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Memorable Memorabilia

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by John Gunnell  More from Author

Inside an amazing Bow Tie collection.

Back in the late 1920s, when Chevrolet built its famous “Stovebolt Six” and its big competitor Ford offered only a four-cylinder engine, someone at Chevrolet headquarters in Flint, MI had the bright idea of designing a dealership sales promotional piece that showed a large owl with blinking eyes sitting on top of a Chevy Bow Tie logo. “IT’S WISE TO CHOOSE A SIX,” said the message lettered across the front of the olive-green owl.

This owl sign probably cost $20 or less when it was new, but it is worth thousands of dollars today. Corvette & Chevy spotted one at an auction about a dozen years ago. We did not see another until visiting the fabulous Chevrolet memorabilia collection of Tom Dietz last spring.

Now, don’t get the idea that Dietz’s interest in things Chevrolet is limited to the Stovebolt Six era of 1929-1954. When it comes to cars–which he has a few dozen of–Tom focuses on the “She’s real fine . . . my 409” era. His memorabilia-packed garage and “car building” are both loaded with hot 1961 and 1962 Chevys of every variety, from a just-like-new, un-restored four-door sedan that got lots of attention at the first Bloomington Gold all-marques “Survivor” show, to a performance-oriented, 409-powered “red wagon” that he’s currently building.

Tom hails from St. Charles, IL, and we’re convinced that St. Charles must be the patron saint of Chevrolets. In addition to playing home base for Tom’s fabulous collection of Chevy signs and trinkets, it is the home of many Chevy/Vette-packed Mecum auctions at Pheasant Run Resort–and the headquarters of both Bloomington Gold and Nickey Chicago (the latter being Steve Bimbi’s reincarnation of the super-high-performance Nickey Chevrolet dealership of the 1960s as Bimbi bought rights to the Nickey name and trademarks).

Getting back to Tom Dietz, he doesn’t live right in the heart of St. Charles, but he’s close enough to the epicenter that Bow Tie fever rubbed off on him. While you might expect to find a collection like his only in a world-class automotive museum, Tom lives in a very normal house in a very normal neighborhood. It isn’t until you see his everyday 1962 Chevy wagon in the driveway, that you start wondering if there’s something special in the garage right behind it. Of course, that’s exactly the case. 

Tom’s Chevrolet dealership memorabilia collection started out being housed in the two-car garage. But then, it spilled over into his backyard car storage building. We’re not exactly sure when it got into the house, but it grew pretty fast once it did. Now it has morphed into motor museum proportions that fill virtually every nook and cranny of his home. The upstairs portion of his abode looks as if it could be Chevrolet’s corporate historical collection. Everything he owns is the real deal–the word “reproduction” is not spoken in Deitz’s abode. The dealership artifacts are all genuine Chevy-issued goodies that span almost 10 decades, from the Teens to the present.

Our tour started in the garage. In addition to the 409 Chevy that’s under construction, Tom has it packed with light-up signs, lighted and unlighted clocks, dealership signs, and other types of automobilia items lining the back wall. They all work, too. There are also some old–but very cool–distributor testing machines, funky old art deco-style repair shop shelves, petroliana-like oil cans and road maps, antique automotive tools, dealership storage bins, and a couple of rare Chevrolet parts.

There’s an OK Used Cars sign, Delco display units, three rectangular AC Oil Filter clocks and one round one, a Chevy Bow Tie sign, a Chevy America’s First Choice sign, an Atlas Tires, Batteries and Accessories clock, and a very interesting Fram oil filter clock that uses moving lights to illustrate the way oil flows through a bypass oil filter. “Cleans the oil that cleans the motor” says the slogan on the clock, which also promises “complete engine protection.” As the light swirls on back of the sign, it looks like oil is actually flowing through the filter. Arrows point out “dirty oil goes in here” and “clean oil comes out here.” By coincidence–or maybe not–the orange canister oil filter illustrated on the clock looks just like the accessory oil filter that was U-bolted on the 265-ci V-8 in the 1955 Chevy that was our first car. 

Large and fabulous automotive-related signs (most from Chevrolet factory dealerships) dominate Dietz’s backyard car storage building. Inside, one large sign after the other hangs from the rafters over the rest of Tom’s 1962 Chevy fleet. There’s a dark blue Chevrolet Sales and Service sign that probably dates form the 1930s or earlier, a yellow and black Delco Dry Charge Batteries sign, and even a large, school-bus yellow sign that came from the East Gate of the Fisher Body Division plant in Livonia, MI. The far wall is hung with Chevy neon clocks, all of them original and functional. The back wall is lined with dealer showroom posters that show all of the Chevy models for each year from at least three decades. Tom probably has the complete set from sometime in the 1940s to sometime in the 1970s, and all of them are in perfect, like-new condition.

