It is with a heavy heart that we share the news of the passing of yet another friend and supporter of the American Hot Rod Foundation, Alex Finigan. Alex was well known throughout the hot rod, classic and sports car communities and along with his business partner, Paul Russell, built one of the most respected restoration businesses in the world. Although Alex’s interests covered a wide range of vehicle type and era, he was, first and foremost, a hot rodder.
A child of the 1950s, it was in 1959 that Alex Finigan was bit by the car bug when he happened to walk out to the mailbox of his family home at the same moment that a next door neighbor was setting out a stack of Hot Rod Magazine with their trash. The young Alex wasted no time in gathering them up and taking them to his room where he poured over page after page of multi-carb’d dragsters, chrome-laden customs, and hopped up coupes and roadsters. This was the beginning of a life-long obsession he would have with hot rods and with the automobile, in general.
Although the first car Alex purchased and drove (through a partnership with two other friends) was a 1953 Studebaker coupe, it was his next car, a ’55 Chevy two-door sedan, that really got him excited. Purchased for $100, the three-on-the-tree, bare-bones little Chevy would soon be shot in black primer, receive radiused wheel wells, and have the front bumper removed. Even its six-cylinder engine received an upgrade in the form of three one-barrel carburetors on a log-style intake. All of this was backed by the Chevy’s three-speed transmission that Alex had soon converted to a floor shift by way of a Hurst Mystery Shifter.
As Alex remembered in an interview on the Cars Yeah podcast with Mark Greene, ”Although it was far from having the same drivetrain, it had the very same look as the ’55 Chevy in Two-Lane Blacktop. I thought I was king of the world. It was also the first car I had that I did all of the work on, myself. All done while it was parked at the curb in front of my mother’s house. We didn’t have a garage.”
These humble beginnings belie the kind of success and type of machines and working conditions that would eventually become Alex’s life. Although things definitely did not happen overnight, he knew himself enough to know what he wanted, and he knew what would and what wouldn’t get him there. On Cars Yeah, Alex remembered, “I graduated from college in New Jersey in 1969 and really had no passion for anything, career-wise. I took a job as a social worker for a couple of years before landing what anyone else would have considered a life-long career. It was also something that was putting my degree to good use. I became a junior executive at Mazda and Fiat of North America. I went in every day in my suit and tie and went to work, but it didn’t feel right. For starters, the other people working there were not car people. This was just another job to them. They were office people, and very soon I realized that I wasn’t.”
So, one fateful Friday, not weeks into Alex’s tenure, he left for lunch… and never returned. In his conversation with Mark Greene, Alex explained, “It was that bad. It was the most disinteresting place I could imagine. So I decided to start from scratch. I had inherited a small tool chest from my grandfather when he passed away, and armed with that and a copy of the John Muir How to Keep Your Volkswagon Alive book For Complete Idiots, I opened up an independent VW repair business. I had zero background as a real mechanic, but I had that book and my little assortment of tools, and off I went. The business actually took off very quickly, and I was doing basic repair and tune ups, almost exclusively on VW beetles. But the lease ran out on the building I was working in, and I had to hop-scotch around for a while, picking up positions at various auto-repair shops. I was a Volvo mechanic for a while, then a Mazda mechanic. This was in the early ‘70s, and I continued to do this until about 1974 when I happened to help a friend move from New Jersey up to Marblehead, Massachusetts. We were walking around the town and came upon a garage that had three Gullwings, a Mercedes SSK and all these great cars. Cars that I’d never seen before, in person. It was a Sunday and the business was closed, but it was called Dearborn and Company and was a repair and restoration shop for older Mercedes automobiles. When I went back to New Jersey, as luck would have it, I opened up my new issue of Motor Trend magazine and low and behold… there was an article on this guy Alex Dearborn and his Mercedes shop that I had just seen not days before. And something just clicked in my head. I thought that it was amazing that someone could have a successful business servicing one, single mark of automobile. This was interesting to me and stayed with me when I suddenly found myself laid off from the shop I was working at in New Jersey. I was soon on unemployment and thought that I’d rather spend my time in Marblehead than Jersey, and so I went up there and crashed with my friend for awhile. I decided to visit Alex Dearborn’s shop and ask for a job, and I literally wouldn’t take no for an answer. I basically forced my way through the door, telling him that I had a lot more experience than I really did and was soon working on these beautiful cars that I had been admiring through the window just weeks before.”
