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Feature Story


by Bob Hagin

June 21, 1996

Along with the plethora of complaint and technical letters we get from readers every week, we also get a couple that have to do with automotive history. And while I have a pretty good collection of vintage auto books and magazines, as well as almost all the contemporary stuff (I never throw away anything connected with cars), I'm sometimes at a loss for an answer. Unfortunately, I've never been able to gear in with an organization that specializes in car things of the past, one that has a membership that can be tapped into for answers.

Bob Rushing, a friend for several years, was a West Coast oval track race driver in those halcyon days just after World War II. His interest never waned on the subject and he has accepted the role of unofficial keeper of memorabilia and information regarding the sport as it was played in those times. Over the years he has acquired an enormous collection of photos, letters, trophies and souvenirs from drivers, their wives and fans of track racing. He knew most of the Indy drivers then, knows who is left and where they are.

Rushing told me that some weeks ago he received a call from a man who was looking for information on Ed Elisian, an Indy driver from California who died in the early '60s in a track accident. "The guy had been looking for information for months and had been through a half dozen sources before he got to me," he said. Then he added, "there should be some kind of organization that a person can go to when he wants to know about things like that."

After several calls around the country to like-minded auto writers like David Brownell of Special Interest Autos magazine, I was put on to The Society of Automotive Historians (SAH). Although the SAH has been around for almost 30 years as a non-profit corporation, no one seems to be aware of its existence - except its members. I was given the name and number of Kit Foster, its current president and in a phone conversation, Foster told me that the organization has approximately 700 members in almost all the states as well as in 20 foreign countries. "They range from housewives to farmers and from doctors to airline pilots," he said. And their interests range from the contemporary automobile industry to the very first days of the horseless carriage. The common thread that connects them is an interest in things automotive and while their areas of expertise are different, they agree on the fact that the society provides a center point for the recording, compiling and publication of historical facts concerning the worldwide development of the automobile.

There is also a corps of historians within the SAH that is interested in motorsports and it's this group in which that Bob Rushing is interested. "It seems to me that I heard of the society a long time ago, but for some reason I never looked into it," he said.

I had to admit that I too had heard of it but never joined.

When I first talked to Kit Foster, he said that the society had a single-sheet brochure that he'd send me. I asked him to fax it instead but he declined. "It's a really nice job and I'm proud of it." As a result, I got the brochure today and Foster was right: a grainy fax wouldn't do it justice. The focal photo on the cover is a black-and- white shot of Jean Harlow (a blonde-bombshell movie star of the day) standing beside her '32 Packard phaeton. Below are shots of a 1915 Maxwell Indy car, a rare '47 Nash wood-side Suburban and several others. These photos alone were worth the phone call requesting an application for membership.

The SAH puts out several publications that go to members. There's a bimonthly journal that carries short features, book reviews, news of what's going on with the SAH and classified ads. Occasionally, it puts out a magazine that has more in-depth articles on automotive history and it also puts out a biennial membership list that cross-references the member's name with his or her area of interest. The SAH encourages the use of this directory by the members to interact with each other to broaden their knowledge of whatever it is that interests them.

Membership into the SAH is $25 per year and if you're interested, its address is 1102 Long Cove Rd., Gales Ferry, CT, 06334. Obviously, I've joined the SAH and the reason is obvious. Being able to network with "experts" makes what I write much more readable - and accurate.