John Oates Reveals His Lifelong Fascination with Cars and Racing

The guitarist and singer tells what moves him, literally and figuratively, in his new autobiography, 'Change of Seasons.'
By cscapelliti,

This is a feature from the March/April 2017 issue of Guitar Aficionado magazine. For this complete story and more photos, plus features on the making of Martin’s one-of-a-kind two-millionth guitar, Ricky Gervais and the return of his guitar-playing alter ego David Brent, plus GA’s annual motoring section, including features on the Doobie Brothers’ Pat Simmons and his antique Harley-Davidsons and the untold story behind Led Zeppelin's McLaren M8E/D racecar, pick up the new issue of Guitar Aficionado at your newsstand, or online by clicking anywhere in this text.

1,000 MILES OF LIFE: Enjoying a life-long fascination with cars and racing, John Oates reveals the forces that move him—literally and figuratively—in his captivating autobiography, Change of Seasons.

By Chris Gill | Photography by Jeff Fasano

It’s too bad that John Oates didn’t release his autobiography, Change of Seasons, before Dos Equis hired Augustin Legrand to replace Jonathan Goldsmith as “the most interesting man in the world.” No offense to Legrand, who is a fine actor, but Oates’ actual life story is much more fascinating than any scenario that a Madison Avenue account executive could ever concoct. There are numerous near-death experiences (on a motorcycle, in a car while racing professionally, and as the pilot of a private plane), celebrity encounters (David Bowie! George Harrison! Hunter S. Thompson!), love won and lost, fortunes won and lost (and won back again), and even a performance onstage with the Temptations, at the Apollo Theater no less. And don’t forget that Oates boasted one of the most iconic mustaches of the Seventies and Eighties—which was no mean feat in those impressively hairy eras.

Surprises abound in Change of Seasons, which covers the period from Oates’ formative years as a musician through the Nineties, just before he embarked on an entirely new chapter of his life as a solo artist. Perhaps the biggest surprise is that the book is not the definitive Hall and Oates story, even though Oates’ experiences with the immensely popular hit-making duo were important events in his life.

“The hardest part for me was figuring out how to tell my own personal story when much of it is so inherently linked to the Hall and Oates story,” Oates says. “Some of that is obviously in there, but I wanted to focus more on my own personal stories. I actually surprised myself with how many stories I had to tell. I wrote the book with Chris Epting, who started interviewing me a few years ago and who seemed to understand what I was about. I shared some stories with him, and at one point he asked if I ever considered writing a book. He encouraged me to do it, and that’s how it started. After we had written about 400 pages I realized that I hadn’t even reached my solo career or my move to Nashville. There wasn’t enough space in this book to include that, so my plan is to do another book.”

One of the most fascinating threads throughout the book is Oates’ passion for cars. His interest in racing was ignited by the discovery of a box of discarded Road & Track magazines he found while walking in his childhood neighborhood of North Wales, Pennsylvania. “I went to a lot of races while I was growing up,” he admits. “Then I started to race go-karts for a while, and that led to racing cars. As Hall and Oates became more successful, I also started collecting cars. I’m still a car fan and gearhead. I don’t race anymore, but I love driving. I don’t collect anymore, but I still have a few cars.”

Sadly, Oates sold off his impressive car collection in 1987 after his accountant revealed the shocking news that Oates was broke due to mishandling of his band’s business affairs. The collection included a 1955 Chevy Bel Air convertible, a 1956 Porsche Speedster (“the only car in the bunch I wish I still had”), a 1967 Austin-Healey 3000, a 1967 Jaguar XKE, and a custom-built 1984 Porsche Carrera that he had special ordered from the factory in Stuttgart. Cars that Oates had owned previously were equally impressive, including a fire-engine red Rolls Royce Corniche convertible and a 1977 Porsche 930 Turbo Carrera.

“That was one of the very first 930 Turbo Carreras,” Oates recalls. “Allegedly, Rod Stewart had already put down a deposit on the one that I wanted—at least that is what the salesman told me. That story could be as true or false as you want it to be, although you know how car salesmen can be.”

Oates remains passionate about Porsches, and he’s currently putting together his ultimate Porsche. “I’m in the process of building a custom vintage Porsche Outlaw with Rod Emory of Emory Motorsports in North Hollywood, California,” he says. “It’s going to be entirely hand-built. We just found an old Porsche 356 in a barn in Texas that we’re using as the starter car.”

PHOTO: Keith Leman

The “fun” cars in the garage near Oates’ Nashville home include a 1972 Alfa-Romeo Spider convertible (“I’ve been restoring it for the past couple years, and it’s completely stock”) and a 2013 Audi TT RS. “It’s a Final Edition TT RS that was the last model of the Series 2 TT that Audi built before they went to their new style,” he says. “The color is Nimbus Grey, which is the color that Audi used on the show car back when they first introduced that model, but they hadn’t offered the TT in that color until the Final Edition. They made 30 Final Editions in Nimbus Grey with a special interior and all the bells and whistles. I had it modified by APR in Alabama, who are probably the best-known Audi tuners in America. It has a Stage 2 tuning kit with a chip and a full exhaust. It puts out about 430 horsepower. It’s a fun beast. When I want to get my heart beating fast, that’s the one that I take out on all the great country roads here in Tennessee.”

