Steve Ames, 78, of Marlborough, N.H., passed away on Dec. 20, 2020 from a brain bleed suffered after a fall. This Old Cars contributor first met Steve in the mid-1970s, after becoming the editor of the Silver Streak News, a monthly newsletter put out by the then-newly-formed Pontiac Oakland Club International (www.POCI.org).
The Silver Streak News was composed mostly of classified ads and Steve Ames had started selling Pontiac parts. That was before personal computers, and I had to type many of Steve’s ads up on an old manual typewriter. At the time, I had no idea that Steve Ames held an engineering degree from Columbia University in New York City.
Steve always told me that he began his automotive career when he got a job at a gas station when he was only 12 years old. After graduating from college, Ames went into the National Guard. His next job was with a paper company in Maine. Corporate life didn’t agree with him, so he switched to operating a machine shop and developed a passion for drag racing, which he did from 1961 to 1975. In search of speed equipment, he went to a swap meet and noticed people selling the kind of parts he threw away for big money.
Ames, who was then 33, outfitted a long bed Ford pickup for travel and started visiting car dealerships east of the Mississippi in search of vintage NOS (new old stock) car parts. He first focused on older Chevrolet parts, but found that hobby niche to be very competitive. As a result, he began specializing in Pontiac parts. He would sleep in his pickup truck and eat cold sandwiches and bring huge loads of parts back home.
Ames discovered that factory dealers weren’t anxious to part with mechanical parts, as they still sold well to do-it-yourselfers who just wanted to keep their over-age cars going, But, those buyers were not as interested in cosmetic parts and trim pieces, so the dealers were happy to sell those items to Steve, and he was happy to get them.
An eye-opening experience was Ames’ first visit to the 1976 Fall Carlisle show, the second event held in Carlisle, Pa. That’s where his Pontiac parts started selling well and convinced him to start a company called Ames Performance Engineering and two offshoots known as Ames Automotive Enterprises and Ames Performance Classics.
Ames sensed a strong market for early GTO parts, and he knew that there weren’t enough NOS parts around to fill the demand. He networked with reproduction parts suppliers and learned how to get high-quality new parts made. His first catalog, released in 1983, had GTO parts. The following year he came out with a catalog offering Firebird parts. The inventory then included NOS parts, current dealer parts and reproduction parts, but in 1985 he stopped selling NOS items and focused entirely on new or reproduction parts.
Ames eventually sold the retail side of his company, although he continued to develop new products and sell parts on the wholesale level. He also started the annual Ames Performance Pontiac Tri-Power Nationals show in Norwalk, Ohio, in August.
Not too many years ago, Ames called to ask the author about a late 1940s Olds fastback that had been brought to an auction at the Iola Old Car Show. The car was unrestored and had about 5,000 original miles. He wanted to buy it because he had set up a foundation that specialized in buying cars with under 10,000 miles. He said he started by purchasing a 1967 Shelby Mustang and then a 1966 GTO with 4,200-mile. Steve was very fussy about the cars; they had to be “old cars” and they had to be well documented.
The Ames Automotive foundation was a 501c3 non-profit entity with the goal of helping future generations recognize and appreciate how well these vehicles were made and how important the American assembly line concept has been in solidifying the USA as the world leader of industry. Many of the cars in the collection are ultra-rare Pontiacs.
However, not all vehicles in the collection are cars. In 2013, Ames purchased a truck at the famous Van Der Brink Lambrecht Chevrolet Auction in Pierce, Neb., that made headlines. He paid $140,000 for a low-milage 1958 Chevrolet Cameo Carrier. “There’s something about having something that’s just original,” Ames said at the time. “The Cameo itself has enormous history in our business. It is low mileage. It was put away and kept all by itself, and it has the providence--as they say- of the building coming down and crushing its roof. We’re going to keep it exactly as it was throughout its life.” At the time, a newspaper reported that Ames had 64 other American vehicles in his collection.
One other place the author ran into Ames was at the founding meeting of SEMA's Automotive Restoration Market Organization (ARMO). In 2007, he was named ARMO’s Person of the Year in 2007 based on his careful work and quality products. His parts also won multiple "Best New Product" awards at the SEMA Show in Las Vegas, Nev.
Despite all the awards and accolades he earned, Steve Ames was always a “regular guy” who felt he had the great fortune of turning his hobby into a very successful business. After leaving the company, he resided with his wife Joan—who used to attend swap meets with him to sell Pontiac parts-- in their Marlborough home.
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