- Associated Press - Sunday, October 12, 2014

TULSA, Okla. (AP) - It’s the kind of story Hollywood loves: a near-penniless man rises up, finds success against all odds, loses everything and then finds redemption.

Indeed, movie makers are poring over the story of Glenn Pray, a cash-strapped but talented shop teacher who bought the Auburn-Cord-Duesenberg Co. in the early 1960s, brought it to Broken Arrow and made cars there for decades, the Tulsa World reported (https://bit.ly/1vLpU8Q ).

Despite all of that activity, Pray’s one-man effort to keep the Cord - an aerodynamic luxury car from the 1930s that was far ahead of its time - alive is a little-known part of local history.

And the tale of Pray’s travails is as entertaining as the car itself.

“My dad was a mechanical genius,” said Pray’s son, Doug. “He always said he couldn’t die because he had too many projects pending.”

Pray did pass away eventually, in 2011, but not before he revived the Cord and Auburn names and grew a parts-and-restoration business that still stands today.

Part of that operation - the licensing of the Cord brand - may be passed on to someone else later this month when Doug Pray auctions it off. But the younger Pray is not going to give up all the legacy. He’s planning to license the Cord name back from the new owner so he can keep repairing and selling classic cars at the original parts facility in Broken Arrow.

Pray said Hollywood has come calling a few times, so who knows? Put a mustache on Tom Hanks and you’re not too far from the real deal. Screenwriters, though, might want to embellish Pray’s story. It certainly is one that is amazing on its own.

Glenn Pray was born in Rocky Ford, Colorado, in 1925. His family moved around a lot, as his dad looked for work.

Pray discovered an aptitude for mechanical things when, at the age of 15, he built a tractor from scratch.

He later entered the Marine Corps, but a flare-up of rheumatic fever put him back out on disability. Pray wound up at Tulsa Central High School in the early 1950s, teaching auto mechanics.

“He became known as quite a character,” Pray’s son remembered.

“He once drove a car down the hallway at Central without a proper tailpipe and muffler. Another time he told the kids in his class that if they finished working on an engine by the end of the semester, he’d burn rubber in the parking lot. He took the car and burned rubber.”

While Pray enjoyed working on cars of all types and making hot rods, he had fallen in love with the Cord, a luxury automobile that had its heyday in the 1930s. The Cord offered a number of innovative features, such as front-wheel drive, hidden headlights, lightweight body panels and no running board.

Perhaps its most distinctive attribute, however, was its styling.

The model 810/812 Cord was long, low, sleek and graceful. Its front featured a trademark wraparound grill.

Pray put photos of the Cord on Central’s bulletin board. Soon students were tracking down cars for him. He bought one that was in bad shape, and with the help of his class, he restored the engine. This was the vehicle that eventually spun its tires on school property.

Around this time, Pray’s mind began spinning, too. The Cord was a great car, he thought. But due to a number of problems, the company had gone out of business. All that was left was a shell, bought by investor Dallas Winslow, that sold parts.

Pray called Winslow and asked him if he wanted to sell the company. In a meeting at the Cord plant in Auburn, Indiana, Pray didn’t flinch at the $75,000 price tag, even though he was only making $2,400 a year.

“He’d even borrowed $20 from the teachers’ petty cash fund for gasoline to get there,” his son said.

When Winslow asked Pray how he planned to pay for the purchase, Pray calmly replied that since Winslow was the richest man he’d ever met, he figured he’d just borrow it from him.

Winslow reportedly was so shocked his chair shot all the way back into the wall. He was impressed with Pray’s spunk, however, and agreed to a loan.

Now Pray had to figure out not only how to pay back the money, but what to do with the plant.

After much searching, Pray found the only building he could afford - an old pickle-canning plant in Broken Arrow. The place had broken windows and a 6-inch-thick coating on the floor of pigeon feathers and droppings.

In 1963, Pray hired Felix De Geyter to help catalog the 700,000 parts. De Geyter said the move initially was very slow.

“Each part was being individually wrapped and placed carefully in boxes,” De Geyter said. “On the deadline he had, you just couldn’t do that.”

The parts eventually got to Broken Arrow. Pray’s struggles, however, were just beginning. He calculated he would need $500,000 to get Cords rolling off the line in Broken Arrow, so he launched an all-out fundraising campaign.

