PART FOUR: GORDON BELL BUYS A PORSCHE 911

By Peter Zaballos

TALES FROM THE EARLY-ISH DAYS OF SILICON VALLEY

When I was at LSI Logic in the mid and late 1980s I had a chance to meet with and work with some of the titans of computing. In a lot of cases not the publicly recognizable titans, but people who profoundly changed and influenced the nature of computing, laying the foundation for the types of devices and experiences we take for granted today.

One of those people is Gordon Bell, and I met him when he was the head of engineering at Ardent Computer. Yes, that Gordon Bell. The architect of the Digital Equipment VAX. The recipient of the National Medal of Technology and the IEEE John von Neumann Medal.

[I wrote about the role LSI Logic played in enabling Ardent and later, Stardent when they merged with Stellar Computer]

I met with Gordon to understand how complete their system architecture was and what he felt the remaining challenges and risks would be. I loved hanging out with him – he was as brilliant as he was affable – comfortable in his own skin.

Along the way we talked about all sorts of stuff, and discovered we both liked sports cars. A lot. Back then, when Silicon Valley seemed to be driven more by a collective desire to simply push the state of computing forward, and less so about making a ton of money, sports cars were just more affordable. On an engineer’s salary you could own a Porsche, even a Ferrari. And lots of folks I worked with did.

An ad from 1985 for a 911 cabriolet

In fact, Palo Alto High School would have a car show – where people would bring their cars and park them on the football field and then folks like me (and presumably Gordon) could wander around and slobber all over the range of cars. And this car show was primarily Porsches, Ferraris, and Shelby Cobras. The cars that were casually displayed on that football field are worth millions today. Back then, tens of thousands. 

And it turns out that Silicon Valley had some real racing expertise in its back yard. I discovered this by accident, when I was looking to buy a house and found one I liked in Los Gatos. The yard was literally strewn with Porsche 911s in various states of repair. When I asked the real estate agent who the seller was she said Jerry Woods. It would be years later that I realized that Jerry Woods is the technical genius and chief mechanic of the Porsche 935 Paul Newman helped take to second place in the 24 Hours of Le Mans. I should have bought that house — and the cars!

But I digress. Actually, this is a great example of the nature of the conversations Gordon and I would have about cars. Going deep down these tangents, then remembering to bring the conversation back to engineering and semiconductors.

My favorite memory was him telling me how he had just purchased a Porsche 911.

He went on to say how much he hated going to car dealers. He just hated the whole process of being somewhere unfamiliar like that, and being at the mercy of a salesperson who had the upper hand on information.

So he said he called the local Porsche dealer in Palo Alto, and asked to speak with a salesperson. When he got that person on the phone he asked “Do you have this month’s edition of Road and Track? Go find it and call me back.”

When the salesperson called him back he said “Turn to page 7. Do you see that 911 in that ad? I want that car. And I want it in this specific color. And I want you to deliver it to me here at the office. I will have my bank make payment on my behalf. You just need to show up with the car and paperwork. We can sign it all here.”

There was silence.

The salesperson tried in vain to talk Gordon out of this. 

As Gordon told me this story he was almost giddy with delight. I think he got as much pleasure from how he bought that car as he did from driving it.

And talk about a forward thinker. People buy cars like this all the time now. Back in 1985? He must have been the first.

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