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Conversations With People We Value #55

So the friendly hostess at the Tom Quick Inn in Milford, PA says, “Oh yes, three blocks down, turn right and go a short ways. It’ll be on your left. Mr. Helms sells all kinds of real old cars there.” Her words possessed a genial warmth that clearly communicated this man’s position as a long time and respected member of the community.

With my penchant for exploring blue highways and back roads, a “Sure do” response when asking local folk about knowing any interesting neighborhood car people fires the passion I possess for the car culture and, certainly demands investigation.

Meet Mr. “T,” Dave Helms, a life-long vintage Ford enthusiast and the go-to guy for Germans looking to buy a Model T.

This Mr. “T” Sells 100-year Old Fords to German Car Enthusiasts

Dave Helms with his T Roadster pick-up

In a split second, mid-20th century memories of gas stations from my youth rushed to mind. In pulling into Dave Helms’ Gulf station in Milford, PA, I had crossed over the iconic pressurized black air hose of yesteryear. Its analog age purpose, to trigger a bell alerting a pump jockey that a new customer had pulled in. That bell alert, once a ubiquitous element of Americana, now found itself scarcer than a red, crank “Tireflator” dispensing free air.

Finding a space to park, I pulled up alongside a 1918 Ford Model T Runabout. Apparently in fighting trim, it appeared ready to confidently sputter down the country lane bordering the station.

Inside Dave’s Office

The station’s front glass door hung open propped by a kitchen chair. Positioned to its right stood the cage housing Dave’s prize chicken, Henrietta. I breezed through the open doorway. Henrietta a champion egg layer, pecking for food on her cage floor, seemed nonplussed by any human foot traffic. Through the door and no more than three steps in, I found myself immersed in a living archive recalling 100-years of American car culture.

Clean and organized though festooned with black and white photos of family and yesterday, the office of Helm’s Service Station and Antique Autos clearly reflected the man who built it all, Dave Helms. A spry 75-years of age, Dave’s workday at first appeared to me to alternate between doing paper work at his organized desk, chatting with his many friends and moving with a deliberate pace from behind his desk to pump gas for his mostly local clientele. I would soon come to learn that Dave’s life involved far more than first met my eye. Despite the fact that in Pennsylvania you can pump your own gas, it does not seem that Dave regularly affords many customers the chance to do so at his Gulf station. Dave with his genial nature, retains the personal service ethos acquired in his youth.

Dave’s Grandparents during WWII

Hesitant to speak at first, Dave warmed up to describing various photos displayed around the room. He explained the faded black and white photo of a couple posing by a 1940 White tanker truck. It showed his grandparents when they ran the station during WWII. Though a fuel delivery truck, tires hung draped all over the truck. Dave explained that during the war the scarcity of tires made tire repair critical for the civilian population. Starting in 1942 a civilian could keep just five tires. All others had to be surrendered to authorities. Civilians received stern warnings that no one could trade, buy, or even recap tires. Everyone took great care to routinely inspect tires twice a week or more. People checked air pressure and searched for small “cuts or bruises” in order to immediately repair them before a catastrophic failure. The fuel truck came draped with civilian tires needing repair. To emphasize the point of the photo, Dave’s grandfather has a tire hanging around his neck.

Dave tells the story how the station began in 1930 when a Scranton, PA coal company needed a fuel stop for its coal trucks making deliveries to New York City. Contracting with the coal company, Dave’s grandfather put in a gasoline storage tank to refuel the coal trucks. Diesel was not used as a truck fuel until after WWII. Any time of day or night a coal truck could pull up, toot its horn and Dave’s grandfather would come out to do the refueling. This arrangement lasted until 1932 when Dave’s grandfather after two years of steady requests from locals wanting to buy gas, opened as a retail gas station. Decades moved on until 1969 when, with the passing of first his grandparents and then his father, Dave took over the business. However, five years earlier, 1964 would have seen Dave buy and sell his first old Ford.

Industrious even as a teenager, Dave took on the family business started by his grandparents. In the ensuing years Dave developed two paint and body shops, expanded the gas station, built the used antique car business, bought real estate and worked 362 days a year. On what three days did he close? Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Years Day. Close, yes, but relax? Not so much.

Dave explains that every Thanksgiving he clears the warehouse storing his vintage car inventory. Once emptied he blows out the building and cleans the cars. New Years Day he picks a random project that needs doing. On Christmas he actually relaxes.

Interestingly only the last ten or fifteen years has seen his Model T business blossom. Even more surprising the driving force shaping his newfound market came from dedicated Model T enthusiasts located in Germany of all places. Dave says over the last decade or so he has sold hundreds of Model Ts, with most delivered to Germany. Now, before exploring the German affinity for Model Ts, a worthy first step begins with the vehicles Dave sells and where he finds them or in some cases how they find him. Keep in mind Dave stocks his inventory with clean vehicles in good running condition. One of Dave’s gifts resides in his ability to find those clean and mechanically sound examples. The Model Ts he buys do not need major restoration. Shortcomings Dave considers acceptable may call for minor mechanical or cosmetic work.

