As darkness fell on the field, the September 1992 gathering of the Tyrods Hot Rod Club wound down. I turned the corner to take a final glimpse of my Ray Brown and Bob Schaeneman ’32 Ford roadsters in the flat light just before dark, but their spaces were empty. I had been thunderstruck all through the meet by the way the cars had turned out.
Yes, through the better part of the last year, I’d observed from afar the reincarnation of the Ray Brown car as it had been built and raced in the nineteen forties, and I’d further overseen returning the Schaeneman Ford roadster to its hey-day in the early nineteen fifties.
But both of the roadsters had been swept away well before I could raise a hood or, God forbid, open a door!
Making my way back to our home in Pennsylvania through the always wretched traffic in the northeast corridor gave me ample time to absorb that in a few short weeks I would actually take possession of the two great hot rods.
Back in Philadelphia, almost as quickly as I came through the door, Mark Smith called me. Mark Smith is one if the cleverest and knowledgeable European and classic automobile dealers I’ve ever met. You simply didn’t get anywhere ahead of Mark Smith. And for heaven’s sake don’t try to slide a vague edgy mechanical detail past Mark. You’ll be pulled up short.
BUT THIS TIME . . .
Did I know about the “Zirbie” 1957 Thunderbird??
“Uh, no, what’s to know?” I asked.
Mark went on to regale me with a tale that there was a guy who lived in the Philadelphia suburb of Gladwyne. It was said that this guy in Gladwyne had purchased a 1957 Thunderbird from a man named Zirbie.
Larry Zirbie was at one time the top executive at Ford Motor Company’s Cleveland engine plant.
Mark continued by saying Mr. Zirbie’s 1957 Ford Thunderbird was powered by a highly modified Lincoln V-8 and all the work was done on the car while Zirbie was top dog at the Cleveland engine plant. The Lincoln 430 cubic inch engine and was purported to have been built by the legendary Bill Stroppe, as one of the 430 inch in NASCAR Engines.
A good many additional modifications to the Thunderbird were carried out by Kar Kraft in Detroit. Kar Kraft was Ford Motor Company’s notorious “back alley” hot rod shop! Halibrand magnesium wheels, big brakes, suspension modifications and strengthening of the frame itself were executed by Kar Kraft.
“So, Mark, why are you calling me? You generally don’t give ice away in the winter . . .” I said.
“The Thunderbird needs a lot and this owner is in outer space with the price and anyway you’re the Thunderbird guy aren’t you . . .??”
“Okay, I’ll take a crack at him,” I said.
A couple of days later I rang the guy and quickly discovered why Mark turned him over to me. The guy was just plain insufferable, arrogant and rude. “No, he didn’t want to sell, and no, he wasn’t interested in showing it to anyone.
When asked how he valued the car in its pretty run down state he tossed out a figure that would buy six or seven new Ferrari’s of the era!
The car was somewhat fascinating, but the guy was such an arrogant clown that I decided to put him off for, I don’t know, maybe a day when I might be able to dish out the misery as well he could.
I got off the phone and tried to put that nasty fellow behind me. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was far from done with that charmer. . .
But we’ll be coming back to that Thunderbird on down the road . . .
HHMMM . . . WHAT’S THIS??
While talking to that balky old donkey, I was perusing an Antiques Newspaper that yielded a few choice antique toy nuggets from time to time.
I turned a page and spotted a notice for an upcoming liquidation auction of a Hobby Shop way up on Cape Cod. The ad carried photo images of some of the merchandise and there was plenty of new old stock parts for the tether cars and more than a few complete new old stock Thimble Dromes and O&R cars. It was scheduled for the following Thursday.
By Monday of the auction week I was taking a hard look at the business sense of attending the sale.
After all we were just days away from taking the finished hot rods to Hershey along with the other cars, toys etc.
The race cars were the smaller and more plentiful Cox Thimble Dromes, and the Ohlsson & Rice “mite” cars I’d had a heap of those over the years. Still they were “New Old Stock”, and there appeared to be all manner of merchandise in the sale from this hobby shop.
Marilyn would join me and this was going to be a real “extra effort” trip that could get turned on its head since I was working with a small classified ad and some fuzzy images. Plus a journey to the northern end of Cape Cod in the cold fall could easily end up being the Hell of it all.
I promised myself I wouldn’t buy just for the sake of buying, but the pins under this particular venture were wobbly at best.
We got to the auction site very early in the afternoon. The sale had an especially broad selection. I noticed a small gathering of Marklin trains and even fewer Marklin railway accessories.
