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The Automotive Chronicles

Monthly newsletter published by McLellan's Automotive History. Dedicated to literature collectors, restorers, museums, publishers, manufacturers and investors who collect and preserve automotive literature
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December 2009 Issue
 
ARTICLE
 

Taylor Vinson is no more. Undeniably one of the foremost automotive history gurus and owner of many rare and impressive literature collections, Taylor's passing marks the end of an era. A great loss.

We visited the Detroit Auto Shows together for about seven consecutive years and talked automotive literature. Every conversation with Taylor was a treat — the kind that automobile lovers would give an arm and a leg to listen in to. I will cherish those interludes, and perhaps share them with you all in the future. His last e-mail to me was on October 16, 2009 which he ended with, "Something tells me that I've gone to my last Carlisle...". He breathed his last on October 25.

Below is an interview with Taylor Vinson that appeared in The Automotive Chronicles, April 2004 issue.

— Robert McLellan
 
Collector Profile: Zachary Taylor Vinson
From interview with The Automotive Chronicles - April 2004
 

When we first approached Taylor Vinson about writing the story of his experiences in collecting automotive literature he laughed and said, "Just replace Rick Lenz's name with mine in the article you wrote about him and you'll have my story."

We don't agree. No matter how many similarities there are in collecting, each individual brings to the hobby his or her unique personality and experience. We hope you enjoy reading about Taylor as much as we enjoyed interviewing him.

Z. Taylor Vinson

"Like Rick, I started out going to showrooms and picking up what literature I could. My family was buying a new car one Spring when I was a boy and I would go around with my father — I remember, particularly, the Ford and the Oldsmobile showrooms — and my Aunt was getting a new Chrysler... and my grandparents were getting a new Cadillac. I went around to other showrooms once I discovered these catalogs. I had my parents drop me and wait at the curb while I ran in with my little fat legs. This was Huntington, West Virginia, and the dealers were very generous. I guess they knew my parents — they certainly didn't know me but I got wonderful Packard and Cadillac catalogs.

Of course I promptly cut them up so that I could race the little cars along the floor. Then one day at my grandparents, I found in the trash a 1941 Chrysler Crown Imperial catalog, pulled it out of the trash and started cutting out the cars from the rear. But when I got to the covers, it was just so beautiful that I stopped.

THE AUTOMOTIVE CHRONICLES (AC): Since we're in the literature business we're always running into men who started collected literature when they were boys. But, in your experience, did very many of your friends have an interest in automotive literature?

TAYLOR: None in Huntington. I discovered one or two guys later when I started going away to school who were collectors, but I was the only one that I know of in my home town. One day I got something in the mail and it was a battered 1939 Citroen catalog. My mother and father had a good friend in Charleston, West Virginia, who was a school teacher. She had spent the summer of 1939 in France before the war and she found this somewhere among her stuff and sent it to me. And that is the very first piece of foreign automobile literature that I ever got. My mother had a Larousse and I tried translating it word-for-word — and I still have the thing in my Citroen collection. About every two weeks I would ask my parents, one or the other, to drive me down automobile row so I could pick up the latest literature.

In those days, of course, there weren't automotive magazines. All we had to depend upon, at least for our knowledge of automobiles, was Floyd Clymer and his "Motor Scrapbooks" and that was the first time I ever began to be aware of the variety of old cars. I think he's had seven or eight scrapbooks, maybe nine, and I got them all, year-after-year. But I was mainly interested in contemporary vehicles. And there was a fellow up in Eugene, Oregon, named Franson who put out something called "Franson's Motor News". Somehow or other I had some duplicates. I sent Franson the duplicates and he said he would give me two free ads in the paper that he ran. And he did.

I began hearing from a fellow named in The Netherlands and we had a trading relationship for 40 years. Things began to be all in Dutch in 1988 and I just wasn't interested in that. I visited him five times from 1953 to 1985. We started exchanging new catalogs. One of the things that he sent me was the 1948-49-50 Ferrari Yearbook. After Enzo Ferrari died in 1988 this was a high value book — and here it was a freebie for me. He sent me a lot of the early Ferrari stuff.

