Monthly Archives: May 2022

Cars We Love & Who We Are #27

It just seemed too good to be true. The event, to be conducted at the NB Center for American Automotive Heritage in Allentown, PA in April of 2019 would pack three-days with a rich mix of high quality historic vehicle themed presentations, live activities and behind the wheel vintage vehicle driving events. Attendees would include curators from world renowned automotive museums, university professors focusing on historic preservation and keepers of the vintage automobile flame from around the globe. Objectives of the conference stood out as refreshingly simple, engage, teach, learn and have fun.

With the concept and execution polished over the prior two years this third year promised to bring to fruition the total experience organizers had envisioned. As a long time member of the Society of Automotive Historians I was eligible to attend. This third year would be special. However, just how special would be impossible to foresee.

The amazing Third (and final?) International Drive History Conference

Hagerty automotive heritage dream conference. Gone for good?

1910 Packard

A buzz of excitement built as attendees from both sides of the Atlantic filed through the NB Welcome Center better known as The Lodge.  This handsome structure communicated a feeling of handcrafted rough hewn elegance. Constructed of stone and wood reclaimed from dismantled farm structures from the surrounding area, it embodied the preservationist character and philosophy that ran deep through the NB Center and in the heart of the host for this extraordinary gathering, Mr. Nikola Bulgari. Indeed, the NB in the NB Center’s name stands for Nikola Bulgari. He of the famous Bulgari Jewelry family.

The Lodge

In 2017 Mr. Bulgari a passionate advocate for preservation of 20th century American automotive history, joined with the Hagerty supported Historic Vehicle Association, The Society of Automotive Historians and the College of Charleston to launch the International Drive History conference concept. For the conference site Mr. Bulgari generously provided the perfect home, his beautifully manicured 27-acre NB Center grounds. His facility included a dedicated track, fully restored drive-in theater and a campus that served as home to workshops capable of executing the highest level of restoration, fabrication and refurbishment. Only a few years back Mr. Bulgari had resurrected this property after it had languished for years as a trash strewn abandoned drive-in theater in Allentown, Pennsylvania. The story behind the NB center offers a wonderful tale of the magic that can be conjured at the intersection of serendipity, talent and passion. The International Conference concept, represents one of the many meaningful creations resulting from Mr. Bulgari’s preservationist vision. Mr. Bulgari’s vision extends to focusing the magnetic draw of the NB Center and his car collection as a powerful tool to promote fund raising events for worthy causes.

NB Center, 27 acres

Gathering for the welcome breakfast at the Historic Vehicle Association National Laboratory housed at the NB Center, attendees walked about among examples of the 24 (as 2019, more have been added since) culturally significant vehicles that had been recognized by their inclusion in the National Historic Vehicle Register. The Tucker Torpedo hand built prototype, Ferris Bueller’s faux Ferrari, the 1964 Shelby Cobra Daytona Coupe designed by Peter Brock, a 1918 Cadillac Type 57 (the only remaining passenger car that served in WWI in France), all represented the automotive history that the men and women in attendance work so hard to preserve and promote as fundamental to understanding the American automobile culture of the 20th Century. The wonderful story of the National Historic Vehicle Register will be featured in an upcoming Drivin’ News feature.

Mingling among the attendees making new acquaintances and rekindling old friendships strolled guest speakers Nicola Bulgari, Dr. Fred Simeone, Ed Welburn and McKeel Hagerty. A sample of presenters scheduled to speak on topics specific to vintage automobile history and preservation included senior representatives of The Henry Ford Museum, GM Design Center, Hemmings Motor News, National Corvette Museum, Indianapolis Motor speedway Museum, The Studebaker National Museum and professors from 10 colleges and universities including Stanford and Bucknell. An extraordinary wealth of knowledge all sharing a preservationist mindset filled the room. And then the fun began as attendees walked out into a sunny and brisk April morning.

