Mar 26, 2011

Memories of Glenn Pray...

Glenn Pray at a recent gathering of the cars he built and loved (Image courtesy David Turner)
I lived in Norman, Oklahoma, from 1965 through 1972.  I was into old cars.  When I got my navy orders to go to Oklahoma to be a NROTC instructor, my 1932 Plymouth was my everyday car.  So I did what any young, single, slightly crazy old car nut would do -- I drove my 33-year-old 4-cylinder Plymouth from New London, Connecticut to Norman, Oklahoma.  I drove it another year as well before I retired it for a future restoration.

One of the legendary characters I got to know in Oklahoma through my interest in old cars was a gentleman named Glenn Pray, a resident of Broken Arrow, near Tulsa  I learned today that he had passed away last Wednesday.   The world has lost one of its most colorful characters.  I'm humbled to have known him.

Glenn Pray built cars.  That may not seem so unusual until you realize that he built modern versions of vintage cars in a former pickle factory.  These cars sold for lots of money, and there was a long waiting period to get one -- they were quite exclusive.  At the time I first met Mr. Pray, he was producing extremely high quality replicas of the 1936 Auburn boattail speedsters.  They were magnificent.

The first generation Glenn Pray built Cord Model 8/10,
powered by a front-mounted Corvair engine
Previously, he had built a modestly downsized version of the Model 810 Cord convertible.  It was 8/10 size so he called it the Model 8/10.  

How he got into the car business reads like a fairy tale.  As he related it to me, he was a school teacher with a wife and a couple of kids and he restored Cord automobiles and bought and sold them to supplement his teacher's salary.  He often bought parts from Mr. Dallas Winslow, who had acquired the remnants of the Cord-Auburn-Duesenberg Company when it went into receivership in 1938.  In the Spring of 1960, Glenn heard a rumor that someone was planning to buy the company from Mr. Winslow and he immediately became concerned.  What might happen to his source of vintage parts?!  He had hoped that maybe someday he himself might buy the inventory, but on his teacher's salary, he had never come up with the kind of money it would take.

He told me that he borrowed a few dollars from the teachers' petty cash fund and convinced a fellow teacher to go with him to Indiana to see about buying a car company.  This friend had a 1956 Mark II Continental that had been badly wrecked on one side, but the other side looked pretty good.  Glenn made an appointment to meet Mr. Winslow at a certain location, and he made sure to park the car with the "good side" toward the building.  Mr. Winslow showed Glenn the remnants of the A-C-D Company -- hundreds of bins full of vintage parts.  Glenn said that the universal joints needed to restore the front wheel drive of the Cords had become quite expensive and here he saw hundreds of them in a bin!  After the tour, they discussed the price for a buyout (remember, Glenn doesn't have a pot to pee in) and agree on a price of $75,000!
The Cord production line in around 1963

Glenn and his friend dashed back to Tulsa to cover a check he wrote for a down payment.  He convinced his teachers' credit union to give him a short-term loan.  He had told Mr. Winslow that he needed a couple months to liquidate some assets to come up with the balance.  Glenn told the bank that the owner had committed to financing half the deal.  That somehow convinced the banker that this was an acceptable risk, so the bank loaned him nearly $40,000.  He then went back to Dallas Winslow and asked him to to finance the balance.  As Glenn related it to me, "Mr. Winslow figured if the bank would loan me that kind of money, I must be a pretty good risk!"  Mr. Glenn Pray, school teacher and car enthusiast became the proud owner of the remaining assets of the Auburn Cord Duesenberg Automobile Company.  This included tons of parts as well as documents and trademarks and copyrights.  Over the next several months, Glenn moved everything to Broken Arrow.  During this time, I recall that he also took on a financial partner, a Chevrolet dealer from Illinois named Wayne McKinley.

Within a few years of acquiring the company, Mr. Pray designed (with the help of Mr. Gordon Buehrig, the designer of the original Cord model 810) a smaller version of the 1936 Cord Model 810.  It was about 8/10 scale, so Glenn named it the Cord 8/10.  Over the next couple of years (1964-1966), the company built close to 100 of the cars, powered by Corvair air cooled flat 6 engines and front wheel drive.  That business got acquired by another firm that produced a version of these cars for a few more years.