In addition to posters, there are dealership display units with three-dimensional “blocks” that show the colors available each year. On the 1965 Chevrolet sign, both the solid and two-tone “Magic Mirror” acrylic lacquer combinations are covered, of course. The sign depicts the full-sized Chevrolet Impala SS hardtop, a Nova hardtop, a Corvair hardtop, and a Nova wagon.

There are additional signs that were used years ago to advertise individual Chevrolet dealerships. One is a sign designed to be mounted alongside a highway and says “ __ Miles To Home of OK Used Cars and Trucks at Allen & Wood-DeRuyter Chevrolet.” Another sign done in school-bus yellow and black shows the front of a 1956 Chevy and says, “See it now. Chevrolet’s got it for ’56. Newness – Bigness. Scott Motors, Inc., 10th & Quincy. Or how about a “Now is the Time to Winterize” sign from Ammon R. Smith Auto Co. in York, Pa.?

One of Tom’s latest acquisitions that was still in a mailer was a pristine-condition, foldout paper poster for the 1935 Chevrolet Master sedan with suicide-style front doors. “Come take a ride . . . America!” says the sales slogan used that year. “Ask for the world’s finest ride . . . Chevrolet!”

Other types of collectibles that Tom has amassed cover the gamut from a fabric showroom banner from 1950 advertising “Powerglide coupled to a big 105 H.P. valve-in-head engine proved over millions of miles” to a Chinese-made, tin version of a 1962 Chevy stock car officially sold as the Friction Powered Rally Racer which made actual car engine noises. He has rare in-the-box factory accessories like a GM Auto-Home Contour Electric Shaver and a hard-to-find store display unit for Delco Superide Shock Absorbers that uses two light blue plastic models of the 1962 Chevy Impala SS two-door Sport Coupe to demonstrate different rear ride heights with and without Delco Superide shocks. The model cars sit on a cardboard box that has a crank handle. As the handle is turned, the rear ends of the cars go up and down to show how the shocks work.

Dietz’s collection has signs for full-sized Chevrolets of all eras, as well as signs for Corvairs, Chevy II/Novas, Chevelles, and Camaros. He also has display cases and other furniture that was used inside Chevrolet dealer showrooms in different eras. While Chevy items dominate the collection, he has Mobilgas advertising, a ceramic Pontiac clock showing the company’s old Indian head logo, a Chrysler Turbine Car road sign that was used at auto shows, a Sunbeam toaster promotional piece, a sign that demonstrates the workings of the Ford Twin-I-Beam truck suspension, and other non-Chevy memorabilia that came his way while he was searching various locations for new Chevrolet collectibles.

Dietz has traveled to swap meets all over America in search of his automobilia and petroliana. He finds and buys almost all of it himself: Tom does not own a computer, he does not shop on eBay, and he does not pass up good items because he can’t “steal” them with a low offer. “I like bargains as much as the next guy,” he admits. “But I really consider quality much more important than price, and I do not hedge when it comes to buying good items. The good stuff is hard to get today. It isn’t like years ago when no one valued these things.”

Tom’s house is also filled with car dealer items: from display units holding new South Wind heaters, to a gorgeous Chevrolet sign showing a stylized version of the Bow Tie emblem in rare dark blue with a red border colors and promoting Chevrolets as “America’s No. 1 Choice.” Around the edge of a white circular background, this sign proudly proclaims that Chevrolet is “First in sales. First in Value.” When you consider that these advertising claims were true at the time the piece was issued, it makes you realize how far General Motors has slid to wind up in the sorry “corporate bailout” condition that it is in today.

A very interesting section of his collection includes several versions of a cartoon-like character that Chevrolet created to push its products back in the years between 1939 and the early post-war era. This pie-faced little guy shows up in a cap and gown on a sales booklet from Roecker Chevrolet Co., of Morton, Ill., that illustrates, “Steady Values And You Will Choose the 1939 Chevrolet.” Another sign shows the same dude in a tux holding an early 1950s Chevrolet. There is also an actual doll version of “Mr. Pie face” in a Chevy service department shop coat.

There are memorabilia pieces dating back to before the 1930s, and other promotional items hyping the cars of today. However, the great bulk of his fabulous collection is focused on the cars of the 1950s through 1970s that are probably the hottest collectibles today. As you might expect from a 409 fanatic, there is a lot of early 1960s-era Chevy merchandise.

While Tom Dietz is totally immersed in Chevrolet dealer memorabilia and other automobilia and petroliana, he is not a “dealer” in such merchandise himself. “I’m a serious collector,” he says. “I don’t buy stuff to make money or to re-sell it. I love this part of the hobby and I enjoy my collection. This is history and it’s exciting every time you find a piece of history that you never knew existed.”

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