Local vintage car enthusiasts have their pick of collections to ogle.
April 15, 2010
It's no secret that Birmingham hosts many benefits and receptions. Events featuring silent auctions, live music, and heavy hors d'oeuvres take place nearly every weekend of the year. What may be less well known is how many car collectors Birmingham can claim. Car collections are often kept private. But in at least two cases, there has been a collision of parties and collectible automobiles at two venues where patrons can celebrate alongside some sweet rides.
Old Car Heaven, at 115 35th Street South, is an enormous space—nearly 100,000 square feet—filled with more than 100 cars that make up a "very rare collection," according to co-owner and partner Jeff Lasecki. A Detroit native, Lasecki moved to Birmingham nine years ago and now manages this refurbished warehouse full of some extremely rare cars. They are the collection of local attorney Stewart Dudley, and it's obvious these gorgeous autos are unusual.
"There's something about all of them that makes them unique and very special," Lesecki said on a recent tour of the dauntingly large space. The cars remain in the dimly lit rear of the building, some shiny, some dulled with age, but all look like they could be started and driven—even the 1915 Packard or the 1930s Brewster Limousine, the latter one of only 135 ever made. The cars range in vintage from 1915 to 1970 and the collection includes mostly American cars, including many DeSotos, Packards, Plymouths, Dodges, and Buicks. It boasts one of the largest collections of Chrysler 300s in the world. There's also one example of every Plymouth convertible produced between 1941 and 1965.
|An advertisement for the 1958 Mercury Park Lane convertible, one of many models on display at Ted's Garage (click for larger version)|
The cars must be kept at a specific humidity and temperature. They even have their own "babysitter" of sorts, mechanic Lee Hurley. They aren't restored, just kept in their amazing, original condition—all fins and shiny chrome and huge headlights. Dudley started collecting cars about 15 years ago, and his collection is well known in auto circles, Lasecki says. "We've talked about putting some of them in films, but haven't done it yet."
But the vintage autos do get their time in the spotlight, as they are regularly rotated into Old Car Heaven's front room, a vast space with a bar, sitting area, and a stage for live music. The space is rented for receptions, parties, or reunions, and the bar is open Tuesday through Saturday from 4 p.m. until close. There is even a recording studio on site.
Some of the cars can be rented for weddings, and there is talk of starting a "carousel days" event where visitors may pay to drive a sampling of the collection. Lasecki says he would even like to see a drive-in movie theater on the lot. (Old Car Heaven, 115 35th Street South, 324-4545, http://oldcarheaven.com.)
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Not far from Old Car Heaven but closer to downtown, Ted's Garage sits at 2309 Fifth Avenue South. The space is owned by Ted Thomas, a former auto racer who is now a collector. Like Dudley, Thomas needed a place to house his expanding car collection, and he found it at this former Hires Root Beer building, later used for bottling by Pepsi and by Buffalo Rock. He and his wife, Debby began renovating the space by unbricking windows and opening original skylights that had been covered over. Halfway through the renovation, their architect, George Israel, suggested the couple turn the space into a venue at which to host parties and other events. They took his advice, and the result is a welcoming space with some spiffy cars parked throughout as accessories.
Thomas started racing at age 11 on tiny cars called quarter midgets on a micro midget track in Irondale. "I've been racing my whole life," says Thomas, whose father was an auto racer, too. Thomas ran the Winston Cup in 1989 in a 1941 Thunderbird. Daytona in 1993 was his last professional race. In 1997, he and a team drove a 1950 model Ford, one of two built, in the Peking to Paris race—the first time the race had occurred since 1907. It took 42 days and 14,000 miles, but his team won first place. Thomas has also competed in the Carerra Pan American Race, which starts in southern Mexico and winds its way 2,000 miles north to Laredo. "They shut the roads down, and it's a very fast race—you drive up to 180 miles per hour." Thomas and his team won that one in 1993.
The cars in Thomas' collection are "all over the board," he says, "whatever's fun to drive." Among them is a Pontiac GTO from 1964 (the first year they were made), a 1944 Ford GT40, a 1965 Shelby Cobra 427, a 1962 Corvette, and a 1958 Mercury Park Lane, which he bought from the car's second owner, who built the car on the assembly line. Thomas says being a teenager in 1964 influenced his taste in cars; most of his collection dates from the late 1950s to mid-1960s. Ted's Garage hosts other car aficionados' collection pieces (they lease hydraulic lift space) in its temperature- and humidity-controlled space, and employs a full-time mechanic, David Noe, who keeps the cars in working order and does restoration work (including one current project, a Jaguar XK120, Jaguar's first post-war sports car, which belongs to Debby).
