A local man of our acquaintance once came into possession of six vintage automobiles in various stages of disrepair, through a process that’s ‘way too circuitous to spend valuable column space on this morning. He kept them in the Liberty Garage, a splendid bygone brick building in the shadow of the Toscano Hotel on Lake Street just north of East Second. A friend of ours named Larry Heward, yes the local dentist, was employed part-time when we were in college as the caretaker, duster and tire-pumper for this nascent collection of largely forgettable rolling stock.
The little collection grew, from six cars to a dozen, then more. Some full-time people came aboard to sand and paint and tune up the growing fleet. They ran out of room at the Liberty Garage. “Bring me more cars!” the collector cried out, and men were sent hither and yon from the great Atlantic Ocean to the broad Pacific’s shore, with an aggregation of strange trucks, lowboys and cash in their jeans to bring some better cars from the tonier villages and some clunkers long-stored in the barns of the plains states. Contemporaneously, the Mighty SP Railroad and Pacific Fruit Express closed a large concrete building in Sparks where once ice was frozen for trains carrying California produce to the waiting nation (this, by the way, was 1958).
The growing collection of cars (and now trucks and boats and airplanes and streetcars) found a new home in this former PFE icehouse. And more men were coming aboard – the best and the brightest of body metal, upholstery, paint, internal combustion engine guys – assembled to do some serious work on our friend’s automobile collection, now taking its place among the best and largest collection of cars in America. Adjacent were three warehouse buildings owned by John Dermody, and into these single-story buildings went the cars, impeccably restored to better than their factory finish, all lined up in dozens of rows to be enjoyed by all.
Our collector friend welcomed people to his collection to view it. In the early 1960s a buck, a business card, or a bar receipt from one of the planks in his casino business, which after all enabled all this to be built, was all he sought for admission. It was a civic asset for all – darn few column readers of a certain age didn’t take their progeny there for a birthday party. The collection in time would grow by some counts to 3,000 cars and include some of the finest cars ever built – the Bugatti Royales, the pre-WWII Mercedes roadster and a couple of boat-tail Duesenbergs. Alongside were the rank-and-file of Detroit production that most of us remember as kids.
The management of the now-bustling casino in downtown Reno tried to ensure that folks leaving the casino to visit the collection in Sparks actually returned upon viewing it to the Reno casino’s tables, to further their support of the collection that they had viewed and as we said in the day, “Keep Nevada Green.” This effort took the form of buses operated by the casino, the most popular being the replica of a San Francisco cable car. This was an honest copy of such that would make cable car inventor Andrew Hallidie proud, albeit running on rubber tires and powered not by a cable but a big-block Chevy V-8. (And here I’ll predict that I will hear from all of the 14,387 people who drove that cable car, just as I heard from the 9,489 who drove the Zamboni in Blyth Arena at the 1960 Olympics!)
So – the cable car plied the tracks of East Second Street to the Icehouse, back-and-forth, rain or shine. But a burr had been forming under our collector-friend’s saddle. “I have all these beautiful cars and dozens of fleet trucks and my own Ferrari Boxer (red) and our Phantom V Roll-Royce limos. I’d like to put some license plate beside W78324 on my Boxer and give Sammy a Duesenberg with something beside WRQ784 on his plate.” Or words to that effect.
And so he dispatched to Carson City his bevy or attorneys, lobbyists, those high in gaming and other influential persons, to buttonhole the legislators, upon whom our collector’s name did not fall on deaf ears. “How can we enable our friend with casinos and hotels and payrolls in Reno and Stateline, and the license fees generated to our State on his 3,000 cars, trucks, speedboats, the Thunderbird yacht, a Ford Tri-motor and four or five airplanes with tail numbers all ending in -411Hotel, plus an honest-to-god cable car, to put whatever the hell he wants to on all his license plates?” A valid question indeed.
Thus it came to be in 1971 that the legislators took his request quite seriously and directed the Nevada DMV to buy some letter stamp dies for their license plate factory east of Carson City. Thereafter, any motorist with a car and what I recall to be $25 could order a plate that didn’t contain some thinly-veiled reference to something naughty and shortly receive two such plates for the bow and stern of the vehicle. And thus one of the greatest Gazoo column themes that’s ever hit print was born, that being the late Ty Cobb Sr.’s periodic Cobbwebs columns of cool vanity plates. I’ve been asked why I don’t pick up on this theme of Mr. Cobb’s, at one time the Sports Editor and later Managing Editor of the Nevada State Journal. Ty was my friend and I respect the plate stories as his province, and almost 20 years following his passing I still leave them alone.
But, I’ll end this yarn the way it started, about rubber-tired cable cars inspiring our friend to champion the cause of personalized plates in Nevada. On that venerable vehicle, at either end of its brilliantly polished and maintained wood and brass chassis, Bill Harrah bolted a blue plate that encapsulated the character of a San Francisco cable car: the simple word, CLANG.
Have a good week, and God bless America!
I should have included that the picture at the hed of this column of Bill Harrah and 16 of his “Board of Directors” was taken in 1959, at the southwest corner of the intersection of Geiger Grade and Highway 395. One man, Bob Martin, remains with us at this writing in November of 2016…he’s in the approximate middle of the photo, the only man with both his hands visible…