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Feature Story


by Bob Hagin

March 13, 1998

Being an auto enthusiast and hobbyist takes many forms. Not all aficionados have a vintage Corvette in the garage or are involved in the decade-long building of a kit-car replica of '32 Deuce Coupe. These endeavors may involve large outlays of money and sometimes, more space and talent than is available.

But there are other auto-related hobbies and avocations that don't require a well-equipped shop, the skills of a restoration technician or deep pockets. These are some of the non-rolling areas of automobilia that many enthusiasts are involved in:

AUTO PARTS - I've never found a rational enthusiast who collected old fuel pumps or brake rotors, but there are still hundreds of thousands of old license plates nailed to the walls of garages around the country. And if they're found in matching pairs, they're quite valuable to auto restorers whose vehicles match that particular vintage. I have a couple myself from the '30s. Some well-heeled racing enthusiasts snap up broken parts from famous race cars at amazing prices such as the Judd-Chevy race engine ("...for display only.") that was recently advertised in On Track magazine for $3000. Vintage art deco radiator mascots like the Rolls-Royce Flying Lady go for more than that and replicas of many less-famous mascots also bring high prices as "collectibles." At a young age, my son Matt was a used auto parts collector and his specialty was hub caps. It was the days of the old manhole cover-sized caps that adorned American cars and if Matt saw one by the side of the road, he'd make me turn around so that he could retrieve it. He did a thriving business in their sales until he was old enough to discovered other things of interest.

AUTO ART - Fine art that centers around the automobile has become such a big deal that the prestigious Pebble Beach Concours in Monterey, CA has a special display tent set up for invited artists next to the cars on display. These pieces are serious works and range from sculptures to oil paintings to woven wall hangings. They depict cars and trucks old and new, famous and common. Others portray notable auto personalities like Carroll Shelby or Henry Ford. But auto art takes many different forms for many different tastes. One of my favorites is the annual pictorial calenders from Hemmings Motor News with the deliciously alliterated title "An Annual Appreciation of Aesthetically Abandoned Ancient American Automobiles." It depicts dozens of derelict old cars and trucks that have been left to the elements in out-of-the-way places where they bear an eerie resemblance to neglected tombstones in an abandoned cemetery.

LITERATURE - Collecting automotive books, magazines, manuals and showroom brochures is very popular and it's often relatively inexpensive. Auto swap meets always have dozens of auto literature purveyors and most have hundreds of items of all kinds. One of my own weakness' is West Coast sports car racing programs of 40 years ago, since I was involved in many of the events but didn't save any as souvenirs. I have a friend who haunts used book stores when he travels to strange towns in order to add to his library of biographies of contemporary auto racing greats. He then takes the books to the races he attends, finds the subject of the biography and asks him or her to autograph the title page. And unlike other professional athletes, most racers don't demand a signature fee.

MODELS/TOYS - Automotive models and toys really should be in separate categories, so I'll no doubt get mail from offended collectors. On the TV show "Antique Road Show," I've often seen ancient pedal cars and kid's toys from the '20s and '30s shown that were valued in five-figures. The expert evaluators usually alluded to the plethora of collectors who specialize in these items. Ready-made new miniature models from manufacturers like The Franklin Mint are quite detailed and the only example that I own, a '25 Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost, is accurate down to its flip-up running boards that reveal tiny tool sets on each side. Not all of these models are as regal as the Silver Ghost, however. The Danbury Mint is taking orders for its equally miniaturized and detailed 1950 Borden's Milk Truck that has lilliputian milk crates in back and a mite-sized Continental four-cylinder engine under the hood. There is also an increasing number of serious modelers who perform exacting assemblies on what are commonly thought of as glue-together plastic kits for kids. At the last Oakland Roadster Show I attended, there was a section set aside for these craftsmen and the products of their handicraft rivaled the offerings of the high-dollar model makers in attention to detail.

PETROMOBILIA - Many of us old-timers remember the corner service station with fond memories. Attendants often wore white uniforms, matching garrison caps and leather bow ties. Motor oil was hand-drawn into glass quart bottles and the gasoline came from pumps with see- through transparent containers on top. The classified sections of magazines like Cars & Parts carry ads for companies that sell antique gas pumps, wall signs for long-forgotten oil companies, and even vintage tools, all of which are indistinguishable from the originals. Personally, I prefer to find these same items in unrestored form at any of the hundreds of automotive flea markets that spring up around the country as soon as the bad weather ends. My own garage houses an Echlin Ignition Parts cabinet that dates from the '30s and came from a service station where I worked as a kid. I also have a suitcase-sized Champion Spark Plug cleaner of indeterminable age. Both items see active service.

As you can see, automobile hobbies have many facets and they don't all involve driving, warehousing or elbow grease. The ultimate in minuscule motoring mania was exhibited by my late friend Gene Babow. Although he was an avid Porsche fan, his true love involved very little space - a couple of desk drawers in his office. Gene collected stamps with automotive themes.