As we arrive at one of Dave’s storage facilities. Doors rumble open. And there it is. If I had a spare garage, this one would go in it. Standing front and center, a 1926 Model T Roadster Pickup simply screams, FUN! Understandably, limited by a comfortable top speed of 35 mph and an uncomfortable one of 38 mph this little gem has few places to call home on modern roadways, but still for $7,900? I move on.

So what other gems does Dave have in stock and where did he find them? Dave says, “For most of these Model Ts and some Model As, owners come to us. People with these cars know about us. For instance, let’s say you inherited a very clean Model T with your father’s estate and want to sell it. Many people don’t want to place an ad because they don’t know who’s going to come to their house. So they’d sooner come to us.”

Model T Tour in Utah

Dave’s inventory presently has 20 cars including ten Model T’s, four Model As, six mixed makes and one 1925 Model T snow mobile with skis and tank treads. A very cool feature for the ski chalet crowd. Dave also possesses a very large German fan base which includes a robust 350 member Model T club. Over the past decade Dave has shipped many Model Ts to enthusiastic club members. Membership enthusiasm reached a point where, four years ago, the club planned for what some might consider an insane transcontinental adventure. A group of Germans would come to America, buy five Model Ts on the east coast and drive them, without a chase car carrying spares, to California. They would begin their cross country Model T tour in, where else, Milford, PA. There they would buy the five model Ts from Dave Helms. Dave did all he could to get the seven men and three women (wives of three drivers) as prepared as possible to deal with the unexpected.

Map of tour path

For two years in advance, Dave had his regular good spot at the Fall Hershey show and, on his truck, he mounted a sign announcing the German Model T Club plan to cross America. Dave says, “We had a map of the route they intended to take. We asked if you or your car club would offer volunteer help for breakdowns in your area. After Hershey I started getting phone calls. So based on generous offers of help, the Germans re-routed as much as 100 miles off their first planned rout just to connect with the volunteers.” In one case the Tour re-routed to an airplane hangar in Michigan. There they met 30 members of a Model T Club. Some volunteers had taken days off from work. The volunteers changed oil and tires. Dave says, “We hooked up with Snyder’s Auto Parts in Ohio. The volunteers would call Snyder as they used a part and Snyder would over-night the part to the Tour’s next location. Everything worked fine. It was a beautiful thing”. It all ended well with the Germans reaching California and shipping their Model Ts back to Germany.

Now, what next for Dave as he enters the fourth quarter on life’s gridiron? Having come to know Dave, a safe bet would be more of the same with a caveat. Our interview reached a conclusion decided by Dave’s appointment with his mower and the large grounds that needed to be tended with him responsible for the tending. Dave acknowledges the inevitability of change looms. He noted that the market for his primarily century-old specialty is aging out of the culture.

Dave Helms

Dave says, “We used to sell almost 100 cars a year, you know back 20 years ago. Now it’s less every year. Last year we sold eight cars. People who like these cars are selling. They’re not buying. They’re going to nursing homes or moving to Florida.” He also attributes the decline of his market to the large television presence of live auctions. He sees them as a major force in promoting muscle cars and restomods. With a wry smile Dave says, “I think a lot of people pay too much for cars at those Mega-events. I’m sure they get home and get thinking about it.”

Clearly Dave recognizes the diminishing presence of his peer group. As a result he will reduce his inventory. Equally clear Dave has no intention of voluntarily succumbing to a diminished embrace of life’s labors and associated joy. With his two paint and body shops humming, he has a few projects on the burner.

If you have the itch for a worthy road trip, a good choice will have you hugging the Delaware River on Highway 209. It will take you through Milford on the way to Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area. Small town Milford possesses a great vibe, live music and excellent dining. August 3rd they are having the Apple Valley Rock and Road Car and Music Festival. Spend a night at the Tom Quick Inn and stop by Helms Service Station and Antique Cars. Drive over the bell hose and meet Dave at the pump.

By |2024-06-20T19:28:23+00:00June 20th, 2024|Comments Off on Conversations With People We Value #55

Conversations With People We Value #54

A passionate car guy with a generous heart, my friend Bob never can seem capable of saying “no” when a friend needs a hand. Though he may not admit to it, I feel comfortable saying that Bob brings a wealth of knowledge and savvy to the table thanks to decades in automotive public relations, marketing and wrenching as well as years as a respected concours judge. Recently a friend reached out to Bob for help in creating an online listing for a vintage Jaguar. Being comfortable with the process as Bob had listed other cars before, he dove right in. Within 4 weeks of posting the ad on Hemmings Auctions the Jaguar had sold…but on eBay. Unfortunately Bob had never listed the car on eBay.

