13 November 2008

Chicago Chev Garage

In small town America, the local Chevrolet dealership is often referred to as the “Chev Garage.” The term isn’t used much in the Chicago area, but the western suburb of St. Charles certainly has a “Chev Garage.” And it belongs to Tom Dietz. The garage — as well as Tom’s nearby car storage building — is loaded with old Chevys (of mostly ’62 vintage), along with more Chevrolet memorabilia than you’ll find in even a large Chevy mega-dealer.

Tom lives in a typical suburban neighborhood, but when you see a ’62 Chevy station wagon sitting in the driveway, you get the sense that there might be some special stuff hidden away in the garage behind it. And when Tom opens the overhead door, it is easy to get tricked into thinking you’ve stepped into the service area of a small 1950s Chevrolet dealer.

Two very old — but extremely cool-looking — engine distributor testing machines stand nearby. Adjacent to them is a 409-powered ’62 Chevy that Tom is restoring piece by piece. On another wall, opposite the door, there are light-up signs, clocks and other dealership artifacts. Things really get “electrifying” when Tom switches on all of his car dealer clocks at the same time.

Among the other automobilia pieces scattered throughout the small garage are an OK Used Cars sign, Delco display units, three rectangular and one round AC Oil Filter clocks, a Chevy bow-tie sign, a Chevy America’s First Choice sign, a clock advertising Atlas Tires, Batteries and Accessories and a very interesting Fram Oil Filter clock that uses moving lights to illustrate the way oil flows through a by-pass oil filter. The blue and orange canister filter illustrated on the clock looks just like the accessory unit used on a ’55 Chevy small-block V-8.

Tom’s Chevy dealer memorabilia collection started out in the garage. Then it spilled into his backyard car storage building. Everything in the place is the real deal, too. The word “reproduction” is never uttered in the Dietz household.

Large and fabulous automotive-related signs dominate the car storage building. One huge sign hangs on the rafters above Tom’s fleet of ’62 Chevys. There’s a dark blue Chevrolet Sales and Service sign that probably dates form the ’30s or earlier, a yellow and black Delco Dry Charge Batteries sign and even a large school bus sign that came from the East Gate of the Fisher Body Division plant in Livonia, Mich.

The far wall of the building is decorated with more Chevy neon clocks, all of which are functional, of course. The back wall is lined with dealer showroom posters that show all of the Chevy models for each year. Tom likely has every showroom poster from the ’40s to the ’70s.

In addition to posters, there are dealership display units with three-dimensional “blocks” that show the colors available each year. That includes both solid colors and the two-tone combinations. There are additional signs that advertise individual dealerships like Allen & Wood-DeRuyter Chevrolet and Scott Motors, Inc. (a 1956 sign from Quincy, Ill.) How about a “Now is the Time to Winterize” sign from Ammon R. Smith Auto Co. in York, Pa.?

Tom has traveled to swap meets all over America in search of automobilia and Chevy memorabilia. Amazingly, he does not own a computer or buy things on eBay. He finds it and buys it himself. Tom likes to meet other collectors in person and deal with them eyeball to eyeball. He does not pass up good items because he can’t “steal” them with a low offer.

“I like bargains as much as the next guy,” Tom said. “But I like quality much better. The good stuff is hard to get today. It isn’t like years ago when no one valued these things.”

Tom’s collection spans generations. He has pieces that date as far back as the 1930s, as well as hot-off-the-press 2009 promotional materials. The great bulk of his giant collection is from the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s. He is constantly on the lookout for ’62 Chevy items and collectibles related to the big-clock 409 V-8.

Tom doesn’t look at his purchases as investments or consider their resale value.

“I’m a very serious collector,” he said. “I don’t buy stuff to make money or to re-sell it. I love this part of the hobby and I enjoy my collection. This is history, and it’s exciting to spend time in my garage playing caretaker to pieces of history I never knew existed until I found them at a swap meet or a garage sale.”

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