Los Gatos Magazine
Blood, Sweat & Gears: Dennis Varni's Passion
By Duffy Jennings
Published: June 21, 2013
Back when Dennis Varni was 14 and riding the Los Gatos school bus in the mid 1950s, he kept an eye out for the hot rod that he often saw on Winchester Boulevard near the Villa Felice.
The way its glossy finish gleamed in the morning sunlight and the driver's jaunty look behind the wheel mesmerized him.
"I'll never forget it," says Varni. "It was a 1929 or 1930 roadster. The guy wore a bomber jacket. Man, I thought he looked so cool in that car. I was enthralled."
Varni certainly wasn't alone among his peers then, at the dawning of the automobile era when Californians were in the infatuation stage of what would become their lifelong love affair with cars and the open road.
Soon Varni was imploring his parents for his own car. His father, Mario, told him, "Okay, Dennis, as long as you pay for it yourself."
"So I started saving every penny," Varni recalls. "I washed dishes. I picked prunes. I sold my train set. I even sold my clothes."
Eventually he scraped together $45, the price a local farmer was asking for his 1931 Model A Ford. "I wasn't even old enough to drive it," Varni says.
"But I spent the next couple of years in our garage taking it apart piece by piece and putting the whole thing back together again."
Varni spent so much time working on the car, in fact, that a family friend once asked his mother, 'What's the matter with Dennis? He never goes out. Doesn’t your son like girls?'"
When at last the big day came, Varni proudly drove the car, his car, through town and into a lifetime passion that consumes him more today than ever.
You could say that once Varni got behind the wheel he accelerated from zero to 345 miles per hour in just under fifty years.
You could say it because he actually reached that pinnacle last August in his Speed Nymph 909 Streamliner, the sleek crimson machine he piloted at nearly the half the speed of sound across the Bonneville Salt Flats in Wendover, Utah.
That's roughly the equivalent of driving from the Los Gatos Town Hall to downtown Campbell in one minute.
Even at age 70, the retired disposal company executive and former Los Gatos small business owner is not yet done. This year at Speed Week in Utah he's determined to surpass the 350 mph mark. "The scary thing about it is, 350, then what?" he asks himself. "You just want more."
Perhaps even one of these days – his body, mechanics and Mother Nature permitting – he'll earn the Holy Grail of Bonneville speed racers: the coveted black hat currently worn by only 13 drivers in the world who've broken the 400 mph barrier on the western Utah moonscape.
Tanned and fit, with a full head of silver hair and his ever-present broad smile, Varni certainly appears up to the task.
But let's slow down and let our engine idle while we consider the breathtaking scope of it all.
Over his decades-long obsession with all things cars, Varni has amassed more than seventy vehicles of all types, along with a vast collection of historic and arcane auto memorabilia, emblems, neon signage, publications, artwork, photos, tools, vintage gas pumps and thousands of mementos, from St. Christopher medals to antique oilcans to auto-themed condoms.
Today, Dennis Varni's collection of rare and exotic vehicles is a veritable hot rod museum of classic American and foreign roadsters, muscle cars, street rods, trucks, buses, sedans, and coupes, not to mention thirteen historic motorcycles.
If you ask him, his favorite vehicle is "the one I drive that day," but his personal A-list is enough to give car-crazy Jay Leno a run for his money:
- 1929 Ford Highboy Roadster, named America's Most Beautiful Roadster at the Oakland Auto Show in 1992
- 1955 D-type Jaguar that raced at Sebring in dark green
- 1972 Ferrari Dino GT in canary yellow
- 1956 Austin Healy BN4
- 1965 Cobra SC in glossy aluminum
- 1957 Maserati 200
- 1961 Mercedes 300 SL
- 1971 Bertone Lamborghini Muira (at its launch the fastest production road car available)
And then there's his 1955 "Stinkin' Lincoln" Capri, two Fifties-era, egg-shaped BMW Isetta microcars, a Rolling Bones Tudor, an original Playland-at-the-Beach bumper car identical to the one that gave him a black eye as a kid, and even a 12-passenger 1936 Yellowstone Park tour bus he still drives in Los Gatos' annual holiday parade.
