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Don Saueressig: Zero to 60…in the blink of an eye

Stationed in Frankfurt, Germany, while serving in the U.S. Army in the 1960s, an off-duty Don Saueressig loved cruising the famed Autobahn where drivers often exceed 100 mph on the venerable racetrack. Those familiar with the European motorway say it’s not uncommon where people going the “recommended speed of 80 mph” are blown away when Lamborghinis and Ferraris appear out of nowhere behind them and disappear from sight in seconds. In his Sunbeam Alpine, Don quickly realized he was outpaced by his friends in their Alfa Romeos and ditched the Alpine for the faster 1966 Sunbeam Tiger Mark 1A. Don regaled of his new high-speed prowess, “They couldn’t keep up with me!” That little red two-seater, at one time dubbed “The Red Bomb,” has remained a part of Don’s life ever since.

Today, Don races the zippy “bi-continental” (American V-8 engine, British chassis) vintage auto three or four times a year (“I’m slowing down,” he laughed) around California tracks at Buttonwillow, Willow Springs, Coronado, California Speedway in Fontana and at Laguna Seca, including his most recent race, on May 4 – 5 in Buttonwillow. A car mounted video camera shows Don trading places along the track with a vintage yellow Porsche and vintage BMW. The neighbors in the Saueressig’s west Atascadero neighborhood know when it’s race time: Don likes to take the car out for a pre-race spin around the winding, hilly streets—but only for a short stretch. “It’s pretty loud,” he acknowledges, knowing that in the sprawling but tight-knit community, pretty much everyone’s used to—and okay—with it.

Both Don and his car have unique and interesting histories. Son Paul Saueressig laughed, “Dad’s had that car longer than he’s had us!” referring to himself, his mom Carol and sister Emma. Until Paul came along it served as the family car—or as Don calls it the “daily driver”—and bore witness to the courtship and marriage of Don and Carol in 1968 and birth of daughter Emma in Germany a year later who, said Carol, “grew up riding in the ‘back seat’.” Paul, born in Atascadero after the family returned from Germany said, “My mom went to the hospital in labor with both of us in that car.” A tight squeeze for a family of four, the Tiger was relegated to “second car” status when a new Ford Pinto took over as the main ride and of which Don said generously, “It was a good little car—until it broke down at 60,000 miles!”

Don’s roots reach back locally—his grandparents on both sides moved to the Central Coast in the early 1900s; their children (his parents) Frances and Donald Paul met in Santa Maria during WWII. Don’s family moved to Templeton where Don and his sister Irene attended local schools. Don recalls being a lifeguard at Atascadero Lake and working for Charles Paddock at the zoo. After graduating from Templeton High School, he attended Lassen Jr. College where he enrolled in the Vocational Gunsmithing program. He recalled the “good old days” of Templeton where life was simple and, said Don, “Everyone knew everyone and we could do anything we wanted to like camp out in the river bottom and our parents didn’t worry.” “When I was in high school,” Don laughed, proving the point that times were different then, “We’d give the town drunk a dollar and he’d get a gallon of Pesenti Burgundy for us and a pint for himself!” In 1965, Don was drafted into the U.S. Army, earned an officer’s commission and was assigned to duty in Germany.

A couple years later, Don met his future wife Carol Turner on special assignment in England. “We met at a party in Newberry,” Carol shared, “and we were married three months later. We really did take a gamble.” “Just like the car,” Don joked good-naturedly. Carol, who hailed from Burnham, near Windsor, worked as a night shift nurse and had duty after the party. Don offered to drive her and a friend to the hospital—no matter that the car’s two bucket seats left Carol perched in the middle. Little did she and Don—and the car—know that soon after they would soon become a threesome for life.

After Don’s military service ended, he, Carol and Emma returned to the United States to start their new lives. While he had aspired to study Mechanical Engineering, Don said his management experience in the Army, in addition to the fact it would be easier to obtain a job and remain in the area, led him to pursue a degree in Business Administration instead.

He completed his education at Cal Poly in 1972 and he and Carol had a custom home built for their family in Atascadero. His first job was as an auditor for the state. Concurrently, Don joined the Army National Guard where he served a minimum of twelve weekends and two weeks a year or more as required.

In 1980 Don quit the state job to attend the United States Army Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas; he was later promoted to Lieutenant Colonel and became a Battalion Commander. Subsequently, he was promoted to Colonel and served his last assignment at the Pentagon, then retired in 1996.

After completing the Command and Staff College, in addition to his weekend and monthly service commitments, Don worked as a controller for various companies in SLO county. Between several controller jobs, he took two years 1988-1989 to build his family home in 3F Meadows in Atascadero where he and Carol still live.

But through all this time Don never lost the racing bug. He took the car out of mothballs in 2003 and started restoring and modifying the Tiger as a race car bestowing it with racing number #144.

With all his abilities, experience and creativity, Don said he didn’t need much help with the rebuilding: “I was born with innate mechanical abilities,” he said. “I spent about four years restoring the car and Paul helped me.” Don’s goal was to compete in Vintage Car races and he entered his first competition in 2007. Carol said she was glad to see him finally on the track, especially the Rolex Monterey Historic Reunion at Laguna Seca. “The Monterey race is very prestigious,” she said. “It’s by invitation only.”

When asked about prizes or honors garnered in these races, Don laughed in his low key but smiling demeanor, “No. Just bragging rights.”

For those who love classic/vintage cars and racing, the Sunbeam Tiger has its own appeal. Manufactured from 1964-1967, the car has a unique provenance. Developed as a high-performance version of the Alpine roadster, it was designed in part by racing driver Carroll Shelby and had similarities to Shelby’s Cobra. The smallish body was hard pressed to accommodate the large engine and some “unusual manufacturing methods were used” to get the engine into the body including the use of sledgehammers to bash in part of the bulkhead! As mentioned earlier, the engine and gearboxes were built and shipped over from the U.S. to England where the bodies were constructed, painted and the car was assembled. The Tiger’s speed was 0 – 60 mph in 8.6 seconds with a top speed of 120 mph. In 1964, a Tiger was priced at $3,499.

Some may remember the television spoof spy series “Get Smart” where Maxwell Smart would screech into the parking lot headquarters during the opening credits—for that stunt, he used a slightly modified Tiger for the first two seasons then purchased and retired the car where it remains on display at the Playboy Mansion. An online description of the Tiger provides this review: This tiny British sports car has everything it needs to be a true collectible. It’s light, but has a big V-8 under the hood, racing pedigree and the charm you can no longer find in new cars. It’s the kind of vehicle you need to drive at least once in your lifetime and it’s probably the car that keeps the Sunbeam name alive more than three decades after it stopped producing automobiles.

Like his car, Don also possesses a unique provenance: A local guy who has accomplished much in his lifetime and remains loyal to his roots, his family (that now includes son-in-law Richard and daughter-in-law Jenny along with grandchildren Cole, Connor, Cooper and Mason) and of course, his Tiger which he plans to retire after his last race this year. “I’ve decided that there aren’t many more upgrades I can do to the car and so I’ll restore it as a street car and buy a purpose-built sports racer that will have more speed especially around corners,” he said.

Watch for a little red Tiger driving around Atascadero with its proud owner of 52 years still behind the wheel (or maybe one of us who’s lucky enough to take that “once in a lifetime” drive). Best wishes #144!