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Auto body shop owner dreams of building a museum

Leonard Rich is living a dream, one he never imagined would ever took place. Every day the longtime Merced auto body shop owner is surrounded by enough vintage vehicles to fill a museum.

He's a man who regularly gets to mix business with pleasure.

The 75-year-old Rich has about 80 collector cars and vows he is going to get most of them into a museum setting this year. About a third of the collection is on display now, with an equal number hiding under canvas covers in adjoining rooms. Another 15 cars await full restoration.

"I love my work. You can call me a workaholic," Rich said.

He doesn't want any sympathy -- the devotion to duty is by his own choice. "There's not a day when I'm not down here, even holidays, and I enjoy every minute of time I spend here."

Surrounded by rigs ranging from a tiny 1941 Crosley powered by a two-cylinder lawnmower engine not powerful enough to get out of its own way to a ground-pounding 1969 Mustang Mach 1 with a 428-cubic-inch high-horsepower V-8 engine, Rich said the car collection just mushroomed.

His Martin Luther King Jr. Way complex started in 1964 with 8,000 square feet; it now boasts 49,000 square feet.

Rich applies a photographic memory for all his rolling charges, remembering, for instance, where he got his 1941 Lincoln limousine, what he paid for it, what work needed to be done to get it back to new shape and other stories that make a car more than just a static, cold museum piece.

Where some people could rattle off how many home runs Barry Bonds has accumulated or the number of Brett Favre touchdown passes, Rich can tell you production numbers for such-and-such a car and whether the two-door hardtop is rare or not and what other features it has.

In the case of the Lincoln, it once belonged to famed author William Saroyan who drove it cross-country to Fresno with his brother. Saroyan wrote a book about the experience, and Rich has a copy. The car is mostly original, including wool upholstery, factory trip lights and a V-12 engine.

"This is my business and my hobby," Rich said. "I don't fish, hunt or golf. I'm satisfied with what I do. I've had 52 years in the auto business and have been a long time with cars."

Fellow car collector Rex Freeman, of Merced, admires Rich's professional resolve. He also retired from the body shop business and has whittled down his car collection from six cars to half that many now.

"We've always been friends," Freeman said. "He has done well for himself, starting with a little ramshackle body shop which has blossomed into a giant. I admire his work ethic; he's the first in and the last out."

Rich said he gets to the shop between 6 a.m. and 7 a.m. and doesn't leave until 6 p.m. He now takes a two-hour lunch break, but these hours are a far cry from when he started. In the early days he worked from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m., drove the tow truck and did all his own collision repair estimates.

As for his vocation/avocation: "There's not enough room for all of the cars. I'd love to have a museum. Cars are fascinating. One of my major goals is to have a museum and I need to complete it this year."

Forty-five employees work for Rich. When the repair business is slow, some of the workers can perform the painstaking dismantling, fabrication of new parts and reassembly necessary to turn a multi-piece rust bucket into a running relic. Business comes first, however, and the projects wait until customers' work is done.

There aren't many old cars Rich is looking for at present; he favors the late 1930s and 1940s Packards, Lincolns and Chryslers, in the condition they came from the factory. He only has one street rod, a 1936 Ford five-window coupe with a contemporary paint job, interior, wheels and tires.

"I'm always looking, but it has to be a car that appeals to me," Rich said. "I'm looking for authenticity, something that hasn't been tampered with by anyone else."

In other words, he'd rather do the restoration himself.

Several times a month people call Rich to tell him about an old car they have for sale or one they know about. They realize it could be too expensive to restore that old car taking up needed space. Sometimes Rich needs to be persuaded it's worth it to go check the vehicle out.

Car collectors dream about "barn finds," those cases where a mint-original car or truck is found languishing forlornly in a barn. Rich has enjoyed several of those experiences.

A woman told Rich about a GMC pickup, not a machine that sounded very enticing at first. Rich, however, discovered the GMC was a rare 1957 Caballero pickup, the close cousin to the more-familiar Chevrolet Cameo pickups with distinctive fiberglass bed sides. The Caballero only had 85,000 original miles and was in "unbelievable condition," he remembered.

"She had to talk me into it. When I saw it, my heart just went boom, boom, boom."

Fellow car collector Jim Kostecky, of Merced, can identify with Rich's need for more space to display his collection. Kostecky, a retired insurance agent, harbors 18 old cars, and storage space is at a premium. His collection includes three Corvettes, a 1926 Packard touring coupe, three 1934 Fords, a 1959 Ford Skyliner retractable hardtop, a 1950 Studebaker and an English Austin coupe.

"I've known Leonard since he first came to town," Kostecky said. "He has painted several of my cars. I've done a lot of business with him. He went the extra mile to satisfy the customer."

Kostecky offers some insight into the car collector's mentality: You are restoring something that otherwise could be lost forever. Old cars are a lot of fun, and showing them to others and witnessing the reactions on people's faces make it all worthwhile.

Rich and his wife of 55 years, Patricia, have three children, Leonard Rich III, daughter Gina and son Dino, along with four grandchildren, Brandon, Dante, Dominic and Joseph. Brandon is the sales manager for Michael Chevrolet in Fresno, and Joseph works with his grandfather at the shop.

Rich said he is open for private tours of eight to 10 people by prior appointment and has conducted tours for middle-school students for several years.

When he was 4 or 5 years old, Rich remembers "getting in his dad's way" when he worked on cars. Leonard Rich Sr. worked in a steel mill but was a mechanic on the side, operating from a shop behind the family home before starting a body shop in 1950.

Rich started doing the lead work or metal finishing when he was about 14 back in his hometown of Ambridge, Pa. Rich's father came to Merced in 1960 when he bought the Sierra Lodge Motel. Ultimately, running a motel was not to his liking and he later went to work in the Merced body shop.

Leonard Rich III, 51, said he has been going to car shows with his dad for years, starting when he was about 8. The younger Rich said he and his father enjoy different kinds of cars, and he encourages him to acquire what he wants. His son's favorite car of all is a 1952 Mercedes Benz 300B four-door cabriolet, one of only 39 made.

"Being able to work with my dad and my son is great," Rich III said. "He (dad) has done a lot of great things in his life. Most of my dad's cars were hulks that needed everything. I would like to be the curator of the museum."

Rich III said his father was inspired by the late Bill Harrah's car collection in Sparks, Nev. Many of these cars were sold off after the casino owner died, but some became the nucleus of the National Automobile Museum in Reno.

While Rich wouldn't mind having an auto museum something like Harrah once did, he's just thankful to have reached the place where he is now.

"I never would have dreamed my life would be like a snowball, to the point we are at today," Rich said.

As Saroyan, the novelist into whose Lincoln Rich restored, once wrote: "Dreams are more powerful than facts."

Associate Editor Doane Yawger

can be reached at 209 385-2485 or dyawger@mercedsun-star.com.

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