“He approached everyone he met or could think of,” his son remembered.

Pray’s efforts probably could fill a book, but suffice it to say he found partners and raised the cash. To keep the doors open at the Auburn-Cord-Duesenberg Co., he also began selling parts and doing repairs.

All the while, he was pursuing the design for what he saw as a “second generation” Cord.

This would not be a replica or kit car but a new vehicle built from the ground up. It would resemble the classic Cord but also would have improvements such as air conditioning.

The space at the pickle plant was filled with parts, so Pray set up a manufacturing line at a bigger facility at 9260 E. Broken Arrow Expressway.

Pray knew he was aiming for a high-end market. A newspaper story from 1960 quotes him as saying the new Cord would be “an American prestige car equivalent to the Rolls-Royce.”

Word was building among classic car enthusiasts, some of whom had already sent Pray $4,000 checks to be put on the waiting list. Car and Driver magazine put the Pray Cord prototype on its cover in February 1965.

The new Broken Arrow manufacturing plant opened on Dec. 17, 1965.

By 1966, Pray was ready to start shipping his creations to the world. It would prove to be a bittersweet year, though, because after three Cords were produced, Pray got pushed out of the company.

The second-generation Cord company was a separate legal entity from the Auburn-Cord-Duesenberg parts, repair and licensing business.

To make the new car, Pray needed partners and cash, an unavoidable decision that ultimately led to differences of opinion and Pray leaving the car-making operation. In return, he got all the stock in the parts business.

About the same time, his marriage to Doug Pray’s mother, Nita, was also falling apart. He found himself driving a truck filled with his personal office items to a small apartment. On the way, his drafting table blew out of his truck.

“Dad said this was the lowest time of his life,” Doug Pray said.

The Cord car-making company ultimately went bankrupt. Even though he was out of the business, Pray had signed the notes and suddenly was on the hook for several hundred thousand dollars in debts.

Meanwhile, just 97 “Glenn Prey” Cords had been produced.

Pray went back to work with De Geyter at Auburn-Cord-Duesenberg. And he began thinking.

Apart from Cords, his other favorite classic car was the Auburn Speedster, a snappy coupe that was popular in 1935-‘36.

Slowly a plan began to take shape. He would start making a second-generation Auburn using all the lessons he’d learned from the Cord fiasco.

This time, he would build the cars his way.

“Production was about only one a month,” De Geyter said.

Glenn Pray’s Auburns began coming out of Broken Arrow in 1968. The cost was about $9,500 then, which placed the cars in the ultra-elite market.

Doug Pray has many memories of those times, since he and his dad for a while personally delivered each car. One went to Rod Serling, who was popular then as host of the “Twilight Zone” TV series.

“We drove the Auburn from Broken Arrow to Hollywood where Serling lived in a mansion,” the younger Pray remembered.

“When we knocked on the door, Serling’s wife answered. She said her husband had seen us from the bedroom and got so excited he’d fallen down the stairs. A second later, this short, skinny guy - he looked much taller on TV - shot by us wearing only cutoff shorts, no shirt. He jumped in the car and took off, tires squealing.”

Other celebrities and enthusiasts also snapped up Auburns. Pray continued to make various models and enjoy success until he suffered a heart attack in 1980. Only then did he decide to get out of the car-making business for good.

“It was too much stress,” Doug Pray said.

From then on, Pray concentrated on the Auburn-Cord-Duesenburg Co. Still located in the pickle plant in Broken Arrow, Pray quietly went about his business selling parts and restoring both original cars and his “Pray” models.

De Geyter, who had taken a break to sell insurance, returned to the company. Together, the two began to scour lists of car clubs and the Internet, looking to find out what had happened to all the cars they built.

“To date, I’ve found 77 of the 97 Cords made,” De Geyter said.

Pray seemed happy with the slightly slower life, feeling that his success with the Auburn had made up for the heartbreak of the Cord production.

He continued to come to the office regularly until one day he told his son he was tired.

“I’ve done everything I wanted to do,” Pray told Doug. “I’d just like to go to sleep now.”

“Oh, come on, Dad,” said Doug Pray.

The elder Pray died in his sleep two days later. He was 85.


Information from: Tulsa World, https://www.tulsaworld.com

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