Gene Blackford was just 12 years old when he first laid eyes on one of the best-known custom cars of the 1950s.
As a “poor kid from Akron” walking home from swimming one night in 1953, Blackford saw a crowd gathered outside a custard stand near Portage Lakes. When he broke through the crowd, there it was: the one-of-a-kind orchid purple 1950 Oldsmobile “Polynesian,” owned then by Canton native Jack Stewart, fresh out of the California-based Valley Custom shop where it was completely customized.
“I got hooked right then,” Blackford said as he stood by the shining car and its many vintage trophies displayed at the Molto Bella Auto Show at Stan Hywet on Sunday.
The annual show to benefit the Summit County Kidney Foundation was featured at Stan Hywet for the first time this year after five years at Todaro’s Party Center, which caters the event. It was originally scheduled for Sept. 9, but the rainy weather pushed it back a weekend.
The regional, invitation-only show featured the likes of Ferraris, Lamborghinis, Bugattis, McLarens and more, some of which were valued at upward of $10 million.
“Ohio is really a hotbed for collectors,” said Sean Joyce, the president of Stan Hywet, adding that a bulk of the cars on display were local. “The goal is to have a collection here that you just can’t see together anywhere else.”
“We have a really heavy slam with exotic cars today,” added Frank Todaro, who founded the car show in memory of his father, Mel Todaro, who died of kidney cancer in 2013. “There are millions and millions of dollars worth of cars here.”
Though Blackford’s car wasn’t nearly the most valuable of the bunch at the show, the Polynesian’s unique history and rich local ties made it a standout among the 400 classic and exotic cars on display.
The car is known as “one of the ultimate customs of the '50s,” Blackford said, and its complete revamping marked the start of a widespread custom car movement. The Polynesian drew attention wherever it went, taking home first place at the first Michigan Motor Show in 1953 and donning the cover of Hot Rod magazine that same year.
Blackford eventually went on to open up his auto body and restoration shop called the Red Lacquer Room in Cuyahoga Falls, but the image of the shiny purple car with a lemon yellow interior never left his mind. He set out to find it in the early 1970s, and after contacting five of its previous owners, he finally managed to track it down and purchase it for a measly $1,000.
The car then sat in a garage collecting dust for the next three decades as life caught up with Blackford. It wasn't until a friend pushed him to show it that Blackford set to work on the car with nearly a dozen other people and re-debuted the long-lost treasure at a car show at Glenmoor Country Club in 2005.
"We had to rejuvenate everything," Blackford said.
Now 77, Blackford is looking to pass the car along to an interested buyer or a museum -- anywhere its rich history will be appreciated.
The Polynesian attracted a small crowd for much of the day from the few hundred in attendance, many of them admiring its sheen radiating in the sun.
"It really shows the craftsmanship of the time," Blackford said.
Theresa Cottom-Bennett can be reached at 330-996-3216 or email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @Theresa_Cottom.