News & Stories

The Ardent Alligator Returns

January 10, 2020 In the News

By Miles Collier

I just succeeded in buying back my Dad’s old racer, the Ardent Alligator. Much can be inferred about him from the name he chose for this contraption, a red-painted hell brew of Brooklands Riley Nine and American flathead V8 plus assorted drive line bits to connect the two. A notoriously deft hand at turning a phrase, my dad’s “Ardent Alligator” tag neatly conflated the car’s Florida creation in the repair shop of the Tamiami Freightways Trucking Company in Tampa, with the frenzied, hormone-maddened, bellowing rut of the state’s largest predator.

My dad after winning the 1949 Watkins Glen “Grand Prix”

Aptly named, the car was fast, dangerous and loud. At the wheel of the Alligator, Dad won the 1949 Watkins Glen “Grand Prix”, the event’s feature race, over Briggs Cunningham driving his new Ferrari 166 Spyder. The Alligator may have been built by truck mechanics, but when properly provoked, she had an impressive turn of speed. My dad raced the Alligator only a few more times, Palm Beach Shores being notable, and even lent her to Persifor Frazier to drive at the 1950 Bridgehampton races. He, himself, was a guest driver there in his old MG PA/PB special that he had sold after taking it to Le Mans in 1939. That car was returned safely into the bosom of the family many decades ago. The Alligator proved more elusive.

In 1950, Dad’s brother, my Uncle Sam, was killed at Watkins Glen driving Briggs’ 2nd place 166 Ferrari from the prior year. Devastated, my father promised his mother that he would never race again. So began the Alligator’s wilderness years.

My Dad in the car on dyno in Fla. prepping for Watkins Glen. He is gesturing “two”.

From the moment of sale, the Alligator disappears as a front line racing car. As a teenager, I was told that John Iglehart, a champion SCCA club racer and our next-door neighbor in Greenwich, Connecticut, had obtained the Alligator in disreputable condition and was restoring it locally. The shop caught fire and the Alligator was badly burned. For all that, the car survived, finally coming to rest in the hands of Pete McManus who (having restored it yet again) fettled, tuned and raced it in US vintage races for decades.

I can recall seeing the Alligator at the occasional vintage race, and, despite Pete’s best efforts, being sadly disappointed at its condition fitted as it was with a monstrous roll-over bar and generic modern racing components like fuel pumps, ignition coil, hydraulic lines and instruments. At least I had the comfort that the Alligator had found a stable home and, while not getting the attention she deserved, at least was well-loved and well-used. Over more than twenty years, Mr. McManus would not be charmed, induced or inveigled to part with the Alligator for neither swap nor money. While she was alive, my mother used to ask about the Alligator’s status and was always disappointed to hear the same old story, “Pete doesn’t want to sell.”

The Alligator at Palm Beach Shores

But time passes, conditions change, and the McManuses decided to move on to the next phase of their lives. The Alligator was for sale! Alas, Pete had some pretty wild ideas about its value, so I suggested he send it to auction. He did, and I bought it for substantially less than I feared. Now, residing in Naples, the Ardent Alligator has returned to the state of its birth. Ultimately, once we have assembled all the available research materials from our archives as well as from such outside sources as the Watkins Glen Motor Racing Research Center, we will rebuild her to her original specification.

But the Ardent Alligator is more than the topic of just another car story. Like a number of cars in the Miles Collier Collections at Revs Institute, this artifact has an intimate, sometimes heartbreaking relationship to me and my family. The Alligator is a family heirloom, and as such commands a complex web of associations and memories.

