By Brian Earnest
Lou Horowitz never completely succeeded in his bid to launch and sustain a fledgling automobile company. The Playboy Motor Car Corporation of Buffalo, N.Y., wound up suffering the same fate that countless other car companies experienced in the first half of the 20th century. It was a noble and brave attempt with plenty of promise, but in the end the time, place and market weren’t quite right.
Horowitz’s grandson David Kaplan is certainly doing his part to make sure his grandfather’s vision and efforts are not forgotten, however. He has become an expert on the history of Playboy cars and owns five of them — including two of the most important of the 98 cars built: a 1947 prototype and Playboy #97, the last car built before the venture folded.
Kaplan remembers finding information about his grandfather’s company in an old briefcase in his parents’ basement when he was a kid. His interest in the cars took off when his parents traveled to New Jersey to buy Playboy #83, which he now owns. Things really got serious, he says, when he took a trip to Massachusetts and ran into an unexpected opportunity that was too good to pass up. “By that point I had started to research it more and … and I. knew guy in Bellingham, Mass. that had a bunch of cars. In 1989 my girlfriend, who is now my wife, and I went on vacation to Boston … I got a hold of guy, introduced myself and said I’d like to visit … So we ended up visiting and I thought we’d be there for like a an hour or so. We ended up spending the entire day there. He was an original dealer back in ’48, and throughout the years when he saw one for sale he could buy in and he had a collection going.”
Kaplan made small talk about wanting to buy a Playboy car if he ever got the chance, but the man ignored his overtures while continuing to show him more and more Playboys that he had stashed away in various spots around the city. “Finally, it was getting to be later in the day and I knew we needed to get going … he offered to sell all his cars to me. He had a total of 10 of them. I’m like, ‘Oh my God … I couldn’t believe it because he didn’t act like he wanted to sell any of them. So here I am, just out of college, with my first job, no money. I just couldn’t buy all the cars. But I managed to get together enough money to buy five. I never could get the other five.”
The black prototype was one of the cars in the group and Kaplan made restoring the car a priority. It has survived some damage to the roof and building where it had been stored and was in good enough shape to deserve a remake. About three years later he had the prototype looking like new again. It shares the same general shape and size as the later versions, but the prototype was a much different animal. It had the engine mounted in the rear and a soft top. Ultimately, the design was scraped in favor of a more traditional front-engine model with a steel hardtop.
Kaplan didn’t undertake another big restoration on any of his Playboy cars until about five years ago, when he decided to completely re-do his red convertible, which he calls 102. It is the last of its breed.
“The red one is only one I know of that would still be considered a ’49 … They made quite a few changes from 1 to 94. That would have been car they would have produced if it had gotten into production. I had to make some parts and do a lot of work on that car to complete it. I knew I was going to get it done at some point. It was always my dream to have the last car finished. It’s the only one that was totally restored … The other ones I have are just ‘drivers’. When I started on it the car had dents in it all over the place, but no rust, luckily. The hood and trunk were not attached. I actually got two hoods with the. It had the hard top, but it was not attached correctly. There was no trim, no seat. The steering wheel and engine and transmission were all there … but this car had a lot of differences from the rest of them. I couldn’t just pull one part off another car and use it.”
DREAMING BIG IN BUFFALO
Lou Horowitz made his mark in the car business as a Packard dealer, but he believed what post-war America needed was a small, affordable car that would be assembled from outsourced parts builders and sold for around $900. He teamed up with friends and fellow dreamers Charlie Thomas and Norm Richardson to launch the venture in early 1947. A total of 97 cars were built and a dealership network and way to get the cars to the public never materialized before the venture faded. In the wake of the failed Tucker automobile, the timing for a public stock offering was poor. Without capitol from investors, there was simply not enough money to keep the Buffalo Co. afloat and organizers filed for bankruptcy in 1949.
But the cars that were produced foreshadowed other similar vehicles that would follow from other manufacturers in the years to follow.
The three-passenger convertibles were first equipped with a Hercules four-cylinder engine. Top speed was about 75 mph and fuel economy was up to 35 mpg. The 2,035-lb. lightweights measured 155 inches from nose to tail had 47-inch tread widths in both front and back. The factory price listed at $985.
Probably the biggest running change during the car’s brief life came a year later when a Continental four-cylinder displacing 92 cid replaced the original Hercules engine.
“They did sell some cars to dealers as demonstrators, but they never sold cars to public,” Kaplan notes. “There weren’t a lot of changes to them. Some had fog lights. Some had radios. They all had heaters … but that’s it. They were pretty bare bones. There weren’t really any special options that you could get. They did have the hardtop convertible, and that was pretty neat.”
Only about 43 of the Playboy cars are believed to still exist today. Including parts cars and the five that he has that are driveable, Kaplan has had his hands on a good portion of them. He’s become well versed in reciting the company’s oral history and keeping the company’s legacy alive. “I take them to some shows and some people around here are familiar with Playboy …but the majority, at least 90 to 95 percent of people don’t know what it is, and don’t know it was built in Buffalo. There is a certain segment that knows because of the publicity gotten here with it, but the average Joe Blow at a car show, show, he’s not going to know. You’ve really got to be a car guy to know what they are.”
SEEING RED, AND BLACK
Kaplan has two cars that he calls his “drivers” — No’s. 68 and 83. Neither has been restored and both get regular exercise. Kaplan insists all of his cars get on the road regularly, however, even his prized “first” and “last” examples.
“The black one never had an official number. When I restored it I put a ‘PR’ on it for prototype,” he says. “I finished it in the early ‘90s and I don’t drive it a lot, but I do drive it.
“The hardtop convertible we have a lot of fun with. We drive it 99.9 percent of the time with the top down. It’s got a three-speed, 49-hp engine with overdrive. You can’t go on the highway with them, but you can city drive with them and they do quite well. I drive them quite a bit around town.”
There are several Playboy “gurus” and expert types around the country. Clearly, Kaplan is one of them. He’s got direct bloodlines to one of the company founders and has the same pride on the company that his grandfather once had. “
“Anyone who knows me well knows about my cars,” Kaplan laughs. “They know they are a big part of my life. The thing that gets me is my grandfather, I don’t remember him, but I just think it’s remarkable what he was able to accomplish. He was a remarkable guy. It try to carry on his dream as much as possible. I guess it’s my way of honoring who he was and what he accomplished.”
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