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Stan Frances of Howard is trying to retire (again)

Article by Terence Corrigan

Restoring Old Cars – April 1998 – Colorado Central Magazine

AFTER 41 YEARS OF RESTORING and building antique truck and car bodies, Stan and Mary Francis of Howard are retiring.

“This is the second time we’ve decided to retire,” Stan said, as he serviced the antique sewing machine he uses to stitch upholstery, convertible tops, and side curtains.

Stan and Mary’s first retirement started 21 years ago after they closed their Denver business, Golden Restoration, and moved out of the city to Howard. At its peak, Golden Restoration employed 32 workers.

It wasn’t long after they moved to Central Colorado that Stan started into business again. “We came down here to retire,” Stan says, “and I got carried away.”

With a new shop, initially to work on their own project cars, Stan was soon taking in outside work and hiring workers.

“I told Mary, `I’m working in the shop everyday anyway, so I might as well have a little help.’ A little help turned into four guys” and 21 years.

Stan’s decision to continue in business wasn’t based on financial considerations, however, it was a matter of doing work that he loved. “I can hardly wait to get to work in the morning,” he said. “I got down here this morning at 5:30. I just enjoy working.

“When a guy comes in and says how much he hates his job, I just think `boy am I lucky.'”

Stan’s love for auto restoration started shortly after he and Mary were married. They were living on his parents’ ranch in Gunnison where he grew up, when the gift of a couple of old Fords piqued his interest in antique vehicles.

“I guess maybe it was the neighbors’ fault,” he says. “They gave me a couple of Model T’s.”

Although they didn’t know anything about restoring vehicles, Stan and Mary took on the challenge, and found a career in their efforts.

Their first restoration job was a Model T fire truck for the Gunnison Fire Department, for which they were paid $250.

Having found what they wanted to do, Stan and Mary went looking for a place to operate their fledgling business and found a suitable property in Denver.

“We talked to the folks about loaning us some money to buy the place,” Stan says, “and dad finally gave in and said `well, let’s help him and maybe he’ll get it out of his system.'”

With no formal training, Stan and Mary started into business. “We had to struggle,” Stan said. “We starved for five years.”

With no mentor, Stan and Mary’s education was at first fraught with failures. “At first we thought the thing to do was to buy cars, fix ’em up and sell them,” he said. “But that was a disaster. Unless you get into the high-dollar cars there’s no way you can restore them and get your money.”

After totaling the cost of labor and materials in the average restoration, Stan and Mary soon found that their finished vehicles would fetch at most only half their investment.

In the early days, before Stan had perfected his metal-working skills, finding replacement body parts for rare vehicles was more often a matter of searching for shapes rather than makes.

“We used to go to the wrecking yards and hunt pieces off of cars that were shaped like we needed,” he says. “We’d cut pieces and weld them together.”

Stan’s success was also a matter of keeping his word to his customers, which often resulted in long hours “I used to tell a guy when I’d have his car ready for him. That’s when I got to working night shifts,” he said, laughing. “I learned to tell them we’ll get ’em done when we get ’em done.”

But despite the difficulties of their early years, Stan said he’s seldom been without work. “We’ve never advertised and we’ve only run short of work maybe two or three times in all those years,” he says. And on those rare occasions where he did run short of work for “a week or so,” he would keep his employees busy on his own cars.

And over the years, Stan and Mary have accumulated and restored an impressive collection of vehicles, all “basket cases” when they got them, Stan says.

In his collection, some restored and some not, Stan has 20 vehicles that he “picked up over the years,” he said. “Most of them are things I just ran into over the years, not ones I was looking for.”

A 1910 Dart, a 1920 Stephens, an air-cooled Franklin and a ’29 Cord are amongst his collection of “drivers.” The restored Fords and Chevrolets seem downright pedestrian next to some of these classics, but according to Stan, “if I had to jump in something and go to the east coast it would be a Chevy or a Ford.” His best “road car,” Stan figures, is a 1931 Auburn, which he’s driven 46,000 miles since he restored it. “It’ll run 60 mph,” he said. “It’s not a good climber; none of the old cars are good climbers. But if you put a high speed ring and pinion in it, you can get the road speed out of it.”

A journalist, however, stricken by flashy looks, was at first more inclined toward jumping into Stan’s bright red front-wheel-drive 1929 Cord, with its rumble seat and straight-8 cylinder motor, for a cross-country ride, until Stan explained the potential for problems.

Cords, Stan said, overheat on the highway because of their small radiator. Because of the radiator’s location atop the front wheel drive differential, he explained, the radiator is too short and the engine heats up at highway speeds.

“The Cord club has a monthly bulletin,” he said, “and every other issue has some guy’s idea of how to keep a Cord cool.” Stan has modified his by bolting an additional radiator from a modern vehicle to the frame, which he said “pretty well cures it.”

IN HIS COLLECTION, awaiting restoration during retirement, Stan has a 1930 Cadillac roadster, a ’29 Packard, a 1915 Briscoe and a Lexington.

He’s planning to sell his chain-drive Cartercar, a 1915 Napoleon, and an early White bus, used to transport tourists through Yellowstone Park.

Technically, Stan said, the Yellowstone bus is sold to a Texan, “if he ever gets around to paying me” the $4,000 price tag.

Stan wouldn’t commit to a favorite vehicle in his collection. “What do you call a favorite?” he said. “The one you drive the most? The one that’s worth the most? I don’t know.”

Other than a few “basket cases” to finish and lots of touring to do, Stan and Mary have only one important goal, according to Stan. “We spent 30 years building these cars. Now our goal in life is to have ’em all worn out before the kids can inherit them,” he said.

Terence Corrigan hails from New England originally, has been a reporter for newspapers too numerous to mention, and now lives near Howard and writes when he can’t find honest work.