American PickedTue, 27 Dec 2011
Toney Thomas knows his junk.
Ask him about any of the thousands of items--from antique BB guns to ancient boat motors, from old service-station signage to historic military gear--in his 30-foot-by-60-foot storage barn in rural Michigan, and he'll most likely have a story to tell.
Thomas's penchant for collecting led to his appearance on a fall episode of the History Channel's American Pickers with celebrity junk hunters Mike Wolfe and Frank Fritz. In the segment titled “Automotive Archaeology,” the pair traveled to Michigan “hoping to strike automotive gold in the heart of America's car capital.”
At Thomas's barn in Fowlerville, about 60 miles northwest of Detroit, they hit pay dirt in the form of old signs (a Fritz favorite), antique motometers (prized by both pickers), and a few odds and ends, including a canvas rain jacket featuring the likeness of famed aviator Charles Lindbergh.
Thomas, a retired Ford Rouge Plant tool and die maker, started collecting in 1968 with a Ford Model A Coupe. Since then, he's owned 53 different Model As, parting with the last one in 2010. His latest project is his rat rod, a 1942 Ford Coupe.
“Mike said, ‘You're every bit as good a picker as I am--I just have a television show,' ” Thomas recalled.
The Pickers' biggest find came when Thomas pulled out a pioneer automotive license plate from 1908. The leather plate with the metal numbers “1634” included documentation that it was registered to the Olds Motor Works in nearby Lansing. The plate most likely was used by engineers conducting testing on cars built by Oldsmobile--an early version of today's “M” or “Manufacturer's” plate.
The Pickers bought the plate from Thomas for $1,000, and later in the episode they resold it for $1,200 to the ecstatic curator of the R. E. Olds Museum in Lansing. The museum houses the 1908 car to which the plate likely was affixed back in the day.
For Thomas, the sale ended his ownership of a plate that he bought for $400 at a local farm auction 30 years ago. He owns thousands of license plates because they're always in demand from owners of historic cars who want period-specific plates for their cars. He'd also like to own a 1940 plate (his birth year) from every state.
So what's the oddest item he's ever bought and sold?
Despite the size of his collection, which once included a huge Sinclair dinosaur planted in the yard, he was quick to say that it had to be the antique airboat he sold four years ago at a swap meet in Ohio. The buyer was Wolfe, who started shoveling cash at him through his open car window before he could even get parked.
Thomas still attends swap meets to buy and sell, but he also sells through eBay and hosts auctions about four times a year.
Thomas said he knows he's not getting any younger, and so he has to thin out his collection. “You ought to see the upstairs,” he said.
By Bob Gritzinger