Stephen Babinsky and 1910 Packard

There, cars from the 20th century dating from the early teens through the 1960s stood idling by the NB center’s driving track poised to begin the day for conference attendees in a most extraordinary way. Here, participants would have the opportunity to drive these beautifully restored time machines primarily sourced from the Bulgari Collection.While Mr. Bulgari is known to save his greatest fondness for Buicks, an affection that dates back to his childhood in post-WWII Italy, he has preserved a broad spectrum of 20th century American makes and models.

Mr. Bulgari cheering on happy drivers

In 2019 Bulgari’s Allentown Collection numbered around 150 vehicles, predominantly American cars from the 30s, 40s and 50s. Very possibly the most astounding aspect of his collection resides in the nature of the vehicles upon which he has bestowed his loving stewardship. His interest does not focus on the Olympian cars of the past such as Duesenbergs, Packards, Cadillacs and others favored by the wealthy. He knows they have their patrons and will be preserved. Mr. Bulgari has trained his attention on the everyday vehicles that populated the general public’s experience during their mid-20th century lives. He believes that preserving these once, but no longer, common place and affordable cars from yesteryear serves a critical role in understanding the profound

Keith Flickinger in upholstery shop

impact of the common place automobile on everyday American life of the period.

Stunning proof of Mr. Bulgari’s deep conviction to preserve these once common and now rare vehicles in their original condition evidences itself in the comprehensive restoration complex located at the NB Center. Every detail benefits from the highest quality restoration. For example, a 1940 Hudson with a value of roughly $40,000 for the best one in the world could receive a $200,000 restoration. This might entail finding a manufacturer somewhere in the world that could accurately replicate the original cloth covering the door panels. At the NB Center’s restoration campus money does not halt the pursuit of originality.

Fidelity to the original construction reigns supreme. As an example, the wood and joints in the roof of a 1934 Nash Brougham under restoration has to be a perfect match to the original even though, once covered by the headliner, the structure will never be seen.

Once restored, Bulgari’s cars benefit from constant monitoring, maintenance and track time. After being driven every car enjoys a thorough inspection. Periodically every engine has its oil subjected to testing for contaminants that would indicate unacceptable engine wear.

1917 Pierce-Arrow

It should be mentioned that the whole restoration operation benefits from the brilliant and personal oversight of two brothers, Keith and Kris Flickinger. Starting with Keith in 1995 both have earned Mr. Bulgari’s complete and total confidence. Both brothers possess the full spectrum of technical skills to carry out superior restorations and an easy communication style allowing them to educate visitors in a clear and entertaining fashion as to exactly what they and their roughly dozen elite craftsman do.

On this brisk April morning an array of meticulously restored vehicles awaited eager drivers lined up for pretty much a once in a lifetime opportunity. From a 1910 Packard Runabout, a

1929 Lincoln

1917 Pierce-Arrow, through a 1930 Lincoln, a 1936 Plymouth, a 1940 Buick convertible up through a 1950 Oldsmobile convertible and many others provided a visual banquet and a rolling and deliciously interactive automobile history lesson on the first half of the 20th century.

Leaving the driving experience behind, participants enjoyed strolling through the pristine Collection Buildings holding the immaculate vehicles comprising the Bulgari Collection. Over the next two days an information rich menu of presentations were offered on two parallel tracks from which participants could choose to tailor the conference offerings to their personal interests. Track one focused on Preservation and Conservation. Track two featured subjects specific to Documentation and Interpretation.

