Remembering Bill Gordon
I met Bill Gordon in 1979, I think. My somewhat recently acquired 1973 Porsche 914 had failed to start at the end of an autocross in which I’d competed in Winston-Salem, and my friend Riley said that there was a former Guilford Motors Porsche mechanic who had opened his own shop in Greensboro.
After leaving my car with him for a few days, Bill called to say I could pick up my car. He thought the car had probably had previously had an engine fire (which turned out to be a recall-worthy fuel line problem in 914s), and it had melted the insulation on the bundle of dozens of wires of the fuel-injection system. He’d tried to separate the wires and the car ran, but it was hard to know whether he’d addressed the problem. One mile from leaving his shop, the car died while driving down the road.
That was the one and only time I was a client of Bill’s, and despite the apparent outcome, from that day forward I spent much of my free time at Bill’s shop for the next year or more.
I don’t remember how it was that I starting hanging out at Bill’s shop, but I must have been there most days of the week. I was a night owl, as were a couple of my friends. When I’d get off work at my family’s restaurant at 11pm or later, I’d swing by Bill’s shop to see if the lights were on. Within a short time of going out on his own, Bill’s clientele had produced an 18-month backlog of work. The alleys around Art Thomas’ Texaco on West Friendly Avenue and Smyres Place where Bill rented two or three of the service bays in the back were stacked two-wide in Porsche 911s. Customers would leave their Porsches in his care until he could get to him - he must have gutted his former employer’s service department customer roster. So I’d usually find Bill kneeling on the floor behind a 911’s open engine cover, “praying to the gods of Weissach,” or standing over the open Safety-Kleen solvent sink, his cigarette ashes falling down into the flammable solvent as he scrubbed parts of grease and grime, the cigarette’s smoke causing him to wince as it swirled past his eye.
(photo by Rusty Moore)
I don’t know what we talked about, but we must have talked a lot. In addition to the late night conversations, I’d join Bill for lunch at Ham’s Restaurant across the street two or three days a week and order the same Hot Italian Sub as he, along with Ham’s great thick-cut steak fries and relish tray with dill pickles, macaroni and potato salad. In time, a few of my friends joined in the socializing. Bill would work away by himself, and our little gang of car nerds would stand around uselessly and listen to and laugh at his stories and absorb his wisdom.
I continued to compete in autocrosses, and I think Bill initially attended Triad Sports Car Club autocrosses in support of me - which was a bit of a surprise. Subsequently, he asked me if I would be interested in being a driver if he built and fielded a car for the 24 Hours of Daytona endurance race. Bill had crewed for road racing teams, and thought he had a bead on what it took. It was an intimidating notion, not just because I’d never road-raced (and had limited seat time on road-racing courses), but because Bill proposed to build a GT3-class Volkswagen Rabbit or Scirocco with a terminal speed of not quite 140 mph at Daytona, while the Porsche 935s in the fastest class would be overtaking us at 220 mph, day and night. The racing effort never materialized, and I don’t think I ever gave a solid “yes” to accepting the driving seat, but it remains important to me that Bill asked me, whether it was a pipe dream or not. I hadn’t realized that Bill thought that much of me, much less whether I could credibly race a car for 8 hours.
(Bill at a Triad Sports Car Club autocross c.1980)
My 914’s engine had lived an abusive life in previous ownership, and when I consulted with Bill about doing a rebuild of the engine myself, he invited me to use his shop and tools for as long as it took. For a number of months, my 914 collected dust out in the alley along with all the other 911s, its rear end hiked up several inches because of the absence of its engine, which lived on one of Bill’s engine stands. Whenever I could, I’d work on the engine, and Bill kibbitzed (I think I learned to use “kibbitz” from Bill, now that I think about it), when he thought I needed guidance. I remember weighing my pistons and rods on Bill’s Ohaus balance-beam scale (Bill always called it his “O-shit” scale and laughed at his own joke every time), using an air-powered die grinder to remove material and bring the heaviest components down to match the lightest piece. Bill was enthusiastic about my interest in and willingness to achieve these subtle goals in pursuit of a result which performed optimally and of which one could be proud. Bill also supervised my “port matching” - grinding the inner margins of the interface of the intake manifolds with the heads’ intake ports to encourage smooth flow of the intake charge. I can hear the grin in his voice whenever he’d talk about employing such methods to achieve a high standard.
I’m reminded that Bill if it was inconvenient to retrieve a precision measurement tool: a torque wrench, a feeler gauge, a micrometer caliper - he would often quip that he could use his own finely-honed judgment in their place. He’d say something like, “I’ve got all the torque wrench I need right here,” displaying his bicep, or “that feels like sixteen thousandths,” rubbing his fingers on the sampled piece while smiling his impish smile. We knew some of it was bluster, but Bill’s instant backlog of customers suggested that he was worthy of us 20 year-olds treating him as the 42 year-old guru that we made him.
I remember Bill frequently opining that one should use hand cleaners “with pumice,” and he always had bars of Lava soap on the shop sink. “That’s good shit,” he’d say as he cleaned up at the end of the day. And we believed him.
(Me working on my car in Bill’s shop)
Bill was always generous about letting me use a bay of his shop to work on the 914. I remember doing many tasks: installing wheel bearings, installing transmission synchronizer rings, servicing brakes, lowering the suspension - and remember having his tutelage and advice at my disposal. I won an autocrossing class championship during the time I was hanging out at Bill’s shop, so the fact that my car was reliable enough to compete for that many season points may owe something to being taught how to service it correctly. I’ve done most of the automotive service to my family vehicles since, and the value of that education continues to serve.
When Bill completed a customer’s Porsche, he’d call the customer on the phone and tell them the car was ready, then meticulously wash and dry the car for delivery. That always impressed me.
Eventually, Bill hired Joe Hutton, a young man who himself owned an old 911, and trained him up to help address the workload.
By mid-1981, changes in my life dramatically changed the frequency with which I saw Bill. I just remembered as I was writing this that I went by his shop to tell him I was moving to California in 1988.
(parked in front of Art Thomas’ Texaco and Bill Gordon Automotive - photo by Rusty Moore, 1980)
I think I visited Bill’s shop on Tipton Place once in the 1990s during a visit from California, but we fell out of touch for a long while. In 2013, I discovered that Bill was on Facebook and sent him a message. We made tentative plans to have a meal together in August of 2013 while we were visiting North Carolina, but an unplanned gall bladder surgery for Bill put those plans on hold. When I looked up our correspondence yesterday (February 2024), I was surprised to find that the unsuccessful get-together was so long ago.
Many times over the years I thought of trying to get together with Bill, but as my wife’s and my families aged, our visits home to North Carolina became increasingly commitment-filled. After moving back to North Carolina in 2022, finally looking up Bill was one of my plans. It never happened. Our first 8 months back were inundated with receiving our home contents from California and caring for family. It’s not a good excuse, and perhaps I say it to salve my own guilt.
In November 2023, Bill wished me a happy birthday on Facebook. I thought that once our holiday responsibilities were behind us, I’d see if Bill was up for a visit.
It broke my heart when our mutual friend - the one who first told me of this Porsche mechanic opening his own business 44 years ago - wrote me of Bill’s passing.
I hope I expressed my gratitude to Bill over the years. For I truly appreciated his wisdom, humor, generosity, trust, and friendship.
-Ellsworth Chou, February 2024