I have a confession to make. In the wee hours, while my wife and children sleep, I often start my computer and do what I many men do when they finally have a moment of privacy at the end of a long day, I Google myself. Much to my surprise, it turns out that there are more Thomas Kreutzers in the world than I ever imagined. One of my namesake is a real estate agent in Kokomo Indiana while another is a member of a German world championship darts team. One Thomas Kreutzer is a community minded plumbing contractor in Woodbridge, VA and yet another, who lives in Florida, runs a video production company. However, the be all end all of Thomas Kreutzers, it seems to me, is in Germany and, like yours truly, he just happens to have a special interest in often derided small car. Creepy, huh?
Thomas Kreutzer’s website, The Lancia-Beta Bastler, is filled with photos of the man himself piloting his small, red coupe around the roads of Germany. It is a neat looking little car, and I can see the attraction, but if that’s all it was I’d have given it a quick once-over and kept on Googling. But Thomas doesn’t just drive these cars, he rebuilds also them from the ground up and, based on the many photos of him forming sheet metal and standing over a disassembled engine, it appears he does all the work himself. That got my full attention and, naturally I wrote to him.
Despite the language difference between us, Thomas graciously responded to my first tentative email in what he calls “school boy English.” and told me his story. In 1966, when he was just two years old, Thomas’ parents purchased a combination gasoline station/car dealership in the German wine country and there, in his own words, he grew up with cars and petrol. His father, he says, raced everything with wheels. He began in a Skoda and eventually moved to Formula V, a series in which all the cars used engines from Volkswagen Beetles, but ultimately he had his greatest success in the kind of cars they sold, the Autobianchi A112. Later, Autobianchi was purchased by Lancia and so the Kreutzer family began to sell that mark as well and young Thomas was soon smitten.
According to Thomas, his family picked up a few other brands throughout the years and, alongside the Lancias, they were soon selling Toyota and Diahatsu as well. By the mid ‘80s, Toyota was sending their family cars like the AE86 Corolla and Thomas drove them all, but his fondness for Lancia remained. They were all good for their time, he says, but from his perspective the Lancia offered a special blend of sportiness, styling and luxury that the others lacked. Over time, his fondness for the brand grew into the passion he feels for the cars today.
Thomas says that Lanica is not especially popular among German enthusiasts. Italian cars, he tells me, are reputed to be unreliable and are especially prone to rust. To make matters worse, Lancia lacks any kind of real support network in the country and fans of the brand are reduced to scrounging around for the bits and pieces they need to repair their cars. Many people join clubs but Thomas tells me he prefers to go it alone. He is, he states, “a single fighter,” but he does help others when they find his website and ask for help.
Despite his family’s proud automotive history, Thomas is, by trade, a tool and die maker and he tells me that his training taught him a great deal about metal working. This skill has proven to be especially applicable to his hobby as there are no ready-made replacement panels for Lancia on the market and any body work he undertakes means remaking the entire panel, every crease and curve, by hand. Actual wrenching, ‘the screws of the car” as he put it, he taught himself and his most challenging mechanical work happened when he rebuilt a turbo charged 1990 Lancia Turbo engine and then stuffed that engine into a 1970 body, a task that also required a handmade a wire harness in order to bridge a technological gap almost two decades wide. The key to his work, he said, is to be methodical, go slowly and take lots of photos.
When I asked why he chose to stick with the often quirky, unsupported Lanica when Germany produces so many fine sports cars, Thomas’ answer told me a great deal about the man himself. German cars, he said, are technically excellent but that they lack spirit. They are built with the head and not with the heart and all it takes to know the difference is a single drive. The sound the Lancia makes on the road is joyful and its music has worked it way into his heart.
In 1999 the Kreutzer family sold their business when Thomas decided that running it would hurt his family life. It was the right choice, he thinks, although he loves cars they are better as a hobby than a business. His own son, like many young people today, is more interested in computers than cars but Thomas’ wife is fully involved in the hobby. She has assisted with mechanical work like welding and casting various aluminum parts, handles all his hobby related correspondence, enjoys organizing special trips to Italy for parts and supplies and has even learned the Italian language in order to support his work with the cars. She sounds like a keeper.
Thomas Kreutzer and I are two people who are separated by the broad expanse of the Atlantic Ocean and kept apart by the often insurmountable gap of language and culture. Our shared name has brought us to one another’s attention, but our shared passion for odd little cars from our past has made us friends. I am glad that I took the time to write him, happier still that he took the time to write back. Perhaps one day we’ll have the opportunity to meet in person. With that in mind, I guess I should start studying German in my spare time.
Thomas Kreutzer currently lives in Buffalo, New York with his wife and three children but has spent most of his adult life overseas. He has lived in Japan for 9 years, Jamaica for 2 and spent almost 5 years as a US Merchant Mariner serving primarily in the Pacific. A long time auto and motorcycle enthusiast he has pursued his hobbies whenever possible. He writes for any car website that will have him and enjoys public speaking. According to his wife, his favorite subject is himself.