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I got two answers to this little ad. The Dutch collector was one. The other was a German family. They weren't really interested in automobiles, but they wanted to practice English. And they became very close friends of mine until they both died in the early 1990s. When I was in the Army in Germany I was there to see them and they visited me twice in the States and I corresponded with them and it was just a wonderful relationship — thanks to "Franson's Motor News".

The friendship was basically non-automotive, although they did send me the very interesting and rare 1938 Maybach SW38 portfolio with these beautiful watercolor drawings. He told me that he had written, as he called him "Old Maybach", for literature and "Old Maybach" had written back and said that this had come from his private collection. He wasn't going to build cars anymore so someone might as well have it who would appreciate it. So that is one, I think, of the more interesting articles in my collection.

I finally met the Dutch collector. I went to The Netherlands. I was a college student and was on a tour with my roommates from college. He came up and I spent a day with him in his home town and saw his marvelous collection. A couple of months later, after I got back to the States, he said, "Well, you know I have two children, and I'm expecting a third, and I think I want to sell my collection."

I said, "Well, what do you want for it?", and it was a low number by today's prices. One of the Hispano items alone is worth that today. I was just a college student and I asked, "Would you accept $25 a month?"

He said, "Sure."

I would send him $25 a month and I got — he numbered each parcel — 110 parcels of this fabulous literature beautiful Alvis, — beautiful Rolls, Delage, Delahaye, Hispano Suiza, Horsch, Maybach and some of the lesser names as well. And that was the start of my great interest in foreign stuff.

And so it has continued to build through the years. There was a period when I was living out west. When I finished law school I moved to the West Coast and all my collection was at my parent's house. So the Dutch collector would offer me old things and I would buy them. I would get the new stuff and go home once a year and file it. But in 1969 my parents said, "We're selling the house, you've got to take this over". So in 1969 I bought a town house in Washington and was able at long last to have my collection and me together. And that was when I really started out going to Hershey. I would go up to Hershey one day and allow myself $50 in the early '70s. Then one day a dealer named Howard Applegate visited me. I had a lot of duplicates in Dutch. He bought some, but he said, "You really ought to think about flea marketing up at Hershey."

So I went up to Hershey and decided, "Yeah, I'll try this." That was the first year that I set up at Hershey and I've been doing it every year ever since. 1974 was the first year that I set up at Carlisle, per se. I didn't go back in 1975, but I was there in 1976 and I've gone back every year. And, of course, there were lots of wonderful people in those days who are no longer alive, or who have retired from the business, and you could buy these wonderful catalogs at ridiculous prices [for today].

Incidentally, the first catalogs that I bought, I think, came through an ad in "Franson's Motor News" when I was just short of 15. I bought $10 worth of stuff and there was a big package that greeted me and included, I think, $1 for the most expensive which was a 1938 Ford catalog. The other stuff was 50- and 75-cents.

About the same time there was a fellow in Nevada named Graham Hardy who had a mail auction called "Railroadiana". He would send a catalog out. I remember I had cut up the Packard 160/180 catalog for 1941. Well, I bought one from him for $5!!

Then I became aware of a dealer named Harry Weisbrod in Philadelphia. Until I was 16 and could get my driver's license, about every two weeks I had to go through Philadelphia. I took the "L" railroad out to his house. He was a widower and had stacks and stacks of literature in his basement. He said, "This is the most beautiful catalog I've ever seen and for $5 it's yours". It was a beautiful flocked 1932 Cadillac catalog — still in the box. I think it's worth $800-$900 today. When I went to college in New Jersey I would go over to see Harry occasionally. It was about an hour from where I was and I would buy odds and ends from him. I lost track of him, but I notice there's someone on the West Coast named Morton Weisbrod and I assume that it's his son who sells literature as well.

