For 30 of his 32 years, James Steinberg of Oshkosh, Wis., says a picture frame with three old photos of early cars has hung in his bedroom. In January 2022, those very three cars became permanently parked in his garage.
Through those old photos on his wall, Steinberg became charmed by early cars at an early age. It wasn’t until he was older that he learned the picture depicted just a few cars once part of his great-grandfather’s collection. And what a collection it was.
A colossal collection is built
Steinberg’s great-grandfather, Ronald Chappell, operated Chappell’s Flying Service in Detroit until about 1954. As it happens, Chappell was an aviator with the collecting gene, and Steinberg says his great-grandfather eventually amassed the largest collection of biplanes in the United States. Then, in the 1950s, Chappell began collecting early automobiles, and he collected them with the same zeal as he once had for planes.
“It just exploded with cars,” Steinberg said. “He stepped out of aviation in his forties, and he decided to hang it up, and then he took a hard left turn into antique cars and just had a blast with them.”
By the time of his sudden death in 1971 — 18 years before Steinberg’s birth — Chappell’s collection of brass-era cars and parts filled a farm in La Valle, Wis., and another in North Dakota.
“At the time (of his death), I think ... another magazine... claimed it was the largest collection of cars and parts,” Steinberg said. “I think it was the ‘and parts’ that put it in the largest collection category in 1971.”
Left with a staggering amount of cars and parts, Chappell’s widow contacted an auction company to liquidate the collection since she, nor her three daughters, had an interest in it. In 1971, there were two auctions, one in each state where cars and parts were stashed.
“I have the auction posters, and my estimation is something near 75 extremely early, complete cars,” Steinberg said, “but the really staggering figure is the amount of parts. Just one line of one poster reads ‘50 rear ends.’ So, so many parts, I mean, there were buildings and buildings."
“I would guess he had at least another 100 cars in parts,” Steinberg added. “He had engines, just everything. He even had motorcycles. He apparently had 60 stationary engines. Just a tremendous amount of cars and parts. The oldest of which — he was into the earliest of the early cars — was a 1903 Knox roadster.”
As with any auction, the cars and parts were scattered to the wind. By the time Steinberg was born in 1989, the auction was a distant memory, remembered only by only the eldest family members and documented by just a few artifacts — posters and photos — generally tucked away. Once Steinberg’s inheritance of the old car gene from his great-grandfather became apparent, his family began to share with him the stories and artifacts of his great-grandfather’s collection. Unfortunately, only the auction posters and a few photos survived as physical evidence, and they didn’t tell the whole story.
“We have very few photos of his car collection,” Steinberg said. “He was not a photographer. They didn’t photograph what they were doing. He was such a big collector; pulling in cars was just a daily occurrence. So there were so few (cars) that we have pictures of, but there has been that photo in my bedroom for the last 30 years, and one of the cars in it is a yellow roadster, and it’s a very distinctive view. It is the best photo we have — it is an iconic photo in our family, and it’s burned into my memory.”
Steinberg dreamed of finding at least one of his great-grandfather’s cars and buying it, but he wasn’t able to positively identify the old cars from the photos. He tried matching the pictured cars to those listed on the posters from the liquidation auction of his great-grandfather’s collection, but nothing jived. Late last year, the mystery began to be solved through a series of wild coincidences.
“Sometime in August, a collection of five cars popped up [online] in Clintonville, Wisconsin, up by where my mother lives, and in that collection, I believe I had spotted that yellow car (from the photo),” Steinberg said. “I had not known what the brand of that car was, but I saw that car had the same yellow body, black fenders and the unique headlamps, and I said, ‘That is the car.’ And if it wasn’t the exact one, it was absolutely identical... it was the very same color and in the same condition I would assume it would look in if no one had touched it since my great-grandfather had. And so I immediately messaged the person and said, ‘I would like to visit the car and see if it’s the one from my family,’ but I never heard back. They pulled the ad down before I had a chance to take screen shots of the cars in the collection. I was hopeful I had stumbled into one of the cars, but there was nothing I could do.”
A few months later, in December, his grandmother uncovered a few more photos from his great-grandfather’s collection, which could have only added to the mystery. Instead, they helped solve it.
