Remembering car enthusiasts' friend at NHTSA

by Dave Kinney
5 April 2021 3 min read
Richard F. Merritt: 1931–2021 Photo by Courtesy Ferrari Club of America

Richard F. “Dick” Merritt passed away in March 2021 at the age of 90. If you are into cars, especially exotic cars, you should know his name. Dick was one of the Founders of the Ferrari Club of America, an early supporter of the brand, and owned many Ferraris now worth in the multiple millions when they were worth a few thousand. His early mission was, as hard as it is to believe at this time, saving worn out old Ferrari racecars and parts from the scrapyard. As if all that wasn’t important enough for the collector car hobby, he was later instrumental in helping American enthusiasts legally import vehicles from other markets.

I should back up some.

After serving in the Air Force and then graduating from the University of Colorado, in 1956, Dick moved to Detroit and worked in the design department at Ford.  He was assigned to the Edsel Division, which, as we all know, didn’t end well. Before it was over, though, Dick went back to the University of Colorado and returned to Detroit, this time securing a job with General Motors. Moving on to West Palm Beach, Florida, he sold cars at a VW and Porsche dealership.

Next time you see a one-off car that made it to the States on a “show and display” exemption, think of Richard F. Merritt.

In 1968, Dick Merritt partnered with Warren Fitzgerald to write Ferrari: The Sports and Grand Turismo Cars.  Back in the day, we called it “the Fitzgerald-Merritt book,” and it was the standard, the Ferrari bible. It was also, when I was introduced to it in 1972, the spyglass into the Ferrari world to my teenage eyes. Decades later, it still stands up with valuable information about Ferrari automobiles.

Years later, in the 1980s, I first got to know Dick on a personal basis. It was at the AACA Hershey swap meet, held every October in Hershey, PA. Dick was ebullient that day, as after crawling through piles of alternators and generators on the muddy ground, he had come up with a valuable and impossible to find gem—a generator used on very early Ferrari automobiles. He knew what it was worth, he knew who needed it, and, before the end of the day, he had cash in his pocket and a greasy hunk of metal had a new home. We went that evening as a group to dinner, and Dick regaled us with many stories of Ferraris bought, sold and traded before there was much value to cars that are today worth millions. According to his son, Kendall Merritt, his dad owned more than 50 Ferraris, and he just might have received a speeding ticket or two while driving them as Enzo intended.

It’d be a slight exaggeration to say Dick Merritt owned classic Ferraris before they were cool (because they were always cool), but he did own many before they were prized collector cars. This 1958 Ferrari 250 GT Berlinetta Competizione ‘Tour de France’ passed through his garage in the 1960s, according to RM Sotheby’s, which sold the car in 2015 for £4,76M ($7.23M).

The final chapters of Dick Merritt’s life were every bit as important to collector cars as the first few. Dick worked at the US Department of Transportation as a safety analyst, but specifically, he was the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s Vehicle Compliance Officer. If you were planning on Importing a non-U.S. compliant car with a “Show and Display” exemption, Dick was the man that you would want to know. In that role, one can only imagine the phone calls received from border agents and customs inspectors he received. At least one high-end dealership, engaged in “federalizing” Gray-Market cars, was said to have his direct phone number written on the shop wall in case emergency questions needed quick answers. Dick was the guy who knew most of the answers in a labyrinthine federal government system. And most of the time, he got it right and was a help to his fellow car enthusiasts.

 Dick used to say, “I’m the only bureaucrat that actually wants to help people”, and perhaps that was true. In the meantime, next time you see an unusual one-off car that made it to the States on a “show and display” exemption until it reaches the ripe old age of twenty-five years, think of Richard F. Merritt, who worked at a large government agency until he was 87 years of age for one reason.

He really did help out his fellow enthusiasts.

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  • Jim Rosenthal says:

    I was fortunate enough to meet Dick and spend time with him on several occasions, including a transcontinental plane ride from D.C. to CA on the way to PB in 2003. Dick had probably forgotten more about Ferraris in particular and other vintage cars in general than most people remember. Most people have stories, but Dick Merritt had memories, and was happy to share them. The idea of there being a dedicated and knowledgeable car enthusiast INSIDE the Federal government bureaucracy is so improbable that it will more than likely never happen again. I am grateful that I was able to meet Dick, talk with him, show him one of my cars he was particularly interested to see, and hear a few of his memories. We will all miss him a great deal.

  • Ken Visser says:

    I was lucky to spend a roundtrip from VA to the Bella Machina with Dick and Kendal. Once we primed the pump, the stories came out, especially memorable was the Detroit drawbridge raised up to stop a speed “test” of a 250 LM that no cop could stop.

    Really funny, at the show was a Maserati MC-12 here on the states on his approval. He was walking by when he heard an over enthusiastic sales fella offer the car for sale. Technically illegal, so I asked Mr Merritt, tell me you flashed the badge. In his quiet, intelligent voice “No, but I might have a talk with his boss later on”

    Thank you for tracing his contributions to our shared automotive passions

  • Zmega says:

    I worked with Dick for several years. Really nice guy, and helpful as the article notes. Please, do not accept stereotypes that government workers have no interests outside their jobs (including classic cars), as do people in other professions.

  • Midwest Lamborghini & Classic Car Investments says:

    Whenever Dick was in Chicago, during the mid-’70s, he would visit Joe Marchetti, who was a family owner and operator of the then renown Como Inn restaurant. Joe’s hobby and passion for Ferraris led Joe to form the exotic car boutique International Auto. The Como Inn and International Auto became a frequent meeting place for regional Ferrari Club of America members, as well as an annual festival held at Joe’s family estate.

    Chicago sports car enthusiasts were then blessed with specialty car dealers such as Harry Woodnorth; the restoration specialist Nuemeyer; Evanston’s Ulrich brothers and Franck Opalka; and Highland Park’s Peter Ledwith with Carl Haas of Hewland gearbox, Lola, and Paul Newman racing team fame. I was privileged to have shared, firsthand, all their collect respect for Dick’s meaningful contribution to the then-burgeoning Ferrari enthusiast community.

    Dick’s easy-going manner and generosity to freely share his in-depth knowledge of all things Ferrari made him a centerpiece of our club gatherings.

    My too brief personal interactions with Dick were of a commercial bent as we were in sync with our drive to impress upon early sports car buffs the intrinsic values of rolling future auto investments.

    Dick’s foresight was not limited to Ferraris as I felt honored to have served as a sounding board for his creation of the Alcohol for Fuel Foundation, which he formed to lobby ethanol blends.

    The most unforgettable aspect to having interacted with Dick was his innate ability to freely advise gear-heads as he was to guide Microsoft’s Bill Gates to clear a Porsche 959 through US authorities to West Coast sunsets.

    Dick’s life was a life well lived. RIP

  • Larry Benson says:

    Two snippets regarding Dick:

    I was at Amelia Island one year for the concourse and forgot my hat; Dick was kind enough to loan me one of his. Thereafter, he always asked me “did you bring a hat?”

    Dick related a tale about the 288 GTO coming into the states. The paperwork came across his desk and he realized that a 288 was not the same as a 308, but when queried by his supervisor he said it was just a “variant’ of the 308 and the car came into the USA. They look similar, don’t they? Later on when the 288 was recognized as hardly a “variant”, he caught hell!

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