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April 2013

Rick Lenz, prominent member of the Auto Maniacs

By McLellan's Automotive History

In 1996 we had the opportunity to meet one of the greatest literature collectors the world has ever known - Rick Lenz.   To say that we were overwhelmed at the sight of two warehouses full of automotive brochures (later estimated at over 1,000,000 items) is putting it mildly.   Our visit with Rick was the beginning of a friendship which flourished through correspondence and phone calls as he related to us the story of his life and his involvement in the literature hobby.

Rick's passion for automotive brochures began at age nine. "My father was a Superintendent of Schools and he went to the next town which was big enough to have an automobile dealer to see about a bus that the school had ordered. Of course they were not just a truck dealer, but a car dealer also, and he left me at the showroom end of the building while he went and did his business — and I discovered that they had catalogs showing all the different models that you could take away with you! What a revelation — and why didn't I know about this before? I only got a few before the war because, if the dealers had any catalogs left at the end of a model year, they saved them. But that's how I got started."


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It all began in 1941... 
On Dec. 7, 1941 Pearl Harbor was bombed and America went to war. With 1942 car models just appearing in the showrooms, a black cloud descended on the auto industry. Automobile assembly lines began to produce tanks, airplanes, jeeps, trucks and a wide range of military supplies and weapons. Amid this bleak picture of turmoil a 10-year old boy rushed from dealership to dealership scouring the last remnants of literature ahead of rapidly closing doors. Salesmen gladly handed over their brochures... dealer albums ... anything the enthusiastic youth could carry off. 

With automotive dealership shelves and cabinets open to him, Rick found literature often dating back well into the 1930's. And so began a literature collecting hobby which spanned over fifty years and filled two warehouses and a home with over 1,000,000 items. "My parents were 'accommodating' about the stacks of literature that I collected", Rick laughed. "They didn't really object since I did have a room of my own. So I could stack it under the bed and in the closet. They realized that I could draw because, when we had a ball game after school, I would squat down where all the cars were lined up and make sketches of the cars and they looked real enough that you could tell what they were."

"During the war years we had paper drives and the schools were in charge of the drives", Rick related. "The paper went into sheds behind the schools. People really believed in this and they went through their barns and they had all kinds of old magazines that they had stacked away — back to World War I. So I got quite a few rare ads. If I hadn't been so patriotic I would have saved the whole magazines. I don't think that we would have lost the war over it — but I felt that I should only keep the ad pages."

To be an automobile designer... 
"At the time I appreciated and wanted to look at the different types of advertising because of course, each company tried to show their car in the best light they could and have something distinctive about their ads so that you would know it was their ad and not somebody else's without reading the name at the bottom of the page. It was my hope to be an automobile designer. However, at that time, you could submit all the illustrations you wanted to the manufacturers and, as soon as they opened a package and saw that they were drawings, they would ship them right back to you."

Rick spoke of joining an early brochure collecting club, the "Auto Maniacs of America, Inc." (later "Auto Enthusiasts International"), serving on their Honorary Advisory Board twice, and occasionally paying an exorbitant price of up to $18 for brochures (which today sell for several hundred dollars). 

Auto Maniac...
"When the war ended I found that there would be a new batch of fantastic catalogs every year to enjoy and to keep and to compare", Rick said. "Very soon after World War II ended there was a club composed of people who collected automobile literature called 'Auto Maniacs'. I joined and found that — for a lot of money to me, but comparatively little money - you could get older material as well. I was much more interested in how styling progressed during the 3O's than in merely getting one year at a time as they came off the production line in the 40's."

Because of this resource, "there are quite a few impressive catalogs because of their size, or colorful ones, or rare ones in my collection", Rick said, "but very few that just for their own sake in illustrations are beautiful. One would be the complete catalog of 1942 Lincolns. They had the Zephyr, the Continental and the Custom. The illustration that they used that year to show all of the different body styles was the car against a darker background of the same color with a spotlight playing on it. It was very effective and the cars weren't too exaggerated. And of course the car itself was very handsomely proportioned. As for the catalog, it being 1942, there were fewer catalogs available in the first place and it was large — 16x11, just huge - so if one became available it was going to be very expensive. You could pick up a complete and very nice 1942 Oldsmobile catalog inexpensively. The Lincoln would have cost much more. Even if I had found one it would have been have been out of my price range. I did, however, find a Mexican version which was printed on cheaper paper and in Spanish for less than one-quarter the cost of the U.S. version. Nobody wanted the version you couldn't read even though the illustrations were the same."

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Without considering the magnitude of the task that he set himself, Rick said, "My goal was to collect at least one of every piece of literature that was produced since 1930. I had already visited the Detroit Library and found that they only kept what they were given. They didn't even try to get the current year's material, so I figured that there probably wasn't any place in this whole country that had a complete history from the manufacturer's point of view. And, obviously, so many companies were going out of business that you couldn't get anything from them."

