A man with rare and unusual discernment
by Richard Lewis
PBCA member Dr. Bill Silhan has exquisite taste in cars. The retired art professor (35 years at the University of West Florida, in addition to stints at Ball State and Miami of Ohio) is not only an unusually gifted artist, mechanic and automobile restorer, but he is a gifted aesthete with exquisite taste in beautiful things, including automobiles.
Your Loyal Correspondent (YLC) is often guided by a quote from Bill, “A car must be a piece of rolling sculpture to attract my eye.” Bill is the sponsor (and the artist who crafts every year a unique example) of the Rolling Sculpture Award at the annual “Brits on the Bay” show, the premier car show for northwest Florida.
Bill obtained his first car during his high school years. While all of this classmates were attracted to muscle cars, Bill chose a 1952 MG TD, which must have stood out like an alien creature in a parking lot full of Super Bees, Chargers, Mustangs and Road Runners. It was not in pristine condition when Bill bought it, but he was a quick study and soon had the car in far more than driving condition.
That TD was just the first in a line of unusual cars that Bill has owned and worked on. The ones we will cite today are a partial list of those he has owned over the years and some are no longer with him, but nevertheless have enormous interest to those who love automobiles as much as Bill has over the years.
With a colleague, he built and operated the Winged Wheel Garage. Regrettably, he did not take recent pictures of it and the one we show is an older shot taken before the time he and his colleague operated the Garage. His colleague recently moved into his own facility, and Bill tells YLC that the Winged Wheel is missing a few spokes and will take some effort to return it to its former state.
The following is a partial list of those cars that have passed through Bill’s hands.
The 1949 Triumph 2000 is a rarity, with only 2,000 built during that single year. Its construction is after World War II, but its styling is all pre-war. Built mostly of aluminum with a tubular steel chassis, a 2088cc four-cylinder Standard Vanguard engine, free standing headlamps, and a dickey rumble seat and raised windshield (the last production car so built), it is an outstanding example of retro auto building.
In YLC’s humble opinion, among the most stunning cars ever built is the 1967 Marcos 1600 GT, designed and built by aircraft designer Frank Costin, who helped design the De Havilland Mosquito fighter/bomber (whose chassis was built of fireproof marine plywood), and his partner Jem Marsh.
The Marcos too was built of 386 pieces of that same plywood over a monocoque chassis bonded over a steel sub-frame and covered with a sleek fiberglass body. Many different engines were used with the Marcos, with Bill’s example sporting a Formula Ford V4 X-Flow 1650 engine, which gave it an excellent power to weight (1800 lb.) ratio. The Marcos rolled away with many 1st place trophies in multiple races — fast and beautiful, what else could one wish?
Bill’s 1967 Sunbeam Tiger (not pictured) was built by the Rootes Group, based on the Sunbeam Alpine body and paired with a 260 Ford V8 engine, with some involvement by Carroll Shelby. Built 1964-67, total production was only 7,083, with the Tiger MkII replacing the original unit with a 289 Ford V8 in 1967 and contributing only 633 cars to the total. After Chrysler bought the Rootes Group in late 1967, production was stopped, making this beautiful car much sought after.
The 1951 Daimler Hooper Empress was custom-built by Hooper & Company. Hooper was a coachbuilder mostly for Rolls-Royce and sometimes Bentley, but it would hand-build the custom alloy bodies for other chassis. This Empress was built on the Daimler Special Sports chassis.
Gottlieb Daimler is considered by many to be the co-inventor of the automobile, and in 1896 H. J. Lawson bought the right to use Daimler’s name for his own auto company in Coventry, England. By the early years of the 20th century Daimler was supplying luxury automobiles for the British royal family, beginning with Edward VII.
Bill’s Empress employs the usual Wilson pre-selector (semi-automatic) gearbox. The Daimler Company built 691 high-quality Daimlers between 1929 and 1959. This regal automobile runs all the bases.
James Bond’s Aston the 1967 Aston Martin DB6 pictured is not, but it did star in the movie Excess Baggage with Alicia Silverstone. It is one of the last of David Brown’s hand-built (11 to 18 cars per week) alloy Grand Touring Astons. The 285hp all-aluminum engine was designed by W. O. Bentley and assembled by a single technician and signed by him. The superleggera (“super light” in Italian) construction was by Carrozzera Touring Coachbuilders of Milan, with a tubular birdcage chassis covered with extremely thin, hand-formed, all-alloy body panels.
The DB6 differed from the DB5 by a 3.75” longer wheelbase and a Kamm tail and spoiler, which generated 50 lbs. of down- force at 100mph. This downforce, the drag coefficient of 0.364, its light weight, and the 285hp engine made it the fastest of David Brown’s Astons and the fastest (150mph) four-seater car in the world in 1967. Quite a mover and shaker.
This 1960 AC Ace does not have an illustrious history behind it, having its antecedent in the AC (Auto Carrier) Company’s three-wheeled delivery truck from 1902. Building many different cars over the years, AC in 1954 introduced the Ace, with a lightweight birdcage body designed by John Tojeiro and England’s first independent transfer-leaf suspension, a great improvement over former designs. The hand-built alloy body was powered by an AC-built OHV straight six with 90bhp and 120 lbs. torque, making it very competitive in racing. In 1959 the AC Ace was 1st in class at Le Mans and 7th overall.
