Have you ever gone looking for an early 1930s Buick hubcap? If you need one, good luck. The two-piece design didn’t prove very durable over the years and their scarcity can pose a real issue for anyone looking to do a correct restoration of one of the Flint-built beauties of the era. When the crew at the NB Center for American Automotive Heritage, in Allentown, Pennsylvania, discovered the paucity of restorable hubcaps out there, their solution was not to give up or compromise, but simply to build their own run of 30 reproductions—a process that required not only casting the two pieces but also creating a crimping tool to attach the pieces correctly.
That’s a small, but typical example of the policies and practices there, on the campus that used to be Allentown’s Boulevard Theatre (they kept the screen), all of which are centered on keeping an enormous collection of typical (i.e. not necessarily special beyond having survived seven or eight decades) mid-20th century American cars running, driving, and uncompromisingly correct. Preserving the original driving experience is paramount and is as much a focus as a historically correct appearance.
Other skills kept alive despite time having marched on for consumers include expertise like interior stitchery—right down to things like handmade windlace and door panel trimming; panel beating (sometimes you just have to make a fender from scratch); woodgraining using a bucket of water, Borax, and paint; and even simply the operation of machines that have controls at one time standard, but increasingly left behind in a world of CVTs, touch screens, lane control, and whatnot.
Why the focus on 1920s, ’30s, ’40s, and early ’50s cars, though? Simply put, the NB Center’s founder Nicola Bulgari (vice chairman of the luxury brand that bears his family name) early on identified those as the most emblematic of “American” cars and the middle-class supremacy of their time and place. It’s something he first recognized and came to value as a teenager in the 1950s and has chosen to help preserve for the benefit of the future—us included. One of Mr. Bulgari’s favorite utterances is that Europeans don’t understand American cars. Let us add to that neither do many Americans anymore.
Consider that Billy Joel’s Allentown came out in 1982. That’s the year I was born. I don’t remember the glory years of American manufacturing—but I do. The middle-class, aspirational-yet-attainable marques that make up the bulk of the NB Center’s fleet (I like that better than “collection”—collections need dusting, not oil changes) are a living, breathing monument to that era of promise and optimism. Here to inspire today’s generation, if they’ll let it.
Many do. You might expect the expertise in a facility like this to consist solely of old timers—the graybeards that knew the skill firsthand, or learned at the knee of those who did. They’re there, to be sure, but so are a lot of up-and-comers. Fresh, young faces excited to be working on machines 50 or more years older than themselves.