Petromobila | Another way to play in the collector car hobby

Photography Credit: David S. Wallens

[Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in the July 2022 issue of Classic Motorsports.]

And on Monday, they rested.

Well, most of them. Not surprising: When the Mecum auction at Kissimmee, Florida, kicked off the 2022 season, the dealmaking started on January 6 and then went nonstop for a week and a half.

You can’t blame them for taking a day off–that was Monday, January 10–but even then, the selling continues. It just moves from cars, trucks, motorcycles and boats to Road Art, a Mecum-trademarked term for its memorabilia merchandise.

It may be a drop in the bucket compared to the $217 million record take at the world’s largest car auction, with nearly 3000 vehicles changing hands this year, but who are we to sneeze at $2.66 million in memorabilia sales, covering 1462 gas pumps, neon signs, pedal cars and oil cans?

Something for various tastes: The porcelain Western Auto sign brought in $2950, while the red Paul Reed Smith electric guitars–commemorative Corvette Z06 models–sold for $1770 each. The Texaco sign–neon, not fully working–went for $1888, while Standard Oil fetched $7670. Photography Credits: David S. Wallens

Road Art takes over the first hour of each day before the cars roll out. Then, on Monday, petromobilia–that’s the word for pure automotive-related memorabilia–takes center stage. Some 752 items were sold that Monday. There is no reserve. Everything goes.

Though these sales stream live online, the memorabilia doesn’t benefit from cable television time like the rest of the car auction, which airs on MotorTrend TV. “Yet, anyway,” says Melissa Smith, the Road Art presentation manager, who is helped out by 15 full-time staffers. Most all the auctions have a Road Art component. As you’d expect, tractor auctions, for instance, feature mostly tractor-related merchandise. 

Smith oversees the Road Art roster, arranging for packing and shipping to and from the auction. Yes, Mecum deals in collections, but a large percentage of the petromobilia arrives in conjunction with the car collections. Think about it: Most of the big car collections are accompanied by everything from period oil cans to big signs to actual fully stocked mock service stations. 

When somebody wants it gone, they typically want it all gone, Smith says. Just like the cars, the items are carefully photographed, authenticated and logged, sent by a handful of trusted shippers to the auctions, and then sent home with the new owners.

The biggest seller at Kissimmee was a Carlotta Miles sign from Kelly Tires, apparently from the teens or early 1920s. Carlotta (Lotta Miles for short–see what they did there?) was posed for by Jean Newcombe, a successful musical theater actress who first appeared on Broadway in 1911. The piece was recently acquired from the original tire store where it hung in Utah.

It’s a 42-inch, single-sided, color porcelain sign with some scuff marks at the edges. “The beautiful lady brought light to the tire world,” Mecum published in its catalog, “with the upper torso protruding out of a Kelly tire. The representation was continually used for many years, slightly changing and adapting the face, hairstyle and clothing to the style of the times.”

The big seller at Mecum’s Kissimmee sale: $41,300 for the 42-inch-diameter Kelly Tires sign. Also on the menu: $4012 for the Kit Kat machine. Something for the younger enthusiasts? Mecum got $354 for the vintage Fire Chief pedal car, while RM Sotheby’s brought in $108,000 for the 2/3-scale 917/30 Junior Kart. Photography Credits: Courtesy Mecum (Kelly Tires sign), David S. Wallens (candy machines, fire chief pedal car), courtesy RM (Porsche/Audi pedal car)

The sign went for $41,300. (This isn’t the kind of memorabilia that decorates your local Cracker Barrel walls.) Second was a twin-hose Gilmore Red Lion gasoline pump for $33,040. Fifth was a 1957 Chevrolet Corvette pedal car, “a personal gift from Jay Leno,” that went for $29,500.

Mecum, of course, isn’t the only place to acquire petromobilia. You can get it online, through targeted publications, and at bigger shows like the ones Tennessee-based Dixie Gas holds.

Though the Mecum circuit does have its fans, like C. Warren SelbyJr., a building contractor from Macon, Georgia, who collects a variety of petromobilia as well as a lot of life-sized tractors. How many? “I honestly don’t know,” he says, laughing. “That way, when my wife asks me, I can say, ‘I’m really not sure.’ When I’m running a little tight on space, my solution is build another building. Hers is to start selling some stuff. So I’m trying to find a happy medium.

“I’ve had such good luck with Mecum,” he adds. “Their quality is very high, and I know what I’m getting.” As we spoke, he had his eye on a John Deere gas pump.

He especially likes neon, gasoline pumps and porcelain signs. His biggest piece is a Firestone porcelain sign that’s 4 feet tall and 40 feet long.

Prices can vary widely: RM Sotheby’s got $4830 for the animated Michelin sign yet just $90 for the Maserati V6 engine display. Photography Credits: David S. Wallens (Pump, bicycle) Courtesy RM (display engine, Michelin sign)

One of the problems with the petromobilia collector hobby, Selby says, “is the reproductions. Some of them are so well done, and they know how to age them.” If you want more than just a trinket, he says, “it’s hard to know exactly what you’re getting unless you buy from a reputable source.”

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David S. Wallens
David S. Wallens Editorial Director
2/14/23 3:00 p.m.

While photographing Mecum's offerings for this story, something caught my eye: the very Gulf pump sign that I had growing up!

In fact, it's probably here somewhere....

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