By DOANE YAWGER
Leonard Rich Jr. loves cars, especially the bigger luxury automobiles. He derives joy from bringing them back from neglect to a dazzling countenance.
The 84-year-old Merced body shop owner has more than 60 vintage vehicles, generally stretching from the late 1920s to the early 1970s. Most of them have places of honor in his Martin Luther King Jr. Way repair facility, with a few remaining at his Merced home.
“First, you have got to know I love cars,” Rich says. “Being able to look at them gives me good feelings on how I attained them and what it took to get them there.”
Rich likes Chrysler Imperials from the early 1950s. He has three sedans and a two-door hardtop from that vintage. After 1956, Chryslers got a different body style that no longer impresses him.
Rich especially cherishes a 1952 Imperial and the old and new design aspects resonate with him.
“I’m not looking for anything specifically but when someone approaches me,” Rich says, his voice trailing off.
That could end up with another classic joining the fold and going on the waiting list for a full restoration.
Rich has a big black 1964 Chrysler Imperial Crown four-door sedan that came from Arkansas with only 18,000 original miles and no modifications. All it needed was the repair of a few dents and scratches to be roadworthy.
But the “fish that got away” recently was a 1955 Chrysler Imperial Crown two-door hardtop that was selling online. It needed restoration but bidding was spirited and Rich didn’t get his bid in on time and that loss stings.
Acknowledging he’s a walking encyclopedia of old car facts and figures, Rich says he tries to research all aspects of a vehicle when he is considering a purchase. He is mindful sometimes the time, effort and expense of bringing an old car back to life may well exceed what it’s worth.
“It’s not cheap to restore a car. But it makes me feel like I have accomplished something when it’s restored,” Rich says.
Rich doesn’t drive any of the cars but notes he can sit in them anytime he wants. He says he would feel like “he has a hole in his heart” if one of them were to get wrecked on the road, especially G Street which he calls a zoo. To get a car ready for a show takes two weeks of preparation and everything needs to work if a vehicle is to be judged.
Years ago, he approached a key city official about building a museum to house his cars. If the city were to provide a building, he has offered to maintain and show his vehicles and give other like-minded collectors a place to display their vehicles. But nothing has come of that offer.
Rich recalls his first restoration from 47 years ago, a 1940 Lincoln Continental coupe. It’s a rare car; only 54 of the 354 made were hardtops. The project languished until Rich got into a friendly competition with fellow body shop owner and old car enthusiast Rex Freeman. Whichever of the two enthusiasts got beaten on the completion deadline would have to work in the other’s shop for a day. Rich won the bet but did not make Freeman break out the broom or mop.
Cars from the 1930s through the 1970s are his favorites. From the early 1970s onward, nothing really tugs at Rich’s heart.
“They (newer cars) don’t have the classic look,” Rich says. “Each car was different. Now you don’t know what it is. The older cars, they have character and you can tell each year. I’m not impressed with street rods and nothing later strikes my fancy.”
You will only find one Chevrolet in Rich’s collection, a 1957 Bel-Air four-door hardtop. He doesn’t have any Mercury autos. But Buicks, Lincolns, Fords and Cadillacs are just fine.
The “before and after” factor is very important. He says he lets his imagination run and says the restoration of an old car is almost like building a new one.
“I like putting cars together. Everything comes off; it gives me something in life to accomplish,” Rich says. No modifications or mechanical updates are allowed; it must be just like it was when it left the dealership.
While he enjoys showing his cars to friends and customers, his collection is not open to the public.
Rich’s collection includes a 1952 Bentley four-door sedan from England, along with a 1998 Bentley coupe. He also has a 1940 Crosley roadster. a 1969 Corvette, 1936 Packard four-door sedan, a 1961 Chrysler 300 two-door hardtop and a 1969 Mustang Mach I with a 428 cubic-inch Cobra Jet engine which he says is his token muscle car.
His 1948 Packard is mostly original, sharing space with a 1938 Buick Century four-door convertible. Nearby is a 1947 Chrysler Windsor single-seater business couple once favored by traveling salesmen.
One of the oldest cars in Rich’s collection is a 1929 Pierce Arrow four-door sedan, displayed near a 1929 Buick sedan. The Pierce Arrow was restored after it tangled with a San Francisco trolley car. He also has a 1941 Lincoln that belonged to playwright William Saroyan and a 1939 Cadillac Touring Sedan, a four-door that’s certainly big but not a limousine. Another rare car in his stable is a 1936 Hupmobile four-door sedan with a built-in continental kit-spare.
Doane Yawger of Merced is a semi-retired newspaper reporter and editor.