HUDSON - Frank Wojnarowski and his 1940s polka band faded into musical history long ago. But the 1948 Flxible Clipper tour bus that ferried them around still exists (in running condition, no less) thanks to Charles Gould, a Newton lawyer whose passion for collecting vintage vehicles is exceeded only by his reluctance to part with them.
Three years ago, Gould, 55, got a call from an Auburn man wanting to sell the Clipper, which had been sitting beside his house for 20 rust-inducing years. Gould demurred. He mostly collects European-made microcars from the ’50s and ’60s. The man persisted. “He said he knew I ran an orphanage for unloved vehicles,’’ recalls Gould, who agreed to look at the bus anyway.
After tinkering with the engine for 90 minutes, Gould fired it up, then drove the bus around shouting, “It’s alive!’’ The Clipper is now parked in one of two Hudson warehouses containing Gould’s amazing collection, which has grown to comprise nearly 100 vintage cars plus dozens more motorcycles, sidecars, trailers, and other rarities.
How and why Gould bought that bus reflect what makes him such an unusual collector. He values a vehicle for its historical or mechanical worth, not because it fills a niche in his collection or promises to grow in resale value. He puts old vehicles back on the road himself (Gould works on them all, aided by a few car-loving friends) and relishes the hunt that uncovers these cars and restores them to life. And he loves telling stories - oh, the stories - behind each prized find.
“I’ve got a real addiction,’’ Gould admits on a walking tour of his collection. “My focus is definitely microcars, but I don’t limit myself. If something interests me and the price is reasonable, it comes into my collection.’’ He rarely sells them, except to finance other acquisitions. “Although I keep saying I’m going to,’’ Gould says with a laugh.
At any given time, Gould keeps nearly two dozen vintage cars registered, insured, and roadworthy. A handful are parked at his Newton home, keeping company with the Goulds’ family cars, a Chrysler minivan and Dodge truck. Several times a year he and his wife, Nancy, invite schoolchildren over for a hands-on automotive history lesson.
In Hudson, where he hopes to build a vintage car museum someday, Gould jams the rest of his collection into 8,250 square feet of garage space. Pointing to a favorite, a 1962 Amphicar, his eyes light up. Manufactured in Germany, it has twin propellers and was the first nonmilitary mass-produced amphibious car. The Goulds and their two daughters have been known to drive it into the Charles River, drawing approving quacks from passing duck boats.
“When we started, nobody collected microcars,’’ Gould says. “People gave them to us, or sold them for $500. They’re a lot more prized today.’’ Still, he says, “This is not a rich man’s hobby, even though most people assume it is.’’
Notwithstanding Gould’s shrewd eye for a bargain, some of these cars do fetch hefty sums on the collectors’ market. While some sell for $2,000 to $5,000, he says, others go for considerably more. A well-preserved model of one rare microcar he owns, for instance, a 1964 Peel Trident, recently sold at auction for more than $46,000.
The oldest car in Gould’s stable, a 1916 Mercer Model 22-72 touring car, was bought at auction 34 years ago, when Gould mostly collected vintage Corvettes and Jaguars. That phase did not last long.
As Gould tells it, he attended too many car shows where prizes went to perfectly restored specimens, not to cars that showed off their peculiar quirks and pedigrees. He saw too many collectors who paid others to restore their cars for them, and who flipped out if someone wanted to touch their cars or, heaven forbid, sit in them.
Gould loves nothing more than packing wide-eyed youngsters into one of his microcars and taking them for a spin. He’s concerned that today’s Xbox generation will grow up with no appreciation for automotive history. The more they see and hear about these cars in their original condition, he reasons, the more likely they are to share a little of his passion.
“Antique cars are the only antiques we make perfect,’’ says Gould, ruefully. “We’d never do that to a painting or piece of furniture. Most of my cars are not restored. If they have scratches or dents, every one tells a chapter of that car’s 50 years.’’
As Gould sold off his ’Vettes and Jags, he began concentrating on microcars, a species born in postwar Europe. Most often categorized by engine size (less than 500 cubic centimeters, or cc, displacement), they often relied on aircraft or motorcycle engineering for their design. The tiniest car currently in his collection is the Peel Trident. Also known as a bubble car, it stands 72 inches long and 42 inches wide, weighs less than 200 pounds, and is the smallest 2-seater car ever made. Its marketing slogan: “It’s almost cheaper than walking.’’
Buying cars at auction is only one of Gould’s strategies. For years, the Goulds drove around New England like a pair of automotive Indiana Joneses, sniffing out abandoned cars stowed in barns, garages, and basements. One rare find, a 1959 Auto Union coupe (forerunner of the Audi), was hiding under a tarp in a Waltham garage. Gould bought it for $400.
Unfortunately, he says, online sleuthing has changed the game, and not for the better.
“I had much more fun finding barn cars than on an Internet search,’’ he says. “There was much less money involved, much less competition. People used to say we were really lucky, but it wasn’t luck. It was hard work.’’
Calling herself her husband’s “enabler,’’ Nancy Gould says she knew they were in for the long haul when they bought their first microcar, a BMW Isetta, 25 years ago. For the past 16 years, they have hosted an annual microcar convention in Newton. Their daughters, 15 and 13, are even more enthusiastic than their mother. “They don’t want us to sell anything, ever,’’ she says.
Growing up in Clinton, Gould wasn’t even into his teens when he began buying and restoring old cars. He bought his first fixer-upper when he was 9, a 1954 Chevy Bel Air that cost him $20. Three years later, he purchased a dozen surplus military Jeeps and restored them to running condition, selling off several to pay off a $2,000 bank loan he had taken out, co-signed by his father. A lawyer and judge by profession, his father had been skeptical at first of his son’s wheeling and dealing, Gould says. But after 11-year-old Charles sold a 1937 Buick for a tidy profit, “My father was big enough to say he was sorry. Then he introduced me to his banker.’’
By the time Gould could legally drive, he was squiring dates around in one of several classic Corvettes he owned. Pretty cool way to go through high school.
Decades of collecting have built Gould a worldwide network of sources. One Australian pal drove a thousand miles to see a 1959 Goggomobil Buckle Dart that Gould coveted. After Gould decided the car was too expensive to ship, his friend came up with another plan: Buy a whole batch of vintage vehicles and pack them into one huge container, thereby allowing Gould to defray his costs. By selling several cars to other collectors, he might even come out ahead.
“It was like opening the best Christmas present ever,’’ he says, of the day the container arrived. How many did he wind up selling? “Not a single one,’’ he says chuckling, as if the question were purely rhetorical.
Claiming he has never calculated the collection’s worth, Gould insists that’s irrelevant anyway. Years ago, he says, friends urged him to turn his hobby into his livelihood. Gould declined, preferring to practice law and keep his hobby just that. A graduate of Suffolk Law School, Gould has downsized his practice in recent years and now works by himself, specializing in litigation-avoidance strategies for small-business owners.
“If you end up working at something you’re truly passionate about, you can kill that passion pretty quickly,’’ he says, taking a visitor for a spin in a 1963 Fiat Multipla, originally used as a Swiss taxi. As the meter ticks past 92 francs, he smiles and adds, “My attitude is, if I lose a little money on these cars, at least I had some fun. And you can’t say that about your mutual funds.’’
Joseph P. Kahn can be reached at email@example.com.