As most of you know, Joe Vittone was a founding father of the VW high-performance industry. He founded European (later to be called Engineered) Motor Products, Inc. in Riverside, Calif. in 1956, making replaceable valve guides for the 36hp VW head. At the time, if a head needed new valve guides, VW would scrap the old head and install a new one. From these humble beginnings, a dynasty was born--that of EMPI. Vittone is still very active. He built and currently flys a Velocity XL RG aircraft, with a Lycoming IO 540, 300hp engine, and enjoys flying it. VW Trends was fortunate enough to catch up with this very busy, special man for a session of 20 questions, continued from our 25th Anniversary Issue:
VW Trends: How do you feel about today's VW industry as a whole ?
Joe Vittone: I think they really have a winner in Ferdinand Piech. I think he is one of the best automobile people in the world, no doubt about it. I think VW makes good cars, good quality, just super. Great company!
Who would you say was your biggest influence in the VW industry?
JV: I would say that I had a lot of negative influence from VW when I was a dealer. I think they had a good car, but the management at the time just missed the boat.
VWT: Where did you go to school?
JV: I went to a lot of different schools, because my parents moved a lot. My dad bought and sold farms, and he had a couple of different manufacturing companies; he did upholstery work and many other things. I went to a school, at one time, where Grades 1 through 8 were all in one room. I went to school at Montana State College in Bozeman, Mo. [now Montana State University--ed.], and I went to the College of the Pacific in Stockton, Calif., and to UCLA in Westwood, Calif.
VWT: Did you know, or have any idea, when you made replaceable valve guide for the 36hp VW head that it would turn into EMPI?
JV: No, my intent was always to try and help the VW factory.
VWT: If you could do something differently, what would it be and why?
JV: I'm not very good at looking back, I always look forward and I wouldn't change anything.
VWT: How many GTV Beetles did EMPI/ Economotors assemble themselves? Quite a few, or only a handful?
JV: What we did was this: EMPI would manufacture the kits, and we would ship the kits to dealers around the United States and the dealerships would put the car together. My own dealership, Economotors, did about a hundred cars. I don't recall the numbers that other dealers did, but none of them did nearly that many. Some of the dealers did a dozen or 20 or so, but that was it. The dealers would get threatened with the loss of their franchise if they had an EMPI car on the showroom floor.
VWT: Did customers ever complain about the BRM magnesium wheels, that they needed polishing too often to stay shiny?
JV: They complained quite a bit. I told the customers that they had a choice--that they could either polish them and then clear coat them or just let them fade to their normal color. Either way, it wasn't too bad. We designed that wheel in Riverside and sent the plans to England to get bids on manufacturing them. This one company, that had a subsidiary called BRM, which raced the old Formula 1 cars, came up with what I thought was a very nice product, and the wheel was made out of magnesium. [Veteran racecar driver] Graham Hill was a driver for this company, and I got to be friends with Graham. Nobody else was making wheels out of magnesium. I wanted to lower the unsprung weight of the car and get the best quality possible, so I made a deal with them and they also agreed to let me use their name on the wheels. That's why they were called BRMs. BRM had nothing to do with us whatsoever. Speedwell was Graham Hill's company and my distributor in Europe.
VWT: The EMPI catalogs were unmatched in quality and detail. What made you decide to invest so much into a parts catalog?
JV: I always felt that we had quality, and I wanted to convey to our customers that EMPI was quality. Quality, quality, quality! Not equal to OEM, but better. We used to say that EMPI equals: EMPI Means Product Integrity. I wanted the catalog to convey this, and in order to do that, we had to spend quite a bit of money; which we did. I printed that catalog in-house and we had our own in-house advertising agency; we had a pr person. My EMPI crew worked together, very, very closely. I was always on the lookout for the best people and I feel that I got them. You know, some real winners.
VWT: Any humorous anecdotes from the early EMPI days?
JV: I was going to the Paris Auto Show, so I ordered a Beetle from Wolfsburg and shipped an EMPI engine over and we switched engines. I was driving it and the engine was good for, oh, around 130-135hp, so the Beetle would really perform. I didn't change anything on the exterior; the only thing else I did was put sway bars on it. I had a ball driving it around Europe; I think I drove it maybe 4000 miles, drag racing from stop signs and blowing people away on the Autobahn. I went to the Paris Auto show and had an invitation to drive on the old Montlhery Race track. Anyway, a guy there from Renault--a pr person for them--asked me where I was staying, and I told him, "Gosh, I don't have a room yet," and he said it was very hard to get a room in Paris. He had his secretaries call and they got me a hotel room. He was explaining to me how to get there and I told him that I'd get lost, so he volunteered to show me the way. He had this Renault Gordini [Renault Gordinis were quite a nimble, quick car, and in stock trim would easily beat a stock VW--ed.] and said "just follow me." He asked me about my car and I said it was one that I picked up at the factory and he didn't give it a second look. So, we started going. He was driving faster and faster, wilder and wilder, over sidewalks and everything, I mean he was just going wild! My VW was right next to him all the time. Well, when we got to the hotel, I never said a word. He was surprised and said, "did you have any trouble following me?" and I said "no;" I was just very nonchalant about the whole thing. He came over and wanted to look at the motor on the VW, but there was a lock on it, so he couldn't open it. Boy, he was really shaking his head! I never did tell him.
VWT: Of all the races that the Inch Pincher was in, which car did you like beating the best? VWs or domestic cars?
JV: Well, the domestic cars, sure ! The big Detroit iron.
VWT: Now that you are pretty much removed from it, do you ever miss the VW scene?
JV: Well, I keep pretty close to what's going on. I'm involved in all kinds of different activities that keeps me travelling around. I follow CART racing very closely and Formula 1 racing, and with Darrell being involved in the business [Darrell, Joe's son, runs Techtonics, a very respected VW speed/tuning shop, in Sheridan, Ore.--ed.], so I keep pretty much informed on what's going on through him.
VWT: What would you like to tell our readers about Joe Vittone that they may not know?
JV: I always felt that quality was important, and instead of trying to make the most money possible, I was trying to do the best I could and make the best product. The slogan was: "Service is our keyword"...And never look back because, "Everything is from now."
VW Trends: Oh, Joe, one last quick question: What's your favorite VW Magazine?
Mr. Joseph Vittone: Well, there's only one, isn't there? VW Trends!
Approximately 1964, this photo shows a young Darrell Vittone against a 1957 Chevy.
After winning its class, the EMPI dragster rolls back to the pits at Riverside Raceway in
In the lobby of EMPI's engine division (nee Revmaster) was this engine display.
Taken in the mid '60s, these "two-place" kit cars sold for only $495 and consisted of a st
There wasn't many places the EMPI cars could go where they didn't attract attention, shown
Dave Andrews, head wrench for the Inch Pincher, installs a new transmission (in the foregr