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