Car collecting has a long tail. Although many of today’s most passionate accumulators of automobiles are household names—Jay Leno, Rick Hendrick, Dana Mecum, rock ‘n’ rollers young and old—the people who preceded them are little known even to many classic car experts.
Automobiles are, by even the most generous definition, only 130 years old from the motorized buggies of the late nineteenth century to the hyper-performance and electric cars of today. There were only a few people in the early Twentieth century who recognized the significance of even earlier cars, and the design evolution they reflected.
World War II scrap drives gathered up many early cars, most notably the highest quality examples built from valuable materials. Even more would have been lost to the blast furnaces of “The Arsenal of Democracy” were it not for clairvoyant (or determined) individuals who tucked away some of the best vehicles in barns and fields.
These collectors’ and their cars’ histories are the physical encyclopedia of our history of the automobile. Our perspective on automobiles is traced by their footprints. The first generation of collectors not only saved and preserved some of the cars we now honor most, but also laid the groundwork for how we appreciate automobiles today.
This is the essence of “provenance”, recognition by decades of discerning collectors of the most important and significant automobiles that have never been overlooked
This is only an overview of a few collectors. There are many.
George Waterman and Kirkland Gibson
Young men growing up in the suburbs of Boston in the 1920s, George Waterman and Kirk Gibson found common purpose in old gas buggies relegated to the back of nineteenth century carriage houses. They acquired many of them for nothing, found a warehouse to store them, and expanded their search to the Golden Age environment of Newport, Rhode Island, which brought them famous race cars like Renault AI Vanderbilt Cup racers (Gibson’s is now in Dr. Fred Simeone’s collection in Philadelphia).
They gave postcards to rural delivery mail carriers in New England asking for leads to abandoned antique cars. A museum at Belcourt in Newport, Rhode Island, was stillborn, but hundreds of cars that would have been scrapped were preserved by George Waterman and Kirk Gibson.
D. Cameron Peck
The power of milk
Bowman Dairy was Chicago’s preeminent source of milk in the Twenties and Thirties. As the grandson of the Bowman Dairy’s founder, D. Cameron Peck embraced not only his city but also its stature as a paragon of science and industry. He led the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry to become one of the foremost museums of its kind. He filled its exhibits with automobiles he had owned and collected.
The Peck cars remain the crème de la crème of great prewar cars, cars selected not for their presentation but rather for their quality, style, design and preservation, not to mention frequent connections with the city of Chicago.
Dr. Samuel Scher
Dr. Sam Scher was in the late Forties and Fifties the preeminent plastic surgeon in New York, and he loved cars. After the war, he went looking for a Bugatti Type 51 in France, and when it was delivered he immediately gave it to Fred Milliken, the vehicle dynamics genius of the Cornell Aeronautical Laboratory, who drove it to a win at an SCCA race at Linden, New Jersey.
Dr. Scher’s contribution to car collecting was, however, more closely related to his primary occupation: He may have been, and probably was, the first collector to begin restoring old cars to what today we know as “concours condition”—impeccable cosmetic and mechanical restorations that are better than new. He spared no expense in his quest for perfection, which may have contributed to a contretemps with the Internal Revenue Service. That standoff was resolved in large part by the sale of 41 cars from his collection to:
Richard Cushing Paine, Jr.
Richard Cushing Paine, Jr. was a scion of Boston’s early American aristocracy. His great-grandfather Charles William Eliot was President of Harvard. But his roots weren’t enough to overcome his learning disabilities. He never learned to read well, what today would be diagnosed as dyslexia but in the Thirties wasn’t recognized.
Richard C. Paine, Jr, however, was gifted with a sense for music, opera and mechanical contrivances, a balance of motion and synchronicity that translated into a love of cars.
A mechanic in World War II, he bought his first vintage car in 1949, later discovering the elemental, simple cars of the early 20th century. Based upon First Principles of internal combustion, they appealed to his sensibilities and led to establishing the Seal Cove Auto Museum on Mount Desert Island, Maine, composed of the Sam Scher collection and cars discovered by Richard Paine. The museum that should be on the list of every car collector.
What today’s collectors, and the history of the automobile, owe to these early collectors is immeasurable. They found, saved, preserved and restored cars that define the automobile’s history, automobile archeology.
This list is only a sample. There are more, like:
Henry Austin Clark, Jr.
Al & Sal Garganigo
M.H. “Tiny” Gould
The Craven Foundation
Smith Hempstone Oliver
If their names aren’t remembered, they should be. They are the foundations of car collecting.