First Cars Are Always Favorites

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Arnold Petsche proudly displays his Willys Model 37 Coupe, which is a replica of the first car he ever had. It features an energy-efficient four-cylinder engine, a classic interior that still sports a shine and a trademark logo like no other.

One of Arlington’s most impressive success stories

is the one that unfolded on West Division Street during the past several decades as Arnold Petsche transformed his small business into the world’s largest supplier of aerospace and high-performance wire products.

Along the way, Arnold developed a passion for another kind of transformation – that of collecting old cars and trucks and turning them into one-of-a-kind showpieces so impeccable that few equals could be found anywhere.

His collection now totals about 50 such rare vehicles, some more than a century old. All are kept under the constant care of his curator Charles Eller and shop foreman Fred Savage, who has worked for and known Arnold his entire life. “With Arnold,” Fred explains, “it’s all about the projects – not the destination but the journey.”

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That journey began

when 17-year-old Arnold and his father went looking for a car to provide transportation for him and his sister entering Ohio University in Athens in 1948. They found a 1937 Willys Model 37 Coupe in a junk pile and purchased it for a sum of $50.

It would take them the rest of the summer to make it drivable, a process that included overhauling the engine, replacing a rusted-off rear fender, building housing for the headlights so they wouldn’t fall out and capping it off with a Mack truck bulldog hood ornament (pictured on the next page).

The Willys served him well during the college years, then he sold it for $50 – and recovered the entire initial purchase price.

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Somewhere along the way,

the bulldog ornament he prized so much was stolen. Years later, when returning to Ohio for a reunion, he found one while browsing an antique store.

Fred continues:

“He had a feeling that it just might have been the one taken from his coupe, so he purchased it and still has it today. But, it’s just the beginning of the story. Arnold wanted more than just the bulldog, he wanted the whole car.”

So, among the collection of his sparkling world-class vehicles now sits the humble little Willys featured as this month’s car story. It was just three years ago that Arnold came across a photo in an automobile magazine of the car that was just like the one he took to college more than 60 years earlier.

He acquired it, and his crew went to work to restore it to its original glory, thus making it far better than he could have ever afforded to do with his first car.

The engine was rebuilt, the chassis cleaned up and the interior would remain simple and functional as it was intended.

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There’s a good chance

that some readers are discovering a Willys automobile for the first time. Unable to withstand the depression years, the Willys Company was reorganized and produced the 1937 redesigned four-cylinder model. Its streamlined body was consistent with the goal of making the car as efficient and affordable as possible. It was advertised as low priced, less than $500 when the average new car sold for $760, and a “style sensation” delivering 30 miles per gallon of gasoline that cost about 10 cents.

The California-based car company was one of several bidders when the War Department sought an automaker that could begin rapid production of a lightweight truck for service in World War II. Thus the Willys Company began production in 1941 of the iconic “General Purpose” vehicle that would become known as the Jeep. So Arnold’s connection with one of the manufacturers that contributed to winning the Great War is just another chapter in the life of an extraordinary benefactor providing economic opportunity and meeting the needs of many in his community.

He sold his company a few years ago but none of his cars. “In fact,” curator Eller says with a smile, “as we speak, he’s got his eye on a couple more he may acquire next.”