WHOA, WHO’D HAVE GUESSED . . .
In visually “grazing” the items to be sold my eyes landed on an item that I could not believe I was actually seeing. I wasn’t sure what to do next . . .
I stood frozen into stone!
In the back corner of a case, on a high shelf, was a very rare fourteen inch tall Marklin four faced railway clock!! Two of the four clock faces carried a functional operating clock! This was a child’s toy train layout accessory!!
I had never seen one with my eyes. In fact I had never even seen a photograph of the noble Marklin clock in any of the great European Collector books! I did know it had to carry some value.
And to put your mind at ease, the only reason I knew what it was was because of my insatiable desire to absorb everything that had to do with all transportation toys from the great manufacturers of Europe, particularly the maker Marklin in the vey early years of the twentieth century. Obviously that included everything. . .
Well, son of a gun, I sure as heck knew what I was doing coming all the way up here, didn’t I?
There was a lot of cliff hanging before the sale was underway. It was only about two PM and the sale didn’t start until five PM.
A lazy gaze around the auction room revealed two or three stooges that could have been Marklin buyers.
But wait a second, there was Jay Lowe over there. Jay was young, but smart as a whip. He knew his “Marklin.” Jay’s parents Jean and Bob Lowe had pretty much ruled the high end of the antique toy business for a number of years. The Marklin clock was scheduled to sell very late in the sale and as I mentioned was uncataloged carrying simply an “A” tag which meant it had been consigned very late.
All the hobby items I was chasing were quite early in the sale.
I told Marilyn to treat the Marklin clock like it was of no interest. Don’t even look at it again. . .
We then had to wait for the start of the sale. I signed up to bid at 5:30 and walked into the auction room. Sure enough there was a gathering of mid-range dealers for Marklin lurking, two of which, if they could stop kibitzing, might possibly know what was sitting ten feet away.
The sale started and I was successful in getting all of the early “new old stock” hobby shop racing car items. Amazingly Jay Lowe had left!
The clock was was still many lots down the line.
I had decided on a strategy.
I paid for my already bid items, gathered them up and gave a farewell wave to the possible “train buyers.” The kibitzers remained deep under the “ether.”
Marilyn and I left!!
We had paid for our items, and I put all of our purchases in the car. It was now mighty chilly. I went to a back door of the auction building where I could hear them call out the upcoming lots.
Ten lots short of the Marklin clock I quietly re-entered the building and re-registered,
Jeez, the New England “dealers” were all still sitting in a tight group yakking away.
Finally the clock came to the block and the auctioneer asked for and got a bid of $25. I was next, being asked $30. It was just me and one other bidder.
Somewhere in the $40 range the other bidder spun around and shot me a look of pure New England disdain.
I secured the clock at $53! No one in the New England “train dealer” crowd even knew I was back in the room!
WHAT A “GENIUS” . . .
After breakfast at our hotel the next morning, I called the top dealer in Great Britain and told him of the clock. He questioned me carefully and once satisfied, said he would be a buyer at $22,000.00!! To say I was thoroughly stunned would be an understatement!
To this day I have only once seen another clock like it surface and it was sold recently at an auction in Germany.
“EXTRA EFFORT” PLUS . . .
The very weekend we returned from our Cape Cod trip, I got a telephone call quite early on Sunday morning.
“Are you da’ guy that advertises that you buy old toys?”
“I am . . .”
Without waiting for any additional response from me he proceeded to tell me “they” were moving out of state and his wife had insisted that he call me. Everything that they weren’t taking in their car was going to a local auction house.
“. . . but I got an old toy train car, ‘bout a foot long, says Budweiser on it . . .
“Is it hand painted or lithographed?” I asked
I guess at that point he was ready heave the damn thing in the weeds! First it was his wife that pushed at him and now this wiseguy on the phone asks if it is “sumethin’graphed??”
Sensing I was on thin ice, I simply asked him how much this Budweiser reefer car was going to cost me. . .
“My wife says if it ain’t worth $200 she’s gonna give it to her brothers 8 year old as he likes to play with trains. . . .”
Whoa, can’t have that happening!
Even if it was a lithographed car by a lesser maker it was probably worth that sum of money
“Where are you located?” I asked as casually as I could.
“Down here to Linwood, in Jersey, just back of Ocean City.
Oh yeah, I knew where godforsaken Linwood was. Just back of the Pork Island Preserve in south Jersey!
I told him where I was coming from and that I’d be there in the early afternoon.
