29 March 2007

Gunner's Great Garages 3: Blood, Sweat and Cheers

Colin Comer took a neat-looking older brick building not far from downtown Milwaukee and lavished a lot of hard work on it to turn it into a first-class “garage” for his business Colin’s Classic Automobiles.

It’s hard to decide whether Comer’s project qualifies as a “corporate makeover” or just a reflection of his love of cars and his many years working in car dealerships. He started as a detailer and then became a body man, mechanic and service advisor.

Because he was buying and selling cars on the side, Comer decided to work for himself and rented his first 1,000 sq. ft. shop in Glendale, Wisc., in 1994. In 1996, he purchased a 4,000 sq. ft. building, which he still uses for overflow. This was followed by the purchase of his 17,000 sq. ft. showroom building in 2004.

But Comer isn’t an all-work-and-no-play type of guy. When you talk to him, one of the first things he’ll tell you is, “I’m a collector who happens to sell cars.” Maybe that’s why Comer’s old-fashioned-looking garage looks less like a business and more like a super-sized hobbyist’s haven.

Like many enthusiasts, Comer wanted a space that had adequate room, natural lighting, doors big enough to drive cars through and enough privacy to provide adequate security. While he required more space than the average collector to house 60 or more cars, Comer’s goals were essentially the same as those of many hobbyists.

Comer knew that he needed both a vision and a budget to create his “Great Garage.” He wanted the place to have an automotive look when it was done. He also knew that cost was going to be an issue. After all, 17,000 sq. ft. buildings in urban areas like Milwaukee don’t sell for peanuts, even when they date back 80 years.

The cornerstone on Comer’s building indicates that it was constructed in 1927. At one time, it was next door to an American Motors Corp. factory. But the brick building did not have links to automobiles. It was an abrasives products factory that was owned for years and years by one family. This probably explains why it stayed in good shape, but got pretty messy inside. The family took care of the property, but the manufacturing of abrasives creates lots of dirt and debris.

That’s where the blood-sweat-and-tears aspect comes in. Like many hobbyists, Comer decided to start with a “fixer-upper” in order to get the garage he needed with the money he had. With his experience as a mechanic, the young car dealer had a knack for fixing all kinds of problems from dirty floors to broken doors.

Comer had to virtually restore the building by himself. Working on his hands and knees, he scraped black dust and residue off the floors. He cleaned and painted, then painted and cleaned. His goal from the start was to have a whistle-clean space that showed his car collection off to its best advantage.

After the cleaning and painting were finished, the inside of the building was decorated with neon and porcelain dealership signs and automobilia items ranging from 1950s gas pumps to 1970s driver education trainers. These trainers are actually quite valuable, because the steering wheel used in making them was also a wood-grained accessory for some of the Mopar muscle cars that are popular today.

To give the interior of his building a real “car dealership” image, Comer painted the floor with a gray epoxy and did the lower couple of feet of the cinder-block walls in a lighter gray. Above this, he painted the walls white, to give the impression of light, cleanliness and space. He separated the gray and white sections of the wall with a red horizontal band that emphasizes the length of the building.

Vintage battery, tire and spark plug signs designed in a vertical format hang on the vertical structural columns between the large, glass-paned windows. A row of round restored neon signs were used to decorate the windowless walls in the center of the building. Additional automobilia is scattered throughout the warehouse and includes a Sunoco gasoline pump, a Sun distributor machine and a number of restored neon car dealer signs.

While Comer has an impressive amount of neat automotive memorabilia, he also has a good sense for not overdoing things. With plenty of wall space left plain and undecorated, he has maintained the functional feeling of a car dealership while letting you know his passion for cars. He has turned what was once an old, empty building into one of Milwaukee’s “Great Garages”!

John "Gunner" Gunnell is the automotive books editor at Krause Publications in Iola, Wis., and former editor of Old Cars Weekly and Old Cars Price Guide.

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