Return of the Renville: Custom sportscar back in spotlight

What has been called ‘One of America’s First Sports Cars’ is back in the spotlight. It has been consigned to sell at the upcoming Borgata sale in Atlantic City.
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The “Renville Roadster” was built back in, or around 1946.

A unique little home-built sports car of the early postwar years has been consigned to the Atlantic City Borgata sale on Feb. 26, 2009 in Atlantic City, N.J. Listed as the 1946 Renville Special Roadster, this car is the type of car that used to be tracked by the Sports Custom Registry, a group organized by Tim Hutchinson in the 1970s. The car, which may be more correctly called the “Renmobile Sport Custom Roadster,” was never identified by the registry. However, it is clearly the type of car that the major U.S. automakers created with the Kaiser Darrin, the two-seat Thunderbird and the first-generation Corvette.

The current owners of the car received a signboard with it that gave some limiting information about the vehicle. Since the car was built in North Fond du Lac, Wis., not far from Old Cars Weekly headquarters, we poked around to discover more of its history. As suspected, there were people who knew more about the car and its builder.

“Sports Cars in Competition,” a book published in 1952, defined a sports car in that era as, “A car that offers better than average pick-up through the gears, higher than average top speed for cubic inch displacement of its motor by comparison to others and better than average roadability under varying road conditions.” The book pointed out that sports cars evolved first in Europe and that the sports car hobby “infected” many GIs during World War II. When the American soldiers returned to the United States, sports cars gained popularity here.

Renville Mordrow, of Fond du Lac, Wis., became caught up in this movement. He was the man who constructed the Renmobile Sport Custom Roadster and named it. We have located people who talked to him years ago at the Road America sports car circuit and other people who knew him quite well.

A photo of the car from the late 1950s.

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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 it was possibly 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 with plenty of speed equipment available. The mill was attached to a floor-shifted 1937 Lincoln-Zephyr gearbox, which was a favorite among 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 shop on Military Road 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 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 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 and Roth, as well as Bill Koeck, a subsequent owner of the car, all agree that their friend had no such plan. They say Mordrow built two to four homemade cars, and that the next one he did was based on a cut-down 1955 Chevrolet 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, Wis., and showed it as late as 1957 or 1958. On one such occasion, the car was photographed by Jim Rugowski, a car collector from Greenville, Wis., who was a teenager 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 Web site 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 headlamp location and treatment, the parking lamp 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 Web site 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 carburetors. 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 Web site also show two carburetors. There are differences in accessories, such as 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 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 home-builts,” 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 or ’40 Ford fenders for the basic lines on his front wings,” said 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 Perrizo, after giving up on his son driving the car, Mordrow sold it to Bill Koeck. “Bill had the drive-in in Mayville [Wis.] 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 said he remembers the car sitting in a salvage yard 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 Wisconsin. Perrizo, on the other hand, doesn’t think the Renmobile went into a salvage yard. He feels that another of the cars Mordrow built might have wound up there.

The car being offered in the Borgata sale reflects the quality of Renville Mordrow’s metal fabrication skills, but has newer paint and a 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 also says the wheels have been changed.

According to Perrizo, 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.”

Professor Geoffrey Hacker, an automotive historian who keeps track of cars of this type today, had never heard of the Renmobile. It has now been entered in his database of what used to be called “sports custom roadsters.”

G. Potter King and the owners of the car have been kept up to date on our new research about the car. They agree that digging up the car’s true history is important, since it is such an outstanding example of a high-quality, early postwar home-built sports car.

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