Bob’s distressing experience provides a painful cautionary tale for online sellers and buyers alike.

 

When Car Rustlers Stalk eBay, What Does eBay Do?

Bogus Jaguar Mark V listing on eBay

Striking in its subtle two-tone grey livery, this 1950 Jaguar Mark V Drophead Coupe did not project the conventional vintage Jaguar image of the lithe 2-seat English sports car proudly boasting seductive feminine curves that cloaked the power and speed of a jungle cat. Not so this Jaguar. Stately and elegant with seating for five, this finely finished Mark V screamed (Assuming one can scream with quiet dignity) high end motoring luxury ideally suited for cruising along country lanes in transit from the townhouse to the country manor. Powered by a 6-cylinder engine of pre-WWII design delivering 126 horsepower, its performance, though not spirited, could be described as adequate.

The Mark V’s handsome upright stature draped with voluptuous fender lines and rear fender spats would fit easily among spirits of ecstasy and flying Bs of the period. Its handsome presence would attract more than a few admiring glances.

Its three-position drophead convertible design allowed the car  to be driven with the top fully erect, fully stowed or partially retracted to expose the front seats like a sedanca. A lavishly trimmed interior featured a full gauge array set in a highly polished burled walnut dash. As well, burled walnut trim adorned a warm and inviting interior bedecked in rich Connolly leather and deep wool Wilton carpet.

Treasured for many years, the time had come for the Mark V to change hands.

Charged with the responsibility of its disposition, Bryan who had serviced the car had been called upon by the Mark V’s octogenarian owner to arrange its sale. Bryan, with decades of Jaguar experience operated of one of the most respected Jaguar restoration and repair shops in the country  While gifted with exceptional restoration and technical skills, Bryan did not claim the same mastery with the writing and photography skills necessary to properly market the vintage Jaguar. He wisely reached out to his long time friend and fellow car enthusiast Bob. With Bob’s extensive experience in photography, copy writing and sales, he gave Bryan a high level of comfort and rightfully so. October 2023 witnessed Bob enthusiastically embark on the requisite preparation to list the Jaguar.

Having enjoyed prior success with Hemmings Auctions, both felt comfortable in trusting the sale of the Jaguar to the online arm of America’s car bible, Hemmings Motor News. While a later entry in the online marketplace Hemmings with its legions of trusting followers built over decades quickly gained momentum and market share. With the car being shipped to Florida for its owner’s use over the winter, Bob and Bryan acted quickly to prep the Jaguar for creating a full battery of images to provide a comprehensive photo profile detailing all features of the Jaguar.

Bob says, “We selected carefully from the wealth of images taken.” He continues on saying, “Buying decisions are often made based on the high quality and comprehensive nature of the photography. A buyer may never see in person the car on which he is bidding.” As well as capturing the beauty and craftsmanship evident in the car, Bob made a great effort to highlight the sound nature of certain features under the car that serious prospects would want to see, would need to see, if they harbored intentions to buy this vehicle. Bob also points out that showing everything ranks high on the must do list. He says, “As well, showing deficiencies goes a long way towards ensuring a seamless sale.” Little did Bob suspect what lay ahead. How could he? Confidently he moved forward.

Bob says, “We wrote up all of the car’s critical specifications.” He actually wrote all the necessary copy right up to the ad itself.” By November everything needed to launch sat ready. Being pre-holiday November Bob decided to go live on Hemmings Auctions after the coming seasons collector car winter kick-off with the big auctions in Kissimmee, Florida and Scottsdale, Arizona. Bob’s ad would go live on March 1, 2024. With a time frame set they reached out to the good folks at Hemmings.

Impressed with Hemmings professionalism Bob moved deliberately through the listing process. With an established reserve agreeable to both parties and a document confirming the agreed upon reserve signed, Hemmings accepted the photography and copy. With materials in hand the Hemmings staff selected images, edited Bob’s copy and created the ad that would appear on the auction site. Bob felt comfortable thanks to their thoroughness. He said, “Hemmings even asked to see a copy of the title, both the front and the back to confirm it was clean

Mark V listing on Hemmings $63k

and to corroborate the name of the owner.” What could possibly go wrong? Indeed. March 1 the ad went live on Hemmings Auctions.

One of the benefits when listing with Hemmings Auctions comes with the provision that if your vehicle does not meet the reserve in the two weeks of bidding the seller can, at no cost, switch to the Hemmings “Make Offer” site. Over the two week auction listing the bidding got close but did not meet the reserve. Bob, then chose to list it on the “Make offer” site. After about a week or so with offers closing in on the reserve Bob heard from a Hemmings’ Auctions bidder.

