Marvin Patchen 1925-2011
RIP Marvin Patchen—Baja pioneer… legend… inspiration.
Baja author and adventurer Marvin Patchen passed away May 26, 2011 at the age of 85… and what a life he led.
Many Baja aficionados will be familiar with his wonderful book Baja Adventures by Land, Air and Sea , and all the stirring tales of backcountry exploration and adventure recounted there. From his first Baja off-pavement experience in 1953 to his explorations with early ATVs, amphibious vehicles, canoes lashed together, a converted trawler, an assortment of trucks, planes, and helicopters… or through just plain old hiking and four-wheeling, his trips to Baja go way back.
“I have not recounted all our trips into Baja such as those during World War II when I was in the Marine Corps and stationed in San Diego and El Centro, making Tijuana and Mexicali close liberty towns. Nor have I told about the wild college days when we slept on the beach at Ensenada, gorging ourselves with eight-cent tacos and washing them down with 10 cents a shot tequila.” Baja Adventures by Land, Air and Sea.
Marvin Patchen was born in Pasadena in August 1925, and enlisted in the Marine Corps January 4, 1943. He was a medic and bandsman, and played a variety of instruments including saxophone and clarinet. He was discharged May 24, 1946 from Camp Pendleton, where he was a director of the Marine Corps band.
After the war, he met his wife Aletha at Pasadena City College where both were studying music and English. Aletha recalled that she “fell in love with his baby blue eyes.”
Marvin went on to spend most of his working life in publishing. He was a contributor and advertising director for a range of magazines including Motor Life, Trailer Boats Magazine, Trailer Life, Rod and Custom Magazine, Plane and Pilot Magazine, Popular Hot Rodding, Model Car Science, Four Wheeler Magazine… and later he launched his own publication, Aero Magazine.
He learned to fly in the early 1960s and became an experienced and accomplished “bush pilot.” He was always ready to fly to Baja to bring down parts if a friend’s vehicle broke down; he also took part in several search-and-rescue operations and provided air cover for various races… if he wasn’t a participant behind the wheel.
Racing was a major Patchen passion. He was on the Simca rally team and raced a Simca Aronde in Mexican and US events.
He became fascinated with Go Karts as a cheap fun way to go fast and was a major early figure in the sport, helping to arrange events and formulate its rules. He was the first Executive Director of the “Go Kart Club of America,” which later became the “International Kart Federation.” Both he and Aletha took part in thrilling races through the streets and backroads of Tecate, Ensenada, and Mexicali.
He authored the 1961 book— Karting Guide.
Aletha was right there with him in most all his various new interests. Both were active in the early Baja 500 and 1000 races. In 1968, with Marvin flying air cover, Aletha’s Jeep made it all the way to the finish in La Paz—the first ever women’s team to complete the Baja 1000.
He formed his own aircraft company Marvin Patchen Inc., and oversaw the development of a remarkable plane—the Patchen Explorer, a landplane version of the Schweizer Teal amphibian. It was “intended as a cheaper, faster, more maintenance-free alternative to the helicopter for such tasks as pipeline and fire patrol, fish spotting, aerial photography and police missions.” Like the Teal, the Explorer was powered by a single engine mounted above the wing—the powerplant a 200-hp fuel-injected Lycoming.
National Dynamics Ltd. of Durban, South Africa, acquired the project, but the Patchen Explorer never went into production; only a single prototype was built.
The South African Air Force Museum now owns the one and only example of the Patchen Explorer in the world, where it is on permanent display.
Reviewing and testing boats, vehicles, and planes became a major part of his life… and whenever he could, he would head south to conduct trials in the mountains and deserts of Baja, often with Aletha and the two children when they were older.
As idyllic as that life was, his love of the simple joys of the desert led to frustration with deadlines and other requirements of the publishing world.
“I decided that… I was going to retire at age 50 and make my dream come true. All I wanted was time to slow down… and to hike, paddle and Jeep at a slow pace without a schedule. I didn’t care if we had to feed ourselves by gathering clams and fishing in the Gulf and live in a lean-to.” Baja Adventures by Land, Air and Sea
His search for a suitable vehicle and rig for exploring the backcountry led him through an initial choice of an automatic Jeep J-20 and Alaskan telescoping camper, and finally to a Mitsubishi Fuso with custom camper, which Marvin and Aletha took to every corner of Baja.
Marvin and Aletha’s second Baja book—Baja Outpost—tells of their humble 12-by-16-foot cabin in the Cataviña area. Built in 1985, it has been a quiet and welcome haven for many a Baja traveler. Never having enough room in his plane for family and friends, and all the camping gear he’d like to carry, the cabin was conceived as a solution. But over the years as the Patchen’s circle of friends grew and more and more people stopped by on their way north and south, it became much more; a burgeoning visitor’s logbook recounting one fascinating and informative adventure after another.
Marvin Patchen knew how to race, and he knew how to take it easy and enjoy the unhurried pace of wilderness campfires and camaraderie beneath the star
Adios amigo. Kindness, generosity, and a mischievous sense of fun were your hallmarks. Adventure and exploration kept you young. I count myself blessed to have enjoyed your friendship and to have benefitted from your writing and experience.
Marvin was reunited with Aletha, his wife of more than 60 years, in 2018. Our condolences go out to their two children Mike and Kate... even as we celebrate two wonderful lives, well-lived.
Marvin Patchen USMC WWII