Alan Darr Gilmore Collection - Blu-Green With Envy
Alan Darr's Hi-Test Gilmore Collection
May 13, 2011
By Chris Shelton
As the number of his tether...
As the number of his tether cars suggests, Alan has a thing for just about anything four-wheeled from the era. But this one's special: it's a Duesenberg, one of the cars that Augie Duesenberg made before and after the war in the image of Ab Jenkins' Mormon Meteor. A supercharged 0.60 Hornet powers it.
What's the difference between a collector and a hoarder? I often wonder as I tour garages. A thread certainly binds the great ones: they're packed with neat stuff. As a whole, car people are wonderful gatherers. It's largely from necessity; owning obsolete things makes us rather opportunistic.
But the line separating collectors and hoarders isn't so clear, at least according to two behavioral scientists who answered-or at least tried to answer-that question on the radio one evening. They'd just recently published a book on the subject, and given the popularity drummed up by reality hoarding shows of late, they found a forum on one of my favored interview programs.
What made that question stand out was the day that preceded that particular evening. Actually that question more than stood out; it gave me the heebie-jeebies. It would have you too were you in my position. I thought someone was messing with me. I looked as calm as possible. Then I glanced furtively for a camera.
Probably most imposing (and...
Probably most imposing (and rarest) of Alan's collection are these plywood sheets cut out to resemble race flaggers. Mounted to station roofs, they reflected the company's involvement in racing. Being wood and exposed to weather, survivors are rare, but Alan has the rarest of the rare: one is N.O.S. Though they weren't made in his likeness, they're called Dominics by Gilmore collectors, a reference to racer and sometime flagger Dominic Distarce.
No more than 30 minutes prior I'd left Alan Darr's house. Alan collects petrolania, the hardware and marketing material generated by the petroleum industry: globes, pumps, signs, advertisements, and so on. As far as petrolania collections go, his is one of the more sought-after.
But what makes Alan's collection so coveted is not its size as much as its focus: for around 40 years he specifically collected items created by and for the Gilmore Oil Company.
Gilmore, if you didn't know, has a special place in the petrolania world. For 45 years it did more than sell gas, oil, and service; it basically facilitated America's love affair with the automobile. And in doing so, Gilmore produced a seemingly unnatural amount of stuff: packaging, advertising, flyers, cards, pens, matchbooks, license plate toppers, and ashtrays. And that's not to say anything of the pumps, globes, signs, and other things used in the distribution of petroleum products.
And if Gilmore made it, Alan Darr might have one. That's what made the program so compelling: Alan has packed a good part of his house with Gilmore-related items. Every square inch of his two-car garage's perimeter is chockablock with signs, banners, plaques, displays, and so on. As the collection grew, it spilled over to fill all but 6 or so square feet of one of his home's bedrooms. How would these experts judge Alan? I listened, and wondered.
It all started with the Model T
They say that Henry Ford's Model T put the world on wheels. Henry's T certainly put Alan Darr on his path. "I had a '27 roadster pickup and I thought, 'Gee, it would be kind of neat to get an old gas pump,'" he says. "I worked for the fire department. Everyone had to have a little sideline job because you couldn't live on what they paid you at the fire department. I was kind of into old cars ... so I'd just buy parts and advertise them in Hemmings. I'd see a '40 Ford coupe behind some guy's house so I'd ask about buying parts off it. I'd take the money
I made from that and go onto something else.
"Along the way I'd find signs and artifacts, and most of that stuff I'd end up keeping. So eventually I was buying and selling parts so I could buy more signs and pumps and so forth. That stuff was starting to get hard to find. People were grabbing it whenever it showed up. I was taking just about whatever I could get my hands on."
There's hardly any reason...
There's hardly any reason to suspect Alan's collection; standard two-bay tract-house garages rarely host collections of anything besides vacation photos nobody wants to see or clothes they'll never wear. But Alan found a way to make his two-stall museum double as a three-car garage.
Alan is a self-proclaimed...