The thoroughly sensible side of my brain picked up the “Common Sense” powder container to give me a literal kick in the ass, but the container was empty!!
So, the “idiot stick” side of my brain booted into overdrive and we were off to the New Jersey coast on a really big, “out there where the buses don’t run” adventure.
Yeah, I know it was the Sunday before the Tuesday that Hershey opened! And the traffic coming back to Philly from the Jersey shore beaches would be the ‘hell of it all . . .’
We trundled down to Linwood and just like it is in the movies, bursting out of an overgrown access road, there it was. A dilapidated wooden home on cinderblocks. The first thing my eyes landed on was a true tree stump with a serious axe buried in it!
Absorbing all of that, I determined I’d be forking over my $200 even if the guy handed me a tin can!
He gruffly greeted us and went off to get the “item.”
“Here it is. Don’t look like nothin’ to make a fuss over, but my ol’ lady . . .”
I had stopped listening and was absorbing the sight of a hand enameled Marklin Gauge 1 Budweiser car. It was a virtual twin to one shown in the photograph below.
In fact, in looking at it carefully, I couldn’t see any evidence of the railway car having been used at all.
Giving my best casual nod, I quickly forked over $200.
I carefully, but rapidly, bid my thanks and good-bye. The wife had been watching from the porch. She had a slight look of satisfaction on her weary face.
So, ( . . .don’t worry, I’m not going to wheel out my “extra effort” spiel. Still . . .)
Once back on the freeway along with the 36 million others who were coming home from the New Jersey shore points, I reviewed where I was with this deal. The Budweiser car would bring $9,000, and it would do it pretty damn quickly. Two amazing transactions!!
Marklin had done a few other reefer cars including marvelously hand enameled Schlitz and Pabst beer cars .
What if a man were to have all three?
(. . .”what if”. . .)
It was always how far you can you push, Kirk?
Why don’t you just take a colossal profit on the Budweiser Beer and get on with your business . . .)
Of course, I chose to search out the Pabst and Schlitz beer cars to add to the “Bud” car. Hadda’ do it . . .
OFF TO HERSHEY OCTOBER 1992 . . .
Last minute details on the two hot rods were wrapped up, and Jim Sr. & Jr. assured me the cars would be at Hershey the Tuesday before the Fall meet and the show on Saturday.
. . .”No, there was no need to come up to Massachusetts, we’ve got it all handled . . .”
“. . . Right, . . . "I muttered into the already dead phone line . . ."
Well, there was certainly enough for me to do as I had purchased quite a few additional real hot rods to bring to Hershey including a spectacular Ardun powered ’32 roadster in a brilliant yellow and at the other end of the tent was the fabled “Tommy Foster” Cadillac powered roadster that was the winner of the 1953 Detroit Autorama.
The purchase of the “Foster Car" as famous as it was it had proven to be an arduous transaction., I had been ill at ease with the seller who, though he had sent “snapshot” photos, seemed to fumble with any pointed questions. He was shooting for the moon on the price too. Finally, we stumbled just past my concerns and I was able to bring the price to a somewhat reasonable level.
I finally agreed to go ahead and buy the car. It was at its core simply a 1932 Ford roadster for Heaven’s sake!
Well, The Intercity Lines truck arrived. I would drive the car the six miles home to evaluate it.
I knew the driver, we visited for a bit, but as we parted and I started the drive back to the house, the first turn that I steered into resulted in a handful of unpleasant surprises.
One, the steering box felt like it was filled with pebbles and the second sensation arose from the entire rear portion of the body shifting over against the load bearing tire and the brakes were something that needed to be scheduled for the next day!!
The rest of the trip was driven just above idle speed.
When I got home, I called the seller and unleashed the hammers of Hell for his deceptive description. I seldom carried on in such a fashion, but this car was simply not driveable!
He calmly informed me that that was the way they were built for the early high-profile Detroit shows. The last thing you wanted on the show floor was a drip of oil from any source. Hence, a bone dry steering box. Brakes may leak a bit of fluid, so we’ll skip the fluid. When the car was placed on the show floor if the body was slightly cockeyed, it was a lot easier to get a couple of buddies to help lift the unit into an appealing squared-up position. This list goes on and on.
Leaving the “list” behind, it was a fantastic hot rod. Powerful Cadillac engine and had that drop-dead dash and instrument cluster. We jumped on the car and tied up all the loose ends (literally!) and got ready to take it along to Hershey. I had also purchased a ’36 Ford five window coupe.
(Sounds pretty plain, Kirk . . .)