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In the early '60s, when I moved to California, there was a man who had just died who was one of the big sellers of literature in the late '50s, early '60s, named Art Twohy. You may have heard of Art Twohy. He was one of the founders, I think of the CCCA, or something like that. Well, I would go out to see his widow, Doris. And Doris was so afraid that somebody was going to take advantage of her that she would never make a deal when you would buy something — but she would always throw in something extra — which was good. It was almost better than getting a discount. I was a young lawyer, just starting out, and I wasn't making much money. But I would go over there once a month or so and alot maybe $25 or $35 — my collection's back in West Virginia, "Am I doing the right thing?", I wondered — but things would be so pretty that I couldn't resist it. One day she brought out this red slipcovered 1940 Packard 160/180 catalog. I said, "Well, Mrs. Twohy, this is awfully expensive, but I will gladly give you the $25 you want for this." Another time I went over and there was this magnificent — biggest catalog I think I had ever seen — a 1931 Chrysler Custom Imperial catalog. Again, I said, "Well, Mrs. Twohy, I know you want $30 for this — and I've just got to have it ...so."

Then she told me that there was something out in the garage. She said it was a classic Lincoln piece that had been prepared specially for Franklin D. Roosevelt. And she said, "It's $100." I said, "Mrs. Twohy, I can't afford it — I don't even want to see it!"

She went to a nursing home and I would send her Christmas cards and her son, Rich, told me once that she had died. She was a little bit wary at first, but once you earned her confidence she warmed up. I would order things by mail from her after I moved east. I remember one time she threw in something which I thought was very interesting. It was a Pierce-Arrow Open Car folder.

After I got my collection to Washington and started going to Hershey and Carlisle and discovering people — collectors and dealers — and now I'm part of the whole scene, but the scene has developed over the years. It started out with a very small base.

Of course in 1948 the car was only about 50 years old so my collecting has been somewhat over half the life of the automobile. I think today ... I started out collecting, or trying to collect, everything ... and I think today that's just impossible for somebody just starting out. They have to concentrate on a particular era, a particular marque or a particular kind of car.

AC: We want to hear about organizations that you have been involved with.

TAYLOR: "Auto Maniacs" was the first group I became aware of and I think maybe our source for information in those days was "Popular Science" and "Popular Mechanix" — the little ads in front. Because "Motor Trend" and "Road & Track" didn't start until 1948 or 1949. I remember going down to my newsstand in Huntington, West Virginia, in the summer of 1950 and seeing, "What ... a magazine devoted to automobiles!" Well, that was "Motor Trend" and that opened up a new world. And later I became aware of "Road & Track". And of course the early '50s was full of new car magazines coming along "Sports Car Illustrated", "Car" and things like that.

"Auto Maniacs" decided somewhere along the way that it wasn't a dignified name so they changed to "Auto Enthusiasts". And they were very good about finding literature and making it available and they did some crude reprints. It was interesting to see what you wanted to look for in the real world. [NOTE: "Auto Enthusiasts" clearly identified the copies as reprints.]

I remember "Auto Enthusiasts" would offer brochures for 50-cents. And they were offering the 1940 Buick Limited catalog — the beautiful, big spiralbound one — for $1. So I bought four of them. I already had one and I thought, "I'll just sell these and make my money back. I was so happy when I sold the last one for $20 a few years later.

Sometime before 1986 I was sitting at home one Sunday afternoon. A friend of mine called me. He had been down to a local antique show at the armory and he says, "Taylor, I saw a piece down there. The owner says it's a very rare piece."

I asked, "What is it?"

He said, "Well, it's some kind of Thunderbird piece."

I said, "John, the only rare piece that I've ever heard of for Thunderbird was an initial catalog which was destroyed which had the car with the sweepspear on the side like the regular '55 Fords had."

"Well," he said, "I'll tell you where the dealer's located."

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So I went down to the armory right away and, sure enough, this was the rare catalog that was supposed to have been destroyed. Well, he had two of them, and some page proofs. And he said, "Take them all and I'll give you the catalogs."

