Kunstle Motor Company
Jean-Pierre Kunstle Facebook
A man named Jean-Pierre Kunstle was a native Swiss who moved to America in the early 1950’s and became an accomplished race car driver. He also ran a foreign car dealership in Monterey, California for a few years. Among other marques, he started selling Citroëns in 1959.
LACEY MOTOR CARS
Before we get to Jean-Pierre Kunstle, lets back-up to the 1920’s and focus for a minute on a man named Lorin D. Lacey. Lorin D. Lacey started an automobile dealership in the mid-1920’s, initially selling Overland cars, later followed by Willys and Nash. The business was located at 298 Pearl Street in Monterey, California.
Lorin D. Lacey soldiered on selling cars throughout the war years, but by about 1950, both Willys and Nash were failing, so Lacey transitioned to British cars, initially with Austin and Hillman. As he made this transition, he changed the name of his business to Lacey British Cars. We were able to find a 1950’s photo of his building at 298 Pearl Street when he was in British car mode.
1950’s PHOTO OF THE DEALERSHIP AT 298 PEARL STREET
Why are we writing about Lorin D. Lacey and his dealership? Read on and find out.
JEAN-PIERRE KUNSTLE, THE ‘SWIFT SWISS’
The San Francisco chapter of the Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) published some background on Jean-Pierre Kunstle that helped us fill in some gaps about his life (S.F. SCCA Volume 61, 2020).
Jean-Pierre Kunstle was born on April 12, 1929 in Geneva, Switzerland. He grew up and went to college there. But in his early 20’s, he met an American woman named Betty who was vacationing in Europe. After a short courtship, the two got married and held their wedding in New York.
By 1951, they were living in the USA where he got a job as a salesman at an east-coast textile manufacturer. As part of this job, he needed a car, but according to the SCCA article, he not only didn’t have a car, but he also wasn’t a proficient driver. The article goes onto say that his wife’s family gave the couple a car and his wife Betty helped him get an American driver’s license. (This anecdote doesn’t seem to completely hold water as we found evidence that he had raced cars in Switzerland, before coming to America, so he would have certainly known how to drive!) Nevertheless, Kunstle clearly liked cars and soon starting buying interesting cars, including an MG TD, followed by a Porsche 356.
Kunstle’s textile sales job took him to California where he discovered the beautiful California coast. They decided that this was where they wanted to live and so the couple moved to the city of Carmel-by-the-Sea, in about 1953.
It is not clear when Kunstle quit his ‘day job’ at the textile company, but by 1954, his name was showing up on the roster of many car races in California.
The San Francisco SCCA article describes his very first race:
“…Kunstle’s first West Coast race was at Willow Spring, a new race track in the Southern California desert. The date was May 9, 1954 where he entered his Porsche 356 for Novice Class drivers. Race results only showed the top finishers of which Kunstle was not one of them so he must have finished down the field…”
You can Google his racing history and it shows that with each subsequent race, Kunstle steadily improved and ultimately was declared as one of the 10 best drivers in the USA. During his racing career, he used various Porsches (356, 550 spyder), a Devin-Panhard, a Lotus-Ferarri, and an italian Stanguellini.
He became a good enough driver that after coming in second place in a 1955 race in Santa Barbara, other competitors figured his Porsche’s engine must have been modified for him to do so well. They demanded that race officials tear down the engine on the Porsche to see if it had been inappropriately modified. They did, and it hadn’t.
KUNSTLE IN ONE OF HIS PORSCHES
A short clip of a race in Torrey Pines California from 1955 can be seen HERE. Kunstle can be seen in his Porsche 550 spyder (number 127) at about time 8:35.
But he ended his racing career in 1960. The SCCA article speculates this may have been due to family demands, business demands, and that fact that several of his colleagues had been killed in racing accidents.
“THE WHEEL” San Francisco SCCA Volume 61, 2020
KUNSTLE LEADING SEATTLE’S PETE LOVELY AT A 1956 PEBBLE BEACH RACE
Whether in his business or in his racing endeavors, Jean-Pierre Kunstle’s name was inadvertently (or purposefully) “Americanized” as he was often referred to as John Kunstle, John P. Kunstle, J.P. Kunstle, or Jean Kunstle.
“THE WHEEL” San Francisco SCCA Volume 61, 2020
KUNSTLE MOTOR COMPANY
By 1957, he had started a car dealership in Carmel, initially selling the British Hillman. But in a very short time, the British stuff faded away and was replaced by Fiat, Porsche, and Alfa Romeo.
San Francisco Examiner, Apr 1957
This Carmel location only lasted briefly for Kunstle and by 1959, he had moved the business to nearby Monterey. Why were we discussing Lorin D. Lacey and his British car dealership at the beginning of this article? Because when Kunstle moved to Monterey, he took over Lacey’s building at 298 Pearl Street. This was Kunstle’s longest lasting location, and the location that he is most remembered for. More discussion about his business locations is at the end of this article.
At about the same time, he opened a second location in the city of Salinas, about 45 minutes east of Monterey. But the Salinas location seems to have only lasted briefly, perhaps less than a year.