Five window ’36 Ford coupes didn’t exactly flip buyers over backward. Past that, the car was light tan and the engine and drive train were stone stock!
But, it was just plain gorgeous. I bought the car at the Macungie, Pennsylvania annual August show put on by the “Wheels of Time” hot rod club.
Macungie was quintessential rural American hot rod gathering. Set in a sylvan setting at a large country park not far from Allentown, Pennsylvania. Big pavilion, lots of Pennsylvania Dutch food.
All that aside, there was this incredibly appealing ’36 Ford. I drove the car home after buying it and proved to myself that I was one lucky “son of a gun” for buying it!
Very quickly it was the Monday before Hershey. We loaded two slick motorcycles, a bundle of toys and the three cars. The Ardun powered ’32 Ford roadster, the now “very stout Tommy Foster Motorama winning roadster, and the fabulous ’36 Ford coupe.
Yes, the Ray Brown and Bob Schaeneman roadsters were on the way in also and debuting that weekend. But, they were coming for the show on Saturday morning. I’d pretty much set them completely aside in my mind.
The Lowery’s had them safely in individual trailers on the grounds.
MY YOUNG PAL . . .
Wednesday morning when we opened up the tent, I saw a familiar face just outside the tent. He was no more than eight or nine years old. He was wearing a fairly sophisticated set of earphones coupled to a two-way radio and was hesitating in the aisle as we frantically set up for the day.
I spotted him and invited him in to the booth. For the past three or four years he had come around to our spot accompanied by his Dad.
The youngster was always seeking anything in toy boats. In the beginning his requests were so faint that I could barely understand him. His Dad had held the spending limit to ten dollars. Though the Dad wasn’t with him that morning, his budget was still confined to ten dollars!
I never had anything for him, but I would chat with him at length about his enthusiasm and encourage him to keep at it.
I counted him lucky to have a caring father who each year brought his young son and spent an entire day allowing the youngster to see how the world really worked.
But in 1992 my young friend was standing outside the tent on his own, though obviously wired to his faithful Dad.
I was on the verge of telling him I had nothing for him, but it was always great to see him.
Then I remembered I had with me a Bassett-Lowke unassembled launch kit still in the box. Someone putting the time and effort into it would end up with a handsome British launch. I couldn’t remember where I got it or what the hell I had ever planned to do with it!
“How much money do you have with you? I asked
“$10 dollars” he said.
“Stay here, I said and I went to the table that had my ever growing pile of “Why the hell did I ever buy this??” Marilyn had watched this small episode unfold and she knew . . .
“You have $45 in that kit. . .” Marilyn reminded me.
I acted like I didn’t hear her and said to the boy”
"Son, if you like this, you can have it for $10."
He was thrilled. I was in the dog-house. (. . . Again!!. . .)
We sailed along having a good meet. We sold all of our hot rods except the Foster roadster and a number of tether cars and antique toys.
WHOA! I FORGOT ALL ABOUT THAT . . .!!
Friday morning, soon after we opened, somebody asked me which of the hot rods I was going to drive the few hot laps at noon up at the race track inside the stadium!
To give you a bit of background, Hershey had a good sized stadium with a macadam oval track that had been used at one time to race the midget auto racers.
All of the certified competition Class 24A cars were required to take some not “hot” laps, but maybe “lukewarm” circuits on the track in the Stadium.
I’m sure most of you would be thrilled to be let loose on a race track in a fabulous pair of hot rods that had never been seen before.
However, if you have paid attention through the previous chapters, you are fully aware that I am an adequate driver, generally at my best on deep country roads.
I was thunderstruck! I’d be laughed out of the stadium and take hot rodding down several pegs in the process!
(. . . What the fuck?? . . how did you completely forget about that Kirk . . .?)
I lapsed into a near catatonic state.
THEN AT 10 AM . . .
Suddenly it dawned on me! Both of the Lowrey’s were professional racing drivers. Jim Jr. who was a crackerjack driver had won the 1980 Super Modified Championship in New England and in fact won in every class of automobile racing in New England through the years.
Not only was that a remarkable feat, but it has never been accomplished since!
And Senior owned and set up the Midget that won the championship in 1981!
I hustled over to their tent and caught them just before they were leaving for the trailers to take the cars to the race track pit area.
“You all set for your run on the race track?” Senior asked, smiling . . .
“Well that’s what I came to talk to you about . . .: I said.
And I laid out my plan. I wanted Jim, Jr. to drive the Ray Brown Car and his Dad in the black Schaeneman roadster. I knew Junior would give the Ray Brown Car a good quick run hopefully pushing the envelope for these old timers that oversaw the 24-A racing cars.