And I said, "Fine. It's a deal." Well, I sold the page proofs and with the other catalog I called Bob Tuthill right away, who was in the process of selling me his duplicate 1934 Packard Custom Car catalog, which I think is probably the most beautiful American catalog, so we applied the other Thunderbird catalog as a trade towards the Packard catalog.

Now, the second rarest thing — Jim Bradley said it was the one item if he had to save something from the NAHC he would save. The SAH went to St. Louis for one of its' annual board meetings. We went out to see a private collection and here was a Lincoln "K" from about 1937 or 1938 and in the front seat was a photocopy of the most elaborate Lincoln brochure I have ever seen. So I asked the owner of the car about it. He says, "Oh yes, we had this on approval, but it was just too expensive for us. So we just made a photocopy and sent it back to Charlie Shalebaum. Well, I knew Charlie because Charlie loves selling Lalique hood ornaments, automotive art and rare catalogs. I got a Fageol catalog and the layout of a French car which was driven by a propeller I got from him. And I said, "Well, I'm going to make a point to see Charlie at Hershey." Well, I go to Carlisle and the first person I see is Charlie and the first thing I say is, "Charlie, do you still have that big Lincoln piece?"

He says, "Yeah! And what's more, I brought it with me today for the first time in years."

I looked at him — I kind of knew what Charlie wanted for it — it was the most expensive thing I had ever bought, but it was a deal. I said, "Charlie, all I can give you today is $1,000. I'll bring the rest next week."

He says, "No, take it with you." I thought that was a wonderful trust.

Now, why is this Lincoln brochure is so rare? First of all, let me describe it to you. It is enormous — about 2½' x 1½' — and it has a green leather, sort of alligator, cover with a silver Lincoln dog in a Lincoln medallion oval set in. You open it up and here are 20-21 pages of photos some are slightly retouched — of the entire 1939 Lincoln "K" line. The artwork in the catalog is all actual artwork, but these are actual photos. And here are upholstery samples and color samples with stripes.

We're talking something even rarer than a dealer album. Nobody knows how many copies. I think it was probably done as maybe 5 or 6 copies for big dealerships in New York, Chicago, San Francisco. But this particular one had a story behind it documented with letters. There was John Schuler from Indianapolis. He was like 8-years-old in 1939. He and his father were going up to the Lincoln factory to get a new Lincoln Zephyr 2-Door for his mother. Up at the factory in Michigan he was so knowledgeable about the cars that the men who were with him were very impressed and they said, "Well, we have to introduce you to Mr. Ford". So they went in to see Henry Ford and little John, whom I understand later became the Rolls-Royce dealer in Indianapolis, saw this big Lincoln catalog on Henry Ford's side table.

So during the war — around 1943 — four years later, Schuler's never been able to forget this thing. And he writes Henry Ford. He says, "Mr. Ford. I've just never been able to forget that wonderful day that I spent with you and that wonderful Lincoln book that you had in your office."

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About a month later Schuler gets a telephone call from the Postmaster saying, "Hey kid, there's something down here for you." Schuler goes down and here's this big leather case. You unzip it and inside is the book. So Schuler BIKES home with it. His letters were addressed to Ted Swain on the Main Line in Pennsylvania setting forth the history and these are still in the book itself. I got it from Charlie Shalebaum, whom I don't think of as an owner but a dealer, so I may be the third owner of the one piece that Jim Bradley said would be the one piece that he would save. I just treasure that.

You know, the older you get the more you learn about automotive history. And I didn't realize that, before World War II, Enzo Ferrari had started to make his own car after leaving Alfa Romeo. I think he was involved with some of the Alfa Romeo race cars in the late 1930's. He left with a non-compete clause saying that he could not use his name on a car for "X" number of years. Well, in 1940 he had two cars called the "815" that were being prepared for the Mille Miglia. They were rather streamlined cars and the story goes that he placed an order for 100 brochures. And the war came and they didn't produce the cars, although there is the history of the car, and there were two of them made. But he ordered the brochures — and never picked them up.

