17 July 2008

Great Garages: An American Classic

Al Wagner has been an avid Corvette hobbyist, collector and restorer for over 25 years. Wagner has over 30 years experience in the automobile industry. His collection is housed in a historical building in Delafield, Wis.

Al worked for General Motors for 20-plus years in a variety of roles, including as a Corvette design engineer. He came to Wisconsin to work as Director of Product Development and Design for Harley-Davidson.

Recently, he left that position to “play” with his collector cars on a full-time basis.

Al is a member of the National Corvette Restorers Society (NCRS) and an officer of the club’s Wisconsin chapter. He is a recognized expert in Corvette restoration and several of his personal cars have been awarded NCRS Top Flight status. He works in conjunction with two independent restorers who refurbish cars in Al’s building.

Al calls his collection “An American Classic” and his interest in properly preserving Corvette history is reflected in the way he has fixed up and decorated his building. The structure was once a Kaiser-Frazer automobile dealership. It also serviced at one time as the Delafield Fire House.

Wagner — along with his family and friends — did quite a bit of work on the old place. He showed us what had once been the coal room in the basement. Although is was impossible to remove all the coal dust in that space, Al and his son did an incredible job cleaning the rest of the basement and turning it into a parts storage area. The heating and plumbing systems had to be modernized, but today the place is a showcase.

The main floor of the building is split into a large office on one side and a car storage area on the other. Al and company fixed up both sides, but tried to preserve the patina where possible. The walls were cleaned and painted, but many of the original features were left exposed. When doors needed replacing, Al was lucky to find doors from another building in Delafield that were an exact match for the originals.

Shelving for parts and tire storage was obtained when a Buick dealership closed and held a liquidation sale. Al located many pieces of old furniture — such as a large accountant’s table and wood-and-glass showcases — that perfectly fit the character of his place. Strangely enough, when Al worked at Harley, he designed a stool using a motorcycle seat. When he opened his collection, he found knock-offs of his own design for sale in Sam’s Club and bought them to use in his shop area.

After cleaning and painting the car storage area, Al decided that the best way to park cars there was at an angle. Guess what? When the mailman came, he looked at the cars and told Al he had worked for the Kaiser-Frazer dealer, who had parked cars there the same way! Al increased his storage capability by stacking other ‘Vettes on 4-post lifts along the building’s rear wall.

Al did his office over with a black-and-white checkered flag to give it a real 1950s look. The walls are decorated with license plates, tin signs and original pieces of automotive art. The artwork includes some original renderings done by Larry Shinoda and autographed to Al.

Wagner also has several nostalgic shelving units on his walls. He said that these are made by Pit Pal Products, a Chicago company owned by a car collector. These powder-coated units are designed to look like the round-corned, enameled metal shelves that many car dealerships used in the 1940s and 1950s. They come with various old-fashioned logos of automakers and oil companies.

Al’s large wooden accountant’s table was covered with drawings of cars that the local Cub Scout pack had made after visiting Al’s building. “We have to get young kids interested in old cars,” Al told us. “With my design background, I decided to have them each draw cars and then I had T-shirts made up with “An American Classic” on them and gave them to the kids as prizes.”

Although Al’s personal interest is Corvettes — with a particular specialty in the 1970-1972 LT-1 version — one of his recent projects involved getting three 1930s Lincolns ready for film work. The cars will be appearing in the movie “Public Enemy” which was shot in Wisconsin, Illinois and Indiana in the spring of 2008.

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