"And the people who were still in the business of making cars had not kept their own history which was brought home to me again in 1982 when General Motors cooperated with Automobile Quarterly to do their book, General Motors; The First Seventy-Five Years. The advertising had been farmed out to advertising agencies ever since the pre-teens and, when General Motors would fire one and hire someone else, all those pictures and material that they had printed went to the agency." 

"Supposedly they could have saved photographs that were taken over the years in the company files. Did they do that? I don't know? Nobody will admit to having them. So they have some for some years, but others they have absolutely nothing on. When they did the book they had to get outside help and we were the logical publishers since we had not only done articles on many different General Motors cars but by that time had done three or four books with complete histories on some of their cars. So we had many of the pictures that they needed for their book in our files already."

"Ford Motor Company was far, far better. They have gigantic files of factory photos which they have hung on to over the years. Unfortunately, the last time I checked, it was being run by a couple of women who had little or no interest in cars and didn't recognize what they were looking at. So if you asked for a 1942 Special series they would go to that file and get it out and you could buy a print but, if it was not that series and not that year, you could tell them about it but they wouldn't change it because they wouldn't fool with the files and the mistake wouldn't get corrected and you never would get the car that you were after."

Rick, The Artist...

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During this time, Rick graduated from Homer Rural High School in Homerville, Ohio, in May of 1950 and studied commercial art layout at Cooper School of Art, graduating in Oct. of 1952. On an application for employment in Aug. of 1953 Rick stated that his desire was to work "in advertising or illustrating" and he was willing to work for $1.25/hour. During this period he took his first photographs of cars. And in 1952 he bought his first car, a 1942 Dodge Convertible with "blackout" trim. Most of the cars that he owned during his lifetime were open roadsters, including an MG-TD.

Art fascinated Rick and early car brochures are truly works of art, but his focus on collecting was the historical aspect - a history that he realized was being lost as brochures were thrown away. As he set out to preserve history one aspect of collecting led to another. Contacts, and friendships, were developed between collectors throughout the world - Argentina, Czechoslovakia, Germany, Japan, Mexico, Poland, Russia, Spain . . . to name a few.

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"The most interesting experiences I've had involved finding and corresponding with people elsewhere", Rick said, "because it often resulted in friendships, not just the trading of literature." These friendships led to the completion of a passport application indicating his desire to visit Japan in 1984. 

"Apparently the idea of making lists of people who have common interests — such as toy trains — is not a recent one, but goes clear back to the 40's", Rick said. "I joined several independent auto clubs. I did not seek out foreign people, but they belonged to a club, or got this list about people in the U.S. who were interested in cars. I received letters and/or catalogs of what they had for sale or trade. Over the years some worked out — some I have literally been corresponding with for over thirty years — and others phased out in a month or two. Most of these people have been ones whom I traded with rather than buying things from various continents."

"Before the war very few foreign cars were sold in the U.S.", Rick recalled, "and those that were sold were in New York and Los Angeles so you would have had to be right there where the dealers were located to get any material. Immediately after the war, however, they were so eager in Europe to export cars that even a letter written in longhand — and my longhand has always been terrible — brought packages with catalogs in them. Three or four dozen from England ...a few from Germany ...the post-war Minerva which was actually an English car built under license in Belgium. Most people in the auto collecting business have never even heard that there was a post-war Minerva or that this company built and sold cars."

The French Connection...
"If only I could have written in French I could have gotten a lot more", he lamented, "but there is only one postwar year in which I got many French catalogs. That year I wrote to the producers of the Paris Auto show, enclosed some actual money and asked if they would send someone around to the various stalls and stands to pick up the catalogs and send them to me. So they went to all the French stands only and sent me a packet of information. I doubt that anyone would do that today, even if you paid them. It was a revelation to see all of these cars that we never saw anything about in our publications."

The Japanese Connection...
"My initial correspondent and trader in Japan turned out to be a very vigorous writer there and he was pleased to find someone whom he could rely on to send him auto material from the U.S. It went on for many years starting in the early 60's. The very first round of Japanese cars that were actually usable cars that could be sold anywhere other than the U.S., because we needed big cars, were in the middle to late 50's. After fifteen or twenty years he suddenly stopped sending anything or writing. I thought perhaps the cost of postage had gone up and he couldn't afford to send packages anymore. It also occurred to me that, since he was a young man before the war, he could be a fairly elderly man by this time. I never did find out exactly why he stopped but, some years later, when Toyota printed a flyer about their own museum, he was named as the curator. If he is an elderly man he is still very active. But I wrote to him there and did not get an answer."

"Ads in the classified sections of some automotive publications in the 60's and 70's had people in Japan who placed ads seeking people to trade literature with. I answered some of those ads and worked with a couple of people for awhile. That dwindled down to nothing pretty soon, because they didn't realize what it entailed. So I started writing directly to the manufacturers and, for another fifteen or eighteen years, they were quite cooperative in sending their domestic catalogs."