Thomas says it's surprisingly easy to find parts for the cars. "People keep stuff, especially car guys," he says. He plans to thin his collection in the next few years, he says, but "these cars will be around for 100 years—I'm just lucky enough to be caring for them right now, before they move on to the next owner."
Ted's Garage can host parties for nearly 500 guests, with a projection screen for digital presentations. It's often rented for weddings, rehearsal dinners, receptions, and corporate events. Several cars sit on display during the events, and Thomas says there's always security in place, just in case. (Ted's Garage, 2309 5th Avenue South, 323-5556, www.tedsgarage.org.)
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Aside from the car and party venues, there are several other ways to be involved with autos in town, besides the obvious events held at Barber Motorsports Park and the Talladega Superspeedway. One is the newly opened Wellborn Muscle Car Museum, owned by collector Tim Wellborn, whose family owns Wellborn Cabinets, the third-largest cabinet manufacturer in the country. Wellborn has collected muscle cars for more than three decades—his love of them began when his father purchased a 1971 Dodge Charger with a 426 hemi engine. Now he owns more than 60 muscle cars dating from 1969 to 1971. They're housed in a new museum that used to be an auto dealership, splattered with vintage Dodge signs and 30-year-old neon signs from dealerships. Some of the cars bear price tags from that era. Some come in colors like pink, yellow, and green. Like Dudley's and Thomas' car collections, Wellborn's autos are kept in running order. Some have been restored, but most are in their original condition. "Muscle Car TV" filmed an episode featuring the museum last fall; it's scheduled to air on the Spike TV channel on May 22 and 23. (The Wellborn MuscleCar Museum, 124 Broad Street, Alexander City. Open Monday–Friday, 9 a.m.–5 p.m., Saturday 10 a.m.–4 p.m. Admission: $10 adults, $6 ages 7–17. (256) 329-8474.)
Local Porsche enthusiasts have no doubt heard about the Porsche Driving Experience, which chose Barber Motorsports Park as its home base for the driving workshops. But recent Porsche owners may not know of the Porsche Club of America's (PCA) Alabama chapter. This group, comprised of Porsche owners, has more than 300 members. It regularly hosts drives throughout the area, as well as social events (like a hospitality tent and car corral at the recent Porsche 250 race at the Barber track). Rick Teel, the group's president and a longtime member, says they frequently host driver education events at the Barber track and at Talladega. "We rent the track and have teachers licensed by PCA. For instance, you've bought yourself a new Porsche, and you want to know how to really drive this thing. We teach you how to enjoy the car safely, in a controlled environment: we have a response team, medical, and ambulance because it is on a track and it is at speed. We ask what your objective is for the weekend—do you want to be a racecar driver, or do you just want to learn to drive with control? It's an opportunity to explore the limits of the car." (PCA Alabama chapter, http://ala.pca.org).
On May 20, 150 current and vintage racing vehicles are set to roll into Mountain Book Village, from 5 to 8 p.m., for the Legends of Motorsports racing motorcade. The event is a promotion with the Legends of Motorsports racing series taking place at Barber Motorsports Park the weekend of May 21–23. These cars, such as 1950s model Lotus racecars, will be parked throughout Mountain Brook Village. Visitors are invited to peruse the vehicles and enjoy live music, food, and sidewalk shopping. Mario Andretti, who will be the honored guest at the inaugural Legends of Motorsports Bobby Rahal Signature Event weekend, will appear at a gala at the Barber Vintage Motorsports Museum, which houses one of the world's largest collections of Lotus racecars. (Many of Andretti's Formula 1 victories were earned behind the wheel of a Lotus.) As for where patrons of the Mountain Brook event are going to park while all those racecars take up valuable blacktop real estate—event organizers say they are working on ways to transport visitors to and from the area once streets are closed off. (Legends of Motorsports, three-day pass: $45; individual tickets $10 Friday–Saturday, $25 Saturday– Sunday. Children 12 and under are free. www.barbermotorsportspark.com, www.legendsofmotorsports.com.)
|A Packard on display at the High Museum exhibit. (click for larger version)|
Finally, for those willing to make the journey, Atlanta's High Museum of Art is currently exhibiting The Allure of the Automobile, featuring 18 of the world's "rarest and most brilliantly conceived cars," including masterpieces from Bugatti, Duesenberg, Jaguar, Mercedes-Benz, Porsche, and Ferrari." The exhibit runs through June 20. Admission is $18 for adults. For complete details and a look at some of the cars featured, visit www.high.org. (High Museum of Art, 1280 Peachtree Street NE, Atlanta; 404-733-HIGH.) &