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'21 Speedster Comes Home After 24 Years Away

July 26, 1987|DOUG SMITH | Times Staff Writer

They were a Marmon family, without reservation.

Through Depression and war and the family's cross-country move, the Keeles clung devotedly to the 1920s cars with the funny names and the reputation for grace and technical superiority.

They owned six Marmons; their last, a '21 two-seat Speedster, long after it had gone out of style.

Dad turned it into a carryall to cart his contractor's tools. He finally sold it, the last of the family's Marmons, in 1953.

No Interest in Clunkers

"I don't expect Dad got more than $100 for it," son Malcolm Keele of North Hollywood said. "Hell, 1953. People weren't interested in these clunkers."

Somehow, it didn't seem quite right to young Keele to be without a Marmon.

It was the 16-cylinder, his second Marmon, that Malcolm Keele most longed to have back. It was a real piece of engineering. He could bring it to a stop in high gear, let off the brake and it would cruise away. Polished louvers in front of the radiator closed when the engine was cold.

He bought it in '39, four years after he picked up a piece of property in North Hollywood for $800.

He sold it in '49. It was a clunker then too, no doubt. But he missed it anyway. Later he started to look. He sent out feelers through the Marmon Club, whose register of 71 16-cylinder Marmons did not include his. As gently as they could, they told him it was gone, probably sold for scrap.

Caught by Surprise

So wouldn't you know he'd find the Speedster instead. Malcolm Keele was caught completely by surprise.

"I never even thought about this until I saw that ad," he said.

The ad was in the May issue of Marmon News, the bimonthly newsletter of the international organization of Marmon owners. "For sale or trade--1921 Speedster--90% restored--owned since 1953," it said.

The date struck like an electric shock. He called the owner, Steve gilbert, a Beverly Hills manufacturer of industrial packaging.

The story unfolded with clean simplicity.

Spotted at Car Lot

Gilbert was a college kid when he spotted the car at a used-car lot at La Cienega and Pico boulevards, right where the older Keele had sold it.

He didn't buy it right away.

"I had never heard of a Marmon before," Gilbert said. "I was 23 years old then. I had come back from Korea and I was looking for a project. I think I found it on the lot so I started to read up on it. I read the books and found out that it was a car that sold for twice as much as a Cadillac in the '20s and read about its mechanical advances. It was really an interesting vehicle."

Gilbert and his cousin finally paid $536 for the car and drove it around for show.

"Then I took interest in the car and tore it apart to rebuild it and never quite finished," he said.

The project has been on again and off again since then.

Insufficient Time

"I just haven't had the time in 10 years to devote to it," Gilbert said. "So I'd been thinking . . . 'It really should be on the road. I don't want to sell it, but there's got to be someone out there who could really get it going' "

When Keele called about a month ago and said it might be his father's car, Gilbert asked whether his father made any modifications.

"I said, 'Wooden wheels and four-wheel brakes,' " Keele said. "He said, 'That's it.' "

Final verification came from the engine number, 4902, stamped on the lower left side of the block. It matched the 1951 registration form Keele found in his father's papers.

"From then on, I haven't been happy until I bought it," Keele said.

No New Project

It took a while. Keele, who will be 77 in August, wasn't exactly looking for a new project.

Gilbert had rebuilt the engine, smoothed and painted the fenders, scraped and polished the wooden spokes. On the other hand, the Speedster still needed a new cloth top and dashboard instruments. It hadn't been started in three years and the paint was fading.

It was a tough time for Keele.

"I would wake up in the middle of the night thinking about it," he said. The car held a lot of emotional strings.

He remembered going with his father to buy the car from the sheriff of Topeka, Kan., who had confiscated it from a bootlegger bringing whiskey from Kansas City.

"I was about 13 years old," Keele said. "I remember going down in a dark old basement where the sheriff stored all his cars."

That year they moved west.

Hated to Leave Girlfriend

"I hated to leave my girlfriend there," Keele said. "But I guess it worked out for the best."

Keele and his father, J. W. Keele, drove out of Topeka on Aug. 10, 1927. He said they ran out of pavement just west of home. Then they followed dirt ruts and boardwalks on the Marmon's hard high-pressure tires.

He keeps a record of the trip in a large blue photo album.

They show the Marmon in front of Indian cliff dwellings in New Mexico, outside of a log-cabin diner called Pie Town at a self-service gas station in the desert, at the Grand Canyon Lodge and a cousin's motel in Winslow, Ariz.

There was also a photo of father and son, posing like soldiers in Pancho Villa's army in Oak Mint Pass beside two flat tires.

Gag Photo

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