A sight for sore eyes

Vision Express founder Dean Butler has put his fortune to good use – with a collection of classic cars and a restoration business in Cincinnati
By Damien Smith

The directions were excellent, and it’s just as well. You’d never spot Zakira’s Garage from the road. Yes, here’s another humble motoring business that doesn’t go in for the big image. Perhaps it’s better that way, because behind the doors of this nondescript building in a quiet Cincinnati suburb lies a feast of auto Americana – and cars much more familiar to my side of the Atlantic – all of which are worth a tidy dollar or three.

Zakira’s is the creation of regular Goodwood racer and committed Anglophile Dean Butler, founder of optician chain Vision Express. The garage was born from passion and the necessity to service his own incredible collection of cars, raced in the UK under the moniker EDB Racing.

Here’s just some of the highlights of what he owns: the ex-Tim Birkin/Whitney Straight Maserati 26M Grand Prix car; Louis Chiron’s 1931 Monaco GP-winning Bugatti Type 51; one of the three Allard-Cadillac JRs that raced at Le Mans in 1953; one of only two Scirocco-BRM 1.5-litre F1 cars ever built; an ex-factory Maserati 8CTF, which also won the Pikes Peak hillclimb in 1948 driven by Louis Unser; and of course ERA R1A. Wow.

But at Zakira’s the business is much less selective, which actually makes it all the more fascinating. As I’m greeted by Don Butler, brother of Dean and the man who runs the garage day to day, I can’t help but note the eclectic mix: an in-restoration Austin Healey and a replica Jaguar D-type, Mercer and Regal Edwardian racers, Miller and Duesenberg dirt/Indy racers, a ZZ Top-style hot rodder and a giant 1934 V16-powered Cadillac Centennial. And in the middle of it all a humble MG TD.

“That’s the first car my brother restored,” explains Don. “He’s four years older than me and I can’t remember when he wasn’t interested in cars.”

The brothers grew up in blue-collar Philadelphia in the 1950s, hardly a Eurocentric environment for a pair of impressionable young petrolheads. But they were never interested in the obvious. “Everyone else was into Chevys and Fords, but we were different,” says Don. “Dean bought the MG when he was 16 in 1960. The car was seven years old and the engine was finished, but he rebuilt it.”

The Butlers grew up inspired and infatuated with European motor racing, and when Dean had built up his fortune it was only natural he would spend some of it on his passion for cars from both home and abroad.

The result was the founding of Zakira’s Garage, the name inspired by Dean’s children Zachary and Kira. “The business grew out of Dean’s race experience,” says Don. “People know us for tackling oddball jobs…”

In other words, this is much more than a company interested only in turning a profit. Don is keen to emphasise this is a business which must justify itself like any other, but while Zakira’s looks after ‘common’ classics for a regular client base, it also accepts special long-term projects. One example is a 1923 Miller 122 Indy racer. “It’s been in the shop for over five years,” says Don. “The owner doesn’t have an endless supply of money, but he wants it done right.” To put it another way, it’ll be finished when it’s finished.

“We’re Miller nuts here,” admits Don, as he points me towards something special owned by Dean. It’s a 1935 Miller-Ford, one of only 10 built and a car that put Henry Ford off racing pretty much for life after the four that qualified for the Indy 500 failed miserably in the race, all hobbled by seized steering gearboxes which had overheated because of their proximity to the exhaust. “This is the car Andy Granatelli drove at Indy in 1948 fitted with a 270cui Offenhauser,” claims Don. “He wrecked it in practice, breaking his arm. He’d been unimpressed with his driver and wanted to show him how it was done. It was the last time he was on a race track.”

Time and attention to detail: key ingredients for the best restorers. Having shown me the long-term projects, Don now leads me into the office where the groundwork is covered. I’ve never seen such an impressive library of motoring books, bolstered by a completist’s magazine archive. I’d heard Dean was a keen collector of the automotive written word – here’s the proof.

Don is as versed in British culture and motor sport as his brother. As I leave Zakira’s Garage and head for the nearest Interstate, it feels odd to have the echoes of our conversation about the world of Goodwood rattling around my head as I drive through the world of Wendy’s and Denny’s. But in a small part of Cincinnati, it seems there were will always be an England.