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Racing Godfather, Tuskegee Airman And All-Around American Hero Jim Barbour Dies At 94

Illustration for article titled Racing Godfather, Tuskegee Airman And All-Around American Hero Jim Barbour Dies At 94
Graphic: Chelsea Beck/Jalopnik

On Tuesday morning, when a familiar number came up on my phone, I just knew it. It was Pat Barbour, the wife of a friend I first wrote about in 2018, and the pitch of her voice was a few notes lower than usual.

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EDITOR’S NOTE: A remarkable man Jalopnik wrote about in 2018, Jim Barbour, died on Monday at his home in Wesley Chapel, Florida. David Obuchowski came to know Jim well, and recalls his friend for our readers.

“You don’t sound good, Pat,” I said.

“No,” she replied. Her husband, Jim, had died in his sleep. This was not unexpected. Jim had been battling cancer and was in home hospice.

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James Barbour III, a Documented Original Tuskegee Airman who served in WWII, raced cars and became a high-ranking SCCA official, was a jazz and big band musician, succeeded in the computer industry and who owned hundreds of cars, from luxury vehicles to sports cars to muscle cars to antiques, was 94.

I met Jim after one of his longtime friends told me about him. I’d flown to Florida and went to the small home he shared with Pat. We spent days together, talking for five, six hours a day. By the end of those few days, I felt like I was saying goodbye to family. And we only grew closer from there.

Jim and his 1934 Packard
Jim and his 1934 Packard
Photo: Barbour Estate
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Picking out a favorite Jim Barbour story is a little like having Jim pick his favorite among the cars he owned. There’d be one or two that immediately come to mind, but then he’d remember this other one he owned, and oh, right, then there was another, and another, and so on. It wasn’t that he was indecisive. It was that he could see the greatness and the meaning in so many different kinds of cars, whether it was a Facel Vega, an old Chevy, an Alfa Romeo, a Merkur, a Cadillac, you name it. It seemed more like he loved every car for every reason.

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This was just the way he was about life in general. He saw the best in everything and everyone. Maybe that’s why he was always smiling. Maybe that’s why laughter came so easily to him.

So trying to come up with one great story to tell you, to capture just how wonderful he was, I’m just spinning my wheels, remembering the one about how he supercharged a Beetle to make better time on a road trip, only to end up taking home a trophy at a racetrack, or the one about how he sneaked into the Space Shuttle. Or the one about him trying to be a little too smart and showing his father why it was better to back into the garage than pull in nose-first, only to damage the rear-end of his dad’s car. I like the one about how he caught a computer company trying to cheat in order to land a government contract or the one about how he got caught in a hurricane in a little biplane when he was a U.S. Army pilot.

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Jim racing his Sprite
Jim racing his Sprite
Image: Barbour Estate

Jim had a special fondness for Alfa Romeos, calling them “the most intriguing cars.” He raced Giuliettas and drove Giulias and loved not only how they looked but how they handled. “They looked like they were going to scrape the door handles...it would lift the inside wheel up off the ground, so you’d go around on three wheels. But you’d go around!”

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In late 2019, I bought myself a 1979 Alfa Romeo Alfetta. It was hardly a collector’s car, the original deep red oversprayed with metallic gray, the factory engine replaced by one from a 1987 Spider. Still, Jim was thrilled to hear about the purchase – he sent me his books on Alfa and assured me that if he could ever find the box in his garage I could have his Alfa tools because goodness knows, I’d need them. Jim would call regularly to first check on my kids, then on my wife, and then of course, to check on the Alfa.

Illustration for article titled Racing Godfather, Tuskegee Airman And All-Around American Hero Jim Barbour Dies At 94
Photo: Barbour Estate
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Once I’d owned the Alfa for a few weeks, I realized it wasn’t some mystical, unnamed thing that made me buy that car. Rather, it was because of Jim, and by getting the Alfa I was creating a new bond with my close friend, one with all that knowledge and experience. The only thing better than fixing the minor gremlins was hearing the genuine joy in his voice when you told him how remarkably right he’d been in his recommendations.

But Jim was more than cars. He was a husband. Twice. Once to his first love, Gloria who also died of cancer. And then to Pat. He was a father, a beloved uncle, and a close friend to more people than can be counted. He was an American hero, though he was not OK with that title.

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Jim was towering, literally and figuratively, he was humble and entirely human. Jim never swore. Not because he didn’t get ticked off, but because he thought swearing was too easy, not creative enough.

Jim and Gloria in Jim’s Triumph TR3.
Jim and Gloria in Jim’s Triumph TR3.
Image: Barbour Estate
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Jim lived a long life. A full life. Longer and fuller than most. But that makes it no less painful that he’s gone. I miss Jim, terribly. So, for now, I’ll do something I think he’d want me to do: I’m going to hug my family, and then I’m going to go drive my Alfa. And even though this is not a corner I’ve been wanting to take, I knew it was coming and so did Jim. And even if I feel like I’m going to get pretty badly scraped up by it, I’m going to do my best to be like our old Alfas and handle it.

 David Obuchowski is an essayist and fiction writer whose work appears in Jalopnik, The Baltimore Review, Longreads, The Awl, Aquarium Drunkard, Border Crossing, and many more. He is the creator, writer, and host of the automotive documentary podcast, TEMPEST. Find him on Twitter @DavidOfromNJ.

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DISCUSSION

Barbour never wanted to be referred to as a hero. But he knew he broke barriers. I hope the Pentagon, SCCA, and Alabama Governor Kay Ivey (I know, he lived in Florida, but still...) all remember hjim. As should the rest of us.

Rest well, Jim.  You deserve it.