One man's astounding antique car collection

Mike Kilen, Des Moines Register Published Sept. 22, 2015


Grant Quam looked out the kitchen window and sadly watched the auction of his father's team of horses on their Roland farm during the Depression. He would never forget it.

Grant Quam (left) in his early days.

He saved lunch money instead of eating, bought an old Ford Model T, learned to tinker with cars and eventually opened a one-man repair garage in Ames in 1945, thereafter championing horsepower over horses.


Before he died in 2007 at age 91, he had amassed 85 antique cars, among the most unusual and eclectic collection in Iowa.


Saturday it comes full circle. His children will watch the auction of 54 of the cars in Boone. Antique car enthusiasts are buzzing. Some cars may fetch up to a quarter million, and VanDerBrink Auctions is fielding calls from all over the world.


Quam kept the cars in two warehouses and a farm barn. Few people were privileged enough to lay eyes on them, other than the times he would join his wife, Betty, behind the wheel and cruise off on an auto tour.


"They are almost like an urban legend around Ames," said Jim McDonald, who appraised the collection for the Quams.


Standing in one of the warehouses last week, McDonald couldn't stop telling the stories of these magnificent cars — the partially restored 1911 Overland Model 51 or the rare 1913 Studebaker Model 25A Touring car, or the 1920 Peerless Model 56.


For non-enthusiasts, it might be a puzzling jumble of names. Cars in the collection made by Overland or Peerless, or those with model names such as the 1925 Kissel Gold Bug Speedster or 1936 Pierce Arrow Country Club Roadster, are from manufacturers who long ago ceased making cars.


Thomas Comerro calls them "offbeats," American-made cars in a collection that he says is notable for its "eclectic mix of independents." One car that could fetch a good price is the '20 Peerless Model 56, said the editorial assistant at Hemmings Motor News, a sacred text for antique car seekers.

1920 Peerless Model 56 purchased from Bill Harrah

The car is original, down to the factory radiator hose. Quam bought it from notorious collector Bill Harrah of Harrah's Casinos, who called it the most unique car he owned.


When Quam left home as a young man, all his possessions fit in a shoebox. But strong in work ethic and tough-minded in business, he would leave the mechanic trade and build a successful real estate company.


The cars, though, were never about their monetary worth, said his son, John Quam. What mattered was their uniqueness and the story behind them.


His dad would spirit off, sometimes in the cover of darkness, to buy cars that his wife didn't even know he owned.


If you happened to see an old Nabisco truck rolling down the highway, it was Grant Quam picking up a car, sometimes hurrying to beat a man coming from a distant city to try to buy the same car.


John Quam talks about his late father's love for rare cars. He's shown with the1928 Plymouth Model Q Roadster Rachel Mummey/The Register

"That's how he rolled," said John Quam.


Grant Quam loved those cars. He could tell a 30-minute story about each of them. He would joke that he was easily distracted by shiny objects. His signature line: "I only buy cars I like, but I like most cars."


His heart was in cars with memories. He kept a 1937 Oldsmobile Coupe he drove back from California in 1944, when he returned with Betty to help care for his dying father. He later bought another one, and that's one of the cars for sale Saturday.


The 1920 Peerless was special to him, not only because Harrah sold it to him, but because of the story. It was driven by a northern Iowa man for 10 years, then sat in a barn untouched for 35 years, until it was found in 1965.


Car experts might marvel at the 1957 Studebaker Super Charged Gold Hawk with a rare factory kit, and note that the 1925 Kissel Gold Bug Speedster could fetch $250,000. But Quam had an affinity for certain cars, such as the 1936 Pierce Arrow Country Club Roadster that he toured in often with his wife, who died at age 94. Or he would just have to have the odd and homely Hudson, a 1922 electric car or the 1911 Overland Model 51 Touring car that an Iowa State fraternity pulled floats with for Veishea, the longtime spring student celebration.


"It's not about money. It's how a car makes you feel when you drive it," said McDonald, himself a collector.


The first time that car enthusiasts in Iowa will see most of the cars is at the estate sale.


Yvette Vanderbrink

"I've sold quite a few collections, but it was amazing to walk into a building in Iowa and here are all these cars in one building. That is very unusual," said Yvette Vanderbrink, of the Minnesota auction company. "I don't think he wanted people to know what exactly he had. A lot of people called and told me they knew him but didn't know he had these cars."


It's a bittersweet sale for his sons John, Jim and Jerry, who live out of state, as does daughter Marilyn. They are intricately tied to his car passion.


Their scrapbooks hold pictures of the boys leaning over the open hood of an old car. Those memories won't die with the sale of his cars. John said it was just time to move on.


John, 71, who spent most of his life as a musician in California but recently bought a downtown Des Moines condo, took after his dad's car passion most heavily. He bought some cars in the collection before the sale.


He fondly remembers the day a couple of years before his dad died. His father's health was failing, and he wanted to sit one more time in an old Ford Model T, the common but sentimental car of his youth. John took him out to the car and fired it up, and asked if he wanted to go for a drive.


"No," Grant Quam said, "I just want to hear it."


John would eventually take one of the old "barn cars," a 1928 Plymouth Model Q Roadster, and drive it 17,000 miles across the world. He didn't fuss with a restoration of it, so he let people scrawl messages on it in all languages as he crossed Asia, Europe and Scandinavia.


It hearkened back to why his father originally got interested in unusual cars. A Look Magazine cartoonist once painted his artwork on a car that Grant Quam once saw driving around Ames. The originality of it sparked his fancy, and for the rest of his life he sought after his own unorthodox wheels.