Many low-production variations of the Ace were built before 1963, when Carroll Shelby took some AC chassis, shipped them to California, and installed a 260 Ford engine, giving birth to the first AC Cobras. Quite an improvement over a three-wheeled delivery truck.
Space prevents YLC from running the entire gauntlet of gorgeous cars owned by Bill, leaving for later exploration such cars as a 1951 Morgan Plus Four, with the flathead radiator, a 1939 rarity, the MG TB, of which only 379 were ever made, the 1937 Cord 812 Custom Beverly, and the 1959 BMW Isetta 300, but one that must not be overlooked is this American-made 1963 Studebaker Avanti (Italian for “Forward”) beauty.
Studebaker was on the ropes, looking for a lifeline (note mixed metaphor) to stay in business with the Avanti, a fiberglass-bodied competitor to the Corvette. They hired Raymond Loewy, fabled for designing such gorgeous cars as the 1946 Lincoln Continental and the 1953 Studebaker, which many consider the most beautiful design ever. He designed other cars, some of which never made production, and multiple other buildings and products. Studebaker charged him to design a dramatic vehicle, to be their savior. Loewy and his team designed an aircraft-inspired, clean and curvy, almost sensuous 2+2 no-grille beauty in record time.
Accepting the design with no changes, Studebaker put it into production in 1963 with a 289, sometimes supercharged engine. Studebakers were built in Indiana, and as a publicity stunt the company gave one to the winner of the 1962 Indianapolis 500 Race, Roger Ward. Ward thus became the owner of the first Avanti, the same car now owned by Bill and purchased from Ward’s son. This Avanti has magnesium wheels, a rare option ordered by Ward. A total of 4543 Studebaker Avantis were built in 1963-64, but this beautiful car was unable to save Studebaker and the company folded soon afterward.
Masterful eye and unfailing taste makes Bill Silhan’s collection one any collector would covet and certainly creates lustful thoughts in the mind of YLC. Bill, never stop.
Let’s see what else is up.
August 26 — Tour of Tabor’s Toybox after a great drive was planned by Fred Veenshoten, and a tasty barbecue lunch. Col. Tabor’s delightful workshop gives him room to harbor both his Lotus and Caterham in luxurious surroundings, also providing a great setting for his other hobbies, including collecting cigar paraphernalia, pipes, guns and ammunition boxes, all reminiscent of his military tours. Tabor also gave an informative talk on the building’s construction and his many hobbies. Thanks to both to Tabor and Fred for setting up this delightful event.
September 15-16 — EMC’s “Brits on the Bluff,” in Natchez, Miss., is a favorite of some of our PBCA members, which this year saw several folks from the PBCA make the drive to enjoy a very nice, smaller but friendly show. Congratulations, all.
September 18 — The PBCA’s monthly meeting at 6 p.m. at Sonny’s BBQ was chaired by Vice President Tim Maynard in President Paul Salm’s absence due to illness in the family. Club business, a great video entitled Do You Want to Drive Your Car on a Race Track? and a 50/50 and door prizes rounded out the evening.
Upcoming events (as of issue deadline)
Although the September events will have occurred before you read this and will be reported on later, they are well worth the mentioning.
September 23 — Dog Days Rally at the Pensacola Humane Society, organized by Bob Manske. (Full disclosure: YLC volunteered to handle this and very slickly dumped it on Bob. Trust no one.) Benefiting the Humane Society, PBCA donates several hundred pounds of pet food and monetary contributions to PHS. Good work, all.
September 29-October 1 — MGC Anniversary Show, Abington, Va. Contact Tom Schmitz for details.
September 30 — Ice Cream Social at 2 p.m. at the Cunningham’s Garage Mahal, hosted by the SABCC, Daphne, Ala. Details via e-mail.
October 3 — Breakfast at the Grand at 10 a.m., followed by a Show Committee meeting. All are welcome.
October 11 — Executive Board meeting at noon at the Grand. All are welcome.
October 13-14 — SABCC British Car Show weekend, Fairhope, Ala. Welcoming Party Friday at 7 p.m., and Show Saturday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Early registration ends October 6th. Looking for sponsors and goodie bag donations. Details via e-mail.
Until next time, don’t even think of repairing that engine on the dining room table.
Bill’s collection is wide and varied. Above: A beautiful example of retro design, the 1949 Triumph 2000.
A dream design in wood, metal and fiberglass, the 1967 Marcos 1600 GT.
The fabled Winged Wheel Garage as it used to be. ‘Missing a few spokes now’, says Bill.
Dr. Silhan and his beautiful, though non-British, Studebaker Avanti
Elegant, hand-crafted 1951 Daimler Hooper Empress, fit for a queen.
superleggera 1967 Aston Martin DB6.
1960 AC Ace, a lovely car that provided for the birth of the Cobra.
rare 1939 MG TB — not all of Bill’s cars required this much work, but all left looking beautiful!