Frank Johnson, of Johnny Franklin’s muffler and racing fame, dies

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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.

Frank Johnson commuted from Marin to Santa Rosa in 1953 to operate a Studebaker and Packard dealership on Santa Rosa Avenue with partner Bob Lambert. The Johnsons moved to Santa Rosa in ’55.

The demise of the Studebaker-Packard Corp. a decade later prompted Johnson to open, also on Santa Rosa Avenue, a used-car lot with a new business partner, John Hiatt.

The two of them took great joy in putting up an oversized sign above the dealership, called Johnny Franklin’s. The banner proclaimed, “This lot has two Johns.”

It was painted over after an unamused Santa Rosa City Hall issued the partners fines and an order to abate.

It was 1962 when Frank Johnson expanded into the muffler business. He opened Johnny Franklin’s Mufflers, and welcomed son Bob into the enterprise.

The shop prospered. In 1973, the Johnsons opened a second shop, in San Rafael.

The former World War II aviator bought a small plane and for a time went up over Sonoma County regularly to report on weather conditions and, sometimes, traffic, in on-air conversations with the late Jim Grady of radio station KSRO. Johnson dubbed himself “The Weather Bird.”

While still in his prime, he eased away from Johnny Franklin’s Mufflers, allowing son Bob and grandsons Rob and Don to run the shops. Johnson put his freedom to good use, traveling with Millie, playing golf, fishing and spending leisure time with his growing family.

Loved ones gathered at his home in Oakmont last week as his long, eventful life tapered to an end.

“He had a wonderful life. He filled it up,” Millie Johnson said.

In addition to his great-grandson, Marcus, Frank Johnson was preceded in death by his daughter, Pamela Pitkin. He is survived by his wife in Oakmont and his son in Santa Rosa, and by six grandchildren and 12 great-grandchildren.

A memorial service is at 11 a.m. Tuesday at Daniels Chapel of the Roses.

Johnson’s family suggests memorial contributions to the Marcus Johnson Memorial Foundation, 1535 Farmers Lane, No. 124, Santa Rosa 95405.

You can reach Staff Writer Chris Smith at 707 521-5211 and

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