When Todd Williams was 12, his neighbors had antique cars that he would sometimes get to ride in. “I thought they were so cool, and when my dad saw how interested I was, he bought an old unrestored Ford Model A he thought would make a great father-son project,” he says.
Since they didn’t know anything about restoring cars, they learned together. “When we finished, it wasn’t perfect by any means, but it was still fun, so we thought, ‘Let's do another one.’ It kind of snowballed from there, and each one got better and better.”
During and after college, people started asking Todd to work on their cars too. “This kind of supported my car addiction. I would do a couple of cars for customers and that would pay for me to do one for myself.” He was able to add a car to his collection every couple of years, and after he became a firefighter, he kept right on doing it.
Today, Todd has about 23 restored cars ranging from 1912 to 1972, including a 1919 American LaFrance Firetruck, a Model A Roadster with a rumble seat, a 1940 Ford Woody, and a 1969 Mustang Mach 1. This last one he bought around four years ago to work on with his son, Parker, who was 12 at the time and loved muscle cars.
When they found the Mustang, it only had 33,000 miles on it, but since it had been sitting in a barn since the 1980s, it was in pretty bad shape. "That was his first worst job." Todd laughs. The car was full of mice droppings and they ate all the wiring and chewed through the upholstery. "I made Parker wear goggles, gloves and a respirator mask. I wouldn't let him bring the car inside until he cut out the headliner and pulled all the seats and carpet so it wouldn't stink up the shop," he says. Over the next couple of years, father and son did a total body off restoration. “I did it the same way my dad did it,” says Todd. “I wouldn't work on it unless Parker was helping me, and he got his hands just as dirty as mine. He actually sanded so much that at one point he couldn't open his cell phone with his fingerprints because he had sanded them off. We went through and rebuilt everything.”
Since then, they've taken it to an Antique Automobile Club of America National Meet, where Parker won a First National, as well as to two Mustang Nationals, where he received gold awards.
In addition to collecting cars, Todd also started collecting what’s called automobilia like old porcelain signs, and antique gas pumps. Over the years, his collection has grown tremendously, and on his five-acre property, he has an over 7,000 square-foot combination garage and display area. What he has created there is like his own personal museum.
“I was talking to another fireman at the station one day who, on his days off, does construction work. His dream job was to work for Disney and build their downtown. I'd been wanting to do something like this, but I needed some help because I'm not really a wood guy.”
Together, they created a magical world right here in Topeka. First, they built a fire station façade, with two fire trucks sitting out front. Then they built a barber shop with a real barber’s pole that lights up and spins, a movie theater with a little mannequin behind the ticket booth and a marquee displaying The Wizard of Oz, and a café that is a replica of the one his father worked at in high school. “We duplicated the Snow White Café down to the correct address,” says Todd. “I also hung a picture of my dad in front of it.”
The two men also built a grocery store and a pie shop with little pies in the window. “I've got a 1912 Model T delivery truck, and before restoring it, you could barely read the original sign on the side. Since my grandma made really good pies, I had someone paint her portrait on the side, and then on the back doors, in gold leaf, write ‘Grandma's Pies and Pastries - Baked fresh and delivered twice daily.’”
There’s also a replica of a 1920s-era gas station with gas pumps and a Coke machine. As with the others, there’s a lot of detail, so the station has a little rubber hose with a bell that dings when a car rolls over it.
There are incredible mannequins throughout many of the displays, including a movie ticket agent, a waitress, and a fireman showing a little boy the Bugtussle Fire Department fire trucks. Some of the real-life fixtures, such as the barber’s pole in front of Floyd’s Barber Shop, light up and move.
A very large collection of pedal cars are on display as well, along with old bicycles, an amazing motorcycle, parking meters, stop lights, children’s mechanical rides, and old pinball machines. There’s just so much to see and experience in this wonderful little “town.”
Many groups, including the Northwest Missouri Model A Club, the Topeka British Car Club and the Rotary Club have come for tours. One of his cars, a 1931 Model A Victoria, even had a role in the movie O Brother, Where Art Thou? with George Clooney and John Goodman.
Luckily, his wife Kathleen fully supports his hobby. “She's usually game to go for a ride and go to two or three car shows every year,” he says. "She actually found an old rocket ship dime store ride on a playground and bought it. The power cord had been cut off and the children played on it as a stationary toy. I rewired it and got it running. I could see the faded original paint colors, so I took a picture and was able to restore it just like new. I even sprinkled glitter on the wet paint to make the moon and stars."
Being able to share his passion for restoration with son Parker is also a blessing. “It's something that we can do together that keeps us closer than a lot of children and parents who don't have that common thread,” says Todd. As the collection evolves, Parker is influencing the types of cars they choose. He is a fan of 60's muscle cars, Corvettes, Mustangs and Camaros. "Collector cars are a hobby that you can share with others," Todd says. "You can take you friends for a ride around town, or out for ice cream. If you are careful when you buy your project car, and you do the work yourself, it's a hobby that pays you back like an investment. You can never pay too much for a collector car, you just bought it too soon,"
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“I get a lot of satisfaction in taking a pile of junk that no one thinks is that cool and then when I get done restoring it, everybody really loves it.”
“It's something that we can do together that keeps us closer than a lot of children and parents who don't have that common thread.”