Old Car Heaven

by Keith Thomson - Alabama - Sept/October 2008

An Alabama attorney wants to put you in the driver's seats of his classics

When you enter Stewart Dudley’s dimly lit warehouse in Birmingham, Alabama, you breathe in a bouquet of steel, leather, motor oil, and antiquity. As your eyes acclimate, you’re dazzled by chrome and more fins than there are at SeaWorld. Classic American car junkies: This is your Willy Wonka factory. Those of you who don’t know a Corvette from a Chevette: You’ll still be transfixed by the details, like the phonograph in the magenta, metallic, and lilac convertible. Who knew record players were a factory option in ’56 Plymouths?

In the past eight years, Dudley, an attorney, has collected so many classic automobiles that he needed the 80,000-square-foot warehouse to store them. He found more than seventy cars on eBay. By attending live auctions, responding to ads, and jetting all over America on tips, he amassed an additional 150 or so. He doesn’t keep track of the exact number. Yet, anytime, he can spout the make, model, and engine specs of each.

“I just like cars,” the sixty-one-year-old explains. Which is like Romeo saying, “Juliet’s okay.”

Dudley’s collection ranges in time from a 1924 wooden-bodied Dodge Depot Hack to a 1970 Chrysler 300 Hurst. It includes both the everyday and the exotic, like a ’35 Plymouth model that was one of just six manufactured. Most of the cars are Chryslers from the ’40s and ’50s. Dudley beams as he recalls “growing up in Chryslers.” Some of his vehicles cost a few hundred dollars, like the ’27 Dodge pickup truck that’s all rust. Many were well into six figures.

The Birmingham native’s family, including his five children, shares his passion. His eighty-seven-year-old father drives a sparkling maroon ’59 Chrysler Imperial to work every day. His sixteen-year-old son, having grown too tall for his Alfa Romeo Giulietta, intends to restore a ’51 Plymouth. Dudley rarely enters bidding wars, but he did once, unaware that his rival was his wife, who wanted the ’37 Ford as a gift for her father. When the auctioneer pointed out the irregularity, the couple laughed, joined forces, and won her dad the car.

There’s an unmistakable method to Dudley’s mania—if it’s a mania at all. As he puts it, “They’re not Bugattis, they’re not Bentleys; they’re unique American cars, and a part of our history. By looking at them, you see how people have changed.” He points to a boxy ’32 Dodge, with a ceiling high enough to accommodate a top hat. Regarding his ’40s models, he notes, “So much of the exuberance after the war is reflected in the style; everything is more dynamic, more forward-looking.” Then there’s the ’70 Chrysler: “It looks like something people would go to a disco in.” Indeed, you half expect Shaft to glide from the driver’s seat.

Perhaps the collection’s greatest strength is its sheer numbers. Dudley owns one of every Plymouth convertible produced between 1941 and 1965, and fifty-plus (again, don’t ask the exact number) high-performance Chrysler 300s. The designs and features vary dramatically from one year to the next. With so many of the cars in the same room, cultural trends become as evident as if plotted on a timeline.

Recently Dudley realized, “I’m just the caretaker. These cars belong to generations of the future.” He began transforming his warehouse into a facility “where the cars can be uniquely accessible to people.” Old Car Heaven, as it will be known, is slated to open this fall. At some car museums, if you try to open a car door, the door may fall off its hinges—this is perhaps the reason for the velvet ropes. Dudley’s vehicles will all be kept in excellent working order. Some visitors may get to drive them. At the least, everyone will have a chance to sit in the driver’s seats.

Dudley also intends the site to be “a place where people can enjoy a different time.” A onetime loading dock will be converted into a bandstand and a space where people can party like it’s 1949. Visitors to the elegant martini bar may think they’ve stepped through a wormhole in time to the Roaring Twenties.

Meanwhile Dudley continues to “improve the herd.” Almost weekly, trailers bearing acquisitions from all over the country roll into Hesco, Birmingham’s venerable engine service company, where the restoration process begins. On a typical day at Hesco, a modern race car rates as humdrum. Hesco’s experts predict automotive enthusiasts will flock to Dudley’s collection. “It’s simply a unique selection,” says office manager Joe Molina.

Hank Patton, Hesco’s expediter, speculates that Old Car Heaven will be a big tourist attraction too. “It’s a sure thing,” he says, “just because, hell, who’s got that many cars?”