OUR CARS AND OUR BODIES. Both are elegant machines that require special care and attention. When they break down, someone with singular expertise must step in to fix them.
Enter Eric E. Johnson, M.D. An avowed “car guy” since childhood, he looks upon automobiles as an art form to be lovingly cared for, with a particular fondness for collecting and restoring American classics. And as director of orthopaedic trauma at Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center, Dr. Johnson is the go-to surgeon when the most serious bone and joint injuries arrive at the hospital, employing screws and plates and jack-like devices to align and repair the damage.
“It’s a mechanical thing,” he says of the work he does under the hood of the human body. “It is much like cars and engines and transmissions.”
The care that he takes with his patients in the O.R. extends to the care he takes of his vehicles, which sleep under custom-fit covers in the family garage. Among them is a red 1966 Shelby GT 350 – a fastback Ford Mustang coupe turned quasi-racer, thanks to the legendary driver and car builder Carroll Shelby – with just 600 original miles on the odometer, a snake-skin green ’08 Dodge Viper SRT 10 and a 2006 Ford GT, a two-seat limited-production “supercar.”
“I have had only one speeding ticket in my life, and it was in one of these,” Dr. Johnson says, pointing at the Viper, a 600-horsepower beast that can roar from zero to 60 m.p.h. in 3.5 seconds and tops out at around 200 m.p.h. Gazing at the Viper’s outrageous styling, which practically screams “arrest me” even while standing still, it’s hard to imagine that the doctor has gotten only one ticket while at the wheel.
And there is Dr. Johnson’s 2010 Ford Shelby GT 500 convertible. With 540 horsepower under its distinctive hood and huge tires under its retro-styled body, the new car makes his GT 350 look like a baby buggy in comparison, and shows just how far we’ve come over the past half-century in automobile engineering and design.
That’s also true in Dr. Johnson’s professional world. “Technology is advancing so fast, it’s sometimes hard to keep up,” he says. “When I first started as a surgeon, there were just a few different kinds of plates – L-shaped plates, straight plates and curved plates – and we had to adapt those plates to all parts of the body. Now we have probably 10 different plates for the humerus and nine or 10 for the femur. Every bone and every part of a bone now has a different plate. In fact, the problem is trying to balance it all and figure out what’s really needed and what’s overkill.”
Dr. Johnson is an enthusiastic practitioner and advocate for his profession – he has received numerous recognitions, including honorary membership in the Royal College of Surgeons of Ireland, and is a board member of the prestigious AO Foundation, a Swiss-based non-profit dedicated to research and training in musculoskeletal surgery – but he gets a certain glint in his eyes when he talks about cars. There’s that tungsten-silver Ford GT of his, for example. The sleek design of its fiberglass body pays homage to the legendary Ford GT 40, which won the 24 Hours of Le Mans endurance race in 1966, ’67, ’68 and ’69. “The GT 40s just destroyed the Ferraris,” Dr. Johnson says, with more than a hint of American pride in his updated GT 40, a Ford Motor Companyproduced 40th anniversary GT, which he describes as “a wonderful car, so smooth and precision-like.”
Most of his cars are for show, but there’s one he takes special pleasure in driving – a 2003 Mini Cooper S with a John Cooper Works engine kit that boosts the output to 215 horsepower. Joined by other members of the Mini Maniacs, a Southern California Mini-owners club, Dr. Johnson enjoys weekend outings behind the wheel of the only black car he’s ever owned. And it will be the last, he swears. “Black’s nice,” he says, swiping at a tiny fleck of dust with his polishing cloth. “A black car looks great when it’s clean. But you drive around the block, and it’s dirty. Even though I keep it covered, it still gets dirty.”
Keeping his cars clean is about the only automotive work Dr. Johnson feels capable of performing these days. “I used to work on a 1958 Corvette I once owned,” he says. “But these cars are too sophisticated. I think I’d just screw ’em up if I tried to fix ’em.”
One car he polishes very little is the GT , which doesn’t get dirty because it seldom leaves the garage. “I can’t get it out of the driveway because it’s so low it bottoms out at the edge of the street,” he says with a smile. “So it’s just a piece of art, something to look at and admire.” – Joe Rusz