When I was a teenager, there was a place in my mother’s house where there hung a dozen or so professional black and white framed photos of my father racing at Le Mans with the Cunningham team in 1950, and of him driving at the 1949 Watkins Glen Grand Prix. Being a car person even then, I must have spent incalculable hours examining those pictures. The Alligator in its original state, as depicted in black and white, still lingers clearly in my memory. At any time I can conjure up my Dad’s incandescent smile as he sits behind the Alligator’s cord-wrapped steering wheel with the victory wreath of the Grand Prix around his neck. The evolution of the Alligator from a project in progress in Tampa to its advanced configuration with alloy rear wheels during the 1951 season was all there in the photographs.

Palm Beach Shores 1950

For those of us who collect cars, memory is an important and powerful force. For most of us, including me, that memory is an appropriated memory of distant times, places and people we never saw, but that we have come to know so well from stories, photographs and film. But if that memory is of real experience, if we were there, if people we knew intimately were actors, then our relationship to that vanished past is profound and personal.

I remember the day, it must have been 1951 or 1952 (which makes me four or five), when I found myself, I can’t remember how, meeting my father at the Lantana airport from whence he commuted by Beechcraft Bonanza to his work across the state in Everglades City. I remember that the Alligator was there; and he asked me if I would like to ride home with him. As we drove along a then completely unbuilt, rural A1A, where today congested traffic creeps past the Florida Gold Coast’s priciest ocean-front real estate, my Dad turned to me and said, “I’m going to drive very fast now. You need to sit quietly and not distract me. OK?” All I can remember is incredible wind, noise, vibration, the smell of hot machinery and casuarina trees flashing past at a prodigious rate. That is the Alligator I know and the one that haunts my memories. That is the Alligator that I hope to evoke in our restoration, which, for obvious reasons, we will do in-house.

The build at Tamiami Freightways

Nostalgia is one of the important drivers in automobile collecting. Nostalgia is our connection to the past through personal memory. It is our interaction with the past through an old car that survived to the present. For me the Alligator is the frozen memory of that ride up A1A. Its presence today is that ride made tangible in metal, paint and rubber. Beyond that, its presence evokes memories of my father who died in 1954. It evokes a time and place that is forever gone but lives encapsulated in this physical thing. I am at once a kindergartener and an old man. The juxtaposition is poignant.

Revs Institute team pushing the car in front of the Reliable truck that delivered it to Naples.

By restoring the Alligator, I will re-enact the original build process in Tampa so long ago. By consulting the original parts invoices from our archives, I will follow the design and build process from the day. This is the essence of the past in the present: the repetition, re-inscription, repurposing, remaking of the artifact over time. It is revisiting my father in a deep way through his car.

37 Responses

  1. Joe Ryan

    Mr. Collier, I would be honored to help with any and all research the restoration may require.

    Regards,

    Joe Ryan
    239 293 7993

  2. Raymond Barton

    What an amazing story. Many thanks, Miles. And, can’t wait for the follow up story (and pics!) when the restoration is complete.

  3. Bob Kendall

    Great story of a really interesting car. It reminds me of a 1946 Richenbach I own which also has a flat head V8.

    Cars connecting the memories of our life.

  4. Benjamin L. Bragg IV

    I am so happy for you and your reacquisition of the Ardent Alligator! I raced against it while in Pete’s possession in my Old Gray Mare. I hope when finished you will again bring it to a race where we can do that again!

  5. Ronald Sieber

    Great and also poignant story that is about the people more than the car. Appropriately written. I especially admire the “truck mechanics” photo with the car all torn down.

    May you have fun in its restoration, as it’s best to enjoy the journey…

    =rdsieber

  6. Vinny Murphy

    Marvelous story. Beautifully written . Thanks so much for sharing. Good luck and have fun with the restoration. Can’t wait to visit Revs again !

  7. John Mayer

    Great story. I can still remember my first ride in a sports car. A 1953 MG. The ride was short. It was long ago, but the memory is still fresh.

