Late ironworker's vintage Ford stirs great interest among collectors

| Saturday, March 29, 2014, 4:59 p.m.

With a rare muscle car tucked away in his garage, ironworker Larry Brown used to get around in a 20-year-old Ford pickup.

“He kept blankets on the (truck) seat and never drove more than 45 mph,” said Lynn Kearns, a longtime friend and co-worker.

Brown's death on Sept. 17, at the age of 76, has touched off a frenzy in the world of muscle cars.

The 1969 Ford Shelby GT500 that he bought new 45 years ago from the Eger dealership in McKeesport for a little more than $5,200 could fetch about $130,000 at an auction next month in Centre County, a number of experts said.

The unrestored car, with a little more than 8,000 miles on it, is mostly original and still has an eight-track tape in its dashboard player.

“He bought it new and drove it a bit and then parked it,” said Kearns, 67, who lives near Lewistown in Mifflin County. “He was particular. He liked to save things.”

Brown, of Centre Hall in Centre County, also had a Ford van customized and drove it for about 550 miles before parking it.

The auction, to be held at Brown's home on April 25, “is going to be a circus,” said auctioneer Ron Gilligan.

The borough has just over 1,200 residents in an area less than a square mile. Gilligan will have extra help for the event.

“People are coming from Montana, South Dakota and all over,” he said. “We'd had calls from everywhere ... it's getting kind of ridiculous.”

In the Mon Valley, where a shot and a beer was considered a mixed drink, the mill workers who spent a good portion of their paychecks on high-performance vehicles are among those watching the sale with interest.

“Muscle cars were a blue-collar sport,” said Dr. Dave Tomchik, a retired surgeon who owns the Sports Car Gallery in Beaver Falls.

The region's love affair with cars can be seen at the vintage car shows that dominate each “spring, summer and fall,” said Ron Libengood, owner of Classic Cars by Fort Pitt in Sharpsburg, where a 1969 “plain Jane” Mustang with 3,800 miles recently sold for $70,000.

“It's absolutely unbelievable how many classic cars, muscle cars are in this area,” he said. “Hard-working people liked hard-working cars.”

The attraction of cars to the working class is natural, said Ron Baraff, director of museum collections and archives at the Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area in Homestead.

“It says we're middle-class Americans,” he said. “Management was out buying Buicks.”

The men who earned their living making steel in Pennsylvania and Ohio liked “working-man's cars” with nameplates like Chevelle or Camaro, said Russ Redshaw, past president of the Mon Valley Region chapter of the Antique Automobile Club of America. They would then sink hundreds, even thousands into souping them up.

“With steel and oil in Pennsylvania, I have to believe there was lots of money floating around,” said Dan Reiter, regional group coordinator for the Shelby American Automobile Club in Lehigh Valley.

Muscle cars reigned from 1960 until 1972. After that, “the gas crisis and pollution controls kind of killed it,” said Jorn Jensen, a member of the Kit-Han-Ne Car Club in Kittanning.

The strength of Pennsylvania's car collecting community is driving Mecum Auction Co. to host a sale in Harrisburg for three days in July, where about 1,000 cars will cross the auction block.

Mecum, headquartered in Walworth, Wis., hosts collector car auctions throughout the United States. The company has been specializing in the sale of collectible cars for 26 years and offers more than 15,000 vehicles per year.

“We're excited to reach a great community of classic and collector car fans that have long been there,” said Dana Mecum, president and founder. “This new location is truly a mecca for many collector car enthusiasts.”

Ford asked racing legend Carroll Shelby in 1964 to turn its popular Mustang into a performance racer. Shelby and his company, Shelby American, rolled out the first Shelby Mustang on Jan. 27, 1965. The original Shelby GT500 was the first American car to leave the factory with a roll bar.

Car enthusiasts think Brown's Shelby is an incredible find. It was one of 1,100 GT500s made in 1969 and was touted as being capable of going from zero to 60 in 5.7 seconds.

“Finding a survivor that is untouched, we think it's an absolute gem,” Reiter said.

Craig Smith is a staff writer for Trib Total Media.

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