John Dingell Jr. has represented Michigan’s 15th congressional district for 55 years. His father held the same seat for 22 years before that. Dingell has lived his entire life in Washington, D.C., never in the southwest suburbs of Detroit where his constituents live. For perhaps the first time in his life, Dingell is actually in a political battle. The Detroit Free Press published the results of a poll that showed him 4% down to his challenger, Dr. Rob Steele, a cardiologist from Ann Arbor, with just three weeks to go before the election.
Perhaps if Rep. Dingell and the people near him spent more time in his district and less time in Washington, he would have known that around the Motor City, attacking a guy because he happens to have a collection of cool cars is not a very smart political move. That’s right, John Dingell’s campaign attacked Rob Steele for the fact that he was a car guy, in Michigan, in the Detroit suburbs. Yep. Well, not exactly John Dingell’s campaign, it was the affiliated Michigan Democratic State Central Committee who set up an attack site called Who Is Rob Steele? Still, how out of touch are these people? Are they insane? Attacking someone near Detroit for being an auto enthusiast?
In a naked effort to engage in class warfare, the site originally criticized Steele for making a lot of money as a cardiologist and from the group practice he started (which today employs 300 people). Dr. Steele and his wife, also a successful physician, have a large home, with a five car garage. Now most auto enthusiasts understand the concept of having more cars than storage allows, but to the MDSCC, that’s apparently a sin. Originally Who Is Rob Steele? had the following information mined from vehicle registration databases on the site:
“His five-car garage isn’t big enough to hold all of his eight luxury cars Look at this list of vehicles:
1968 Ferrari 330GTC12
2000 BMW M5
1965 Alfa Romeo
1962 Willys Station Wagon
1970 Buick Skylark GS 455
1996 Cadillac Seville
Really think a rich doctor with eight fancy cars understands what it’s like to get by in this economy?”
Now how out of touch with the world of cars and with the people of Michigan who love them do you have to be to call a ’62 Willys “fancy”? To describe Fiats as “luxury” cars?
In response to an inquiry, the Dingell campaign said
Mr. Dingell does not think Rob Steele’s 1962 Willys Station Wagon is a fancy luxury car but his other eight autos include a Ferrari, BWM M5, Alfa Romeo and multiple Fiats. Those are pretty darn fancy luxury cars! Made in America? Not so much
Know anything about car culture? Not so much.
Actually, according to Dr. Steele, the Willys belongs to his son, a gift from a grandparent, and the M5 was stolen. To a car nut, that list doesn’t say “fancy” or “luxury”, it says “car guy, cool cars”. Car guys know that if Dr. Steele were interested in luxury, the BMW would have been a 7 Series, not a M5. Car guys know that of all the M5s, he picked the purest of the breed.
And Dr. Steele is indeed a car guy, a serious car guy. The list above is incomplete due to project cars, etc. He actually has three Alfas, two ’65 Spyders, one he races and one that’s being restored as a historic racer since it competed in the 1965 Daytona Continental, and 1988 Alfa Romeo Milano Verde. The “Verde” means that it’s a “factory hot rod”, Steele explained. The Fiats are actually Dino models. Steele is such a car guy that in the middle of campaigning and treating patients he called me back to make sure that I knew that one of the Fiat Dinos is a Pininfarina roadster and the other a Bertone coupe, and that the ’65 Alfa had a bunch a aluminum components and one of the first 5spd transmissions you could buy in America. Every single one of his vehicles is a special example of that model or marque. His muscle car is a Buick.
The cars aren’t trailer queens either. Dr. Steele has raced in SCCA, at the road courses in Waterford Hills and Gratton, Michigan, and he sometimes takes his Buick down to Milan dragway, though he doesn’t “push it real hard, I want to keep it stock”. Our conversation started including words like DeDion rear axle, suspension mods, inboard brakes and dual spark ignition. Not the kind of things you hear from the usual politician.
If Steele wanted to drive fancy luxury cars, he can easily afford something fancier than the eight year old GMC Denali XL that’s his daily driver. That’s also the family car (the Steeles have four children), since Mrs. Steele just bought a 2011 Mustang GT that her husband describes as “an awesome car” that he wishes was his.
As an Italian car lover, he’s hoping that Chryslers start coming with Alfa Romeo engines.
Now some of you may be saying, yeah, okay, so he has some interesting collectible cars that are not particularly valuable, what about the Ferrari?
Steele took pains to note that the vast majority of his cars were bought at least 20 years ago. He’s been fooling around with cars since he got an MGB-GT as a teenager (followed by a 240Z, than a 944 Turbo). The Ferrari was bought in 1986, and it took a second mortgage on the family home to afford it @ $40,000. It’s hard to say what it’s worth but in the past half decade the auction prices on 330 GTCs have skyrocketed, peaking last year at ~$670,000. This year, four ’68 330 GTCs have sold for an average price of about $400K. So it’s true that Dr. Steele isn’t poor, and it’s true that his car collection is worth many thousands of dollars. He has nothing to be ashamed about and the truth is that he made his money honestly, helping people, and he is spending his money wisely and creatively, at least from looking at his collection.
Steele responded to the MDSCC attack on his cars directly with the following statement on his campaign’s web site:
That’s also something you don’t expect to hear from a politician, even near Detroit. Michiganders are used to our politicians invoking all they have done for the auto industry, or mentioning a favorite Mustang or other special interest car in their garage or their past, but I can never recall a candidate making a point about how important car culture is in his life.