Gateway: News

Hunting for history fuels Gig Harbor collector

By Karen Miller

Staff writer

Jim Sullivan shows off his garage, where he restores classic cars. Sullivan specializes in cars from before 1970.
Jim Sullivan shows off his garage, where he restores classic cars. Sullivan specializes in cars from before 1970. Staff photographer

Jim Sullivan is something of an automobile archaeologist. At Jim's Classic Garage,  while restoring classic American cars,  he's always looking for stories,  memorabilia and the character of cars that have run over American roads since the early days of the horseless carriage.

Sometimes,  restoring that glory can be a long process,  like it is with the 1963 Corvette he found on eBay. The old paint is being sanded and redone,  the engine is being pulled out to be rebuilt and the torn interior needs a lot of work. Sullivan shakes his head.

"It's a shame that people let cars go like this,  it's almost sacrilegious, " he said. "These cars are an American mainstay."

Inside his Gig Harbor workshop,  Sullivan,  63,  houses classic cars such as Corvettes,  Packards,  Plymouths and Model Ts and As. He estimates that his collection is half pre-war cars and half classic muscle cars. He mainly buys cars up to a 1970 production date,  but there are a few exceptions when it comes to larger trades. For example,  to get a Ford Model A,  he also took on some cars from the 1980s.

"The first car I fell in love with was a 1958 Corvette when I was 14, " he said.

It was 1974 and the car belonged to someone at the local gas station in Ballard. Sullivan went and got a job at the full-service station,  lying about his age,  saying he was 15-and-a-half when he was really 14. Starting as a "pump jockey, " he learned all about cars by doing engine work,  repairs and more.

Sullivan got an identical car - finally- in 2000;  same make,  same model,  same color. It was his baby,  until recently when it was sold to a collector across the world in Holland.

The restored cars shine alongside works in progress. His 1936 Packard 8 convertible coupe has been restored to Pebble Beach Concourse standards. Next to it is a yellow 1909 Model T. Sullivan got it at a swap meet and is working to bring it back to life. It has kerosene lamps,  a crank start and an open top. The two cars in contrast show Sullivan's deft hand for putting the life into the cars. However,  he gives the credit to the original makers.

Sullivan says he doesn't have an interest in newer cars. To him,  there isn't a history in its wheels,  its engine,  its interior.

"There's no history to the new cars, " he said. "Every one of the old cars something really important probably happened inside."

The cars are a sort of hobby turned business for Sullivan. His other work is restoring old houses. It's similar to his work with cars,  which are his first love.

"Anything that's got history and is somewhat beautiful is worth restoring, " he said. "(I'm) always looking for a piece of history."

The space at the Westside Business Park is where Sullivan opens the door,  turns on the radio and works on the cars. When people stop by,  he loves to share his knowledge and talk about the history of the automobile. When cars are fully restored,  they go to a separate storage space.

Sullivan is selling parts of his collection. Recently he sold six cars to buyers on the east coast and two cars to buyers in the Netherlands. He's looking to buy,  too,  because there are cars out there he'd love to have in his collection.

Part of the upkeep includes driving the cars. They don't go particularly fast,  but the charm is there. He especially enjoys turning heads.

"It's wonderful. People from the ages of 3 to 103 stop and stare, " he said.

Cars like the Plymouth and the Packard really hit home with older people,  who may remember riding in them when they were young. He loves to hear how the cars evoke images of loved ones,  parents and special memories.

"They don't keep 'em or make 'em like this anymore, " he said. "These are throwbacks."

Karen Miller: 253-358-4155