William Grams, Sr., opened a junk and antique resale shop in Volo. Ill. in the 1960s, paying $21,000 for a piece of property. His sons Bill and Greg enjoyed tinkering with old cars and scraped $300 up to purchase a run-down ’31 Chrysler CD roadster. They restored that car and sold it for $25,000. The money was used to purchase, restore and sell a 1929 Packard. That was the start of the internationally-known Volo Auto Museum.
Today, the museum houses 400 cars, 300 of which are for sale. The other 100 historical cars make up the museum collection. Many of those are cars that appeared in movies or in television shows or had celebrity owners. Also on display are tractors, vintage farm equipment, classic travel trailers, child’s amusement rides, RVs and scooters.
There is one building at the Volo facility that is filled with Model Ts, Model As and other older cars. When you walk into that area, you feel like you’ve gone back in time. That is the area that Bill Grams was managing the last time we saw him in June of 2017. Unfortunately, that was the last time we’ll ever see Bill. The 77-year-old co-founder of the Volo Auto Museum passed away on May 12, 2020. He died of a heart attack at Advocate Good Shepherd Hospital, near Lake Barrington, Illinois, after a battle with cancer.
This is not an obituary or a celebration of life. Rather, it is a heartfelt tribute of a good friend. We met Bill through a man named Walter Cunny and hung out with both of them at several of the old April in Rockford auctions. There was never a dull moment with that duo and their friend Melvin O’Shansky, who once bought a Cadillac Eldorado convertible at the auction just to haul home a grandfather clock he had also purchased.
In 1984, we went on the second Great American Race, hitching rides with collectors like Dave Rosenheim, Lou DeLong and Frank Kleptz on a different car each day. We even rode on “Doc: Fuson’s 1912 American LaFrance chain-drive fire truck. After overnighting in St. Louis, Bill Grams and Walter Cunny invited us to ride on the 1911 Palmer-Singer they were racing in--a car that once belonged to Henry Austin Clark, Jr.
In those days, the Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) sanctioned the Great American Race and they had rules regarding where journalists and other passengers could ride. Bill and Walter had endured many transmission problems with their GMC motorhome on the way to the start of the race. Grams was tired and wanted to curl up in the back seat of the Palmer Singer, so he told me to ride up front with Walter. This set off rumors among other racers that an experienced rallyist was helping them. Nothing could have been farther from the truth, as Bill was the only one in the car with such skills.
Bill just said, “Let them think whatever they think, we’re having an adventure!” So, we continued like that through Missouri and wound up making it to the final stop, in Chicago, a little bit late. It is hard to forget how dashing Bill looked when he was behind the wheel of the Palmer-Singer wearing a long leather coat and an old leather helmet.
Bill was always one to dress like a riverboat gambler with fancy ruffled shirts that he kept open at the collar and classy-looking tux-style dinner jackets. When he and his brother Greg started doing auctions at the Volo Museum, we attended those and were always treated like royalty. Afterwards we would go out to a pizza parlor with famed Chicago Tribune automotive writer Jim Mateja, who was another friend of Bill Grams.
In those years, Bill and Greg always had cars from the Volo Auto Museum on display at the Chicago Auto Show in early February. While our main reason for going to that new-car event was to get press kits for the Old Cars Weekly archives, there was nothing more enjoyable than seeing show-goers gawking at the antique and classic cars or the Grams brothers’ Auburn and Duesenberg replicas, which they loved.
On another occasion, we met a group of people (including Bill) touring in pre-1918 cars at Lake Geneva, Wis. Richie Clyne, who then ran the Imperial Palace Auto Collection was on the tour with an ex-Bill Harrah Thomas-Flyer. After we went to a Wal Mart to get two shopping carts full of care-care products to polish the car, we took it to a coin-operated car wash. As we got back to the hotel lot, the car’s chain-drive mechanism broke. A man with a portable welder in an old station wagon tried to fix it, but it was impossible. So, Bill Grams offered to drive to Volo, get a trailer and haul the Thomas-Flyer to the museum.
Bill Grams was always friendly, helpful, sociable and knowledgeable. He knew many rich or famous people from antique car tours and collector-car auctions, but he also gave every visitor to the Volo Museum the same kind of hospitality he extended to celebrities like his good friend and “King of the Customizers” George Barris.
“The collector car scene lost a great man,” said Bill’s daughter Lisa Santiago. “He cherished the hobby since he was a young boy and shared his love and passion for it up until his passing. We will get through this with his guidance from heaven. Like he always said, ‘The show must go on (but) it won’t be easy without his showmanship and sparkle.”
In the early 1990s, Bill championed the incorporation of the Village of Volo and he also served on the founding village board of trustees. He was married for 56 years to his wife, Carolyn. In recent decades, Bill ran Volo’s Antique Malls business, as well as the mostly pre-war car building. “The car industry is a little less full without him,” said Brian Grams, his nephew and director of the Volo Auto Museum. “He was very well-known and liked by the car community, very much a staple force in the collector-car world.”
According to Greg Grams, Bill was nice to everybody. “He didn’t just suck up to the well-to-do,” Greg said. “He loved people. He could go anywhere and start a conversation.” Greg’s wife Myra Grams said, “Bill was a constant, cheerful presence. While their business philosophies sometimes differed, Bill and Greg always huddled together at employee events or other business gatherings, smiling and talking about their shared car passion.” Myra also recalled that during family vacations to Florida and elsewhere, the family almost always ran into someone who knew and admired her brother-in-law.
Bill’s nephews Brian and Jay said they will miss their uncle, who took them for rides in his convertible jalopies when they were young. “I remember riding around in a rumble seat with my cousin Lisa,” Jay said. “There were no seat belts of course. Just us two kids bouncing around back there with Bill and Aunt Carolyn up front.” According to Jay, one of Bill Grams’ more recent passions was modifying old Fords. “I’m sure we’ll keep one of those on display here at the museum,” Jay said, “It will be kind of a tribute to him.”
Greg Grams said his brother continued to attend collector-car auctions up until last winter, then illness started getting the better of him. Conditions surrounding the current pandemic made the loss even more difficult, Greg added, noting that no visitors were allowed at the hospital. Greg said friends couldn’t even send cards. “He was the one who always cheered me up,” Greg Grams recalled. “I’m going to miss my best friend.”