Rhode Island’s Cadillac of car collectors
For years he has built a reputation and a business around meticulously restoring classic cars from the barest metal to the creamy-textured paint of an automotive masterpiece. But Warwick resident Dick Shappy has taken a turn for the worse, or at least the less pretty. They are called “preservation class,” which applies to cars with their original paint and all the parts they left the factory with. They are a lot harder to find, and even harder to find in working condition.
“You can restore a car any number of times but the car is only original once,” he said on Saturday, as we explored the workshop-showroom he discreetly maintains on Warwick Neck. “We recently got a 1905 Stanley Steamer that is completely original that has been stored for 80 years. We’re not going to change anything on it. We’re just going to get it running again. We do have to put a new boiler in it. That’s what we call a ‘heath issue’ because the original boiler would blow up after all those years. We have to make a new one and there is this guy, Don Borden in Woodstock, Vermont that’s making the boiler. We hope to have it running by the summer.”
Shappy said there are cars that have so many issues wrong with them, they require a ground-up restoration, but there are a growing number of people who appreciate a car that shows its age.
“We like survivors,” said Shappy, “and when you find a car or motorcycle that has its original parts, you want it. Some people keep them just to look at, just the way they were found.”
It’s a subcategory of collecting that Shappy respects but his automotive mission in life is to have those survivors run again. Sometimes it takes drastic surgery, like the 1930 Duesenberg he found in a Cambridge, Mass. carriage house in 2005.
“The former owner used to race the car and actually was at Watkins Glen after the war [World War II]. He took it apart around 1950 to work on and never got around to it. It was in pieces when I got it.”
Not only was it in pieces, the paint was gone and a lot of the trim because the owner stripped it of excess weight. Now the car is fully restored and has pride of place in Shappy’s personal collection. With most Duesenbergs, restored or otherwise, the car is rare and beautiful and starts in the six figures in any condition and goes upwards of $9 million, as the one sold at auction earlier this year did. There’s no doubt that he could profit by selling it but Shappy has no such plans. He has had an ongoing love affair with fine old cars for over 40 years and this Duesenberg is like meeting the girl of your dreams for an enthusiast like Shappy and represents a departure from his first love, classic Cadillacs. Like everyone else who grew up in the working class section of a modern city, the Cadillac represented the American dream for a kid growing up in South Providence. Shappy realized that the best way to be around Cadillacs is to sell, repair and restore them. After 40 years of bringing old Cadillacs back to life, Shappy has acquired a vast store of automotive lore and expertise.
“The Cadillac has always represented the best of American automobiles,” he said. “The quality and innovations of the company were recognized around the world.”
Shappy tells the story of how Cadillac became the first American car to have an electric starter.
“Leland [company founder, Henry M.] actually lost a friend who was killed hand cranking a car,” said Shappy. “The crank slipped and hit him in the head and killed him. When Kettering and Deeds [the founders of Delco Electric] wanted to sell Leland their electric starters, they invited him to Dayton. They picked him up in a car with an electric starter, to show him that it worked and impressed him as they drove him around. Then they drove him back to the train station, said their goodbyes and got back in their car and the starter didn’t work. But it didn’t really matter because Leland had already ordered 1,000 starters, which were put into Leland’s cars .”
Delco, the logo, comes from Dayton Engineering Laboratories Company and their relationship with automobiles started with ignitions and starters and the business grew along with the car business. But Shappy’s accumulated knowledge of cars comes as much from handling the parts as listening to the legends. As we walked through his garage on Saturday, he pointed to an aged engine part casually left on a bench.
“That’s a carburetor I picked up on one of my trips,” said Shappy. “I paid $500 for it. It’s for a Duesenberg and it’s worth $5,000.”
Another thing you will notice about Shappy’s garage is the number of grease-stained auto repair manuals that were originally issued at the time the cars were made. A manual for the National 40 Speedway he’s currently restoring cost $600 but it’s treated as causally as a dated magazine in the shop, with fingerprints and grease on it in spite of the most careful handling.
Dick Shappy’s reputation as a savvy and successful dealer in classic cars has not gone unnoticed outside Rhode Island. This week, he’s out west filming a pilot for a television show for a cable network yet to be named. A television veteran is independently producing it and Shappy is hoping that independence helps him get the best possible deal “for my people,” he said. His people being the mechanics, painters, assistants and detailers he has worked with for years.
Regardless of who produces a show about Shappy and his enterprise, they will not lack for material to film. It will take years to do justice to Shappy and his cars and, if that’s not enough, there are plenty of stories in the vintage motorcycles he deals with.
“I went to the Leroy Hartung auction and bought so much that they gave me the sign [that hung at the auction],” said Shappy. “I got a 1912 Harley and a 1911 Excelsior. I especially liked the graphics on the Excelsior.”
One of Shappy’s recent enthusiasms is for early Merkel motorcycles. Not exactly a household name in motorcycles, but one that made big waves in early motorcycling.
“There were the Harleys and the Indians and other makers who were supposed to be the best and the fastest and then the Merkel, this upstart, came along and started blowing them away in races,” said Shappy. “There was a 1911 Flying Merkel but I didn’t get it.”
Someone outbid him and bought the Merkel for $200,000 but that didn’t depress Shappy. He has 10 Merkels of similar vintage in his shop right now. So Shappy should be a very happy man, and is for the most part. But he is disappointed that his children show little enthusiasm for his business and he does think about the future of his automotive treasures. Perhaps they will go to a museum and that would be good, but a museum will not let you roam its garage, smelling the grease and gasoline and handling the handmade components that make up these beautiful machines. For that, Shappy looks to his “people” and they will probably carry on splendidly. The car “bug” burrows deeply into its victims and they remain afflicted with it for life.