Frank Johnson, of Johnny Franklin’s muffler and racing fame, dies
Johnny Franklin was not the actual name of the daring, pedal-to-the-metal World War II aviator, race car driver and businessman who died at his Santa Rosa home Sunday at age 96.
Frank Johnson modified and streamlined his given name, the same as he would a 1938 Ford Coupe. He took Johnny Franklin as his racing handle, and made it the name of the muffler shop that he opened on Santa Rosa Avenue in 1962 and that’s run today by his son and two grandsons.
Bold and good-humored, Johnson pushed himself to excel at all that he did: flying, dirt-track auto racing, selling cars, upgrading auto exhaust systems, delighting and providing for his family, golfing and serving with and through the Masonic Lodge.
“He was just full of life,” said his wife of 75 years, Mildred “Millie” Johnson. “He always had something going.”
Frank Robert Johnson was born in 1923 in Portland, Oregon, where family challenges resulted in him being reared by an aunt and uncle.
As a teenager enthralled by machines, he watched his uncle fly a crop-dusting plane and soon was piloting it himself.
His son, Bob Johnson, tells of how, while in high school in Portland, he successfully disassembled and reassembled an aircraft engine.
Frank Johnson was 18 when the Japanese attack on American forces on and near Oahu drew the U.S. into World War II. He joined the Navy early in 1942 and became a gunner on carrier-based attack planes.
The valor he exhibited in combat, including the invasions of Guadalcanal and Iwo Jima, brought him five Distinguished Flying Crosses and five Air Medals.
He was on leave in California in 1944 when he married, in Oakland, the former Mildred Elizabeth Grant. The two of them had reconnected after having been somewhat aware of each other as kids in Portland.
Following their vows, Frank Johnson returned to the war and his bride settled in Fairfax in Marin County.
Upon his honorable discharge in 1945, Johnson came home to Fairfax and went to work. He was a painter for a time; then he drove a milk truck.
But he wanted most to work with cars. He fueled his passion by taking a job as a salesman with Ernest Ingold’s Chevrolet agency in San Francisco. There he designed and built what became a popular style of beer truck.
He worked for years for Ingold, then moved to the sales team at DeLong Chevrolet in San Rafael.
For fun, several nights a week he raced what were called Hardtops, modified American cars from the 1930s and ’40s, on Bay Cities Racing Association dirt tracks in Sacramento, Walnut Creek and Vallejo.
He won the racing association’s championship twice. His son recalled the night in 1958 that “Johnny Franklin” was invited to NASCAR’s Santa Rosa Speedway off Russell Avenue to take on its best driver, Rod Zanolini.
With Johnson’s car on the inside of the track and Zanolini’s to its right, the competitors went nearly nose-to-nose for four laps. At the finish line, Johnson had taken the lead by only feet.
He was inducted into the Hall of Fame of the Bay Cities Racing Association in 1996. Auto racing became a multi-generational family tradition that continues, though a freak accident at the track in Marysville in 2013 took the life of a great-grandson, 14-year-old Marcus Josef Johnson.