Renville Mordrow, of Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, got caught up in the sports car movement. He was the man who constructed the Renmobile Sport Custom Roadster. I have located people who talked to him years ago at the Road America sports car circuit and other people who knew him quite well.
Mordrow decided to build a powerful, one-of-a-kind sport custom roadster with a handmade, all-steel body. We have found no concrete documentation of when construction of the car began, but possibly it was as early as 1946. There are good indications that the one-man project wasn’t completed until 1949.
The car was constructed on a modified 1932 Ford chassis on which the front and rear axles were narrowed. Mordrow used a modified FoMoCo flathead V-8. It is believed that this was a Mercury engine, which was considered a powerhouse in its day and had lots of speed equipment available for it. The “mill” was attached to a floor-shifted 1937 Lincoln-Zephyr gearbox, which was a favorite choice of early hot rodders. The car was fitted with full sports car style weather equipment, including a canvas top and side curtains.
According to Joe Perrizo of Fond du Lac and Arden Hjelle of Oakfield, Mordrow was an extremely talented auto body craftsman who operated a body shop on Military Rd. in North Fond du Lac. According to Hjelle, the shop was one of the most outlying buildings in North Fond du Lac at that time. “He was a good body man,” said Hjelle, who collects Mercedes-Benz cars today.
Perrizo — now a restorer — said that his friend Ronnie Roth lived across the street from Mordrow’s shop. Roth told Perrizo that he believes he has old black-and-white photos of the car actually being built. Roth told him, “Ren (Mordrow) was going to let his son drive the car at one point, but could not get insurance for him, so he sold it to a friend.” According to Ronnie Roth, there were plaques on the side of the car that identify it as a “Renmobile.”
Although the car has been called a prototype for a car Renville wanted to put into production, Perrizzo, Hjelle, Roth and Koeck all agree that their friend had no such plan. They say he built two to four homemade cars and that the next one he did was based on a cut-down ’55 Chevy and patterned after a Corvette. “It represented a Corvette and looked quite a bit like one,” Hjelle recalls.
There is no evidence the “Renmobile” was ever raced, but Mordrow did take it to Road America, at Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin and show it off as late as 1957 or 1958. On one such occasion, the car was photographed by Jim Rugowski, a car collector from Greenville, who was a teen-ager at the time.
“Not only did I see the Renville at Road America during the early
years the track was open,” said Rugowski. “I have a black-and-white photo of it — one of those period photos in a 2 x 2-inch format. The photo on the
auction Website has no bar between the bumperettes. My photo shows the same grille ‘floating’ in the opening and a license plate bar between the bumperettes.”
Rugowski’s photo was taken at a lower angle than the auction site photo, but there is no mistaking the headlight location and treatment, the parking light
locations, the split windshield, the fender shape and the hood’s rounded front point. “I don’t know what engine the car had,” Rugowski said. “I have a
photo of a Ford-style flathead with high-compression heads in the
same group of photos, but I think it was in an MG that had its hood removed.”
Perrizo, Roth and Koeck say the car had only a single carburetor when they knew Mordrow. When I met with Rugowski, we compared the Website engine shots to the ones of the engine in the car now and they looked similar, so he then thought his photos may have been of the Renmobile engine bay. We both noticed that his photos of the flathead V-8 show two carbs. This may have been a late modification or the engine in Rugowski’s old photos could have, indeed, been in an MG that he took pictures of the same day. However, the photos on the auction Website also show two carbs. There are differences in accessories like the oil filler tube and generator, but these are understandable.
Perrizo, Hjelle, Roth and Koeck say the car was never raced on a track. Rugowski had the same impression. “I don't think the Renville was a track car when I saw it. They didn't have a lot of safety equipment in those days, but they did have numbers and driver belts.” Perrizo says the car never had seat belts.
Rugowski remembers talking to the owner of the car, who appears to have been Renville Mordrow, since he told Jim then that he had built the vehicle. “I don't remember what we all talked about,” says Jim. “But I remember that he had built the car. I was building a roadster on a 1949 Ford Prefect chassis at that time and we did more talking about my car than about his fine car.”
Like Renville’s friends, Rugowski lauds his metal mastery. “The workmanship in his body was very good compared to the other homebuilts,” Jim recalls.“ He told me the Prefect was a good chassis choice, because it was lighter and would contribute to a better weight to power ratio. He also liked the idea of a pure roadster with no weather gear. Of course, maybe he was just humoring a wet nosed kid.”
Rugowski remembers more about their conversation. “I think he said he used 1939-'40 Ford fenders for the basic lines on his front wings,” says Jim. “He also said he used Ford suspension and steering components, which were probably on the '32 chassis. He fitted it with later hydraulic brakes, which were more robust than my English Ford Prefect, which still had mechanical brakes.”
According to Joe Perrizo, after giving up on his son driving the car, Renville Mordrow sold it to Bill Koeck. “Bill had the drive-in in Mayville and it sat in his garage where people could see it. “Then, he sold it to a kid from Oshkosh. The kid had it and took the (spark) plugs out and it sat for about two years. The motor froze and rusted tight.”
Koeck then bought the car back, replaced the engine (possibly explaining the accessory differences) and drove it a bit. He offered it to Perrizo for $150- $200. “I’m sure I could have bought it for $200 then, but I didn’t and he sold it to a guy in Green Bay. It was red, not the orange-red color it is now. The grille was made of bars just bent back, but it had a license plate bar in front at that time.”
Hjelle told Old Cars Weekly that he remembers the car sitting in a junkyard south of Fond du Lac for quite awhile, before being sold to a man in the 1980s. He says that man used to bring it to the Appleton Auto Show in Appleton. Perrilo, on the other hand, sdoesn’t think the Renmobile went into a junkyard. He feels that another of the cars Mordrow built might have wound up there.
The car reflects the quality of Renville Mordrow’s metal fabrication skills, but now has newer paint and a nice tan interior. Perizzo said it never had such a nice interior when Mordrow owned it and that it was always painted a deeper red. He says the wheels have been changed.
According to Perrizo, Renville Mordrow is no longer with us. “Ren died four or five years ago. His wife was gone by then and his daughter died, too. His son lives in Texas, the last we heard, but no one knows how to reach him.”
To see the car visit www.acclassiccars.com