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Norman Timbs streamliner to literally rise from the ashes after Malibu wildfire that destroyed it

Published in blog.hemmings.com

Photo by Geoff Hacker. All other photos courtesy Geoff Hacker and Gary Cerveny.

When Gary Cerveny had the chance to sift through the ashes after the Woolsey fire swept through parts of Malibu in November 2018, destroying his home and his collection of 76 rare and one-off custom cars, race cars, and other vehicles, he decided to save just four: two Rolls-Royce Silver Ghosts, a belly tanker with more sentimental than monetary value, and the 1948 Norman Timbs streamliner. The latter, which Cerveny considered the centerpiece of his collection, will now rise again, a little more than a decade after Cerveny first restored it.

Though media reports just after the fire described the entire collection—along with Cerveny’s 21,000-square-foot home—as a total write-off, enough remained of the streamliner to warrant saving, even if nearly the entire aluminum body melted away. Ironically, the same set of factors that Cerveny blames for the destruction of his property in the first place actually led to his decision to resurrect the streamliner.

“The fire department never showed up,” he said, noting that the scale of the fires—which burned 1,600 houses in his area—meant that the L.A. Fire Department decided only to respond to situations that put lives at risk. Because he and his wife Diane were out of town at the time, their house wasn’t a priority. “The house burned for days.”

It’s possible that any response to the fire would have saved the house and collection. However, Cerveny’s certain that any spray of water on the fire once it had started to burn the house would have crystallized and possibly warped the chassis, making it unusable. Instead, the remains of the streamliner cooled gradually, so once Cerveny has the entire chassis Magnaflux tested, he intends to use it as the basis for his second restoration of the car.

Cerveny’s history with the Timbs streamliner goes back to 2002, when he attended a Barrett-Jackson auction at the Petersen Automotive Museum, intending to buy a Ferrari for Diane. While waiting for that Ferrari, he happened to throw his hand in the air when the streamliner—dilapidated and once abandoned—rolled up on the block. “I didn’t know anything about the car then,” he said. “The auctioneers know me, and I sometimes help them out by starting the bidding on a car, so I got to talking with a friend, and all of a sudden they dropped the hammer and my friend told me it looked like I bought the car.”

He spent a little more than $17,000 on it and initially figured he’d do a quickie restoration on it and drive it to cars and coffee-type events. However, once he started to dig into its history, he discovered that he had on his hands a car that “should be one of the most important cars in the hobby… It was a complete one-off by an unbelievably important person who didn’t get the publicity he deserved in his lifetime.”

Timbs, a prolific engineer, might be best known for his work on the Blue Crown Spark Plug Specials that won the Indianapolis 500 for three years straight. Or for the various other Indy car designs of his, from the Howard Keck family’s specials to J.C. Agajanian’s Cummins Diesel Special. However, as Ken Gross wrote in the judges’ book for the streamliner, Timbs had a varied career: he worked as a junior engineer for Preston Tucker; he designed much of the Halibrand catalog, including the company’s famed quick-change rear axle; he worked on the Davis three-wheeler; and he pioneered the use of negative pressure underneath race cars, what we refer to as ground effects today.

His work on the streamliner—which he took on for his own benefit, with no eye toward producing the design—began sometime in the mid- to late 1940s. He started by welding together the chassis from four-inch chromoly tubing and placed the 1947 Buick straight-eight behind the cockpit, right in the middle of the 117-inch-wheelbase chassis. Front suspension was simple Ford beam axle, while the rear consisted of an independent swing axle that Timbs designed around a rigid-mount Packard center section.

Inspired by the Auto Union streamliners, Timbs then constructed a wooden buck for a two-seat roadster body that he envisioned would have little to no interruptions in its body lines. No door openings, no separate fenders, not even a hood or a roof. The two-piece body consisted just of a fixed front section with cockpit and a rear section that lifted up on a single hydraulic piston to access the straight eight and spare. A basic roadster windshield, step plates, chrome bumpers and minimal grille were all the decoration Timbs allowed.

With a 17.5-foot-long body hammered out of aluminum (in 107 separate pieces, then welded together) by Emil Diedt, then finished in gold-flaked maroon with a tan leather interior, the Timbs streamliner “must have resembled a car from outer space,” Gross wrote. It appeared in black and white on the cover of the second issue of Motor Trend and here and there in other late Forties and early Fifties publications.

By the time it got to Cerveny, though, it didn’t look like much. It spent many years displayed or stored outdoors in California, and though it still sat on its original chassis, many hard-to-find parts had gone missing from it. Fortunately, Cerveny soon located Timbs’s son, who had a scrapbook of articles and photos on the car, enough to inform the ensuing seven-year restoration on the streamliner that culminated in its debut at the Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance in 2010, subsequent appearance at the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance in 2012, and inclusion in multiple Gross-curated art museum exhibitions.

This time around, according to Cerveny’s assessment, the streamliner is in much worse shape. And the shop that handled the restoration work—Custom Auto in Loveland, Colorado—has since gone out of business. And he’s going to have to track down many of those hard-to-find missing parts again, such as the hubcaps and the 8,000-rpm Stewart-Warner tachometer originally produced only for race cars.

On the other hand, Cerveny has recruited Rex Rogers, one of the Custom Auto employees who worked on the car’s first restoration, to work on this second restoration of the streamliner. And though the original wood bucks for the body were destroyed by Timbs after the car was complete, Cerveny did make plenty of laser maps of the car’s body during the first restoration. And just about everything aside from the body—though some parts of that could be integrated into a new body, Cerveny said—should be able to be reused for the restoration, including the Timbs-designed independent rear suspension. And, according to Cerveny, the one bright spot in the aftermath of the fire was Hagerty’s rapid response on his claim; he said the insurer was able to write a check within 10 days. And, as Cerveny said, “if I did the car once, I will do it again.”

Cerveny’s still mapping out the project and doesn’t think he or Rogers will get started on the streamliner’s resurrection until sometime after January 1, 2021. Once they get started, he anticipates the restoration will only take 18 to 24 months this time, with another post-restoration debut of the streamliner at Amelia Island.

As for the house, Cerveny will rebuild that too, though he promises that this time, he’ll build it so that neither it nor the Timbs streamliner will ever burn again.

(h/t to Geoff Hacker at Undiscovered Classics for the story idea)