A tale of goats and fine automobiles

Utah, where once upon a time a goat could eat your car’s license plate.


And, no, not because goats eat tin cans. They don’t, silly person.


I was killing time talking to Alex Jolin in the Union Station’s antique car museum. Alex, who sells real estate for a living, has a volunteer badge indicating he’s got 900 hours, although he admits he doesn’t put so many in since the real estate market started picking up.


What does he do at Union Station? He details the cars.


Now, these are cars that already look pretty darn good. Showroom good. What Jolin does is keep them that way with a light dusting, “and sometimes we can take them outside and wash them; we do have a vacuum cleaner.”


“But basically we don’t do anything more than maintain the beauty they already have. We just try to preserve what we have.”


Get that? This guy has a job that consists entirely of making gentle love to some of the most gorgeous vintage automobiles on the planet.


There is much to love. Their paint is glossy, flawless, their chrome and brass polished to a fault. He gets to come down for an hour or so every week and gently handle those things.


He also fills in as a docent, and does some tours.


As we talked we stood by a 1929 Graham Paige, which is on loan from a member of the Union Station board. Most of the rest of the cars were part of the Browning family collection that used to be house in Ogden and rotated in and out of the museum. When the Browning family sold its collection it let the museum keep what was there. I don’t have the space here to list all the cars — go see.


Jolin does this cleaning and maintaining, which some might consider tedious, because “they’re just beautiful, I’ve always loved cars, and it’s easy to do.”


And it gives him a feeling of contributing to the museum, to the community as well.


Plus, it lets him hang around with the other volunteers. Ed Vendell, who’s in his 80s, said he likes to hang around with the cars because he owned so many during his lifetime. He had British and American “and quite a few Volkswagens,” and liked them all, pretty much, “except the Hillman Minx; it was the worst car I ever owned.”


The amazing cars in the collection “sure give us a feel for the number of talented people who existed in the US who knew how to do this kind of bodywork. I had some people from England come in who said ‘I didn’t know Americans could make cars like this.’”


And, of course, once they could. Remember in the 1970s when Chrysler was making cars that were crap, pure and simple? Everyone blamed the workers, but it was really the pencil pushers and bean counters who cut so many corners, and rushed the assembly lines, that fenders were falling off the things before they left the showroom floor. The workers just did what they could with the tools the were given.


We went and admired the 1930 Cadillac with a V-16 engine.  Someone had told Ed — incorrectly, as it turned out — that this car had a place to stow a gun and we wanted to look for holsters.


“The story goes, General Motors said they were going to build the finest car in the world and they started with this  model,” he said, a V-16 model in a custom body by Fleetwood, one of only two made.


The Browning family bought this one, nobody knows where the other one is. Care to imagine the worth?


What about that license plate and the goats?


Well, covering one wall of the museum is a collection of Utah license plates. Until recently, Utah gave you a new plate every year. Steve Sherwood, another volunteer who dropped by (they do a lot of dropping in, these volunteers. Can’t seem to stay away.) said this collection was donated and is pretty complete.


“Didn’t I read somewhere that during World War II they made plates that goats would eat?” I asked.


Yes, he said, and pointed to 1944.


Metal shortages meant that Utah had to try a couple of different things. In 1942 they stamped new plates out of leftovers from 1941. In 1943 they gave people a sticker to put on the previous year’s plate. In 1944 they tried making plates out of a sort of plastic.


A soy-based plastic, as in soy beans. Soy beans are edible.

So a few farmers lost their plates to goats and complained. After the war the state went back to metal.










Ed Vendell and Alex Jolin with a 1929 Graham-Paige

Ed Vendell and Alex Jolin with a 1929 Graham-Paige