Vintage lines

Joe Fuller’s beloved DeTomaso Pantera. Photograph by Sean Smith.

Cars run deep in Joe Fuller’s ancestry.

His grandfather Frank Meloun was the navigator for Bohumil Turek, a Czech racer. They competed in the 1933 Prague-to-Paris endurance race in a Czechoslovakian-built Aero car. They carried bread and wore sausages around their necks. (It was a very long race.) They would stop only to fill up the car.

Joe has always been drawn to the art of the automobile. He feels cars have relationships with all of your senses and that movement is essential to life. 

One more reason for his love of automobiles — Joe has always been intrigued by design, shape and form. His father was the architect Joseph F. Fuller Sr., and he grew up with a T-square in his hand. Architecture pulled him toward automobiles.

Photograph by Sean Smith.

Ever since he saw the DeTomaso Pantera in magazines, Joe’s been in love. Riding with his mother, Zdenka, in Westport when he was 18, he begged her to slow down when he spied a Pantera sitting in the parking lot of Peter’s Bridge Market. They pulled into the lot so Joe could take a closer look. Everything about that machine spoke to him. 

Seeing one in the flesh made a big impression on Joe. He went straight home and started putting money in his piggy bank, because one day Joe would have a Pantera.

At the time, he was in love with the car’s aesthetics. As he did his research, he grew to respect the Tom Tjaarda design. But before he was a full-fledged architect and before the Pantera, Joe designed a garage addition for a man who sold him — at a good price — a Bradley GT 2. It was Volkswagen-powered, but it had gullwing doors. The fiberglass sports car carried him through college and on to better things.

Joe studied at the New York Institute of Technology and was licensed as an architect at the age of 25. By 26 he designed and built his own home in Westport — the very home that he still shares with his wife, Susanne Risoli Fuller, an interior designer. (Joe had the perfect partner and co-designer in a recent refresh of his self-designed home.)

An architect has to master all the aspects of a structure — the skin of the building, the mechanicals, the interior. Early on, all these things gave Joe a deeper than usual appreciation of what was going on under the skin of his beloved automobiles.

From when he first set eyes on the Pantera and fell for the brutal yet sensuous lines of his dream car — and as he was filling his piggy bank to near-bursting — he was discovering more technical reasons why he had to possess one someday. 

He took up residence at the firm his father had founded back in 1972, Fuller and D’Angelo Partners PC, creating designs for schools, high-end hotels and government buildings around the metro area, including the Academy of Information Technology & Engineering and Old Town Hall, both in Stamford, and Staples High School in Westport.  By 1999, Piggy was full and it was time to start the search for the Pantera. 

He knew he had to begin on the more temperate West Coast. As the body was manufactured in Italy, the Pantera was prone to rust, rust-proofing not being an Italian strong suit.

Joe found his way to Don and Bob Byars’ shop, Precision Proformance, a mecca for all things Pantera. They became fast friends over the love of the Italian-American hybrid, but at the time they had nothing for him.

After a few days Joe was ready to head home empty-handed. A last minute call from the brothers changed everything. They had just been in touch with a 75-year-old machinist who lived in Palm Springs. He had a meticulously cared for 1972 Pantera that he felt he might be getting a little old for. The car was as close to perfect as an original Pantera could be. When the DeTomaso arrived at the shop, Joe and the brothers got to work making the car a perfect, sexy beast. And it has been with him ever since.

But this isn’t a solitary passion; it’s a family affair. With Susanne in the passenger seat of the Pantera, his mom and nieces Lexy and Liza Barlow have to give chase in Joe’s 1972 Cutlass convertible.

And since motion is essential to life, Joe found his way into vintage racing. A friend, Shaun Henderson, invited Joe to Lime Rock Park for the VSCCA’s (Vintage Sports Car Club of America’s) Spring Sprints. 

Joe had already taken a high performance driving class at the Skip Barber Racing School in Florida. He arrived at Lime Rock and took the VSCCA’s test in the Pantera, passed and was now ready to compete. There was one wrinkle, though. 

Photograph by Sean Smith.

His 1972 DeTomaso was too new. The club wants its cars to be built no later than 1959. (The VSCCA has started to allow cars up to 1965 on a case-by-case basis.)

Joe met J.R. Mitchell of GMT Racing at Lime Rock, who told him that a Lotus 7 was a good starter vintage racer. They found a Lotus that had been in the club for years. GMT Racing prepped the car and Joe was racing. From there he moved up in size and power to a 1958 Morgan Plus 4 — another dual-purpose machine, good for the road and the track. Joe’s next step was a purpose-built racer. This came in the form of a 1960 Lotus 18 Formula Junior. In its day, Formula Junior was the stepping-stone to the top tier of racing, Formula One.

Joe quickly learned the difference between driving a road car on the track and piloting a purebred racer. His need for speed is not restricted to four wheels. There are also the snowy mountains of Vail and the waters of the Long Island Sound.

All this is well and good, and Joe recognizes his good fortune. He feels a strong need to give back. Joe is one of the creators of the New York Architects Regatta Foundation. The yearly regatta challenge enables New York architects and designers to support the efforts of charities focused on providing waterfront access and educational experiences to a wider audience of various socioeconomic backgrounds. The charities that have benefited from NYARC are Sound Waters, Sailing Foundation of New York, Hudson River Community Sailing, Rocking the Boat and Riverkeeper — of which Fuller is also a board member — as well as the Greenwich Art Society. 

The Pantera, though, remains the love of his vehicular life. If his wife gave him permission, he‘d probably park it in the living room. 

For more, visit architectsregatta.org  and vscca.org.

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