Oates also has two daily drivers: a Toyota Tacoma truck that resides at his mountain home in Woody Creek, Colorado (“I live on a dirt road out there, so basically I need a truck”) and a Volkswagen Golf R. “The Golf is actually one of my favorite cars that I’ve ever driven,” he admits. “I’ve driven everything from the most exotic vintage sports cars to modern things like the Porsche GT3, but I really love the Golf R. It’s a fantastic car to drive for doing your everyday thing. Whenever I get in the car it’s a really enjoyable driving experience. It’s really well put together and has a lot of well-thought-out features.”

In 1977, the same year that Oates bought his first Porsche, he met racecar driver Richard Lloyd. With Lloyd’s help and encouragement, he signed up for racing school and eventually earned an SCCA (Sports Car Club of America) competition license. While Hall and Oates were experiencing new levels of success during the early Eighties, Oates was enjoying a second career and similar rise in success as a professional racer.

“I just progressed the way any racing driver progresses,” he states. “When you start racing, it becomes pretty clear very quickly whether you have the talent and skills or not. If you get out there and you’re always running in the back of the pack, you can’t keep up with everybody, and you’re barely qualifying, racing probably isn’t what you should be doing. Every time I went to a driving school or even back when I was racing go-karts, I did pretty well. I got to the front, and while I didn’t always win every race, I was always very competitive. I always felt I had some kind of talent for racing, and my times were always very competitive. When you’re reinforced by success, you naturally move on. I went from go-karts to Formula 4 to Sports 2000, which is an amateur and professional series. I did a few rides in IMSA in a couple of Porsches, and I finally ended my career by crashing my Pontiac Fiero at Elkhart Lake.

“If I hadn’t crashed I probably would have raced a little longer,” he muses. “The thing is that I was racing in a professional series without giving it professional effort. I came to the realization that maybe I could get away with that at the amateur level, but not at the level that I was racing at. The combination of the crash and being more honest with myself influenced my decision to quit racing. It was crazy. I can’t believe I actually went as far as I did.”

While financial hardship forced Oates to sell his car collection during the late Eighties, he did manage to hang onto a few of his favorite workhorse guitars from the early days, including a 1958 Stratocaster that was his main guitar with Hall and Oates during the Seventies and Eighties. In 2012 Seymour Duncan rebuilt the guitar and restored it to the way it was in 1974, complete with it original dual-humbucking pickup (including a Gibson PAF) modification.

“That Strat and a TV Jones Model 10, which I bought as soon as that model came out [in 2009], are my go-to guitars onstage with Hall and Oates,” he says. “The pickups have a chimey quality with a lot of clarity that is the perfect complement to what I need on certain songs.”

Oates predominantly plays acoustic guitar when doing his solo shows, with his main guitar being a custom Martin 000-18. “It was built to my specs by the Martin Custom Shop,” he says. “It’s a very unique guitar. It’s actually a 00 size, but the body is 1/2-inch deeper, and the body is rosewood and spruce instead of mahogany, which technically makes it a 00-28. I don’t think that Martin has ever made another one like it, so it’s probably one of a kind. It’s in Martin’s book of custom guitars. I had my special inlay put in it, and it’s gorgeous. I also use some custom Gibsons that I spec’d out and had built at their factory in Bozeman, Montana. I have a custom L-00 and two B-25s that are actually built exactly like a J-45. Technically they’re mini J-45s, but they’re the size of a B-25. They’re very unique guitars as well.”

Other guitars in Oates’ collection include various Duesenbergs, Fender Jazzmasters, a new reproduction D’Angelico New Yorker, a James Trussart Steelcaster, a Martin D-28 and an 00-15M, and a Gibson ES-390. “There’s also an old Gibson ES-175, a 1967 Gretsch Single Anniversary, a Sixties Guild F-20, a Vinnie Bell Coral Sitar from the Seventies… The list goes on and on. I probably have about 20 guitars that I actually use. I’m not really a collector. I have a lot of working guitars. If I don’t use it, I won’t keep it. Every guitar I own has a specific use.”

As Change of Seasons so eloquently reveals, Oates has always maintained a solid, grounded perspective on his life whether he’s enjoying the heights of success or experiencing the turmoil of near disaster. In fact, he considers the financial hardship he endured in 1987 as the most positive turning point of his life.

“As negative as you could look at that situation,” he explains, “the reality was that it was the best thing that ever happened to me. It caused me to change my entire life. I needed to grow up and become a different man. I took an entirely different approach to my entire life from that point forward. Had that not happened to me—say, that the Eighties had ended and I had millions and millions of dollars—who knows where I would have ended up. It was actually a blessing, and that’s what I want people to take away from this book. Sure, I got ripped off, but lots of musicians got ripped off. That’s a pretty common story. But I fought through it and came out a much better person on the other side.”

This is a feature from the March/April 2017 issue of Guitar Aficionado magazine. For this complete story and more photos, plus features on the making of Martin’s one-of-a-kind two-millionth guitar, Ricky Gervais and the return of his guitar-playing alter ego David Brent, plus GA’s annual motoring section, including features on the Doobie Brothers’ Pat Simmons and his antique Harley-Davidsons and the untold story behind Led Zeppelin's McLaren M8E/D racecar, pick up the new issue of Guitar Aficionado at your newsstand, or online by clicking anywhere in this text.

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