Trade Secrets

Trade Secrets

Cerullo, Bob

Most techs have an interest in the automotive past, perhaps because old vehicles, and the tools used to service them, have interesting stories to tell.

Have you ever had a dream so vivid, so real that when you woke up it took a few seconds before you realized that it wax only dream? I had something of that feeling when I visited an old gas station in Chimney Corners, Virginia. My moment came as I entered the side door and was immediately confronted with an old K.R. Wilson armature tester and commutator cutting machine exactly like the one my dad had when I was just old enough to spend time in the shop. The owner is very proud of the fact that many of the tools he has collected are made by K.R. Wilson, the Buffalo, New York-based company that was the official supplier of service equipment to Ford dealers back in die day. The sight of the armature machine, the Babbitt pouring fixture, the old valve grinder, the Model A Ford speedometer calibrator and other familiar old devices brought vivid childhood memories back to me.

The old gas station I was in belongs to a soft-spoken yet passionate man named Bobby Diggs, who has a magnificent obsession for Ford memorabilia in general and Model As and Model Bs in particular. The office part of the station is jam-packed with engine blocks, cylinder heads, rear ends, tools of every description, gauges, dashboards, old Ford signs, a collection of spark plugs and countless other intriguing items. Square in the middle is an old barber’s chair. I asked Diggs why the barber’s chair was there. He said, “I got my first haircut in that chair and have spent a lot of time thinking in that chair, so when it came up for sale, I bought it.”

Diggs is truly a methodical collector. He goes to the Hershey antique car show with his trailer every year and stays for the week, buying what he likes and never selling anything. Whatever he buys he adds to his collection, which includes new-old stock Model A and Model B fenders, engine parts, gauges, switches, signs, shop manuals and just about anything related to those old Fords.

Diggs also buy cars. He got his first old car back in the ’60s-a 1924 Durant Touring Car he inherited from his uncle. He started restoring it but found obtaining parts difficult. He then fell in love with Model A Fords. He bought one, then another, and the collection just grew and grew. Diggs is not sure how many he has, but the rough count I made put it at nearly 30 cars and trucks, plus a speedboat. When his uncle offered him the old 1930s gas station, he bought it, along with the house nearby.

Diggs is in the process of building a replica of an old Ford dealership, where he intends to displav several of his cars and set up an authenticlooking old dealership service shop. He uses the tools on his own cars but does not sell parts or service. His collection and the 30 acres that house it are for his own pleasure. There are no tours, no admission fees and no visitors…unless, of course, Diggs wants to show it off to someone he thinks would appreciate it.

I asked Diggs how he got into the hobby of collecting mostly Model A and Model B Ford memorabilia. I didn’t really have to ask why. I became similarly hooked when I restored a 1917 American LaFrance fire engine; but that’s another story. Diggs said he was trained as a machinist, then spent some time at his uncle’s Pontiac dealership across the road. His father was an auto mechanic, and Diggs’ affinity for cars probably started with his watching his dad work on them.

One day Diggs realized he really loved old Fords. He managed to buy his uncle’s old gas station near his home and slowly restored it to how it looked in the Thirties. Diggs said the big old vintage 1920s “Visible” gas pumps out front, one of which belonged to John Lennon (yes, that John Lennon), were gifts from friends. Most of the rest of his collection he obtained over the years at shows, from old barns and at flea markets. He always has an eye out for anything related to those vintage Fords.

One of his prize possessions is a wall chart from an old Ford dealership that lists the prices for many of the jobs the dealership performed. One that caught my eye was for a cylinder head gasket replacement job on a 1932 Model A. Total labor was listed at $1.25, with parts totaling 55 cents. Granted, changing the head gasket on a Model A had to have been a lot easier than it is now on just about any modem car. I was very surprised to find such a low price. Other prices: a 1000-mile checkup for a passenger car was $ 1.50 for the job, with parts totaling just 35 cents; rebuilding a generator ran $1.15; overhauling the brake system-including complete disassembly of the entire system-on a Model A Ford was $6.75. My dad used to talk about $18 carbon and valve grind jobs, but the prices on Diggs’ official Ford Motor Company wall chart floored me.

Out front Diggs has an Esso oil dispensing tank with wheels on it that I seem to recall my dad saying was called a “lowboy.” A truck would deliver the oil and pump it into the rolling tanks; then the mechanic would fill a quart or five-quart measuring can. With the Visible gas pumps, a mechanic pumped the gas up into a large glass container built into the tank before it was put into the car’s gas tank so the gas was visible to the customer, who then could see what color the gas was and how much he was actually getting.

Of course, Diggs doesn’t sell gasoline, but some old signs in the office put the price at 15 cents a gallon. To state the obvious: Times sure do change. I was able to walk through a door and into a bygone automotive world in which my dad once lived and worked. Perhaps someone in your family did, too.

Bobby Diggs’ collection is not a museum and it’s not open to visitors. But I suspect if you happened to be passing by and decided to stop for a while, he might consider giving you a tour. Then again, he might not.

The Trade secret is that when you have that certain something in your DNA that makes you love cars-to work on ’em, to collect ’em and/or to just be around ’em, embrace it. Bobby Diggs apparently has that makeup, which has given him the passion and dedication to sustain his love of old cars. It has taken him more than 25 years to get together the full 30 acres he has for his gas station, garage and the new/old Ford dealership he’s building. Diggs works six days a week at his regular business, then spends most of the rest of his waking hours with his cars.

I asked Diggs which was his favorite. A 1931 red Model A roadster pickup truck that once belonged to the National Forest Service was right up there. Later on DiWS showed me his real favorite, a 19.31 slant-windshield Model A with just 16,000 miles on it. The car has immaculate original upholstery and the original paint and pinstriping. But asking Bobby Diggs which of his cars he likes best would be like asking the mother of a dozen children which one she loves the most.

If you have a good story, comment or question for Bob, e-mail him at, or write to him c/o MOTOR Magazine, 50 Charles Lindbergh Blvd., Suite 100, Uniondale, NY 11553.

Copyright Hearst Business Publishing Nov 2005

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