by LARRY PRINTZ
photography by KEITH LANPHER
A Smithfield native embraced retirement by fulfilling his dream of owning
a ’60 Corvette. That turned into a passion for antique car collecting –
and years later, other memorabilia have come along for the ride.
Lewis Little had always pined for one car: the 1960 Corvette.
He had grown up modestly in Smithfield, the son of a rural mail carrier and a homemaker. “We didn’t have Corvettes and new cars in our life. We just didn’t,” he says. “It wasn’t that type of lifestyle.”
It didn’t change when his father got him a job at Smithfield Packing Company. “Entry-level would be an overstatement,” Little says; he was a shipping clerk. “Every time something came up that would pay 5 cents more an hour, I’d raise my hand.”
That hand-raising paid off. By 1998, Lew Little was president of Smithfield Packing.
“Along with success comes toys,” he notes. And he knew where he was going to start.
“I told my wife, ‘I always wanted a Corvette. I can remember when I was young, and all of these kids were riding around in all of these fancy cars. I want a ’60 Corvette.’ ”
Now in a position to afford one, they flew to Ohio to meet with a dealer specializing in antique Corvettes. But the dealer surprised him:
“Mr. Little, when you’re tired of this, you call us and we’ll buy it back from you,” Little recalls him saying.
“I’ve been waiting for this car all of my life,” he replied.
“I meet people like you all the time,” the dealer said. “You started out at one place, you’ve ended up in another, and you think you want this car. You don’t know anything about mechanics; you don’t know anything about the car. You’re an A-type personality; you don’t have any patience. Call me if you want to sell it.”
A year later, Little made the call.
“Every time I went to start it, the battery is dead or the car overheated. I didn’t know what to do with it; I was scared of it.”
In 2003, Lew Little retired and found himself with time – and energy. “I didn’t retire to relax,” he says. “I retired to do something else.”
That “something else” turned out to be collecting – starting with cars.
“I liked cars when I was young, and my wife’s family had always liked cars. So we said, ‘Let’s buy something and we’ll put it in the garage with the rakes and hoses and the spider webs, and we’ll drive it on Friday nights to dinner.’ ”
So he and Sandra bought a two-door, 1951 Ford Country Squire station wagon that, like many wagons of that era, used wood on part of its body. He modified the Ford, replacing the original driveline with a 1994 Chevrolet Camaro Z28 engine and transmission, plus power steering, air conditioning and other amenities. Except for its lower stance, the car looks original.
Not long afterward, Little was approached by a longtime friend who, it turned out, had a 52-car collection. Once Little saw it, he was hooked. But his friend gave him some advice. “He told me, ‘Lewis, get a mechanic who will come to you when you need him, particularly if you’re thinking of getting other cars, because you won’t stay in it. You don’t have the patience for it. If it breaks down, you’re ready to throw it in the trash can.’ ”
Little listened. He found a mechanic, and became a regular at car shows and auctions. More “woody” wagons followed: a 1954 Mercury Monterey with its third-row seat still in the original dealer’s plastic bag, a 1948 Ford modified with a Chevrolet 350-cubic-inch V8. Other cars won his heart, including a modified 1937 Buick Special convertible, a 1934 Buick Series 60 coupe with a modern Buick 455-cubic-inch V8, and an all-original 1938 Buick Series 80 Roadmaster sedan.
In 2005, Little went to the Barrett-Jackson auction in Palm Beach with the intention of buying the pale blue 1953 Buick Roadmaster sedan once owned by Howard Hughes. Arriving at the auction preview, he found the automobile surrounded by curious buyers. He wasn’t sure he would be able to buy it reasonably.
Come auction day, he looked at where the Buick fell during the sale. “If I miss this Buick, if it goes too high, and I don’t get it, then I don’t get anything,” he recalls thinking. “So I said to my wife, ‘I really would like to take something else home with me besides just you.’ ”
When the price of a 1963 one-owner Corvette stalled out at a reasonable level, he bid. He was glad he did; the Howard Hughes sedan sold for $1.6 million. The announcer called it a world record for a ’53 Buick. “It was crazy,” Little says.
But the hype over Hughes’ Buick let him nab the Corvette. It was an unrestored time capsule, with 19,000 miles and a manual transmission.
It now sits beside Corvettes from 1965, 1967 and 1969. Like the 1963 coupe, the 1967 and 1969 models are brawny and masculine, their engine bays stuffed with powerful V8s mated to manual transmissions. By contrast, the 1965 is a cruiser, not a bruiser, with a smaller V8 engine and an automatic transmission. “I did it on purpose,” Little explains. “I told my wife, ‘I want one that we can just put into gear and cruise around and don’t have to worry about rpms and shifting.”
Every car in the collection has a story and a quirk. The 1948 Chevrolet Fleetline Aero Sedan, ordered by a wealthy individual to have every option, including an external valve that lets you put air in the spare tire without opening the trunk lid. There’s the 1955 Imperial that, despite its massive size, marked a sporty, youthful turn for the conservative brand. There’s also the 1950 Willys Jeepster, the company’s failed attempt at civilizing the Jeep.
But the Littles didn’t buy all the vehicles for his pleasure. They bought the 1961 Volkswagen Transporter, more commonly known as a Microbus, because Sandra had always wanted one. It sits beside her father’s 1968 Chevrolet Chevelle with 296,000 miles on the odometer.
As Little’s collection of cars grew, so did the need for space to house them. It led Little to his current building, an old supermarket across from Smithfield Station. He renovated and expanded it, designing the building around his 15 cars. Sandra was skeptical. “My wife said, ‘What in the world are you going to do with all of this space?’ ”
She soon had her answer.
“I went into several collections, and you go and you pick up ideas,” Little said. He decided to recreate a ’50s diner in one corner of his new garage. He obtained a reproduction diner counter, chairs and tables. He decorated his diner with vintage Coca-Cola memorabilia and old tabletop jukeboxes, one of which plays 78s, not 45s.
“Then I really got into Coca-Cola,” he says. “I just went crazy over that for a long time.” No doubt, since he has 425 different Coke items on display, from menu and cashier signs to advertising signs and spinning lights. Everything predates the ’60s.
That led to other collections that now line the perimeter of the building. There are display cases of old tobacco products, general store merchandise, scales, shirt collars. There’s even a hand-carved sailboat from Argentina, built in 1938 for an executive from Standard Oil. As with his cars, new items will suddenly catch his eye. Even the showcases that house the collections are collectible. His latest passion: ice cream parlor and soda fountain items.
“I was at an advertising convention and they had a half-day delay and somebody said that there was an ice cream convention going on in the same town. So I went to it and this is what happened.”
What’s happened is 49 ice cream scoops and items as such as a Multimixer, the milkshake machine that helped launch McDonald’s.
Little likes giving tours of his collection, which attracts car hobbyists as well as their wives, who don’t have to stand around gazing at cars.
“As an accent to the cars, it works. It makes me feel good because people say that there are so many things to look at in addition to the cars.”
Looking around his garage, it’s hard to imagine there’s room for more items. But he would like to find vintage ice cream parlor furniture and a 1958 Corvette. But these days, he’s just as likely to be driving his wife to dinner in one of their vintage rides.
And while he never predicted that collecting would become his occupation, he could never have expected the biggest benefit of his decade-long hobby.
“My wife has been in antiques all of her life and I would never even go with her to any of the things,” he says. “And now, we go to auctions; we have something to share.”