Finigan remained employed at Dearborn’s shop until 1978, when Dearborn decided to leave the service and restoration business and just buy and sell cars. Dearborn offered to sell the business to his three employees at the time; Alex Finigan, Dave Twitchell and Paul Russell. Because Russell was the only one of the three who had a house that he could take out a second mortgage on, he had the say in deciding what the new business would be called. So in June of 1978, the business was renamed “Gullwing Motor Service” and a legend was born. With the total staff consisting of just Finigan, Twitchell, and Russell, they took on all mechanical work while farming out the paint, body and interior work. The three-man team were at that location for five years, thanks to the deal made with Dearborn that included renting his building for those first five-years. When that contract had run its course the team relocated, having outgrown the Dearborn building and needing something bigger. Paul Russell found a 30,000-sq-ft building that was for sale in Essex, Mass and bought it in 1983.
And that is the same building that Paul Russell and Company are in today. Thanks to the size of the building, Alex and Paul ( Dave Twitchell had now gone on to other things ) were able to eventually find and hire enough talent to have nearly every aspect of a restoration project done in-house. Everything from paint and body to upholstery to light machine work, with chrome plating being the only work that was farmed out.
“It’s a great place for car guys to work,” Alex said in his interview with Mark Greene. “We have nearly 30 employees now, and they’re all car crazy. When the doors close at night, oftentimes guys will go to work on their personal projects, and Paul supports that. As long as they supply the materials, they’re welcome to use the shop, and they do. It’s a great collection of extremely talented people.”
Although Paul Russell and Co. is now enjoying 40+ successful years in the restoration and specialty car-sales business, it was a single car that put Alex Finigan and Paul Russell on the world stage when their restoration of Ralph Lauren’s 1938 Bugatti Type 57SC Atlantic won Best of Show at the Pebble Beach Concours de Elegance in 1990. They followed that with another PB best of show in 1993 with Lauren’s 1930 Mercedes Benz SSK. In a 2018 interview with David LaChance for Hemmings Motor News, Alex remembered, “Those two restorations really put us on the map. That’s when the flood gates opened, and we had more new customers than we could handle. The business was growing quickly and this is around the time that I started thinking about a change, as far as my responsibilities at the business were concerned. I was still on the floor and working as a technician during this time but was getting more drawn into communicating with customers and potential customers who were looking for specific cars to restore or collect. So in 1998, I laid down my wrenches and went to work full-time as the head of our sales department. It was a natural thing for me because I had been buying and selling cars throughout my life just for myself, buying two or three cars at a time, here and there, and usually selling two to keep the third and best one of the bunch. That’s how I ended up with the cars I have now, and it taught me about collecting and collections and where cars are and how to find them and who owns them. And I’m glad I got an early start because I’ve ended up with some terrific cars that I really love but probably couldn’t afford to buy now, as some of them have just become too valuable. So I know what it’s like to be that guy on the other end of the phone who is pursuing a car.”
Throughout Alex Finigan’s journey as a technician, collector and connoisseur, he certainly was able to collect some great cars covering his full range of tastes and interests. From early Porsches to his beloved Ford-based hot rods, and a whole lot in between, Alex was as real-deal a car guy as one could be.
“I like so many different types of car that it’s difficult to say what a favorite might be,” he said to Mark Greene. “I do know that the only car I ever sold that I regretted so badly that it haunted me to the point that I continued to try and buy it back was a really great ’32 Ford five-window coupe that I had. So, I don’t know. Maybe that says something about my thing with hot rods.”
Alex wasn’t kidding when he singled out a hot rod for his biggest itch. When asked by Greene about his favorite automotive reading material, he said, ”I have a lot of automotive literature, but I think I would be fine if I only had my collection of The Rodder’s Journal. I read and reread issues of those all the time.”
He also loved being inside the hot rod community, as he stated to Greene with the admission, ”I don’t do a lot of social media or any of that kind of thing, but I do admit to never missing a day of checking in on the Jalopy Journal board ( HAMB Board ) . That, to me, is such a wonderful place to share information and see what guys are building. It takes me right back to being a kid. I’m probably on there more than I should be when I’m at work!”
Friends and followers of the American Hot Rod Foundation will recognize that Alex Finigan’s last hot rod was the period- and picture-perfect ’32 roadster that won our most recent Hot Rod of the Year contest. If you aren’t familiar with this roadster, we highly recommend you take the time to check it out here ( https://ahrf.com/november-2022-hot-rod-of-the-month/ ) on our website. Although many a deuce roadster has been built, we think you’ll agree that Alex’s version more than stands out with its perfect balance of adherence to tradition but with some personal touches. A timeless hot rod from a guy who probably couldn’t remember a time when cars weren’t a complete obsession.
