Portrait of Malibu’s Francophile


    Jim Hull is Malibu’s classic car maven.

    A retired architect and furniture designer, Hull is freshly back from competing in the Pebble Beach Concours d’ Elegance in Northern California, easily the most prestigious concourse in the world. His mount was a French-made 1947 Delahaye with coachwork by Chapron.

    Hull’s love of cars goes back to the ’60s.

    Growing up in a family where his father was an engineer, he first tried to follow in his father’s footsteps but foundered. He took a test of his skills and the recommendation was that he take up art. He gravitated toward architecture, earning a bachelor’s degree and followed that up with a master’s earned at MIT.

    It was in between his college years that he first began roaming Europe to study architecture. One year he met some young car enthusiasts and ended up accompanying them to the famous 24 Hours of LeMans where they talked their way onto a team as pit crew.

    Once he heard the sound of a Ferrari V-12 engine at speed, he was hooked on cars.

    Back in the U.S. Hull began working in his field of study, urban planning.

    “But my ideas were too radical,” Hull said with a smile. “So I quit and started my own furniture company, making children’s furniture, calling my company ‘H.U.D.D.L.E.’ “

    He succeeded quickly and rewarded himself with a bright yellow Ferrari 275GTS.

    “I began to race it, but since I was the father of two young children, I began to worry that racing was too dangerous, so I figured maybe the way to enjoy cars was to drive old vintage cars,” said Hull. “Ironically, within four years I was driving the vintage cars faster than I had my Ferrari, but now I was on antique 4-inch wide tires.”

    He bought his first home in Los Angeles in Brentwood, where he continued his car passion, going to the extent of having a chrome-plated hydraulic car lift installed in his living room so one of his collection of 20 classic cars — bought in a partnership arrangement with a neighbor — could be hoisted like a piece of sculpture.

    “I gravitated toward French cars because of their flamboyant aerodynamic style in the immediate pre-war and early post-war periods,” he said.

    A passion became searching the world for classic cars. After he bought his Delahaye, he began to yearn for the ultimate model of that marque — one of the three V-12’s that humbled the Third Reich-sponsored Mercedes factory team just before the war. After an extensive search, he found the car in France in the collection of a man who owned 100 cars. The man said he would never sell it, but Hull kept on top of it and 10 years later, when word was put out that the man would sell one car, Hull was there to buy it.

    It took Hull several years to restore the rare engine, and then he kept blowing it, each time having to make replacement parts.

    He competed with it in the Monterey Historic — a vintage event that has become America’s best-known vintage race. His collection expanded to include Delage, Talbot-Lago and Bugatti, all classic French makes.

    Most of the parts for his vintage racers — all cars originally made by companies that have disappeared in the sands of time — have to be made by hand.

    “I have my Bugatti engine builder in France and my Delahaye engine builder in England,” explained Hull. “Everybody’s someplace else so it doesn’t matter so much that I live in Malibu where there aren’t such specialized services.”

    Perhaps next time a car of Hull’s needs work he won’t have to go too far, as a classic car restorer has come to Malibu — Jan Voboril.

    Despite the age of his vintage cars — most of which are at least 50 years old — not all have been expensive to own. His two-tone green Delahaye has been so reliable it has never had the head off the engine and required only one carburetor rebuild in 20 years.

    Hull’s passion for things French doesn’t stop with cars.

    “I like everything about France — the food, the sense of style, the architecture,” he said. “I used to make a point of going there at least twice a year.”

    As a vintage racer, he has competed not only on racetracks but in several rallies held on public roads overseas, such as the re-creation of the Mille Miglia (1,000 miles) rally which starts in Brescia, Italy and leads competitors all over Northern Italy at breakneck speeds.

    “It’s grueling in a way,” he said, “but only because you are so excited at making all these new friends that you don’t get much time to sleep.

    “It was daunting, too, in that fans line up by the thousands alongside the roads in some villages and you have to put the hammer down and aim down the middle of the walls of people and hope no one wants to challenge your 50-year old brakes.”

    Some memories of his European rallies are priceless.

    “One highlight of the Mille,” he said, “was being invited to an elegant outdoor dinner at a castle which overlooked the entire Italian countryside.”

    With his wife, Tonya, he now stages the “California Classic Rally,” which begins on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills and explores the back roads of the Central California Coast all the way to Big Sur. The event is part of the week-long California Classic tied in with a concourse on Rodeo Drive produced annually by Hull and fellow Malibu car enthusiast Andy Cohen.

    And then there’s the Concours d’ Elegance.

    Isn’t a concours d’ elegance (competition of elegance) a little staid for a guy who likes to fill his ears with the sound of unmuffled exhausts and enjoys the smell of hot oil?

    “It’s a different kind of competition,” he said. “It appeals to the artist and designer in me.”

    Hull has been a judge at Pebble for more than a decade as well as competing in the event with his own cars.

    At present, his collector’s cars sit under dust covers as he designs a new home on five-and-a-half acres alongside Kanan Dume Road — a “pied-a-terre” put together from two parcels that once made up an area known as Haymarket Ranch.

    “My parents had a citrus farm in Orange County,” he recalled. “I always wanted a place with enough space to recapture that feeling.” In fact, he gave up waterfront property to live in this much roomier former farmland.

    So what kind of French-inspired abode can we expect of Malibu’s most earnest Francophile?

    Surprise — no Loire Valley chateau. Nor a Normandy farmhouse.

    “Although I love France,” said Hull, “I did some research and found the first house ever built in Malibu — a stone building that dates back to 1865. It’s survived a lot of fires so that’s the starting point for my design — a stone house of the same general shape.”

    In other words, Malibu’s Francophile is going indigenous, not faux-Euro.

    Of course, the new home will have accommodations for his cars since his children are grown and live elsewhere. Not in the garage, mind you, but inside the house.

    “I will be parking two to three collectors cars inside,” he said.

    Think mobile sculpture. And of course the chrome car lift will be there so the underside of each car can be shown as well.

    “When I’ve got the place done,” said Hull, “I plan to have some parties, and I’ve got enough driveway to park lots of classic cars.”

    He doesn’t mind his move from Brentwood.

    “I found that it wasn’t just moving from Los Angeles to another city,” explained Hull. “Moving to Malibu was like moving to another country.”

    It’s not France, but from some views on his property — particularly down by the pond where he feeds his pet swan — it’s easy to convince yourself you’re in Provence, the rural area inland from the Cote d’Azur, France’s “Coast of Blue.”

    All you need to complete the illusion to is to see Hull pull up in his Delahaye wearing his beret, n’est-ce pas?