  8. Thomas potts

    Glad this car returned home. It must be the same Riley that your dad raced in Arca before the war. Is that correct? It always seemed odd to me that even though your uncles were racing mg’s. And the famous pa/b by your father, the 1934 results show him racing the Riley 9. I suppose the Riley was parked or loaned out after the supercharged mg showed up. Then maybe hot rides after the war? What a great story

  9. GREGORY W TIBBETTS

    Unbelievable story! I shall trek from Boca Raton to Naples whenever it is ready to show, completed or under construction. When the museum first opened, I attended a couple of docent training sessions, but ended up moving from Naples so I was unable to finish your sessions. I still visit the museum every few years when I’m in town.

  10. Lodge McKee

    Dear Miles,
    Congratulations! This should have happened long ago, but all’s well that ends well. I rejoice at your obvious excitement over this very personal recovery and look forward to watching the project unfold. Thank-you as always for all that you have shared with us. Lodge

  11. Gary S Dworkin

    I deeply appreciate your narrative about this particular car as well as the motivation behind your collecting cars and memories as you have. I am honored to know you.

  12. Jim Mead

    Congratulations! And so well said. We have been enjoying just such emotions and voices from the past as we continue to research and preserve your Uncle Sam’s “Look” Special. Thanks to all those at Revs who are helping….

  13. Glenn Cannon

    Congratulations on bringing home a family heirloom. The fact that this one’s personal makes it that much more special. Can’t wait to see it in its original glory.

  14. Craig Black

    Miles

    Thank you for sharing such a deeply personal story of you and your Dad.

    My Dad worked for Republic Steel and was paid monthly so the first Friday of the month we would drive from Cleveland to Medina Ohio where the grocery stores were open until 9 pm.

    Before interstate highways this was a 80 minute drive.

    As the youngest I was tasked with being with dad in our Comet station wagon to go to medina meat packing and Fishers grocery.

    I recall many sunny June nights watching the corn fly by on state route 42.

    Family and memories powerful.

    Thank you for sharing your powerful memories.

    • Dave LeHotan

      I was born in the Lakeview Terrace projects on the west bank of the Detroit Superior bridge in downtown Cleveland in 1946 , where Rt. 42 begins and all of my life I have lived on Rt.42 and for the last 46 years in Medina, so your comments struck home to me. From the steel mills in the flats to Dragway 42 in West Salem rt 42 was my lifeline. I was one of 8 children and one of my Moms’ few luxuries was Life magazine, which I would cut out color photos of all the GM cars for my toys, since my dad was a foreman for a GM proving ground that tested military tanks for the Cadillac Division. My love of cars came from him and his generation of car nuts. He loved 55 Chevy BelAirs and my proudest moment was finding a perfect example in L.A. to surprise him with on his birthday. looking forward to passing all of my cars to my 2 sons.

      Dave LeHotan

  15. Frank Mucklow

    I thoroughly enjoyed the story, and connection with your memories.
    My dad was an early racer and car builder. While not of the same caliber, he was a Midget owner in the early 40’s and I can relate to memories of my childhood around his car.
    He went on to working with NASCAR from 1953 till mid 1970’s , and I have many memories of those
    times
    Thanks for bringing these back to me
    Frank

  16. Chris MacAllister

    My Dad was becoming a biblical scholar and deeply involved in his industry trade association when I was 5. I remember rising his his giant Cadillac Sedan deVille but never very fast. He could tell you more than you wanted to know about the 12 Roman emperors but had trouble changing a light bulb; zero mechanical inclination or interest. Miles, you are prodigiously lucky that your Dad was a car guy. And a really good one!
    Happy motoring!

  17. Chris MacAllister

    I hope you can correct the grammatical errors I made in my earlier post! Sorry for the shoddy proofreading!
    Chris

  18. Sheila Harris-Schurz

    Miles, how exciting to watch the new arrivals!
    How you have expanded the website is so precious!