A sampling of topics included:

1950 Oldsmobile

  • A round table discussion on Design, engineering and Performance with Mr. Bulgari, Dr. Fred Simeone founder of the Simeone Museum and Ed Welburn retired GM Vice President of Global Design.
  • Diane Parker, Vice President of the Historic Vehicle Association presenting the Civil Rights story behind the inclusion of a 1966 VW Type 2 T1 Microbus in the National Historic Vehicle Register.
  • Guest Speaker McKeel Hagerty
  • Simeone and Jonathan Sierakowski explaining the intricacies of Vehicle Provenance: Investigation, verification, how and why.
  • Preservation of the original Tucker
  • GM Heritage Center Preservation Practices
  • Interpreting the automobile in history- a group discussion featuring senior representatives from:
    • The Henry Ford Museum
    • National Corvette Museum
    • Indianapolis Motor Speedway Museum
    • Studebaker National Museum
    • Boyertown Museum

The International Drive History Conference represented a glorious success on so many levels. Like minded and well informed car enthusiasts enjoyed a content rich environment within which they could meet and benefit from others in attendance.

LeSabre hot laps

Possibly the most striking experience in which I participated occurred after the end of the formal conference. Having lingered a bit, I made my way across the track to my car when I realized that a number of staff members and Mr. Bulgari had cars out on the track doing hot laps. Yes hot laps in a 1950s Nash-Healey, a 1955 Chrysler 300, and yes, the 1951 GM Le Sabre Concept Car among others. What glorious fun. Laughter, smiles, good vibes the smell of tortured tire treads and screaming vintage engines reclaiming the joy experienced decades ago. All present seemed imbued with an infectious innocence. And then Covid came to town. With it came cancellation of the 4th Conference in 2020. Much the same story cancelled years 2021 and 2022.

During this time of change Hagerty has been ensnared (possibly the choice of words betrays feelings of concern held by some in the classic car community for what has been the Hagerty gold standard) by the Wall Street SPAC financial engineers. Hagerty has gone public.

In researching this story I found that the HVA has subsequently gone away. It has been replaced by the Hagerty Driving Foundation (HDF). My hope falls into the “A rose by any other name smells as sweet” category.

That said, In researching the HDF site, I found no mention of the International Drive History Conference concept. I followed up on my concern with a respected and knowledgeable friend in the industry. Based on his remarks it seemed evident to me that I may have experienced the best and sadly the last International Drive History Conference. I hope I am mistaken.

A small but respected automobile enthusiast conference promoting learning, preservation and excellence should not be thrown aside. It deserves a place in the HDF business plan. Hagerty always seemed to get it. I hope HDF still draws from its Hagerty roots. I have no reason to believe otherwise, yet.

By |2022-05-27T16:57:24+00:00May 26th, 2022|Comments Off on Cars We Love & Who We Are #27

Cars We Love & Who We are #26

A few years back while speaking with my good friend Bob Austin the topic of his brother’s unique sports car came up. He explained that his brother Rick’s 1964 Devin C, purchased in 1973, represented one of literally a handful of custom performance cars made by a man named Bill Devin. When Bob shared a photo of his brother’s car, I realized that I knew that car. I had seen it parked on the main street of Teaneck, New Jersey over 40 years ago and never forgot it. Clearly a Devin’s bantam weight and sporting character had left a lasting memory.

Now, to celebrate the fast approaching 50th anniversary of Rick Austin’s continued Devin ownership, the story of Rick and his Devin C.

A Devin’s 47-year journey from scrap heap to Pebble Beach

Rick with his Devin C at the Quail                                                           Photo: Brian Miller

August 2017 found Rick Austin luxuriating on the manicured grounds of the Quail, the most exclusive of all Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance events, he and his Devin enjoyed the spotlight as honored invitees. This being the world’s pinnacle event to recognize classic car royalty, it is doubtful that his fellow celebrant’s cars began their Quail star turn in similar fashion, which would be at a DPW scrap yard in Nanuet, New York.

At the Nanuet, NY DPW

First spotted by Rick’s brother Bob in 1973, the rather forlorn red Devin resided on a construction trailer at the Nanuet DPW scrap yard. At the time, Bob told brother Rick about his sighting and thought it interesting. It should be noted that the Austin brothers share a marked lifelong affection for unusual vehicles. Morgans, Crosleys, Jeepsters, Avantis, MGTDs, Minis, all have graced Austin driveways. The Devin fit the mold perfectly. As Bob now tells the story, he meant that it held interest as something Bob, himself, would buy down the road. Rick, however, took right to the road and drove up to the DPW yard the next day to inquire as to the Devin’s availability.

