Our Founder’s Story
Our Founder’s Story
Photo credit: Hemmings Motor News
Each car in our museum has a story. It is only fitting that we also share the story of how they all came together. Steve Ames, the museum’s founder, led a remarkable life. He always followed his passions and recognized opportunity leading him to the forefront of the automotive restoration industry. Here is his story.
How It All Started
Since the age of 12, Steve had been fascinated by cars. As a young pup he worked in a local garage on nights and weekends and later ran his own small shop. He attended Middlebury College for undergrad and received an engineering degree from Columbia University. For 14 years he drag raced a 1957 Chevrolet wagon and despite his best efforts, never made a dime!
In the Spring of 1976, Steve attended an automotive flea market where he noticed something odd. People were buying the same parts that shops like his were just throwing away. He started hustling New Old Stock (NOS) Chevy parts at other shows but found himself competing in a saturated market. After bringing along a few NOS Pontiac pieces to the Carlisle show which quickly sold, he shifted his mindset and focused exclusively on Pontiacs.
“Use it up; wear it out; make it do; or do without.”
—Unknown, from the Great Depression
In an old beat-up pickup truck that he modified to run on both propane and gas, Steve could drive 1,200 miles without stopping to dealerships all over the country. He sorted through mounds of inventory and bought NOS parts to peddle at upcoming flea markets and shows. Every cent went back into buying more parts, all the while he ate old sandwiches and slept on the front seat of his truck during road trips.
Building an Industry
The business evolved significantly over the years. Steve blended his love for automobiles with his engineering education when he realized the demand for restoration parts outweighed the supply of NOS parts. With the help of his high school sweetheart Joan, who was now his wife, Steve started Ames Performance Engineering. He began producing reproduction parts to sell at shows and developed a mail order catalog with honest, and sometimes humorous, descriptions such as “Use only if necessary.”
“Opportunity is missed by most as it comes dressed in overalls and looks like hard work.”
As the classic car restoration industry blossomed during the 1980s, Steve was at the forefront. He’d spent years attending swaps and flea markets and had his fingers on the pulse of what was in demand. He went on to build multiple successful companies supplying the reproduction parts the restoration industry so desperately needed. By 1990, the Ames companies focused on manufacturing and selling reproduction parts but continued to stock GM available parts as well.
“For the first six years we didn’t know we had a business. For the next six years we didn’t know we were part of an expanding industry. What a great ride we’ve had!”
Steve’s intense passion and dedication for his craft combined with his meticulous attention to detail turned him into a renowned authority for the classic car hobby. He made a monumental impact in the restoration and preservation of classic cars as well as automotive history. Steve received numerous awards throughout his years including an ARMO (Automotive Restoration Market Organization) Lifetime Achievement Award and an induction into the Pontiac Preservation Association Hall of Fame.
A Dedication to Preservation
Steve’s commitment to preserving automotive history didn’t end with his for-profit businesses. Since the 1980s Steve had been on a quest to collect ultra-rare and low-mileage vehicles. Originally, he set his sights on cars with low production numbers, which he commonly referred to as “one of” cars, starting with a 1967 Shelby Mustang. Many of these cars were quite beat up and required restoration. However, in the mid-1990s Steve discovered a 1966 Pontiac GTO with only 4,200 original miles. You can still see the blue chalk dusting on the body mounts, something that typically washes away the first time you drive in the rain. That turned the tide.
Once again, Steve’s intuition and sound judgment landed him at the forefront of an emerging trend. He embarked on a quest to collect and preserve low-mileage cars that exhibit the original workmanship provided by our forefathers. His vision was to stop time around the vehicles in our museum and provide future generations the ability to peer into our manufacturing past. Many vehicles in the museum have been purposely left in the same condition in which they were received, including the truck in the video below with a single mile on the odometer. Take a close look at the hood when you visit and you’ll even see fingerprints of spectators from the auction commemorating the day it was acquired by our museum.
A Legacy Left
In December of 2020, Stephen R. Ames passed away at the age of 78. He never stopped working in the manufacturing business and consistently added new parts to the catalog. He continued attending automotive flea markets and rediscovered his passion finding and hustling NOS parts. He is survived by his wife Joan, nieces and nephews, and every one of us who takes pleasure in the classic car hobby.
“How old would you be if you didn’t know how old you are?”
Steve’s infectious laughter, unwavering passion, and inspiring story has left a lasting impression on those who knew him. But his reach has been so much larger. The joy felt by countless auto enthusiasts putting the finishing touches on their restoration projects, the memories created (and the ones relived) on Sunday afternoon drives with family and friends, and the future generations who visit our museum all benefit from the legacy Steve left behind. He will be greatly missed.
“You only live once, but if you do it right, once is enough.”