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updated: 8/19/2010 4:44 PM

Suburban-owned 'masterpieces' headed for Milwaukee car show

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  • Bob "Kermit" Wilson of Lisle owns a 1947 HRG. The car is one of roughly 260 vehicles ever produced by the small car company HRG between 1935 and 1954.

    Bob "Kermit" Wilson of Lisle owns a 1947 HRG. The car is one of roughly 260 vehicles ever produced by the small car company HRG between 1935 and 1954.
    Patrick Kunzer | Staff Photographer


Hugh Ruthven owns a work of art. A slick, radiant red work of art with a 3-liter V-12 engine.

To Ruthven, of Barrington, and other classic car lovers, his 1958 Ferrari 250GT Drogo is not the kind of beauty that's kept locked away in a garage never to be seen by the public.

"I buy into the adage, 'If you use it, it'll work; if you don't, it'll probably deteriorate.'

"Ferraris are meant to be driven."

So, Ruthven drives the car. A lot. Each year, he participates in two or three road rallies. He has raced at Elkhart Lake in Wisconsin and driven from Monterey, Calif., to Denver.

He and other suburban Chicago car enthusiasts will head north to participate later this week in The Milwaukee Masterpiece, an annual two-day showcase of classic cars, the proceeds from which benefit Jewish Family Services, a Milwaukee charity that provides assistance to the elderly and others in need.

This is Ruthven's dream car.

In 1973, he owned a 1962 MGA Mark II and a 1952 Cadillac, and was itching to upgrade. "I liked the MG, but it was a steppingstone," he said. "The Ferrari, at that time, was the epitome of a sports car."

So he sold both cars to reach his dream.

"In 1973 this Ferrari was a $7,000 car ... and at that time you could buy a nice new Cadillac for $7,000 or $9,000," Ruthven said. "I bought it because I was really taken by the design of the body. I thought it was something special, like a piece of art that you like - you like it because of the colors, the composition."

In the decades since, right up until the recent economic downturn, classic car values soared. Ruthven's dream car almost certainly has appreciated greatly in value.

"The (current) value of it is a nonissue," he said. "I bought it because I liked it. I bought it to be driven."

"There is no better sound than a V12 Ferrari. I'm just a custodian of this car for a while. I enjoy sharing the car. I don't give rides out, but at shows I answer questions if I can," he said.

"I bought this car to use and enjoy, and I want to share that."

Persist. Pester. Repeat.

The shiny red convertible sped out of a glass-walled garage overlooking a bluff in Highland Park.

The car wasn't going backward, though.

The vintage HRG was being sold by Ben Rose, whose garage was used for the now famous scene in the 1986 motion picture "Ferris Bueller's Day Off."

By 2004, Bob "Kermit" Wilson of Lisle had bothered Rose for 29 years before Rose relented and sold Wilson the car of his dreams. Wilson remembers seeing the bright red 1947 HRG for the first time in 1975. The two men met after a race at Elkhart Lake.

"I told him that I just really wanted this car - and then he told me that he just really didn't want to sell it."

Why this car?

"Look at it," Wilson said. "What's not to like? I mean, it's really a nifty car."

So through the years, Wilson pestered Rose, calling him, asking time and again if the car was for sale ... yet. Wilson insisted that this car needed to be part of his collection. "No" was the answer again and again.

Then, about 1995, the two men were racing at Elkhart Lake. Rose in his 1947 HRG and Wilson in his 1937 Morgan were neck and neck, navigating corner five, and something went wrong.

"He was right next to me, and there was something (under the hood of the HRG) that wanted out - and it got out - all over the track," Wilson said.

The engine in the HRG had blown.

"I followed him back to the pits, and I asked him, 'Now will you sell me the car?' Nope. The answer was still 'nope,'" Wilson said.

Nearly a decade later, in the spring of 2004, Wilson's phone rang. It was Rose.

"Do you still want the car?" Wilson remembers Rose asking. The answer, of course, was "yes."

So Wilson traveled to Rose's home in Highland Park to buy it.

Rose died a week after the sale.

"I know that he knew he was dying, and I know he wanted me to have this car," Wilson said.

The love of both men's lives will be on display at The Milwaukee Masterpiece.

Thrill of the hunt

It's not that Brad Buell would rather have a Buick. In fact, the Libertyville man claims to have always been a Ford guy.

But Brad Buell owns five Buicks. He defines his love for cars more by the pursuit of them than pursuit in them.

"It's the thrill of the hunt," Buell said. "I always have a hunt going on - actually, right now, I have three of them."

His first car, though, was a 1914 Ford Model T that he purchased for $500. Buell was 14 in 1975, not yet old enough to drive. He practiced navigating the old jalopy in the driveway of his parents' Libertyville home.

"It was a frame, an engine and some wheels," Buell said. "Just a pile of parts, really."

But Buell had plans for the car. Great plans that included building a replacement wooden body.

When that project became too big, he sold it and bought a complete 1924 Ford. Then came the 1929 Ford Sport Coupe, then a 1931 Ford Huckster, then a 1979 Datsun 280Z, then a 1965 Lincoln - each car having been sold to acquire the next.

Then, something happened.

Buell's love affair with merely interesting cars blossomed from a hobby into a collection of pristine rarities. It all began with a Buick.

In 1999, While considering a 1954 Mercury for his next purchase, Buell spotted a black 1954 Buick Skylark convertible that had been restored. The restoration, Buell recalls, was imperfect. The frame of the car was bent, and the parts didn't really match up well.

But the car itself piqued his interest, with its ample use of chrome, red painted fender wells and ultrarare production - only 836 were built and only 80 of those are said to still exist.

That settled it. Buell decided he needed to have one.

So in the spring of 2000, Buell hunted down a better copy of the Skylark. His search led him to a car in Tennessee. As it turns out, this car was nearly a twin of the imperfect car he had looked at months earlier. But this car had much more potential.

Buell would be just the third owner of the car. The original owner was a Buick mechanic who had maintained this black beauty, and the second owner kept it for 20 years. This car had a few rough edges, to be sure, but nothing a complete restoration couldn't fix.

Buell put the Skylark through a two-year restoration and then added more cars to his collection.

Since 2002, he has added Buicks from 1930, 1929, 1923 and 1932. He still has his 1965 Lincoln and has added a 1956 Lincoln along the way. He is restoring a 1941 Chevrolet firetruck and is on the prowl for the next trophy catch.

While acknowledging he has a lot of one kind, Buell is quick to point out what he really appreciates in an automobile.

"I don't look at a car as being a Buick, a Cadillac, a Ford or whatever," he said. "I look at the uniqueness of the car. It just so happens that the cars I came across happen to be Buicks."

You'll be able to see Buell and his '54 Skylark at the Milwaukee Masterpiece as well.