Garagistry Meets Gene Ponder

Recently, Garagistry had the privilege of being invited to the home and "wonderland" of Gene Ponder - a "Caretaker" collector of classic cars and memorabilia 'par excellance'. The park-like setting of his property filled with multiple bronze statues of children playing or reading sets the tone - this is what a lifetime of focus and a successful business career can provide. It was a most welcoming entrance to someplace special.

Much has been written about Gene's car collections, so it was not our intent to repeat what was already known. As our goal is telling the story of "real cars and the people who own them", we wanted to know more about the gentleman, Gene Ponder, and what encouraged him to create his personal museum-grade collection.
1961 Corvette

Among his excellent collection of European Sports Cars, led by his MG's, Morgan, Ferraris, AC/Bristol, Jaguars, Austin-Martins, Porsches, Bugattis, a lone Corvette, several Fords, and motorcycles are alongside model cars and airplanes; we asked the question "Why?"Gene's surprisingly honest and simple answer told us we were indeed someplace special.

"I grew up dirt-poor in Georgia, lived with my grand parents, and was never able to afford even the simplest of possessions that would have made life easier or more pleasurable as a young boy. Whether it was a toy car or the real thing, I had to accept the fact that only hard work would enable me to have those things in life that I could only dream about." Today, following a very successful 50 year career in the residential kitchen cabinet business, there is little Gene can not afford.
In the rear - the White #5 Woodette Tornado Racer is a 1950s aluminium-bodied, air-powered Indianapolis-style racing car produced by Winzeler Mfg & Tool Co of Chicago. This is among Gene's prized possessions as it is identical to one he received as a Christmas gift - despite his Grandfather's Christmas Eve "accident" with it.

Gene easily admitted his "affliction" may not make sense to others - "I don't buy cars for any reason other than I like the car itself. I know many collectors focus on the history of the car, but that's not really an important factor for me." Visually absorbing the incredible collection of memorabilia - from racing suits, to signage, to model cars to a marvelous model of Henry Ford's Model T assembly line - one can't help but realize this collection is more than just cars parked in a building.  

"But, having the ability to afford brings with it a responsibility to share - especially those that helped you achieve success." To that end, Gene is well-known for his personal commitment to the employees of his companies, supporting them with jobs. A September 30, 2011 fire in one of his new facility's buildings crippled his business and required he and his wife, Patsy, to inject millions of dollars into the company to repair/rebuild his facility while his long-time insurance company dawdled with the insurance claims. He could have shut down the company, but knew the employees would have no alternative for income without his company, and that was not an option. He also felt an obligation to his customers to fulfill his commitment to supply them cabinetry for each job on time.

When a local church had a building that was literally falling apart, the Ponder Family stepped forward and donated a building to the congregation that didn't stop with the initial donation. Requests for help with pews, an addition to the building itself and finally a proud steeple were all quietly donated.
"I buy things because I like them - it is that simple." His first love of cars is the MG, and they have a very prominent position on display among his collection of mainly European sports cars. "This MG is the most beautiful car I own", Gene stated while showing us the 1949 MG TC parked directly in front of his desk.

"The historical importance of a specific car, for example, is less important to me than whether I like the car itself." Although the Porsche 550 Spyder parked close-by is a George Barris replica of the car used in the James Dean movie "Race With Destiny". "The association with James Dean or the movie is less important then the fact I think this is a simply beautiful car."

In 2007, Gene sold much of his collection during a RM Auction - "But I didn't sell it all, or maybe even half!" Based on the cars and collectible on display among his multiple display buildings, one can only imagine what was there originally.
The Ponder Collection Maintenance Workshop
What we found inviting is the fact each car of the collection was easily accessible - not roped off or parked so closely together doors could not be opened. The maintenance building is half warehouse of parts for rare cars, half restoration workshop, and half collection display space. Every vehicle is attached to a trickle-charger for the battery and each car is routinely driven.
A MG Currently Undergoing Restoration
 "I love to buy and restore vehicles. Once you have restored one it becomes a part of you everafter. And, I make sure each and every car is in full and proper working order. I have a philosophy about that: all my cars must run."

One sound of disappointment came when Gene spoke of his long-time mechanic and friend, Harold Rogers. "Harold knows more about these cars than any 100 mechanics combined - he could tell what's going on just by the sound an engine made.  But age is catching up on us all, and Harold just can't get down and under these cars the way he used to."
Gene's AC/Bristol Entry in the 2012 California Mille 4-day, 1,000 Mile Event
When asked what initiated his interest in cars, it was a family thing more than anything. He once said that although his father rode English motorcycles and appreciated fine automobiles, it was his Uncle Pete who had a bigger influence on a young Gene. Uncle Pete was only a few years older, and they were essentially raised as brothers. Pete owned a variety of cars, including Alfa-Romero's and Mini-Coopers; but it was a little red MG-TC convertible that really fired his passion for MG's and sports cars.

A '62 Thunderbird Sport Roadster is
Among Gene's Classic Ford Automobiles
Then, as now, the domination of the color red is everywhere. "My father loved red cars, and I share his tastes." Among all Gene's collection, it was the very rare exception to find something other than a red car.

From his initial offering a cup of coffee to saying good-bye while operating a fork lift, Gene's sense of hospitality and graciousness was excellent. As he led us among the separate buildings housing his collection, it was easy to understand not only his love of the automobiles on display, but his desire to share his passion and enjoyment. 

Gene's "Ponder Collection" is not generally open to the public, but he has hosted a number of Car Clubs gathering and such events. Should you ever have the opportunity to be invited to the Ponder Estate and see his collection - well, that is what a bucket list is all about.

As always, drive safe and love your classic....