“My grandmother pulled out some photos of his collection that I had never seen before, and there was a big picture of what turned out to be a White, and there it was with the family standing in front of it. I thought, ‘That car is familiar — where have I seen it?’ And sure enough, it was in that collection of five cars that I had found online.”
A picture tells a thousand words
Even though Steinberg was born too late to be directly inspired by his great-grandfather, the picture had made enough of an impression that the 32-year-old hobbyist already had a budding prewar car collection of his own. In Steinberg’s thirst for mechanical knowledge to keep his 1931 Model A and 1926 Hudson running, he came to know Mark Buttles of nearby Neenah, Wis.
“Mark Buttles is my automotive mentor extraordinaire,” Steinberg said. “It is very difficult to find people who can work on these cars, and my dad is not into it, no one else in my family is, but Mark has taken me under his wing."
“He had a car that he wanted me to come take a look at two weekends ago, and after I ‘oohed’ and ‘awed,’ I said to him, ‘You have got to see these pictures of my family’s cars.’ He saw the pictures of the White and he said, ‘I know where that car is.’ I said, ‘Stop — is it with a yellow, maybe Buick roadster?’ He said, ‘It’s not a Buick, it’s an Overland,’ and I said, ‘Is it this car?’ And he said, ‘Yes, there is also a Hupmobile and a red Dodge,’ and I said, ‘Mark, I think those are my family’s cars. What do you know?’”
Steinberg learned that Buttles had been asked to inspect the five cars Steinberg had earlier seen online, and Buttles wound up making an offer on the lot. The family declined his offer and soon sold the cars to a single family member, who then sold all of them to auctioneer Wayne Yoder. All the while, Buttles had been tracking the cars right into the hands of Yoder, his business associate.
Buttles soon connected Steinberg with Yoder, and the two men made a deal in January 2022 for Steinberg to buy three of the five cars that had been in the collection of Steinberg’s great-grandfather until 1971. Those cars were formerly Ronald Chappell’s 1909 Hupmobile Model 20 roadster, 1913 White Model 30 touring and 1915 Overland Model 80.
“I don’t know what kind of magic [Buttles] worked with Wayne, but he got Wayne to agree to sell us three out of the five cars before they hit the auction block,” Steinberg said. “We couldn’t be more thankful and appreciative."
“And as it turns out, the three cars that we ended up collecting, it’s every car that is in that photo that I have had for 30 years,” Steinberg said. “And a really strange dovetail to the history of these cars is that I had never seen these cars listed on the auction poster. I was never able to identify them and cross-reference them to the auction poster, and the reason was that, when my grandfather passed, he had a lot of local friends in the antique automobile hobby, and his friend came through the collection [to prepare it for liquidation] and as one of the thank-yous for doing all this work, he was given first pick from all the cars. So these [five] cars were sold to him before they went to the family auction."
“So, this is the second time they have been snapped up before an auction.”
Steinberg finds it equally incredible that five of the cherry-picked cars from his grandfather’s collection remained together for more than 50 years, and have together passed through at least two other collections in that time.
“It’s just remarkable that, across 51 years, all five of those cars have hung together and not been restored,” he said. “They haven’t really been touched since [my great-grandfather] did them. They have just been kept working."
“The special thing is they are unrestored, and it’s an unbelievable opportunity to work alongside my great-grandfather after a 51-year gap,” Steinberg said. “I get to see how he thought and repaired things and got things to work. These are not perfect restorations, and it’s interesting to see how he got the cars working, and how he would grab something off another car to make it work. It’s going to be fun to see what he was doing with these cars.”
Although Steinberg will have just three of those five cars together, he’s hoping to buy the other two from Yoder’s upcoming auction in order to keep the set together.
“It was been a dream of mine to reacquire one of his cars. But I really did understand that, across this length of time, most of his cars were unrestored... so people who bought them in ’71 would have had to restore them, so unless the cars had a great paper trail, it would have been impossible to find out if they were his without documentation. These were the only ones that were this documented in our family, and then to learn, yet again, that these were sort of the pick of the litter, that’s amazing. To find them, it is a miracle.”
The idea that divine intervention has had a hand in the cars’ discovery has crossed Steinberg’s mind.
“I had revived Chappell Flying Service last February, and maybe he’s just overwhelmed I did that for him and thought, ‘I will toss him a few cars,’” Steinberg laughs. “I know that [it’s impossible], but it makes a wonderful story.”
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