PIERCE — Jeannie Stillwell fondly remembers the Chevrolet pedal car from her childhood days here.
Her brother, Mark Lambrecht — who is two years younger — spent most of his free time tooling around in the little white Corvette replica. At the time, Stillwell was more interested in climbing into the real thing. Unfortunately, she was only 4 years old and faced a daunting vertical challenge.
“The 1953 Corvette had no outside door handle, and I was pretty short,” said Stillwell, who now lives in Florida. “I remember jumping up to grab the top of the door and then struggling to reach inside to pull the door handle open. Sometimes I succeeded, and sometimes I didn’t.”
For Stillwell, the memory serves as one of the first indicators of how deeply the love of automobiles — especially those bearing the Chevrolet logo — ran in her blood. It was a love passed down from her father, Ray Lambrecht, the owner of the Lambrecht Chevrolet Co. in Pierce, whose enormous collection of classic automobiles is slated to be auctioned off in late September.
The auction list includes some rare gems with less than 10 miles on the manufacturer’s sticker of origin — a 1978 Chevrolet Indy Pace Car, a 1958 Cameo Pickup, a 1965 Impala and a 1959 Bel Aire. In all, there are about 50 cars with the manufacturer’s sticker of origin, as well as used cars, project cars and, sadly, cars that will be good only for parts because of longtime exposure to the outdoor elements.
News of the auction has already cycled through the national media and drawn attention from car enthusiasts at home and abroad. It also has raised the eyebrows of a few car-loving A-listers.
“No, there’s no Rolls Royce and we haven’t heard from the queen,” Stillwell said, addressing one particularly amusing rumor. “But we have heard from several celebrities, and it will be exciting to see who attends the auction.”
The decision to put the cars up for sale wasn’t the easiest to make for the Lambrecht family.
Stillwell’s first car — a black 1963 Corvair — is among those on the inventory list. The collection itself is a culmination of the lifelong personal and professional association her parents — who still reside in Pierce — enjoyed with Chevrolet.
It also reflects her father’s lifelong love of automobiles.
In a historical account she wrote about the Lambrecht Chevrolet dealership in Pierce, Stillwell described how automobiles began drawing her father’s attention early in life. While growing up during the Great Depression in Pierce County, he created a lifelike replica of a delivery truck from scraps of wood and metal after seeing one in the street. The reproduction featured intricate detailing, all the way down to a hand-carved steering wheel and a complete exhaust system.
He also drove a car for the first time at the tender age of 9 years old, taking his mother seven miles to the nearest town for groceries in the family’s 1927 Chevrolet two-door coupe. At the time, driver’s licenses were not yet required.
“Dad made the journey driving 20-25 miles per hour over dirt roads, barely tall enough to peek over the steering wheel,” Stillwell said.
Lambrecht’s opportunity to become a Chevrolet dealer presented itself following his return home from his service as a U.S. Army sergeant in World War II. He went into partnership with his uncle, who had received a franchise from General Motors, and assisted in financing and construction of the dealership building.
When his uncle retired because of an illness, Lambrecht bought out his share and became sole owner of the franchise. He and his wife, Mildred, operated the dealership for the next 50 years, selling vehicles to customers far and wide, including a man from Switzerland who — in the days before the Internet made global commerce commonplace — ordered a 1969 Corvette from Lambrecht and had him ship the vehicle overseas.
“Dad’s real success stemmed from a basic philosophy very different from most auto dealers,” Stillwell said. “He didn’t negotiate. He gave the best price the first time. When a potential customer arrived, Dad would pick up a pencil, make a few calculations and then give him a number. That was it.”
Stillwell said her father also felt strongly about the issue of safety for families with young children and would strive to put those families in new cars that were safe and reliable rather than selling them a used car.
“There was never a specific safety problem or incident,” Stillwell said. “He just liked to sell new cars and trucks. Reliability and safety were part of that overriding philosophy.”
But it was the genesis of her father’s collection.
“He sold lots and lots of new cars and lots and lots of pickups. The trade-ins were parked on our farm outside of town,” Stillwell said. “Their numbers gradually grew into a massive collection. New cars that were left unsold were also stored.”
The collection has a lot of history. The dealership closed in 1996, but to this day, Stillwell said her father can look at many of the vehicles on the inventory list and tell the story behind them.
Stillwell said her parents have received almost daily inquiries about the collection for decades. Her father always has been adamant about keeping the collection intact until the day they’re sold at auction. That day is drawing near.
Although the decision was made to sell the collection, Stillwell said her 95-year-old father is still “fiercely loyal” to Chevrolet and General Motors. He actively follows trends in automobile design and manufacturing and loves to see photos of all of the new models, she said.
Looking back, Stillwell said her parents have no regrets. She said they are proud of the vehicles they sold and have high hopes for those who purchase the cars in the collection at the upcoming auction.
“As difficult as it is to part with a collection amassed over decades, my parents derive considerable satisfaction knowing that these vehicles will now be passed on to car enthusiasts all over the world,” Stillwell said. “It’s a great legacy for Lambrecht Chevrolet Company.”