After the move to Monterey, he was still selling the same marques (Fiat, Alfa, Porsche) and maybe a few others, such as like Lancia. But there was one more marque that he started selling in 1959….
KUNSTLE AND CITROEN
The very first indication we could find that Kunstle had teamed up with Citroën was in late 1959 when the following advertisement showed up in the Oakland Tribune, listing him as one of the Northern California Citroën dealerships.
Kunstle rarely advertised Citroën for himself and instead opted for the ‘group’ advertisements with the other Northern California Citroën dealers, such as the ads shown below.
Kunstle is not widely remembered as one of the important Citroën dealers in California and we suspect that his interest in them was weak, at best. He preferred sportier cars such as Porsche and Alfa Romeo.
1959 CITROEN ADVERTISEMENT SHOWING KUNSTLE AS A DEALER
Oakland Tribune, Nov 1959
Oakland Tribune, Nov 1961
San Francisco Examiner, Nov 1962
HOW MANY AMI6's DO YOU THINK KUNSTLE SOLD?
AN ABRUPT ENDING
Kunstle started selling Citroëns in 1959 and he was listed in the dealer directories until 1964. But it is strange that the 1964 dealer directory still listed him since he was out of the game over a year earlier.
The following newspaper article indicates that in early 1962, he planned to sell his car business and return to his native Switzerland.
Oakland Tribune, Feb 1962
KUNSTLE CALLS IT QUITS
This article seems to have played out as written, since Kunstle’s name completely dropped off of the radar of American media in 1962, suggesting he did indeed close the business and move out of the country. Did Citroën make a mistake by including him in the 1964 dealer directory? It seems so.
CITROEN DEALER DIRECTORY FOR 1964
I don’t know what drove Kunstle back to Switzerland, but I wouldn’t be the slightest bit surprised if part of the reason was that his business was struggling. Let’s be honest - were any of the cars he had been selling likely to have been profitable in the early 1960’s (other than perhaps Porsche)? Alfa? Fiat? Lancia? Citroën?
To add to the speculation that money might have been a possible cause of him returning to Switzerland, we found that in early 1962, Kunstle became entangled in a legal action where he was accused of owing his business partners money.
The SCCA article discusses his ventures after his departure from America:
“…Kunstle sold his car dealership in Monterey, packed up and moved his family back to Geneva in 1962. His post racing life was comprised of working for Goodyear Tires Racing Division; RCA Records managing talent; opening a boating supply business; designing and built several custom luxury racing yachts; opened a boat rental business in Turkey and restoring and selling collector cars. He also competed in local rallies including the 1982 Tour de France and returned to the U.S. for the 1979 Monterey Historics where he finished 10th out of 22 cars racing a Lancia B20S…”
But his health began to decline due to heart trouble and he passed away in 1992 at the age of 63, while on the waiting list for a heart transplant.
Kunstle was only operational as a car dealer in the USA for 6 years (1957 to 1962). In this time, he had three different locations:
Fourth and Mission Street, Carmel, CA (1957)
This was Kunstle’s first dealership, at the corner of 4th and Mission Streets in Carmel. He minimally advertised from this address, but we did find it listed in the 1957 Carmel phone book (below).
1957 Monterey County telephone book
We think he left this location within a very short time, probably by late 1957. Today, this intersection seems to have transitioned to residential, so there is no trace of his building.
298 Pearl Street, Monterey, CA (late 1957 to late 1962)
This is the address used by Lorin D. Lacey until Kunstle took it over in the fall of 1957. Kunstle moved here after his short stint in Carmel.
This was Kunstle’s primary location for his relatively short career as a car dealer and he stayed in this building about 5 years.
We found a 1950’s photo of this location when it was under Lacey’s ownership, not long before Kunstle took it over. The original Lacey building is gone now and has been replaced with a new building that appears residential.
Google Street View, 2015
1950’s PHOTO OF THE DEALERSHIP AT 298 PEARL STREET, BEFORE KUNSTLE MOVED IN VERSUS TODAY’S VIEW
505 Abbott Street, Salinas CA (March 1958 to early 1959)
It looks like Kunstle briefly tried a second location in 1958. This location was in Salinas, CA, about 45 minutes inland from Monterey.
Kunstle had a grand opening here in March of 1958. He sold Alfa, Fiat, and Porsche from this location, the same marques he was selling from his Monterey building.
The Californian, Mar 1958
KUNSTLE HAD A BRIEF RUN IN SALINAS
But this Salinas location did not work out for Kunstle. He seems to have lasted in Salinas less than a year, not long enough to get listed in the Salinas phone book.
528 Abrego Street, Monteray, CA (1962)
Kunstle started listing this as his address in mid-1961. At the same time, he was still quoting 298 Pearl Street. We looked it up on a map and oddly, it is the same location as his 298 Pearl Street address, but facing the side street instead of Pearl Street. So this was actually the same location.
The Monterey location was his last stand as a dealer, as he closed up and went back to Switzerland, apparently sometime in 1962.
Google Maps 2023