So a fellow down in Atlanta who is a Ferrari nut, Fred Repass, offered me one. Fred said, at that time, that as far as he knew there were only 5 or 6 copies of these available. And I said, "Well, it is expensive", but I bought it. Fred also sent me a copy of the article which detailed the history of this rare brochure. And I know that Tom Solley was able to buy one and I saw one on sale at "Retromobile" and I should have bought it because it was so cheap — like $600 — and I could maybe have quad- or quintupled my money with the right person, but I went to "Retromobile" to buy for my own collection and not to sell at some later date.

But that sort of brought back to me the one time that I met Signor Ferrari in 1971. At that time I was a lawyer over at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and I was handling exotic cars and I had gotten to know the people who were handling Maseratis and Ferraris and Lamborghinis and DeTomasos — DeTomaso visited with me twice in my office — so I was going to Morracco and Italy and Switzerland and Germany for my vacations. When I got to Bologne I had this interview. I went out to the factory and they let me drive the Dino and the Daytona — and then I had this five minute interview with "god". I had always heard about the shrine to Dino, his late son, in his office. Sure enough, I went in and I looked around and here are a couple of candles by Dino's picture on the back wall. Well, Signor Ferrari was sitting there in his dark glasses — he had driven a Fiat 130 Coupe to work that day I noticed — and, of course, everybody was kind of cowtowing to him. It was about a five minute interview. He autographed a copy of a book — in purple, of course — and gave me some models and a scarf and it was just wonderful.

When I got home I went right to my Ferrari files. I had been writing the factory in the late 40's and I noticed that these letters were signed with purple ink! I had been getting letters from Ferrari himself in the late '40's and early '50's. And after he died in 1988 Walter Miller was offering these letters for like $2,000 apiece. Well, when Ferrari died the whole literature scene erupted for about a year or two. This 1949/50 Yearbook that I got free — the first auction of that in Modena after Ferrari died $13,000 was what it went for. We think it was some Japanese collector. Well, the market went down and the second time it was ONLY $11,000.

But it was a never to be forgotten meeting with Enzo Ferrari.

AC: You are active in the SAH. How did you get involved?

TAYLOR: Yes, I'm the editor of the magazine, the Automotive History Review.

Howard Applegate, the dealer who came to see me back in the early 1970's had a big tent at Hershey and part of it was devoted to the SAH. So one day he said to me, "You ought to join the SAH." I said, "But I'm not a historian." He said, "Oh, you may be more than you think. Come on into our tent." I said, "Okay". So we went to dinner. This was 1976. Meanwhile, I was wondering how I was going to fit in with this. But I was awed by the fact that here is a real live guy who's written a book — it was Hugo Pfau — you know the coach book [Custom Body Era]. And here was old Hugo. I thought, "I'm in the presence of an author." Of course now I have about 100 books signed by authors, but then it was a real treat.

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I sat down at the table and the guy across the table from me — I think his name was Borrowman or Barrowman, or something like that — was into Crosleys. Well, I knew Crosleys because of my automobile literature, you know. I really felt right at home because I could talk to him about something. And so I joined in the Spring of 1977. I was member #407 and we're now at 2700, or so, and about ten years later Howard and his wife came to me and said, "We think you ought to run for the board." I said, "Me?". They said, "Yes, you." So I ran for the board and was elected. About three years after that Jack Martin from Indianapolis came to me and said, "We think you ought to run for President." I said, "Me?" Well, I did — and I was defeated. A couple of years later Jack Martin asked me to run as his Vice-President. I said, "Sure." After that I became President from 1993-95 and, in that time, since I wasn't tied down and could travel on vacations, I traveled as far as from San Diego to Warsaw, Poland, enlisting SAH members. In fact, I ran into a Warsaw member today on the floor of the auto show.

