The spark that kindles a passion often begins at a young age, and so it was with Frank Thompson, who, for nearly six decades has been a well-known and highly respected member of Kansas City’s automotive and collector-car community.
Thompson, 82, began working in the automotive business when he was barely out of his teen years. His first job was at a Chevrolet dealership in 1951, but he soon moved to the parts department at Laner-Leuenberger Pontiac at 4235 Troost.
Thompson credits a mentor, Russell Leuenberger, with teaching him all phases of the car business. Leuenberger recognized Thompson’s love for cars and thirst for knowledge. Nearly every day, while having lunch together, Leuenberger taught Thompson about selling cars and running a dealership. “When he told me something I always remembered it,” he said.
After Thompson fixed up a couple of the dealership’s used cars and sold them for a handsome profit, Leuenberger made him the used car manager. Thompson bought Overland Park Jeep in 1981.
“I would lay out my clothes at night because I was excited about the next day. I always enjoyed going to work,” he said. Today he is retired from ownership of Overland Park Jeep Dodge and Chrysler, but you can find him on most days at a spacious private garage that houses his car collection. He also uses the facility for fundraising. “I’m thankful for every day,” he said.
While the core of his collection remains intact, Thompson occasionally adds a car or two in addition to buying and selling a few vintage cars each year. He loves Chevrolets, and has several, including his father’s completely original 1951 with 40,000 miles.
One of Thompson’s more recent additions is a 1930 Chrysler 77 roadster. “It’s the first Chrysler that I want to hold on to because I find it fascinating,” he said. The 77 was known for its ability to cruise at 77 miles per hour, and it had a top speed of 90 miles per hour. It had a high-compression, high-revving six-cylinder engine that delivered 93 horsepower. Four-wheel hydraulic brakes were standard. About 1,729 roadsters were built in 1930.
Chrysler raced 77s in Europe from 1924 to 1931, tackling such famous venues as Le Mans in France, Spa-Francorchamps in Belgium and the Mille Miglia in Italy. In 1930, a 77 roadster finished fifth at Spa behind three Alfa Romeos and a Bugatti. That’s elite company.
Thompson first looked at this car some 20 years ago, and it was in need of repair. “It shook, rattled and was a mess,” he said. On Thompson’s advice, the owner addressed many of the issues. When the car became available a little over a year ago, he bought it.
Thompson’s car has a unique history. At one time it was owned by Stanley Searfoss, father of astronaut Richard Searfoss who performed a critical repair on the Space Shuttle in 1998. According to a quote in a story by the Associated Press, Searfoss described his fix. “It must be Saturday,” he said, “time to work on our car like down on Earth.” It’s possible that statement reflected his dad’s engagement with the Chrysler.
Thompson said his Chrysler has an aftermarket overdrive that lets it cruise very comfortably at modern highway speeds. Since buying the car he has detailed the engine, touched up the paint and polished and cleaned the car as only Thompson can. It sparkles with authenticity and heritage. And like most all of the cars that Thompson collects, it has a story worth telling.