“How much?” Rick asked. “$400,” came the response. “Sold,” came his reply. Adding insult to injury, Rick used Bob’s trailer to bring the Devin to Bob’s house where both would work on carrying out the rebuild. It should be noted that Rick’s jumping Bob’s claim produced no strain in the Austin brothers’ lifelong friendship.

The Devin back story offers an interesting version of a tale oft told of a young man returning to California from WWII with talent and a passion. In this case the young man was Bill Devin and he held a passion for sports cars and racing. Possibly a precursor foretelling the Austin brothers fondness for Bill Devin as a kindred spirit came with Devin’s early success racing a Crosley Hotshot.

After the Crosley victories, Devin quickly moved up the race car food chain. By 1953 Devin had found Ferraris to drive including the ex-Phil Hill 212 that he bought from Luigi Chinetti and drove to a 3rd place at Palm Springs. Shortly thereafter, his plan to drive a new Ferrari at the 1953 24-Hours of Le Mans was derailed by a production back-up at the Ferrari factory. Devin clearly was the real deal and not just as a race driver. He had a serious vision about how a winning car should look and perform.

Bill Devin                Photo: John Priddy

By 1956 Devin had created a chassis that housed a twin-cylinder overhead cam engine wrapped in Devin-Panhard bodywork. He built twelve of them. One won its class in the 1956 SCCA national championship. By now, Devin had become a player in the fiberglass body business. He sold bodies to fit Porsches, Healeys, Triumphs, VWs and more.

With success, came Devin’s greater dream of building cars of his own. Working with an Irish chassis builder specializing in fabricating rolling chassis ready for a body, Devin’s dream materialized. With a frame from Ireland married to a fiberglass body by Devin and powered by a Corvette small block V8, the spirited Devin SS came to life. Weighing almost a half-ton less than a period Corvette, its performance was breathtaking. Unfortunately so was its price. All the Devin SS high-tech handcrafted powertrain and suspension technology came at a steep cost, roughly $10,000. Sales proved elusive. A return to the drawing board gave birth to the ultimate Devin, one both fierce and relatively affordable.

It featured a new tubular frame design sporting a shorter wheelbase than the Devin SS to provide an optimized geometry for utilizing Porsche and VW suspension components. By accepting, as well, both Porsche and VW rear engine drivetrains, it provided both high performance and more affordable versions. Named the Devon D. The D, for Deutschland, indicated the intended German componentry. It cost about $3,000. What then defines Rick’s Devin C?

At  the Quail                  Photo: Brian Miller

Whether true or not, the story told speaks of the Porsche powered Devin Ds beating Porsche’s own cars. This apparently did not sit well with the Porsche folks. Word on the street had any Porsche dealer selling engines to Devin losing their franchise. Undaunted Bill Devin knew Chevrolet had just developed its own air-cooled rear-engined car, the Corvair. Not only was Chevrolet’s new boxer engine air-cooled but it featured six, not four cylinders. Devin adapted the chassis to accept a modified Corvair powertrain and rear suspension bringing the Devin C (for Corvair) to life with a price tag of roughly $4,500. That life would end shortly before the close of 1964 due to market pressures. With all said and done, Devin had built 25 complete Devin Ds and 23 Devin Cs.

When asked what had originally attracted him to the Devin, Rick says, “The curves were just beautiful, even in the scrap yard. It was a Ferrari for me.” Rick had no idea what it was. He says, “If it wasn’t for the badge I never would have known.” He just saw it as an amazingly cool car. Together with the fact that he had nothing to work on at the time made the buying decision a slam dunk.

