In 2000, we participated in Millard Newman’s “Tour of the Century” in Florida to welcome the new millennium. This was a traveling event for pre-1916 automobiles. For 10 days, we traveled around Florida in antique cars. We started in Tampa on New Year’s Day and wound up in the Fort Lauderdale area.
Some of the nicest and best-running old cars on the tour belonged to Tom Lester, who was in his early 80s at the time. Mr. Lester had a background in the old car hobby that went back at least 60 years. Years ago, when old car hobbyists were having trouble getting tires for their pioneer cars, Lester joined forces with Ann Klein to produce the old-fashioned tires. Universal Vintage Tire Company still produces some of the Lester Tire models today.
Lester started out in Cleveland and was a friend of Frederick Crawford, the auto parts maker who founded the famous Crawford Auto-Aviation Museum. Lester was a big supporter of the CrawfordMuseum and helped it acquire vehicles like the car used in the movie "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang" and an antique Mercedes 770K that Winston Churchill rode in during a victory celebration after World War II. He donated $1.2 million to the institution in 1980. Lester was also active in the Antique Automobile Club of America, the Classic Car Club and other hobby organizations. He was also an early supporter of the Great Race.
As an industrialist, Lester was always fascinated with the technical aspects of vintage vehicles and how to make them run reliably. At one time, he joined forces with a publisher to produce the Lester-Steele Handbooks, two huge volumes that reprinted complete technical specifications for automobiles from 1914 to 1972. Anyone lucky enough to have purchased these books when they were available is certainly glad that they did.
Lester drove an early Pierce-Arrow on the “Tour of the Century” and it ran like a clock. His car went faster than any of the other cars and was one of the safest to drive as well. Near the end of the tour, we were invited to visit Lester’s garage in Boca Raton, Fla. Seeing the storage facility and workshop in his home was as much a treat as riding in his cars and reading his book.
Lester’s shop was longer than it was wide, which made it seem narrow. However, it could hold two rows of large antique touring cars side by side and left plenty of room to walk around them. Tom was very proud of the special epoxy paint he had found to use on the floors. He said he had searched all his life to find a finish for a garage floor that wouldn’t stain or lift. After numerous attempts, he had finally come up with a shiny gray finish that he felt was impervious to damage. The paint also had a “sand” texture blended into it, so the floors weren’t dangerously slippery.
The shop/storage facility had a very high ceiling, so that any one of the large and heavy antique cars could be raised on the massive Ben Pearson 4-post lift at the far end of the building. Both ends of the structure had large, tall overhead doors. This allowed the cars to be driven in or out from either side of the building.
Since he was a Midwestern industrialist, Tom Lester’s “garage” had a very industrial look to it. It was spotlessly clean, but it looked more like a factory or a machine shop than a gas station. And it was designed and equipped for doing some very serious restoration work on old cars. The restoration area included a large drill press, a huge Summit flatbed engine lathe and sturdy steel work benches with articulated drafting lights. The machinery was painted battleship gray to more or less match the floor. Some walls were gray and others were cream.
Like many machinists, Tom Lester preferred to mount his tools on “toolboards” and hang them on the wall so that they would be neatly organized and easy to put back in place after use. We were amazed by his vast collection of tools and the beautiful condition he kept them in. His great respect for the importance of hammers, wrenches and other auto-restoration aids was very obvious.
Lester’s garage was not overly decorated with automobilia. Since he had once been a big collector of motorcycles, he had one vintage bike hanging on the wall. There were also a couple of “Packard Service” signs. In another part of the house, Lester had a room filled with memorabilia from six decades of hobby activities, but in his garage, the look he strived for was that of a real “work” shop where cars were restored to top condition, both cosmetically and mechanically. If you were fortunate enough to drive in one of Lester’s cars you were going to remember it — and you were not going to break down.
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.