    Sheila Schutz

  19. Karl Ludvigsen

    Great news, Miles.
    In the REVS files there must be one shot of the car by me, taken with it part-way into Smalley’s Garage for tech inspection. The hood is off.
    The shot of it under construction shows that the Riley chassis is an authentic Brooklands model, the creation of which is described in my book about Reid Railton. It’s just about to receive its sixth “book of the year” award!

  20. Vincenzo Ruggieri

    Being a car lover myself and a history buff I can only second the memories of this car for you.
    With your permission I would love to produce a video recounting this remarkable family story also about your father’s life and carrying on to yours and the rev institute.
    Thank you and keep up the amazing work you are doing.

    Sincerely

    Vincenzo
    Image Maker

  21. JIM MCCARTHY

    Mr. Collier: Memories of a father-son relationship are the most heart warming and enduring of all. Glad you have finally obtained such an important link to re-live a part of those cherished memories.

  22. Ed Conrad

    Mr. Collier,
    Congratulations on bringing the Ardent Alligator back home! It is now reunited with so many other incredible cars that have a personal connection to your life. Cheers!

    Ed Conrad

  23. Andy Butcher

    Congratulations on your capture of the Ardent Alligator, Miles, you have been stalking it for a long time! The story was lovingly told and the revelation that you actually rode in the car as a five year old with your Dad driving fast makes the reunion all the more poignant and significant. I bet you can’t wait to drive it yourself!

  24. Paul Driftmier

    That’s a poignant and amazing story. I’m so glad that Naples has REVs and that you have acquired the ‘Gator. I’ll look forward to seeing it next time I’m in town.

  25. Ted Merritt

    Fantastic story. It brings back many memories—such as restoring a 1929 Divco milk truck to become an AACA Grand National winner—-and actually being at Le Mans in 1966 when Ford beat Ferrari. Miles, thanks so much for sharing that wonderful story—can’t wait to hear more.

  26. John E. Aibel

    I was a personal friend of Pete. He purchased my pre-war Allard (AM-8) from me. For a period of time he used the engine from the Allard in the Alligator.
    I am very happy for you being able to return the Alligator to your ownership.
    I have a reprint of an essay your Dad wrote, and on the cover is the picture of the Alligator.
    This softens the blow of losing the Duesy!
    Being a docent and volunteer in your museum has been the high point of my live long love of cars.
    John Aibel

  27. Kimberly Doerseln

    Congratulations on capturing back the Ardent Alligator and thank you for sharing it’s rich past and significance with us all, well done. Can’t wait to see AA in its glory once again.

  28. Peter Allemano

    Hello from New York! What a splendid piece of writing this is — informative, witty and touching. I consider it a privilege to be provided by Mr. Collier with such intimate glimpses into his family life, especially his relationship with his father.

    I visited Naples — and the Revs Institute — for the first time in November 2019. I am not an auto enthusiast per se. In fact, I’ve never even owned a car. The closest I came to that was during my four years in college, when my parents’ old Ford Falcon station wagon was passed into my possession for the duration. But I *do* have a keen interest in history — and, in particular, social history. For me, the docent tour I took at the Revs Institute was as much an education in automotive history as an opportunity to ponder social history from a vantage point with which I had comparatively little familiarity.

    The Ardent Alligator is indeed a treasure, and Mr. Collier’s pride and joy in being able to give it a new home, at the Revs Institute, is palpable. Mr. Collier’s article demonstrates how, for many reasons, the Alligator will help the institute to fulfill its laudable mission. Congratulations!

  29. Brian Brophy

    Wonderful and very touching story. Congratulations on the return of your Dad’s car!!

  30. Tom Cotter

    Miles, Your writing is poetic. Thank you for sharing such a personal story. I was sad it ended so soon. I hope you can find the time to write a book of your family’s association with cars and racing.
    Tom Cotter

  31. Jim Wood

    Congratulations on the purchase. I look forward to see the restoration progress in the shop. Looks pretty cool as it is but restoring it back to the way it was is certainly the way for you. Authentic as it was is certainly the way to go.

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