Luther Ihle was engrossed in conversation with other club members while their wives chatted amongst themselves. Renee remembers the ladies poking fun at their husbands, who were gathered around the cars discussing arcane automotive details, when one of the wives said, “Don’t laugh, girls — we’re going to end up with those cars eventually.”
In the 15 or so years that have passed since, the random prediction has come to pass for Renee and a handful of other ladies who have also lost their husbands. “Little did we know how quickly that came about for some of us,” she said. But the memories evoked by the old Chevy are happy ones that stretch back more than five decades.
According to Renee, the Bel Air is a near-twin to the one that Luther was driving when they first met in Sioux City, Iowa, in 1955. Years of military service, marriage and starting a family soon followed, and the old Chevy was replaced with a new car. They moved from their native South Dakota to Youngstown in 1965, where Luther became associate director at St. Elizabeth Hospital.
It was 1971 when Luther began collecting and restoring old cars in his spare time, starting with a 1928 Chrysler sedan. He moved on to a pair of 1940 Chevrolets that were combined to make one nice-running convertible in 1976. “We did a lot with that one,” Renee said, recalling the use it got in weddings, parades and for other special occasions.
Renee doesn’t know how much searching Luther undertook to find a 1950 Bel Air that so closely resembled the one that they dated in, but find one he did in 1981, when it became part of the family collection. They joined the MVOCC and participated in club trips, visits to nursing homes and other events. “The club was his outside social [circle] away from work,” according to Renee. She said that Luther wasn’t a big sports fan, didn’t golf and only bowled occasionally. Instead, he would “come home and tinker in the garage.”
Luther’s pride was his last big acquisition, a 1935 Packard that he discovered through the club and made several trips to Columbiana in pursuit of. “The next thing I knew, there it was in our garage, with boxes and boxes of parts,” Renee said of its decrepit condition. A laborious restoration ensued, but was interrupted by Luther’s serious health issues, which culminated in a heart transplant.
Renee recalls being in the hospital following the operation, with Luther on various life-support machines and doctors unable to rouse him. “I’d go in there and tap him on the hand and say, ‘Lou, that Packard’s not done.’ He’d open his eyes and squeeze my hand,” she said. “I don’t know if it was the Packard or my voice, but it worked!”, she adds with a laugh.
A few slow years of recuperation and physical rehabilitation followed, but Luther was soon back in the garage, more determined than ever. Twenty years of effort finally paid off when the finished rumble-seat coupe earned a National First Prize from the Antique Automobile Club of America in Hershey, Pa., in 2005. “It was a real goal of his,” she said with pride.
That earlier premonition finally came true for Renee three years later, when Luther died at the age of 78. Some time afterwards, she suddenly found herself in charge of six old cars and no idea of what to do with them. Thus did Renee’s job as a classic car distributor begin.
The ‘28 Chrysler was sold to Luther’s old MVOCC friend Pete Draia (see Pit Row feature in the July 8, 2010, issue). Since the couple’s six children all had fond memories of riding in and working on the vehicles with their father, they were next on the list. One daughter in Montana received the ‘78 Chrysler; another, in Florida, now has the ‘40 Chevy convertible. A daughter in Columbus has the ‘78 Dodge truck, and the prize-winning Packard recently went to her youngest son in Denver. She says that the ‘50 Bel Air will eventually go to the other son, who lives in Australia, when he is able to ship it over.
Until then, she is thoroughly enjoying her time with the Chevy, which has been perfectly reliable so far. “I’ve taken it out whenever the weather is decent,” she says, including a 200-mile trip with the MVOCC in June 2009. The Bel Air, though identical in color and interior to the car of their courtship, is in much nicer shape. She recalls the fun Luther had in tracking down original factory accessories for the car, saying he eventually installed “all the gingerbread he could put on it.” They include a windshield visor, fog lamps, compass, tissue dispenser, and a traffic-light viewer prism. There’s also a set of vintage curb feelers that apparently puzzled one young motorist, who stopped her in traffic to tell her that something was hanging from underneath her car.
Renee laughs about the reaction that the Bel Air generates, which she feels varies according to age. Elderly folks at nursing homes are delighted to see a car that they clearly remember from earlier days. In contrast, she suspects that younger people have a different opinion. “It’s hilarious when I drive it. People will see me in the car, and they’ll take a look and give me a thumbs-up, ‘Nice car,’ and then they look at you like, ‘Is that all she’s got for a car? Poor old lady.’” Of course, the lady in question has plenty of support from Luther’s old friends should a problem arise. “The guys in the club are my back-up now,” Renee says with a smile.
After Luther died, Renee asked each of her 16 grandchildren what they remember most about their grandfather. “Every one of them mentioned the cars and car shows,” including trips to the MVOCC’s annual Cars in the Park event in Boardman Park, which she still attends every year. Until it’s time to ship to Australia, she is happy to make new memories, especially with the grandkids, to go along with the happy old ones. It’s something that that the Chevy and its driver seem to inspire with every mile.
To see more photos of Renee Ihle’s 1950 Chevrolet Bel Air, visit cu.towncrieronline.com.
Renee Ihle holds a trophy that her 1950 Chevrolet Bel Air won at a recent show. The hardtop coupe, which belonged to her late husband, is a near-twin to the one that he drove when they first met.
Photo by Richard Sberna