When asked if there were one or two pieces of literature in his collection that were exciting "finds" at the time he obtained them, such as the Minerva, Rick laughed, "I didn't realize at the time I got the Minerva brochure that I should be excited. I didn't realize that they were only going to last one year. After doing this for 25-30 years I realized that there were a few cars that I was very interested in that I had nothing on. So I finally gritted my teeth and was willing to pay to get the material. But it doesn't work out that way. If something is unobtainable it is because there wasn't very much available in the first place and nobody cared about the car in the second place. A good example is the Windsor which the Moon Company, when their sales dwindled, renamed from the Moon to the Windsor White Prince for two years, then went out of business."

"It was the fear of lawsuits", Rick said, "because, as soon as they brought out their advertising for the cars in the catalog for 1929, they heard from the Royal family's solicitors. They were told, I'm sure in very proper terms, that if they didn't cease using the Prince of Wale's likeness and his motto and his emblem on their cars and in their advertising they would be taken very drastically to court. It seems to me to have been the incredible height of gall to put a foreign, next in line to the throne's, personage on your advertising without even writing and asking, 'Can we do this?'"

"The Moon Company quickly changed their advertising and hubcaps, etc., to where it just said Windsor. It was a very expensive thing for them to do when they didn't have money for advertising in the first place. But the newspapers were so kind in those days. They didn't attack companies like they do today. So I sought any material on the Windsor and Windsor White Prince to fill that gap. Since they had no money for advertising, the only ads they placed were in newspapers and I had no access to newspapers in 1929 and 1930."

"Being "rare", though, doesn't make a sales brochure valuable in and of itself if interested collectors/historians haven't heard of it, but ALL sales literature and prospectus (where else would one see the Tucker Torpedo 2-door model that was never built?), especially that for "failed" car companies, deserves to be saved. Auto history is vague enough as it is!"

For today's collectors, Rick advised, "the accumulation of things from abroad worked very well until recently. There are more people today in Europe than ever before who want to trade material, but it's really weird what you're liable to get in return. In Germany I'm thinking of all the different models that they build and sell that they don't send here. Mercedes-Benz, for example, has two different types of stretched sedans. One is used for high officials and the wealthy and the other is used for taxis all over the world. They don't sell them here so we can't get any information on them and I couldn't get the person I was trading with to send me any information on those cars. He wanted to send me literature on cars that were unusual to him — the Japanese makes that were being sold in Germany. It is unique to see a Japanese make in the German language!"

Rick did not limit his collection to standard makes and models of cars. He was interested in every aspect of transportation - electrical, industrial and marine vehicles, three-wheelers and golf cars, as well as exotic, luxury and concept cars, taxi cabs, police vehicles, ambulances and hearses.

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One of the highlights of his career occurred in 1972 when Rick was hired to take his first car photographs for Automobile Quarterly. "Some of the coincidences [in my life] were pretty extreme", he recalled. "The very week, for instance that I got together a selection of photographs that I had taken and sent them to Automobile Quarterly they had had someone contact them about me and were contacting me about doing something for them. There are so many billions of people in the world that it is very unusual that something like that should happen." Over the years he worked as Staff Photographer and dozens of articles were done based on his photography.

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"Most of my memorable days have to do with photographing cars", Rick reminisced. "I must have met every possible type of human being (excepting, possibly a Siamese-twin or a confessed axe murderer) in the course of finding and shooting old cars." Rick literally took hundreds of thousands of photographs in his lifetime — "I'm one of the people who has kept Kodak in business", he once said. Hundreds were used to illustrate articles in Automobile Quarterly.

Even when very ill Rick never lost his sense of humor as is evidenced in this Dec. 2001 Christmas card. Rick lost a battle to cancer and passed away on Feb. 17, 2002 at 8:18 p.m. and his ashes were scattered at sea per his wishes. His parents and sister preceded him in death. 

In 1996, McLellan's Automotive History acquired the Rick Lenz collection. Rick's wish and legacy was for his literature to go into the hands of collectors all over the world who share his passion and will continue to preserve the history of transportation. He will be remembered for his endless devotion to the hobby.

T I M E L I N E

May 29, 1932 Born to Maurice and Bernice Lenz in Sullivan, Ohio
1941 Obtained first brochure
1942 Collected brochures from dealerships that were closing due to WWII
1944 Began drawing sketches of cars that interested him
Jan. 2, 1948 Joined "Auto Maniacs of America, Inc, serving on board three times
May 1950 Graduated from Homer Rural High School in Homerville, Ohio
1952 Took first car photographs
1952 Bought his first car, a 1942 Dodge Convertible with "blackout" trim
Oct 1950-Oct 1952 Attended Cooper School of Art studying commercial art layouts
1960's Focused on acquiring all the official printed information on all cars madeavailable to the public each year
Late 60's Photographed cars for "Vintage Vehicles" magazine
1970 Joined Society of Automotive Historians
1972 Went to work for Automobile Quarterly as a photographer
1984 Applied for passport to visit Japan
Feb 17, 2002 Passed away


PHOTO GALLERYRICK LENZ

 

Auto Maniacs Newsletter, April 2013

 

 
Editor-in-Chief: Mona Nath
 
Technical Editor: Robert McLellan
 
Photo Editor: Anil Nath
 
 
 
 

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Auto Maniacs — 2013