Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

A Manitoba auto icon

Otto So is a great photographer and a serious car collector

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If you're a regular at local car shows, you have surely spotted Otto So smiling and snapping photos while catching up with his many friends in the car community. Known for his unique style of photography that incorporates swirling Photoshop designs with classic cars, Otto has been a fixture at local car shows for more than a decade.

In addition to his photographic prowess, Otto is also a serious car collector and is a proud member of both the Fabulous 50's Ford Club of Manitoba and the Manitoba Classic and Antique Auto Club (MCAAC). He regularly contributes to both clubs newsletters with articles and photos chronicling the local scene.

Last Sunday the Fabulous 50's car club were the featured guests at the Grant Park Pony Corral restaurant's weekly cruise night, and Otto arrived bright and early in his latest restoration, an absolutely stunning 1948 DeSoto Suburban.

If you're a regular reader of the Free Press Autos section, the car may look familiar. It was featured by Larry D'Argis back in 2007 in his Classic Cruising column. The story goes that Otto, who also owns a 1950 DeSoto, was looking for parts for his car on eBay back in 2005 when he spotted this 1948 model for sale in Eugene, Oregon.

He just had to have it.

Otto recently commissioned local auto restoration expert Garth McCombe to strip the car to bare metal and apply a stunning two-tone paint job. All of the trim and chrome parts were also replated by the Chrome Pit and the final product is truly stunning. "It's the same car that Howard Cunningham drove in the TV show Happy Days," Otto proudly told me as he showed off the car to a crowd of onlookers.

Although there are still a few final touches required to get the car to Otto's standards, there's no denying the considerable appeal this car contains. From the curb it appears to be a classic restoration of a classic car, but under the hood the previous owner installed a 330-horsepower, 1971 Plymouth 383 V8 engine with a four-barrel carburetor and dual exhaust. The motor is linked to a Torqueflite automatic transmission. Considering that the car originally featured a 109-horsepower six-cylinder and a semi-automatic transmission it's a safe bet to say this car is now better suited for the Fonz. Other upgrades include a fresh interior, power steering and power-assisted brakes.

In addition to being beautiful beyond words, the other thing that really stands out about this car is just how massive it is. With all three rows of seats in the upright position you can seat nine, and with the third row seat folded down there's practically enough room for Otto to park another of his prized possessions, a stellar replica of the famed Mercedes-Benz SSK roadster.

In talking with Otto, the topic turned to how he got interested in cars in the first place. Born in Hong Kong in 1946, Otto was a huge fan of all things motorized since childhood and vividly recalls the Japanese, British and European cars that cruised the streets of Hong Kong. Otto began working with computers in 1964 in Hong Kong and although times were tough in his homeland, his specialized skills were in high demand in Canada. With less than $200 in his pocket he moved here in 1972 with his wife Adelina and the couple's two daughters, who were small children at the time. Following a brief stop in Calgary the family moved to Winnipeg where Otto began working with Manitoba Public Insurance setting up the corporation's computer systems. His career also took him to Inter City Gas and Manitoba Hydro. He retired several years ago as the vice-president of information technology with Lakeview Development.

Seeing Otto at a car show is always a treat. He is full of kind words and always has a smile for everyone he meets. On the surface it looks as though he has lived the Canadian dream, but the reality is he's had some tough times.

Shortly after moving to Winnipeg, Otto was involved in a serious car accident that resulted in a broken neck. He was unconscious for 13 days and doctors were doubtful that he would ever recover. He did. In 1995 his wife Adelina passed away. Several years later Otto married his second wife, Anna. She died of cancer just 14 months later.

Thankfully, Otto has found love again, and is enjoying his retirement with his new wife Roberta; the happy couple were married last year at the Fabulous 50's Ford club's annual Flashback Weekend. They share a love for classic cars and enjoy the camaraderie of the car club culture.

I asked Otto why he takes so many photos, and why he simply gives them away to his friends in the car community free of charge when others charge top dollar for similar services.

"The reward is the appreciation they have for the photos," Otto told me with a glimmer in his eye. "I like the people in car clubs and have learned so much from them. It feels good to be a part of the safekeeping of our hobby and I like to do nice things for all the people who have done nice things for me."

The next time you spot Otto at a car show stop him and say hello. I did a number of years back and he has grown to become a cherished friend who brightens my day whenever we meet. The local car scene is filled with beautiful cars, and in among all that chrome there's more than a few beautiful souls.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 26, 2011 F3

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