What's more, every one of them is in working condition. Varni rotates taking them out for a spin around the block, around the U.S. or around the globe. He has shipped cars all over the world to participate in rallies, classic car shows, and other events or simply to cruise a new road.
He has accompanied, driven, and raced his cars as far away as Australia, Mexico, Scotland, France, Italy, Norway, and Spain.
"This is like collecting fine art to me. It's my passion, my hobby," Varni says in a profound understatement, surrounded by the glistening treasures parked side-by-side in a 3500-square-foot, softly-lit, custom-designed showroom garage behind his 1890 Victorian home on Los Gatos-Saratoga Road.
He stores the others, including the Bonneville Streamliner being prepped for this year’s run in Utah, in his Speed Nymph Garage on Old Bayshore Highway in San Jose. The name derives from the mythological goddesses of speed that often served as models for hood ornaments and other décor.
"It's never been about the money," Varni says of both the cost and the value of his collection, which easily reaches into the millions. "For me, it's always been about the hunt, about finding the right car or the most unique item, the negotiation, the restoration, and the admiration of a finely-tuned car or a memento in pristine condition."
Born in San Francisco, Varni was four when his family moved to Los Gatos in 1947 and his father went to work for Green Valley Disposal, founded by former pig farmer Joseph Zanardi in 1918.
After graduation from Los Gatos High School, Dennis enrolled at San Jose State College. "I planned to be an industrial arts teacher," he says, "but I realized there was no money in it and I joined the Marines."
In 1968, Varni married his childhood friend, Kathy Jones. This year they are celebrating 45 years of marriage. Kathy, who goes along with Dennis on many of his car adventures, was a Santa Clara County juvenile probation officer. The couple has three daughters, Susie, Molly and Jill, three sons-in-law, and five grandsons.
Returning from military service, Varni landed a job in a local auto parts store in San Jose, where he eventually rose to general manager and ran five stores for the firm. He left there to open and run a liquor store in Santa Clara for five years, followed by eight years as owner of the Noodle Palace restaurant in the old Paul Swanson Ford building.
When Mario Varni died in 1980, Dennis bought his father's shares in Green Valley Disposal and Guadalupe Rubbish Disposal Company and joined the management team, where he remained until USA Waste Management acquired the companies in 1999. That's when Varni retired to pursue his hobby full time.
"I just love it!" he says unabashedly. "I've crashed and I've flipped cars, but that’s the risk you take. You can't be scared. The thrill of racing is a high better than drugs, better than anything. I'm just sad that I’m getting older."
Dennis first went to Bonneville in the early 1960s as part of a race crew and has been going ever since. In the 1980s he rebuilt a 1932 Ford and became a member of the 200 mph club by reaching 225 mph on the salt flats.
"There's no prize money, no sponsorships," he says. "It's all for your own ego and to be part of the event." Speed Week has grown to some 500 entries, he adds.
Varni has also competed for nine years in the legendary La Carrera Panamericana, or Pan Am, a 2200-mile, a weeklong test of vintage cars, skill, and stamina the length of Mexico from Guatemala north to Nuevo Laredo, just across the Rio Grande from Laredo, Texas. First, run from 1950 to 1954 to celebrate the completion of the Pan American Highway, it was revived in 1988. He won the race in his class in 1999.
This year again, Varni and his wingman, Larry Hursh, will be there when someone hundred cars compete, starting on October 25.
And next year he will take a rebuilt 1963 Ford Falcon to Cape Town, South Africa for the South African Rally Championship, a grueling 5000-mile, 26-day road race through six countries.
If that makes your vacation sound dull, don't worry. Varni takes normal trips, too, like traveling to the Maldives in the Indian Ocean to Scuba dive with sharks. "I find a lot of peacefulness under the water," he says.
Despite his global adventures and his never-ending search for the next rare item, Varni and Kathy are happiest at home in Los Gatos, with their daughters, their husbands and the grandsons around.
But you have to wonder: doesn't it just kill him to keep it under 15 mph driving his Ford pickup down Santa Cruz Avenue?