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Keep Cruisin', Marv Spector

Thu, 08 May 2014

For the last 30 years or so, you could belly up to the service counter at Specter Off Road in scorching Chatsworth, Calif., deep in the Valley, underneath the red-and-white arrow that stretches the length of the squat stucco building. You'd first have to stroll past the long and dark row of dizzying Toyota Land Cruisers -- Japanese fire trucks, FJ60s with roof-mounted machine guns and a propane-powered 1973 Baja 1000 champion. Past the glass cases of old photos and model kits and RC cars from Japan. Past the race suit of Bill Sander, said 1973 Baja 1000 champion. And once you got to the counter, under the banners advertising specials from the famous Specter catalog -- shock boots, differentials, $1500 transmissions -- you'd most likely encounter Marv Spector himself. And he'd probably be smiling. Because you might not even realize it yet, but you just became his new best friend.

"It was a qualitative phrase among Cruisers," said Jonathan Ward of Icon, "to say 'I'm a friend of Marv's.'"

"We once put a sign on the counter that said, 'I'm Marv's friend,'" said Steve Kopito, who was friends with Marv for over three decades. The joke was that so many people were Marv's friend, no matter for how long, that you'd practically expect a discount; with so many friends, Specter would go out of business. "He was the most friendly and giving guy that I ever met," continued Kopito. "If I needed something done that I couldn't do myself, he'd be the first to call. It worked in reverse, too. If he called me for help, I'd be the first out the door."

Marv and Kay Spector -- that's with an O -- started building this Cruiser Valhalla back when Chatsworth was the edge of human civilization, back in the days when people would pass a Land Cruiser and mutter, "Hey, nice Jeep." Kay's father ran a Land Cruiser shop called Man-A-Fre and Marv was her neighbor, and in the mid-1970s their mutual love of four-wheeling graduated beyond housing proximity and into marriage. By the early '80s Specter Off-Road was selling parts from mail-order catalogs, sending them to those who couldn't rely on Toyota anymore to keep their Land Cruisers alive.

They quickly became the largest source of Land Cruiser parts, not just for models sold in America but for Cruisers across the world: as the Spectors accumulated Cruiser knowledge to go with the parts, they rode the wave of mail-order popularity and then the early days of the Internet. The Spectors had a cabin in Frazier Park, by the Gorman off-road trails, by the new edge of civilization. Here, they hosted foreign friends and customers and took them shooting, horseback riding, four-wheeling -- rare experiences back home, for some. Marv and Kay saw the world from the windshields of Land Cruisers: Australia, Chile, Costa Rica, Germany, and the Netherlands. In Ecuador, "we went 17,000 feet and there were only two of us," said Kay Spector. "We were above the treeline, the weather was bad and we were constantly winching ourselves out."

And everywhere they went, the Spectors enjoyed the strange royalty of nichedom, celebrated by the few who knew. Marv was Land Cruiser and Land Cruiser was Marv, and everybody in the Land Cruiser community depended on him. When he went to Japan, the chief engineer of the Land Cruiser would take him on a personal tour of the plant. When Masahiro Terada, who runs the Land-Cruiser Fun Club (motto: "The difference between MEN and boys is the SIZE of TOYS!"), united Japan's scattered Land Cruiser clubs like Michael Corleone, the Spectors and Steve Kopito were there, at the first Land Cruiser Meeting in 1987 -- where Marv introduced Kopito to his future wife. When Toyota was developing the FJ Cruiser, it asked Marv to provide feedback for the prototypes and help launch the finished product. But, most importantly, Toyota's people wanted Marv for his Land Cruiser Rolodex.

"Every time we would take a vacation, it turned into work," said Kay. "It wasn't really work, but we'd be looking at Land Cruisers, then we'd be buying Land Cruisers, and we'd be filling containers with Land Cruiser parts, and soon enough there went the vacation."

To hear the community tell it, Marv was the nicest man in the world. "Always full of energy," said David, who has worked here for the past four years. "He would talk to you as a friend or family member. He would do anything, he was never afraid to get his hands dirty."

"In spite of the number of friends he had, he had the unique ability to make you feel like you're the most important person there," said Greg Miller, the heir apparent to Miller Motorsports Park; he first met Marv while assembling his epic Land Cruiser Heritage Museum, which is 60 Cruisers and counting. Marv visited once and proceeded to pick everything apart: "The linkage is wrong on this one," he would note, "the lens is the wrong year." Of course, he had all the parts. "If you interviewed every person that's been here today," Miller continued, "they'd all say that Marv made you feel like his best friend."

"Marv is so kind, so honest, yeah?" said Takeshi Namba, a landscape photographer who drives across the Australian Outback in a Land Cruiser a few times per year. "Sometimes he provided his Land Cruiser to me. In the early 1990s, I went to New Mexico, Arizona, Utah for three weeks. Marv gave me a green Land Cruiser for this trip. Very helpful for my project. Really good guy."

"I started coming here when I was 17, bugging Marv for expertise and advice," said Ward. When his idea for TLC became cemented, he asked Marv for his Holy Blessing. "Nobody was doing museum-quality restorations for these trucks. I was concerned if it'd piss him off. I said, 'Hey, we can increase the general respect of these trucks. Is it gonna be cool?'" He was, and it was. "We've always worked together, genuinely for the greater good. No ego or bullshit. Just straightforward, open, supportive friendship."

Marv Spector passed away from cancer in January 2014 at the age of 65. This past weekend, the Land Cruiser community descended upon Specter Off-Road to pay tribute. Dozens of Land Cruisers closed down the street behind Marv's shop and spilled into the parking lot. People who hadn't seen their friends in months, years, clapped each other on the backs; children ran around under the tables. With In-N-Out serving burgers and a live band playing M

By Blake Z. Rong