Happy Hanukkah! A Menorah's Worth of Motoring Jews

As you may know, it's Hanukkah time, when Jews all over the world celebrate what may be organized religion's lamest miracle, and one of the few holidays where we Jews managed to not end up exiled or slaughtered or anything. It's a holiday with candles, presents, fried potatoes and a kickass story about a tough Jew named Judah the Hammer, so all in all, a pretty good time. To celebrate, I've compiled this list of eight (and one extra, the shamash) great Jews of motoring. Most people thought we'd only get one, and here we have over eight. Truly a great miracle happened here.

Happy Hanukkah! A Menorah's Worth of Motoring Jews


8. Mark Fields

Mark here is a good one to start with, as he is currently President of Ford Motor Company's American operations. This is an especially sweet position for a Jew, considering Henry Ford's notorious and virulent anti-Semitism. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised to find that Ford's American Operation Headquarters are powered by a large dynamo driven by Henry Ford spinning in his grave.

Happy Hanukkah! A Menorah's Worth of Motoring Jews


7. Emil Jellinek

This son of a well-known rabbi went on to become a successful businessman, eventually sitting on the board of Diamler Motoren Gesellschaft, Gottleib Diamler and Wilhelm Maybach's automobile company. He started as a customer, then later became one of their main distributors. He often gave suggestions to Diamler and Maybach (along with colorful commentary like "Your manure wagon has just broken down on schedule"), one of which was to place a particular engine in a new "modern" type of chassis that was being developed. He also suggested that the resulting car be named after his daughter, Mercedes. What were those cars Hitler liked to be driven around in, again? You know the ones; big, stately, named after a young Austrian Jewess?

Happy Hanukkah! A Menorah's Worth of Motoring Jews


6. Zora Arkus-Duntov

How is it that the Corvette, that most balls-out American of cars— hell, the car of choice for Astronauts— have a father with such a, you know, foreign-sounding name? Well, it does, and that father is a Jew as well. Born to a Russian-Jewish mining engineer and a Russian-Jewish medical student, little Zora eventually ended up in Berlin, where he went from motorcycles to oval-track racing cars and then to getting the hell out of Germany when the Nazis came. Ending up in New York, he was taken by the styling of the Corvette on display in 1953, but disappointed with its engineering. One apparently amazing letter later, he was working for GM. He was instrumental in getting the small-block V8 into the ‘Vette, and generally turning it from pretty little roadster into genuine monster. Oh, and he raced them himself, setting a record at Pike's Peak in 1956.

Happy Hanukkah! A Menorah's Worth of Motoring Jews


5. Sheila van Damm

One of the more successful female rally drivers of the 50s, Briton Sheila van Damm was the daughter of a theater owner who started rallying as a publicity stunt for the theater. Her father persuaded the Rootes Group to provide a factory-prepped Sunbeam Talbot, where she claimed third place among the women racers, which impressed the Rootes folks so much, they invited her to be on an all-woman Hillman Minx team in the 1951 Monte Carlo rally. She went on to continue rallying with great successes, even once outpacing Sterling Moss in a prototype Sunbeam Alpine.

Happy Hanukkah! A Menorah's Worth of Motoring Jews


4. Kenny Bernstein

Known as the "King of Speed", this man was very likely the fastest ground-based Jew on the planet in 1992, when he became the first dragster driver to exceed 300 mph in regular competition. Bernstein, current president of the Professional Racers' Association, has been active in developing safety standards and devices, participating on a team that developed a special sensor to prevent engine fires in case of a backfire. What a mensch! Oh, and he developed a dragster design based on a freaking Ford Tempo.

Happy Hanukkah! A Menorah's Worth of Motoring Jews


3. Jody Scheckter

All car geeks know about the bonkers Tyrell P34 six-wheeled Formula One car, right? Well, the guy who gave it its only win was our Jew, Jody Scheckter. South African Scheckter went on to become the Formula One World Drivers' Champion in 1979, driving for Ferrari, and remains the only Jew to have achieved such a feat.
Amazingly, he's currently an organic farming expert, who plans to develop the first biodynamic (I'm not sure what that means, either) sparkling wine by 2012.

Happy Hanukkah! A Menorah's Worth of Motoring Jews


2. Josef Ganz

The Volkswagen Beetle, while loved by many Jews (such as Woody Allen and, um, me) has probably the most problematic history for Jews, being the direct product of an ambitious Nazi project. Remarkably, it has recently become more clear that the Volkswagen as we know it today was originally conceived, and the basic design established, by a Jew named Josef Ganz. Ganz was the editor of Motor-Kritik, a very outspoken magazine highly critical of the German car establishment, and through it Ganz outlined his ideas for a "people's car" with a backbone chassis, rear engine, and streamlined body. He even managed to get production versions of his idea built, from the Mercedes-Benz rear-engine models he consulted on to the Standard Superior of 1933, which was even advertised as a "volkswagen."

Unfortunately, Hitler wanted a car pretty much just like Ganz', but seeing as how Ganz was a Jew, he was harassed by the Gestapo until he fled Germany in June of 1934; in July of that same year, Hitler assigned Ferdinand Porsche the Volkswagen project.

Happy Hanukkah! A Menorah's Worth of Motoring Jews


1. André Citroën

The only major automobile company still extant founded by a Jew, André Citroën (that name means "lemons" in Dutch— not the ideal choice for a car guy) started his career by developing a type of double-helical gears– the pattern of which became the Citroën logo we know today. He later brought mass-production to Europe and oversaw development one of the first really successful front-wheel drive/unibody cars, the Traction Avant. Unfortunately, a combination of Traction Avant development costs, a very paternalistic employment philosophy, and maybe a bit too much time at the baccarat tables caused the company to pass into the hands of Michelin. Still Citroën eventually grew into the world's 4th largest car company, and remains a major player to this day.

Happy Hanukkah! A Menorah's Worth of Motoring Jews


…and the Shemash, Sigfried Marcus!

This one's really good: our king-of-the-menorah Jew, Austrian Sigfried Marcus, developed the world's absolute first gasoline-powered car, way back in 1870. Granted, the car was little more than a crude wooden cart with an engine grafted on, but it sure as hell was a gas-powered, wheeled vehicle: a car. Marcus was an inventor, having to his credit a magneto-powered explosives igniter with a T-shaped plunger type design, which we're all familiar with thanks to the Acme corporation's excellent product placement in so many coyote-based cartoons. His car was mostly built as a proof of concept, puttering around the Vienna streets a bit, and not really pursued for production. He did sell his gasoline engines, though.

Prior to WWII, Marcus was generally accepted as the father of the automobile. Once World War II came to Austria and Germany, it was decided that it wouldn't do to have credit given for such an achievement to a member of a group of people that the folks in charge wanted to exterminate. So, he was rewritten out of the history books, his monuments and markers destroyed, and credit handed to Diamler and Benz.

Luckily, brave people at the Vienna Technical museum hid Marcus' original 1870 car in a storeroom and bricked it over, saving it, and probably doing a lot of shrugging when various Nazis asked them why that wall was so thick. It's on display in Austria today.