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40+ Year Collection Goes Up in Flames


By William Wonder

John Bergan of Ithaca, Nebraska is an old car enthusiast, plain and simple, having acquired a fine collection of machines and parts over the past 40 years or so. Many while he was still in high school. Like many of us, he collected the things he liked, or things that he recognized as ‘unique’. . things that had the potential to be rare and valuable someday.

Like many of us, John knew he would probably never have the time to get to all of his projects, but unlike most of us, he had the foresight to pick up this stuff and stow it away over the years. And enjoy it in his own way, and at his own pace.

Then, on a cold Winter’s night (December 15 to be precise) a series of events would ultimately end in the loss of John’s collection. . .a collection that represented a passion that took a lifetime to put together, and just a few short hours to turn into twisted and crushed hunks of steel.

The two-story building housing John’s “stuff” was not only filled with the vehicles he loved, but a myriad of tasty other parts and collectibles he’d gathered together over the years. This included beverage and petroleum signs and other memorabilia, not to mention piles of used original and NOS sheet metal, engines, transmissions, rear ends and more.


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The chain of events began when John was using a torch on the running boards of a ‘00 Ford Crew Cab (of all things) pickup that was in the shop, igniting some plastic. He was able to get that truck out of the building, but in retrospect, feels some sparks or flaming molten plastic must have found its way into some obscure corner of the building. . .smoldering and rekindling into the destructive fire. According to Fire Chief Josh Price, the first call came in around 6:45 that evening.
Cutout 1   John and a friend gave a sigh of relief after the firemen left, but remained at the shop for the next few hours, and everything appeared to be just fine when they headed for home. The fire department was recalled to the scene shortly after 12:30 a.m. to find the building totally engulfed in flames, and fought the fire and elements in sub-zero temperatures until nearly 3:30 a.m.
John looked on in horror as the firemen became ice covered while brightly glowing embers and billowing smoke filled the cold, night sky. The loud snaps and crackles of the wood burning was only interrupted by the deafening crashes as the building’s floors could be heard collapsing from within.   Cutout 5
Cutout 4   This was followed by the “pop” of bursting tires and exploding glass shattering on the main floor followed by the guttural moans and groans of once beautiful Detroit iron being twisted and resculptured into barely recognizable shapes from the flames and intense heat.
On the second floor, were stacks of nice original sheet metal, including doors, fenders, grilles, bumpers, frames, chassis and suspension parts and more. .parts that ultimately collapsed on top of the vintage vehicles stored below.   Cutout 6
Cutout 2   Vehicles parked outside next to the building were also destroyed or badly damaged by the blaze.
Although no one was injured, the list of items destroyed forever is pretty daunting, and irreplaceable in today’s market.   Cutout 3
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· First, the apparent ‘fire starter’. . the 2000 Ford Crew Cab pickup parked outside the door didn’t survive the fire the second time.

· Shop tools and equipment, along with a personal collection of Coke and gas station memorabilia items.

· Stacks of original fenders, doors (some NOS) grilles, bumpers and more.

· Vintage Flathead engines and small block Chevrolet and Ford engines. . .many with vintage speed equipment and aluminum dress-up items.

· Numerous transmissions and rear ends including several rare, Columbia 2-speeds and quick change rear axles.

· Various frames, front axles, brakes and other suspension components, including two original ’32 frames.

· AND this list of vehicles, which is sure to make all of us feel John’s loss: ’32 Ford Tudor Sedan; ’32 Ford Pickup Cab; ’33 Ford 5-window Coupe; ’34 Ford 5-window Coupe; ’34 Ford Cabriolet Roadster; ’34 Ford 3-window Coupe; ’35 Ford 5-window Coupe; ’36 Ford 5-window Coupe; ’37 Ford 5-window Coupe (vintage stock car); ’37 Ford 5-window Coupe; ’37 Ford Tudor Sedan; ’39 Ford Standard Tudor; ’39 Ford Tudor Sedan; ’39 Dodge COE Truck (w/NOS front fenders); ’40 Ford Coupe body; (2) ’49 Ford Convertibles (one an old custom with unique body mods); ’49 Ford 2 dr. Sedan; ’51 Ford Victoria Hardtop; ’53 M38A1 Jeep; ’56 Chevrolet Big Window Pickup; ’57 Chevrolet Panel Delivery Truck; ’57 Chevrolet 210 2 dr. Sedan; and a ’57 Chevrolet 4 dr. Bel Air Sedan.

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Keep in mind that many of these were running, driving, finished rides, while others were old rods with clean original bodies in need of rebuilding, or projects in various stages of completion!!

John says he has rummaged through the mess, and anything that looked as though it could be saved or reused has been placed inside a semi trailer. He held an auction the weekend of April 18, to sell what was left of his collection. Most of the stuff went for pretty good money, while the warped and burned bodies and frames were all surely purchased for their titles.

Sadly, much of this stuff could never be replaced and is, without doubt, a lot harder to find these days then it was over the past 40 years. To replace such collection would take yet another lifetime, but the memories associated with what has been lost here would never be the same today!!


Thanks William for sending us in John Bergan’s Story!!

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