One of Glenn Pray's beautiful Auburn Model 866 boattail speedsters

Glenn Pray then decided to build reproductions of the beautiful 1936 Model 852 Auburn boattail speedsters, using Ford running gear in a custom-built chassis based on Ford components.  It was during this period that I first drove from Norman, Oklahoma to Broken Arrow and met Mr. Pray.  Coincidentally, when I first met him, I was driving a 1956 Lincoln Continental Mark II, the same kind of car he had gone to Indiana in to buy his car company.  That initiated our conversation about his acquisition of the company.  He also took me into an area of his factory where he stored parts and proudly showed off a brand new set of 5 Mark II hubcaps that he owned but would not sell.  These wheel covers were impossible to find in any condition and he had 5 brand new ones!  I visited Glen several times over the next 3 or 4 years until I moved to the Mississippi gulf coast.  He was always a terrific host.

A couple of years after I had moved to Mississippi, I ran into Glenn at the Kruse Brothers antique car auction in New Orleans.  He was prospering, had a beautiful lady on his arm, and informed me that in addition to building Auburns, he had started collecting motorcycles and was going to start a motorcycle museum near the plant in Broken Arrow.  Later that year, I saw him again in Hershey, Pennsylvania at the annual Antique Automobile Club of America (AACA) National Fall Meet.  He was making quite a splash, introducing a new, 4-door phaeton version of tha Auburn speedster.  I would guess that it was around 1975 or 1976.
Few cars could compete with the sleek lines of the boattail speedster built by Auburn in 1935-36 and reproduced by Mr. Pray in the 1960s and -70s

At that same Hershey meet, I acquired an early airplane propeller in trade for an antique motorcycle.  I did the deal sight unseen and had the propeller shipped to my home in Mississippi.  I expected a nice wooden propeller that I could put a clock into and give to my brother as a Christmas gift.  To my amazement, the propeller that arrived was over 12 feet long and weighed well over 100 pounds!  It was a Wickwire Automatic airplane propeller from the mid 1920's.  It was beautiful, gleaming in laminated wood and sparkling brass, but way too large for any wall hanging.  I wasn't quite sure what to do with it.  I attempted to determine its origins by contacting the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum, the Air Force of the Confederacy, and the Experimental Aircraft Association.  Each of them informed me that "Wickwire never built a propeller that large."  I knew that they had because I was looking at it!

The following year, I ran into Glenn Pray at the New Orleans auction again (with a different beautiful lady on his arm).  I asked about the progress on his motorcyle museum.  He informed me that he had decided not to pursue that because "everybody's into motorcycles."  Instead, Glenn informed me that he had started collecting vintage airplanes and was thinking of starting an aircraft museum.  I immediately told him about my propeller.
The Mark II hubcap
I traded the propeller in an even trade for the five Mark II hubcaps, and I even talked Glenn into paying the shipping on both items!  I was thrilled and I think he was happy.  He told me in a later conversation that he had tracked down the history of the strange propeller.  It was a spare propeller made for an experimental army bomber that crashed in testing at Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri.  He had acquired the wreckage and was attempting a restoration.  That sounded so typical of the Glenn Pray I knew.   A lot of people will miss him.


Cyndie Warner-Gardner said...

Thanks for the blog on Glenn. Have you read his latest book called "Glenn Pray, The Untold Stories"? If not, I highly suggest that you get it. It has some behind the scenes stories that will make you laught and cry. Two movie producers are considering making it into a movie.

Anonymous said...

I appreciate this thoughtful and heartfelt account of my uncle's work and life! My beloved father, the late Walter L. Pray, was Glenn's older brother and served as his plant manager for years. An American success story!

budkurls said...

Thanks to all who put up the articles on Glen Pray. My wife and I purchased a Auburn Model 866 Boattail speedster 2 weeks ago at the Branson Auto Auction. Same color as the one in the picture red and black. There was no documentation,and I have been spending hours on the computer trying to find out more information on the car. We need a few replacment parts and history. Please call 314-753-9444 if you could, or email ask for Jim Konersman