by Bob Drake
In the early 1960’s when I was working in the Aerospace industry in Southern California, my wife and I zigzagged across the country numerous times on our vacation trips to visit relatives in Wisconsin. I enjoyed planning out these trips in advance, trying to avoid the major four-lane highways and travel the back roads through small town America. We liked driving through the beautiful rural countryside enjoying the friendly casual atmosphere of the many small communities, but I must admit I had another motive for these back-road adventures. Being a dyed-in-thewool early-Ford nut, I was searching for small town Ford dealers and whatever parts and collectibles I might dig up. Many of the Ford dealers had lots of early Ford treasures hiding away in attics, basements, storage closets, sheds, back alleys, etc.
I approached these dealers saying I was looking to see what obsolete Ford parts they might have. Once I got a look at what they had hiding away, I often ended up filling the back of my truck for $40 to $60 with various year Ford parts and collectibles. It makes me sad remembering the stuff I left behind that was too bulky for my truck, lots of running boards, grilles, fenders and other sheet metal parts just had to be passed up. It was during these back-road trips my interest in early Ford collectibles really took off. Much of my current collection was accumulated during these family trips. Not only did I score truckloads of Ford parts, I discovered a forgotten wealth of advertising materials, factory photos, portraits of Henry, counter displays, tools, books, clocks, banners and of course, signs.
When Ford changed to their new “Coat of Arms” logo in 1950, these small town dealers began replacing the original Ford script neon signs with the new logo, featuring Ford in block letters instead of the old familiar script. The old but beautiful Ford script works of art were taken down and shoved aside, many broken and collecting dust for more than a decade. On my visits to these dealers I saw many of the old signs once gracing the fronts of the old brick buildings or hung proudly over Main St. America not so long ago. There were also many of the large neon arrow “service” signs formerly pointing the way to the dealer’s service entrance. I was disappointed that most of the signs were too large and heavy to easily collect, and with neon falling out of fashion, shops to repair them were quickly disappearing. Even if I could rescue them, what would I do with them since they were mostly considered junk at the time? I did manage to save some of the smaller porcelain and neon Ford signs and some of the pressed paper Ford oval logo signs. If I had any insight into what the old neon signs would be worth today, I would have tried a little harder to salvage them. I now know that diehard collectors will pay a small fortune for one.
Among my current collection are some sign company catalogs from the 1930’s and 40’s and you wouldn’t believe the prices. A 3ft. x 6ft. double sided, projecting Ford logo sign sold for $109.50 in 1935. To add your firm’s name to the sign cost from $5.75 to $8.25 per letter depending on size. Wow. We are talking neon signs and letters here, not some stick-on vinyl decals.
Years later some of these old relics started showing up again. I have purchased many at the Hershey, PA Fall Swap Meet and found some through private collectors. My collection now includes many early Ford signs of various shapes, sizes, colors and materials. My favorite is a large unlighted porcelain sign with a blue oval Ford logo at the top and the V8 logo underneath. All our large neon signs are now suspended from the ceilings in our R & D and Shipping departments. When all of these signs are lit up it‘s a beautiful sight to see. They truly create a feeling of being in Man-caves for Ford enthusiasts.
When I think back on those trips now, I’m saddened by the thought that an important era has passed us by. Many of the Ford dealerships I visited are now vacant brick and mortar hulks; a reminder of the bustling small town commerce they were once part of. During the post war economic & baby boom, small town rural America reached its peak. The 50’s and 60’s saw the expansion of suburbs and the beginning of a movement toward shopping centers and strip malls to bring goods to our growing population. It was the beginning of the end for many a small town. The dealer’s and other businesses moved into the larger, growing cities, or to the highway bypasses that now skirted the small communities. As this trend accelerated over the decades, we have seen the car dealerships building new car superstores side by side in “dealer rows” on the outskirts of cities or large Auto Malls in the city centers. It seems we have now created boring, cookie cutter cities, towns and suburbs from one coast to the other.
I’m lucky to be old enough to have seen the heyday of small town America as a boy and will always remember my trips in the 60’s to those once thriving towns. As I walk down my own memory lane I see a bustling downtown street of red brick buildings built in the 20’s and 30’s and I see a glowing, neon Ford dealer sign just ahead, welcoming me home. Wouldn’t we all like to turn back the clock?