- Associated Press - Saturday, September 20, 2014

WILMINGTON, N.C. (AP) - It’s like the great American cars of the 20th century all died and went to Roger Pridgen’s house in Wilmington.

Pridgen, a retired electrician, converted a spare bedroom into a sort of automotive museum with floor-to-ceiling shelves stuffed with Chevys, Fords, Cadillacs and other models of classic cars, depicting makes and models dating from the late 1930s to the present.

A separate table houses his complete run of Corvettes, with one model for every production year from 1953 to the present, as well as some spare Pontiac GTOs.

The collection spills over into his living room, where a separate table holds a large fleet of tractor-trailers and other trucks.

A Port City native who grew up along Wrightsville Avenue, Pridgen began amassing his miniature car lot some 20 years ago, when his sister-in-law gave him a NASCAR model as a present. “There it is,” he said, pointing to the little stock car with the “Hungry Man” logo. “Number 11.”

From there, it grew. Pridgen says he never bothered to count them all (although he seems able to find any particular make or model in an instant) but the total is clearly in the hundreds.

We’re not talking plastic-and-glue box models here. Pridgen’s cars are hefty diecast replicas from makers such as ERTL or Windross. He has a fair number of Matchbox cars, but the stars of his collection are meticulously crafted and colored models, generally in 1/18 or 1/ 24 scale.

Pridgen does a lot of shopping on eBay, although he has gone on trips hunting for specific makes.

“That one up there, I got in Beaver Falls, Pa.,” he said, pointing to a vintage Cadillacs. “I do love those Caddys.”

Plus, he still gets the occasional present. For his 63rd birthday earlier this year, Pridgen’s sister gave him a ‘63 Corvette. He picked it off the table.

“See? split window,” he said. “You remember that show ‘Route 66’? This is what those guys drove, but they had a convertible.”

Cars have been a big part of Pridgen’s life since his childhood. He’ll tell you how his mom drove him and his brothers and sisters to Winter Park School in their ‘57 De Soto. Pridgen’s pet crow, Blackie, would often follow the car all the way. (Pridgen’s eyes still twinkle when he recalls how Blackie did something rude all over Principal McGee’s coat.)

He still remembers his very first car, a 1960 Vauxhall. “There it is - made in England,” Pridgen said, tapping a photo in his album. “My daddy picked it up for me. It had a hydraulic clutch.”

That album has nearly as many photos of cars as it does of relatives. “That ‘72 Chrysler, custom power steering, 400 cubes,” he said. “That was my honeymoon car.”

When Pridgen recalls friends or neighbors, he can recall the cars they drove, the year they were built, the engine sizes and the custom parts.

That love inspired the collection. “It started out, I wanted to get all the Chevys I grew up with,” Pridgen said. Today, he specializes in the classics of the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s.

His models are organized chronologically. He points to a wood-paneled Chevrolet station wagon. “That was a 1939 model,” he said. From there, he can go down a row, describing in detail the design changes from year to year.

And, like a lot of car owners, he sometimes likes to customize.

While in high school, Pridgen worked part-time at Yopp Funeral Home at 1207 Market St. (Its proximity to New Hanover High School was a plus, he said with a wink, and the home’s parlors, after hours, proved ideal for dating.) For a project, he decided to assemble his own automotive funeral procession.

Two black hearses and a flower car are probably the most expensive items in his collection, purchased for around $150 each.

For other vehicles he improvised. He took a yellow paneled truck and repainted it black. “That’s the gravedigger’s car,” he explained with a grin. A tow truck was modified to carry burial vaults. (He made his vaults by repainting SpongeBob SquarePants boxes from MacDonald’s.)

A black Cadillac serves as the funeral director’s car. “Old ‘Fatty’ Yopp had a Caddy just like it,” he said. Add a Mayberry-vintage police cruiser and a few family cars, and Pridgen has a pretty impressive parade to the cemetery.

Working and playing with the cars is clearly a tonic for Pridgen, who had Stage 3 cancer and is still recovering from major surgery.

“If I ever feel old,” Pridgen said with a grin, “I come in here and play with my toys.”


Information from: The StarNews, https://starnewsonline.com

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