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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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November 2003 Issue
 
ARTICLE
 
Rick Lenz
By Sharon McLellan
 

Very seldom do we have an opportunity to profile a literature collector for whom collecting literature was a lifelong passion. Therefore, we are proud to present the face of a dedicated collector as he looked when it all began:

Rick Lenz' passion for automotive brochures began in 1940 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."

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, Lenz found literature often dating back well into the 1930s. 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", Lenz 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."

"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", Lenz said. "Very soon after World War II ended there was a club composed of people who collected automobile literature called 'Auto Maniacs'." He joined the club, served on their Honorary Advisory Board twice, and occasionally paid an "exorbitant price of up to $18" for brochures.

Without considering the magnitude of the task that he set himself, Lenz 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."

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Art fascinated Lenz 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. "The most interesting experiences I've had involved finding and corresponding with people elsewhere", Lenz said, "because it often resulted in friendships, not just the trading of literature."

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"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 40s", Lenz 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."

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"Before the war very few foreign cars were sold in the U.S.", Lenz 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."

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"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."

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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, Lenz 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. Being rare 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, Lenz 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!"

Lenz 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. In 1996 we purchased the Lenz collection and much of that literature is still available on our web site and can be accessed through our index.

(NOTE: Rick Lenz passed away on Feb. 17, 2002. This "Profile" is a summation of a memorial which first appeared on our web site in April 2002.

 
 
 
The Automotive Chronicles, November 2003
 
 
 
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