Rick under frunk lid and friend Dennis Grable during rebuild #1

By purchasing the Devin, Rick ensured he had plenty to work on for what would be a long time to come. Starting with a blown engine, a damaged front end, holes in the body created for affixing scoops to increase air flow to the engine, no seats, no windshield and a wealth of scrapes and dings his scrap yard Devin demanded a complete rebuild of the engine and a total redo of the body.

During this early rebuild period brother Bob, while driving through the neighborhood, amazingly stumbled across another forsaken Devin. This being one of the 25 Devin Ds built. Trailered home, it would serve as a very useful parts car. Rick says, “That second Devin is where the seats came from as well as the hood, the trunk lid and both doors.” Bob with a self deprecating laugh acknowledges that he cannot believe that with the needed parts scavenged he threw the rest away.” With a shrug he says, “Who knew?”

An interesting bit of accidental provenance research came about when Rick realized that his serial number “D.C. 1-6” had no buyer notation in the Devin company records. In these days of 17 digit VIN#s, Rick’s Devin serial number is a pointed reminder of how things have changed, as if we needed a reminder, since the mid-20th century.

In later years Rick with the help of respected Devin authority John Priddy concluded that Rick’s car had been on display at the 1964 New York Auto Show and that it had been sold at the show. This explains a couple of facts. One it explains how Devin serial number D.C. 1-6 got to New York from L.A. Secondly, all of the other Devins except Ricks D.C. 1-6 had names next to the serial number indicating the purchaser. As Rick says, “Bill Devin was a great guy but not necessarily a great record keeper. He sold mine at the New York show and never recorded the buyer.”

Rick and rebuild #1 in 1975

Picking up the story in 1974, Rick enjoyed the fruits of his first rebuild and drove his red Devin until 1979 when he got married. His new family responsibilities banished the Devin to a distant corner of Rick’s life where it sat untouched until 2000 except for a brief period of operation in 1989.

With the arrival of the new millennium, Rick set about to do a second rebuild. With all good intentions but little time, the process would extend to about 15-years. In 2005 the Devin, now pretty much gutted, received the Chrysler Patriot Blue paint that still shows well today. Over the next ten years all the internals received the attention Rick would have liked to have lavished much quicker. With all the bills to show, Rick totally rebuilt a 1967 Corvair engine. Machined .040 over with a 288° cam and four Rochester 1-barrel carburetors, it delivered 140 horsepower.

When asked about the speed and stability of his completed Devin, Rick, admitting to achieving 110 miles per hour, responded with brutal honesty, “At 110 miles per hour stability is horrible.” Weighing in at breathtakingly light 1240 pounds Rick actually welded in a piece of Volvo truck chassis forward of the front suspension as a location to mount the battery and add weight.

Almost simultaneously with completion of the second rebuild, Rick received notification from co-chair of the Devin Registry, Brian Miller, that for Pebble Beach 2017, Devin would be the honored marque. He asked if Rick could attend with his Devin.

Rick says, “I immediately contacted Bob and he was all in. I was thrilled to be able to share this experience with my brother.” Rick started road testing his Devin the week before shipping it to Pebble Beach.

Bob and Rick Austin at Pebble Beach

In describing his Pebble Beach experience at the Quail Rick does not hold back. He says, “It was the most amazing event in my life. The number of phenomenal vehicles was simply astounding.” He goes on to say, The people were lovely. The food was fantastic.”

In assessing the crowd response, Rick first acknowledges that Devins adorned with numbers and stripes drew a decidedly younger group of admirers. As he describes it, his Devin with its dark blue, more reserved, presence drew the attention of an older demographic. However, Rick says, “Regardless of age everybody looked at all the Devins on display.”

Back home Rick enjoys his Devin as his daily driver pretty much weather be damned. While he acknowledges that, today, any kid with a built up Honda Civic can go faster, Rick says, “My little Devin stands tall as the most exhilarating car I have ever driven.”



By |2022-05-12T19:03:06+00:00May 12th, 2022|Comments Off on Cars We Love & Who We are #26