In a private email a party interested in the Jaguar stated the following,

“I see your Hemmings ad and I think you have a lovely car. I could be interested in it. But I have a question for you. And the question is I saw a car that looked exactly like yours and had exactly the same photography on eBay. It was on eBay for like three days in March after your ad (in Hemmings)turned from an auction to a “make offer” around March 23rd. Now, I see that that car was sold on eBay. Is that your car? Was that your car? Is your car still for sale? And what’s the story on that eBay ad?”

Gobsmacked by the message, Bob knew nothing of an ad placed on eBay. He never placed it. But when he checked eBay he found his car, his photos and his copy and the car listed as “sold” for $35,677, a fraction of its legitimate Hemmings reserve. Something had gone wrong. Very wrong and potentially very damaging to the market value of the Mark V.

Very damaging because though no one had taken possession of the Jaguar Mark V, this bogus transaction with its false lowball sales price had been archived by eBay. This false data point presently stood as part of the Mark V sales history and would corrupt value estimates forever if it could not be removed.

Bob says, “At this point the next time anybody looks up the value of a 1950 Mark V Jaguar in the way people do when considering purchasing a similar car, this false data point will put downward pressure on the Mark V’s perceived value.” Equally disruptive for professional collectible car publications and sites that track pricing trends, this false data point corrupts the accuracy of their reporting.

Bob found it infuriatingly distressing that, unlike Hemmings, eBay posted the ad without any ownership paper work or authorization to sell the car. He now set about to contact eBay. A daunting task as Bob would soon find out.

Initial eBay response

In discussing his effort to contact eBay Bob says, “First of all, it’s not that easy. In trying to communicate to eBay that you have a problem realize that eBay avoids human contact at all costs. eBay has a system that basically connects you to a computer.” Completing the online form requires the transaction number, the ad number and so on. Bob says, “On the form you describe your problem. When you have finished, you hit submit.” Shortly thereafter a cheery computer message thanks you for submitting your claim. I found it less than comforting when receiving a quick response stating, “’We will review this and we will get back to you.”’ Not exactly a confidence building interaction. But Bob had faith and gave them time to respond. Two months to be exact.

When asked as to what Bob has heard after two months, Bob responds, “Crickets.” He has heard absolutely nothing. To say Bob calls eBay’s response, or lack thereof, disturbing does not scratch the surface. Bob says, “Due to their lack of due diligence there is now a documented history for a fraudulent transaction that can have a negative effect on the value not just of the car that I am trying to sell but of essentially all 1950 Mark V Jaguars because it shows that one sold for $35,677. Which it did not. But that uncorrected error will compromise the average value of everyone’s Jaguar Mark V. I find it personally shocking that eBay has such little regard for the people who trust it as a worthy means for offering large ticket items for sale.” That eBay clearly does not care became evident to Bob while subsequently teaching a class on collectible automobiles.

Bob says, “After this all came down my first assumption was how could I possibly be the only person in the world to be so unlucky and have a problem like this on eBay. I figured there could be no arguing considering eBay’s success. Then during a class that I teach on collectible automobiles I shared my eBay experience. Most people in attendance sat there slack-jawed, completely stunned by what had happened. Then one guy raised his hand and said the same thing happened to him.” The possibility that the only two guys in the world victimized by this eBay-based scam would be sitting in the same classroom stretches credulity beyond the breaking point. It seems clear eBay has a big problem that it refuses to address.

How does the scam work when the scammer has no car to sell? It seems hard to believe that a buyer would fork over $35,677 without proof of ownership, but you never know. For some trusting people being instructed to ship twenty pounds of CVS gift cards to Bucharest may not raise concerns. More likely a buyer may have responded to a request for a deposit or maybe the scam facilitates money laundering.  No matter, there clearly exists some scam-worthy payoff to be had.

Sadly eBay refused to respond to complaints much less do basic due diligence, such as confirming ownership by a seller. Apparently as eBay suffers no loss, it could not care less. eBay did not even respond when Hemmings reached out.

For now, the octogenarian Jaguar owner still wishes to sell the car. To this day Bob and Bryan have never heard from eBay. Interestingly though, while no follow-up response has ever come forth, the latest check of eBay “Sold Items” reveals that the record of the fictitious sale has disappeared. So in a quasi happy ending, Bob and Bryan have gotten what they wanted with removal of the scam eBay ad. However, eBay has done nothing to demonstrate that they have tightened up their listing requirements. Happily Bob will be relisting the Mark V on Hemmings Auctions this month. The striking British beauty will return to the marketplace unsullied by a false history.

In reflecting on his experience with eBay Bob says, “Will I ever do business with eBay? Probably, but you can be sure that I will limit it to low dollar items. I am changed forever as a result of this incident.” For Bob, when it comes to high ticket items eBay has poisoned its own well.

By |2024-06-06T13:23:00+00:00June 6th, 2024|8 Comments