And I was sure the old man would give the Schanneman hot rod a good poke around the track.
I walked over to the stadium just before they were ready to run the cars and stayed in the background.
(. . . Yeah, I was basically hiding! . . .)
People in passing said there were many more spectators in the stadium seats than in the past.
While I was staying out of sight under the stadium a guy walked up to me, said his name was Ralph Morano and he wanted to buy a hot rod.
And, he obviously meant it as he has amassed a sensational collection over the years since 1992.
We became good friends over the years.
While we were chatting, I heard the engine fire on an Indianapolis roadster and noted we were just were two cars behind. Finally, Jim, Jr. brought the Ray brown roadster forward and there was a great clap of applause as Jim was waved off. My little scheme was playing out in spades. Jim was simply treating Hershey Stadium as a full blown racetrack.
It began to get a bit “wooly” as Jim was simply having a great time. The AACA officials were not having as much fun as everyone else! Jim ran the fanny off the hot for upwards of eight laps!
On the final lap Bill White had the Black flag in his hand. He held off and Jim backed out of the throttle and pulled in. I went back to my “out of the way” vantage point. Jim, Jr. later told me the tires on the Brown car were sticky!
Jim, Sr. gave the Schaeneman car a swift group of laps. We had really awakened the world of antique cars to some southern California post-war hot rod engineering.
Much of the innovation that surfaced with these cars came out of the major aircraft makers on the west coast. More importantly the men at war came home with a head full of great performance schemes. I have seen a few photographs of our cars on the track, but I’m sorry that I don’t have any to share with you.
So, after the Friday race track runs, we went back to our tent and any number of people came by to compliment me on my time on the track!
“Well, yes, I was rather swift. Kind of surprised myself.”
Jeez they didn’t know it wasn’t me. I consumed the accolades for a brief time, and then set everyone square, saying it was the Lowery’s, not me. . .
THE “MYSTERY MAN’ . . .
Just before we closed up that afternoon I saw Mark Smith approaching the tent with another guy in tow. Mark came over to the tent quietly and said he had “a guy” who was interested in an antique gas engined racing model I had with me. The other guy stood in the middle of the aisle.
(. . . Hmmm, “the guy” must have pretty damn good taste I thought. It was an extraordinary racer. Actually, I didn’t really want sell it. . .)
Switching gears I said, “Who is the guy with you?
“That’s my customer. . .” said Mark.
I looked over at him again. The guy was six foot four or five, eyeing me darkly like he had come upon the Devil incarnate. I wouldn’t have enjoyed coming across him in a dark alley.
“Mark, tell him to come over and say hello. I gave up biting people a few years ago”
“How much is the car?” Mark said.
$6,000, I said.
Mark wrote a check for $6,000;
No, no, that’s far from the end of the story with this extraordinary gentleman.
WHERE ARE THE TWO HOT RODS?
I assumed Saturday morning I’d be “allowed” to drive the Ray Brown Car on the show field so I needed to find the damn thing. It looked like there were five thousand white trailers in the staging area and our two cars were in one of them.
Bruce Meyer, Peter Boynton, and Steve Coonan had found them earlier and were successful in getting the Lowrey’s to let them out of the trailers.
Well, at least I knew where the cars were for the show tomorrow.
Early Saturday morning Marilyn and I got in Ray Brown car and started for the show field. Every few feet we were “flagged” down and told:
“Hey!! No street rods!! Get that junk outta’ this line!”
One Official said he didn’t care what class it was in, get that junker outta’ here!!
Within sight of our spot one last “official” literally threw himself in front of the car trying to determine if ours carried a legitimate 24A badge on our front spreader bar!!
But we did finally land in our designated spot. From that point on it was simply a solid sea of people throughout the day. Bill Smith was watching the ebb and flow of the crowd from high in the stadium and told me later it looked like we were handing out $100 bills from our spot. The crowd was huge around the cars all day long.
Both cars took their requisite Junior First Place trophies
At the end of the show I was alone with the cars. Bud Huggler would trailer home the Schaeneman roadster. I wanted to drive the Ray Brown car down through the country roads, a special time that I had been looking forward to.
Jim, Senior came by as we were about to take off for the trip home, when I had to ask for keys again and possibly a few tips re: running the car!!
It was a terrific drive home and I had a chance to enjoy reliving all that had transpired over that past wonderful year of ’92.
BUT WAIT UNTIL YOU FINDOUT WHAT WAS WAITING FOR ME AT HOME . . .