Alan is a self-proclaimed Gilmore guy but he admitted grabbing anything that crossed his path if only to use as trading stock. The guy from whom he got the Flying A globe (a very early example) collected pumps but wasn't much interested in the globes on them.
His globes are most coveted....
His globes are most coveted. He has a number more than these but the most esteemed ones are the ones for Blu-Green gasoline (third one in). It's for their color more than anything, as Blu-Green was a mid-grade (the hot stuff was the Tetraethyl-rich Red Lion).
In 1943, when that pump was...
In 1943, when that pump was last used, $0.37 was the equivalent of about $2.81 in today's money and cars of the time got poorer fuel economy than today's do.
Forget the McCoy spindizzies;...
Forget the McCoy spindizzies; the real gold is behind the glass. It's a promotional flag that a well-connected enthusiast who worked for Firestone had signed by all the noteworthy figures as he toured the circuit supplying tires to racers. The signatures are epic: Babe Stapp, Augie Duesenberg, and Eddie Rickenbacker were just a few who inked it. The prior owner donated it after he coincidentally read Alan's Gilmore history in the September '77 issue of Old Car Illustrated. (To give you an idea of how long Editor Brennan has been around, he worked on that issue of Old Car Illustrated.)
Events that occurred in the...
Events that occurred in the Gilmore era, including the L.A. Olympics in 1932 and the Chicago World's Fair in 1933, appear on Alan's radar. We don't think of things like seat cushions, but here's one that some vendor likely hawked at the entrance to the L.A. Coliseum. He found it in, of all places, an antique store.
What makes Alan's collection...
What makes Alan's collection so special is its stories. The pump in the last photo, for example, is the middle one in this framed picture on Alan's wall. Unfortunately access was poor to properly light the pump, hence the lack of current picture.
For all Alan thought he was...
For all Alan thought he was getting a tabletop; however, lugs on this board's base suggested otherwise. Eventually he discovered that it was a plaque that attached to a tanker that transported Gilmore fuel that could be changed out to suit. We think that modularity is a relatively new construct. Fat chance.
Few companies ever managed...
Few companies ever managed their brands as intensely as Gilmore; even the oil cans are pieces of commercial art. Which brings us to another thing: how did things like this survive, especially in numbers enough to stack a pyramid?
A stash practically in his backyard focused his efforts. "I was just on the outskirts of Toledo, Washington, and I see this pump sitting alongside this closed-up auto shop. It had a Gilmore globe on it," he explains. As the story went, the shop was once a Gilmore station that closed when its owner decided to join the Army Corps of Engineers. What made the find especially compelling was its completeness: "Inside his shop it was just like 1943 because he'd just closed the doors and left," Alan reveals. And best of all, newfound retirement in the '70s inspired its owner-the guy who shut the shop decades before-to clean house. "I ended up getting a lot of that stuff," Alan admits. "It took several years but most of everything he had in there I ended up with."
Though inspired to collect more Gilmore, Alan admitted he still bought whatever he could find. "I kept picking up other West Coast items with
the possibility that I'd have to trade something to get a Gilmore item," he notes. "It was just a lot of wheeling and dealing; I used to keep a notebook of all the collectors who had Gilmore stuff. A lot of these guys ... had only one or a handful of items. Well, for whatever reason, something would turn up and they'd want to turn part of their collection into money." In one instance a collector wanted to bankroll his granddaughter's wedding. He just happened to have a globe. As Alan instructed, "You gotta get it when you can."
And get it he has, which is why I couldn't keep my mind from drifting as the interview proceeded. I learned a few things as the experts put a finer point on the line that differentiates a collector from a mere hoarder. For one, a common theme ties a collector's stash. That's Alan. A collector also gathers objects of relative worth. Yep, that's also Alan.
It's when they specified that a collector knows exactly what he or she has, knows precisely where to find it, and willingly shows it off that I started sweating. I wring my hands at the prospect that someone may see the disheveled contents of my garage. God forbid someone like Alan stumble upon my divine mess: it's a space bigger than his yet won't accommodate more than one small car due to the randomness that stuck to me over the years.