“My wife says I’m an addict,” Alex said on Cars Yeah. “But I told her it could be worse… I could be a crack addict. To which she asked me if that would be worse or better! All I know is that, for nearly my entire life, I got to go to work everyday doing something that I love. Addiction or not, I’m not sure it gets better than that.”
And on that, we couldn’t agree more, Mr Finigan. The very definition of a successful life.
We want to thank Alex Finigan for his lifelong dedication to the art of the automobile and for being a friend and supporter of the American Hot Rod Foundation. It was an honor to have him on board, and we only hope that every person reading this overview of a life that was so well lived will walk away as inspired by his work and approach to living as we have been.
Our thoughts go out to his family and his many friends throughout the car world.
In closing, we would like to share some of the thoughts and memories that have come in to the AHRF from some of Alex’s closest friends.
“It is quite shocking to have lost Alex. He appeared to have been living his best life in the past several years, driving his grandkids around in his hot rod. I’m not sure I ever saw him happier. And what’s better than that? Still, it is an incredible loss for our community. He was truly one of the good ones.”
– Garth Hammers (Gooding and Company)
“Alex was a man of vision where less was always more. His ’32 Roadster and ’55 Chevy were works of art. He will be sadly missed. Sincere condolences to Alex’s family and the Paul Russell group.”
– John Carlson (President – National Association of Automobile Clubs of Canada, Concours Judge)
“Alex Finigan’s 45 years in the automotive hobby and community was a legacy and inspiration for so many enthusiasts. In addition to his many contributions Alex always made sure that the people he touched felt better and excited about the automobiles we enjoy so much. His friendship, decency, and wit will remain in everyone’s heart who communicated with him. Thankfully he honored me with an interview that will remain whenever anyone wants to enjoy his voice, words, and thoughts.”
– Mark Greene (Founder, Producer, and Host of Cars Yeah Podcast. Former President of Griot’s Garage)
“Alex was a close friend for 50 years. Born on the East coast, somehow his eye and taste reflected the ‘West Coast’ look. We corresponded regularly about all his cars, and I could add nothing to his keen traditional eye… whether it be a hot rod Ford or an outlaw Porsche. Everyone just LOVED Alex, a special blend of best friend and brother…I just loved that man…simply THE BEST!!! A huge loss to me and to our hobby.”
– Bruce Meyer (Founding Chairman – Petersen Automotive Museum, hot rod historian, and preservationist)
“I met Alex Finigan 40 years ago and immediately liked him. Over the years, he worked on and sold many marques and many different types of automobiles. But he was always a true hot rodder. He liked my Deuce, and I liked his. He is now among the stars, and I have a giant hole in my hot rod heart. Godspeed, Alex.”
– Ed Gilbertson (Chief Judge Emeritus for the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance)
“Alex Finigan was an ecumenical car guy. Although he was famous for his long involvement with Porsche 356s and Mercedes-Benz 300SLs, he owned a mean-looking ’32 Ford 5-window coupe with an injected Hemi, a ’55 Chevy post two-door with a hot small-block V-8 and a tastefully chopped ’34 Ford cabriolet, to name a few. His Porsche 356A outlaw coupe had a John Wilhoite full-race motor, and he owned a Speedster for decades. And he drove his cars. He’d just sold his ’32 Ford roadster, an AHRF winner, and bought a modified ’39 Ford coupe. I think it was sight unseen. Alex trusted his instincts, and he trusted people.
“Alex and noted M-B restorer Paul Russell teamed up in 1978, and their different talents melded perfectly. Paul was always cool and calm; Alex was outgoing, ebullient and effervescent.
“Truth be told, Alex could sell ice to Eskimos — his big Irish smile, easygoing nature and sharp head for a deal, matched with his boundless Rolodex, ensured a steady volume of sales across a wide spectrum. Like most of us hot rodders, Alex believed everything could be improved. Where old Fords and Chevys are concerned, the word ‘stock’ was not in his lexicon.
“We were friends for over 40 years, and although we didn’t often see one another, we texted, DM’ed on Instagram, and called. Our last communication a week ago was about the Gooding Mark Smith Estate sale auction. Alex said he wasn’t going because he “…couldn’t trust himself not to buy something.” That was typical.
“His passing is particularly sad because he was devoted to his grandchildren, and his semi-retirement meant he had more time to spend with them — along with his beloved wife Krista and his endless pursuit of cool cars. And cruelly, it’s over — all too soon. It’s hard to imagine he’s gone.
“When I think of Alex, I’ll remember the smile in his voice, his vast knowledge and his enthusiasm for all things automotive.”
– Ken Gross (Author, curator, Concours Judge, former Director of the Petersen Automotive Museum)