Texas collector Rich Atwell expands upon the collection established by his father.
You never have too many cars,”says Texas collector Rich Atwell, “you just don’t have a big enough garage.” An authority on too little garage space, Atwell has more than 150 cars scattered among four locations. He even lives in what is essentially a garage with an adjoining apartment. As his books and automobilia attest, Atwell collects more than cars. Hunting trophies adorn the walls, as do concours posters and photos of his cars. He’s also a collector of fine shotguns, while his 24-year-old musician son Blake prefers fine guitars, which share vault space with the guns.
LIKE FATHER, LIKE SON
Rich Atwell inherited his love of cars from his dad, who left seventh grade during the Great Depression to work at a drug store lunch counter. As Rich recounts, “A lady would come by in a Duesenberg, park out front and send her chauffeur in because my dad made great ice cream sodas. Dad would take one out to the car and she’d tip him a dollar.” That car made such an impression on Robert Atwell, he vowed that someday he’d have a Duesenberg.
When Rich was nine years old, he and his older brother learned to drive a Jeep on a friend’s ranch. A few years later, the first collector car joined the family – a Cord 812 Beverly that Bob Atwell found in Cleveland.
Unfortunately, the Cord had to go when the family moved to Corpus Christi for the elder Atwell’s newly acquired fuel transport business – Coastal Transport Co. However, old cars were never far from the Atwells’ thoughts.
In 1960, 15-year-old Rich Atwell bought his first car – a Model A. He and his father collected the old Ford, loaded it and took it home, where Atwell proceeded to restore it. He drove it to school, eventually selling it to a man who had pressed him for it even though the car wasn’t for sale. Rich finally suggested $12,000 for the $5,500 car. When his outrageous price was accepted, he was reluctant to let it go until his father reminded him “your word is your bond.” Next came a 1934 Aston Martin, which Rich drove while he attended the University of Houston. After working at Coastal full-time for a year, he joined the Marines in 1966.
Bob Atwell also returned to the old-car world in 1960 with several Model A’s, including the one he had when he went on his honeymooned. Before long, a Pierce-Arrow coupe came along, and, finally, in 1964 his Duesenberg dream was fulfilled with a 1932 Model J Rollston-Window Victoria Coupe. Virtually every car an Atwell bought involved father and son – from the chase through the restoration process.
Rich Atwell still follows his father’s restoration model: He and several employees tear down a vehicle and rebuild the chassis and mechanical components. Then the car goes out for metal work, paint, upholstery and final assembly because: “The chassis, suspension and engine are our thing. Final assembly is better with someone else.”
WORK AND FUN
From an early age, the Atwell boys worked at Coastal Transport. They swept floors, repaired trucks, learned dispatching, earned CDL licenses and took to the road. When they weren’t putting in “100 hours a week” at Coastal Transport, father and son were working together on cars. Remembering his father, who died in 1991, Atwell reminisces: “He wanted to have fun but he didn’t know how. The cars were 24/7, just like work. But then, Dad thought work was fun.”
Years of rising at 4 a.m. and working alongside his father taught Atwell the meaning of hard work. But he also knows how to have fun. According to close friend John Groendyke, “We go to a lot of car auctions. We take his Motorhome to Arizona for the Gooding, RM and Barrett-Jackson. He loves the shows, too, and every year we go to Amelia Island, Meadow Brook and Pebble Beach.” Atwell admits to loving the shows and cars, but says he values “the friendships and relationships” the most.
EVERYTHING FROM A TO Z
As longtime friend Jay Kaufman says in reference to Rich Atwell’s taste: “Talk about an eclectic collection!” A private museum replete with backdrops and wax figures houses the “heavy iron” that was Bob Atwell’s passion and is thick with Rolls-Royce Phantoms and Marmon V-16s. It also includes cars from Bentley, Delahaye, Delage, Duesenberg, Franklin, Isotta-Fraschini, Lagonda, Minerva and Talbot Lago, along with a Chrysler Newport parade car and Rich Atwell’s trusty Aston Martin.
A building a few miles from Atwell’s home is packed with an eclectic array of vehicles from Amphicar to Lincoln Zephyr, including an ex- McArthur Packard that Kaufman once battled Atwell for at a Scottsdale Auction. There are plenty of 1950s American cars, but unlike many, Atwell enjoys coupes and sedans. There are also Buick and Chrysler woodies, a fuel truck from the 1930s, a Pierce-Arrow Travel Lodge trailer, Jaguars and Mercedes and the MG TFs favored by his late brother. Most are stock, but there’s a slightly modified Studebaker Lark that son Blake drove to school, along with Blake’s modified ’53 Cadillac and a compact show truck.
Another building holds cars in various states of undress, while Atwell’s home garage houses four cars, which he rotates with others “when I can get them out.” On one day, they were a tube-chassis 1963 Corvette with an LS6 engine, a resto-mod straight-eight 1935 Auburn built by friend Dee Howard, a mild custom 1952 Olds and a 1947 Ford Sportsman with 12-volt electrics. These four cars clearly show Atwell’s interest in machines that can be driven and parked anywhere.
Cars that can be used regularly appeal to Atwell, although he’s not lost sight of the cars he and his father shared. Every year, he shows cars at Pebble Beach. During the summer of 2008, he and his team were preparing to return for his 30th consecutive year, this time with a Lagonda V-12 James Young Sedanca Coupe judged the most elegant car nearly 30 years ago and a 1904 Northern. Cars have played a huge part in Atwell’s life for decades, but he also spent years working to build up Coastal Transport. Along the way, he served with a variety of trucking industry trade organizations and is proud of a program that provides children of Coastal employees with four years of tuition at a trade school, state college or university.
These days, Atwell no longer goes into Coastal daily. He’s busy with his many cars and restorations, as well as a project to build a 48,000-squarefoot car building on his property in the Texas Hill country. He insists that he’ll limit his collection so that any car can be pulled out at any time. Meanwhile, he plans to enjoy the cars he already has, follow his son’s budding music career and share his love of cars with both Blake and the many friends he’s collected over 40 years.
To see this article in its original format, view the pdf version of the Fall 2008 issue of Hagerty magazine.