I made a couple of visits to Prague and got to meet the people who are collectors and writers in the Czech auto field. The Czechs, before World War II, had 7 or 8 auto manufacturers and they really were like the number four in Europe. They were ahead of Canada and had quite an industry. In terms of rarefying my collection, since I starting going to "Retromobile" in 1994, I've been able to really sort of "beef up" my collection of early French automobile literature as far back and 1893 with Peugeot. I guess, in some sense, it might be better than my American early stuff. I have two Peugeot bicycle catalogs for 1893 and 1894 which have woodcuts in the back of Peugot cars. But the oldest car catalog I have, per se, is a Panhard catalog which has a date of July 1895.

AC: One thing we keep sensing is that you are extremely organized.

TAYLOR: I'm organized, I guess, in the sense that I try to file everything alphabetically and chronologically, but I've never started over and I have about four different places where I go to A, B, etc. You fill file cabinets, and rather than emptying them to make room for more A's you start a new file cabinet with other A's. So I am organized, but disorganized.

If you said, "Marmon", I might look in the first M's and it wouldn't be there, the second M's and it might not be there, but in the third "M" I would find it.

AC: Most collectors keep meticulous records simply because they don't want to duplicate something. They say, "Ah, that's very nice — but do I have that?"

TAYLOR: That's another kind of organization and that was Bob Tuthill's great contribution to the hobby in the 1970s, putting out his guide to American car literature [American Automobile Sales Literature Checklist, 1928-42]. Earlier automotive enthusiasts had done something similar from 1934-61, but Tuthill's was arranged in a much more organized fashion. Since then Tuthill has done private lists that carried the American stuff back before 1928 which was his starting point in the book. So, for Cadillac, he may go back to 1903, the very beginning. Makes that he doesn't particularly care for, like Studebaker, don't go back beyond 1926. And, for certain marques, he's carried it forward through 1966. Marques like Cadillac and Lincoln he carried through to 1980, but Ford and Chevrolet were just carried through to 1966. But that has been a great help to collectors — a bit tiresome to lug these books around when you go to flea markets, but still it saves you from buying the same thing twice, although it's not foolproof, because there are some marques that aren't in there and you buy something and get home and find that you already have it. But it helps cut down on duplication.

Also, since World War II, I have been a collector of magazine ads. Of course I have a lot of foreign ads and I have gone back as far as I can. And newspaper ads. I don't think I've ever run across anybody who has collected newspaper ads on automobile. Some of them are very fragile now. In the old days the introductory ads each year for cars were very, very interesting because it was different than the print you would see in the "Saturday Evening Post". So that's been a great way to study the progression, the changes and the appeal of advertising over the years.

 
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Though these brochures are not photogenic, they are a rare memorial to
Ford Motor Company's post-World War II efforts for veterans of the war. In
Henry Ford's words, "No man who lost a limb in World War II . . . is going
to have to pay anything extra to drive a Ford automobile".
     

AC: For the young collectors, we've seen so many brochures that have writing on them where collectors have written the date on them, written where they obtained them, written a personal code number. How do you feel about things like that?

TAYLOR:
Well, of course, if it's written in pencil, and lightly, it's a great guide to identifying the year or the approximate year. Dealer stamps some people find very interesting. I have mixed feelings about that. As long as it doesn't blur the auto on the cover that can be interesting. I think the most interesting dealer stamp I have is a 1930's Rover catalog with a Katmandu, Nepal stamp on it. The fellow's story is that he went to that dealership and didn't get anything. Then, when he got home, he found out that the catalogs were on the second floor.

The Dutch collector got in the habit of putting what he called an "archiefnummer" at the lower left-hand of the back cover, so that, to my mind, detracts from the value but when I see it I know where it came from! I, myself, the only thing I ever put on it, in the upper left-hand corner of the rear, I will pencil in very lightly what I paid for it in case I find it is a duplicate and I want to sell it. But it is the very lightest pencil marking.

 
 
Z. Taylor Vinson photo courtesy: www.autohistory.org
 
 
Obituary in the Washington Post
Tributes
 
 
The Automotive Chronicles, December 2009
 
 
 
 
 
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