That's when the gravity of the interview struck me. "Forget Alan," I thought to myself. "They're talking about me," or more specifically, about the way I'm not.
Needless to say, I bought the book. I know it's here ... somewhere.
Marx made toys in the likeness...
Marx made toys in the likeness of common subjects reportedly because kids could identify with them and service stations factor prominently in the company catalog. But very early examples like this '34-vintage station are exceptionally rare and even rarer when complete as this one is. Alan spent the considerable profit from selling a '40 sedan delivery on this and another set.
Curiosity goes hand-in-hand...
Curiosity goes hand-in-hand with rarity; case in point this framed poster. On it is a card boasting that this particular design won its creator an award. Whether the advertiser or Gilmore used it as bragging rights is unknown, making it all the more intriguing.
A restorer at heart, Alan's...
A restorer at heart, Alan's pretty much OK with hot rods, too. He bought this A/V-8 in the very early '70s from a fella who bought it at a swap meet in Stockton, California, a few years prior. It has a full-dress Flathead recessed into the firewall, a '39 trans, a Halibrand quick-change axle, juice brakes, and a '40 dash. Like the rest of his collection, it's the real deal.
The breadth of Gilmore's catalog...
The breadth of Gilmore's catalog is intense: myriad pen styles, matchbooks, point-of-sale merchandise, license-plate toppers ... even oil cans. The newspaper behind all of it is the Gilmore Cub, a newsletter with company specials, factoids, and prior weeks' song winners (it was a promotional contest).
Alan bought several heirlooms...
Alan bought several heirlooms from Bob Swanson's daughter, Bobbie. Included in that list is this bound volume of the 1935 Coast Auto Racing issues. Publishers Della Rice and her husband cast it in true newspaper format and it was in its day the last word in the racing world. The Rices presented rare volume made rarer by their signatures to the Swanson family.
As a disposable society we...
As a disposable society we never think of the vessels that delivered our products. But during the Great Depression they did. These oil barrels and cans survived probably due to someone's uncertainty about what the future could bring. Good thing we don't have that to worry about anymore. Right?
Gilmore's star shone brightest...
Gilmore's star shone brightest in the '30s, a time when tether cars were a novel way for enthusiasts to go racing on modest means. His collection includes McCoys, Doolings, and even a Speed Chief just because Alan liked the dropped axle and white balloon tires. (Tether cars enjoyed the unofficial first race in 1937 at an abandoned lot in Los Angels, as the story goes. The Dooling brothers began building "little" race car engines and the cars themselves for the public in the late '30s and early '40s. They created a famous car design called the Frog, and also a popular engine called the Dooling 61. Doolings will bring $3,000, while a well-used car will still bring $2,000, and the rarer cars can sell for as much as $30,000-$35,000.)
Not all that's obsolete is...
Not all that's obsolete is useless. When the bell rang in the corner of his garage, he surprised me by answering the call on this '20s candlestick phone-that's him taking that call (in the photo on the opposite page). He uses it frequently, a testimonial to bygone construction.
We're in debt to our friends...
We're in debt to our friends in one way or another. Alan's in debt to his pal Steve Lemmons who lets him stash a few more cars. Alan's wife, Margaret, is the third and fifth owner of the '39 Mercury (Alan encouraged her to buy it back after they got married). Peter Eastwood built the Deuce tub for Jack Davidson, owner of Sanger Boats. When collector of note Owen Owens commissioned the restoration of the '34 tub, he specified juice brakes, a '39 box, and a later Flathead. Alan added to that a stretched axle and 16-inch Kelsey-Hayes wheels.
They're all but crystalline...
They're all but crystalline palaces now but Ford dealers were once little more than garages scattered across the countryside. The widow of a former Ford dealer in Naches didn't even know about the sign on the garage wall that Alan asked about, but when he offered to buy it she told her son, a boom operator for the power company, to take it down.