Ty Houck: Have A Ragtops Day!

  • story by David M. Brown
  • posted on 04/2016
  • posted in: Great Garages

Ty Houck calls his Ragtops Motorcars an “overnight 36-year success story.”

His car-sales business and collection of “keepers” is three minutes from the Palm Beach International Airport and fabulous Palm Beach. The cars occupy an 18,000-square-foot building, a former food distributorship built in 1925, with 8,000 of that showroom space and the balance a “wherehouse” of memorabilia and automobilia that is slowly being sorted through for display and eventual sale.

“What started out as strictly convertibles soon opened up to the appreciation of all old cars, and the selection became varied and so much more interesting to all levels of collectors and admirers,” says Houck, who grew up on a farm in Maryland.

“What makes our collection so enjoyable is that almost everyone who walks in here has a story about a car we have, had one or someone in their family did,” he says. “I don’t specialize in any one thing, and all of my cars are affordable to the average person.”

He relocated to Florida, leaving a successful clothing empire, Merry Go Round, where he says he was the eighth person hired. “It morphed into a billion-dollar company, all built by young guys and girls who believed they could build the company, and did. When we earned our bonuses, some chose to do other things with theirs. I chose to buy cars.

“It was a great company, I made life-long friends and I learned enough to take some of that and incorporate it into Ragtops,” he says. “I learned how to interact with all types of people, up and down the scales, and to merchandise whatever I was presenting. I figured the cars were just 4,000-pound blue jeans. Try both on before you purchase!”

In Palm Beach, he bought a gas station with two investors, then started Ragtops May 1, 1980.

He maintains an association with many of the local hotels and local businesses, which will book Ragtops for corporate events, product launches and other functions. His associate, Paget Kirkland, creates amazing events, customized for each client, he says.

“We have held events for every major company and automotive manufacturer and have had headlining performers on property for the entertainment,” Houck explains. “Every guest has a car story in their life, and we surround them in memories. I like sharing my 40-year collection of automobiles and ‘stuff’ with them, and they in turn enjoy the atmosphere all of that provides.

Houck has eight “keepers” right now, and we’re keeping up with him at his place as he shares them with us. He had three of the original cars in Maryland and brought them to Florida in May 1980. These are the 1972 Mercedes Benz 350 SL, which is the 44-year-old keeper, a 1970 Mercedes Benz 280 SL and a 1956 Ford Thunderbird, which are exact duplicates of the other two.

•1964 Buick Riviera –– “This is the middle year of a three-year run of the original car designed by Bill Mitchell. I remember being in college and one of my fraternity brothers had one, and I never forgot it.

“To be able to acquire a one-owner car is rare, so when this one became available, I met with the 94-year old owner and promised it a good home. I also told his grandson, a tennis pro who teaches wonderful people like Jimmy Buffett here and who remembers vividly being in that car with his grandfather both in Delray Beach and in Southern California when he was young, that I would offer it to him first before I sold it. I strongly believe in keeping a car ‘in the family’ if possible.”   

•1952 Chevrolet Tin Woody –– “I had this 15 years ago, and it was in the drive-in section on the second floor of a 1925 Cadillac LaSalle building that I have occupied for 25 years. We had a party for the gentleman’s father, and the son came back the next day and bought it. He took it to his farm in Pennsylvania and loved it.

“When he got the hankering for an early Ford Woody, he was in Hershey, Pa., at the big meet, and I ran into him. We started talking, and I extracted a promise from him to offer me the Tin Woody if he ever wanted to sell it. He said he would, we shook hands and eight weeks later it arrived on my doorstep. It’s a Ragtops ‘Alumni’: we had it before, and it came home again!

•1972 Mercedes Benz 350 SL –– “I bought this ‘keeper’ from a pilot in Towson, Maryland, when it had 10,000 miles logged. I drove down to Florida in it and decided that if I ever wanted to drive out of Florida for good, I would take this car, too. It is a very low serial-numbered car, and it even has roll-up windows.”

•1970 Mercedes 280SL –– “I bought it from the original owner, Mrs. Ann Beck, who cried as I drove it out of her garage. I stopped and assured her that she could come visit it any time as it was never going to be sold. She has, and I haven’t!”

•1956 Thunderbird –– “This was a one-owner when I first got it, but I wasn’t in the position to keep it at that time. Several years later, it became part of the Alumni, and I was able to keep it this time. It is an original 44,000-mile T’bird with two tops, and if you look at my business card, the image of my original ’56 is on the front. I have never changed the card, nor will I ever let the car go again.”

•1942 Ford Army Jeep –– “It was acquired before I was born by my father, George Emory Houck, immediately after World War II, when it was deployed, from the Maryland National Guard Armory in Baltimore for the princely sum of $50. When I was 6, I learned how to drive in it on the family Oakhill Farm in Towson, Maryland, where it was fitted with a side cycle and was used to mow the fields.

“It eventually gave out, and was parked behind the woodpile in the back of my grandfather’s house adjacent to the farm. When my father retired, he pulled it to his house, completely dismantled it, rebuilt it to the point that if he couldn’t find a needed part, he just made it. This is not a trait that I inherited even remotely.

“For the rest of his life, he proudly drove it in the annual 4th of July parade in Towson, fully dressed in his uniform. This Jeep that has been in my family for longer than I have been in my family!”

•1995 Jeep Wrangler –– “The LandRunner I use on a semi-daily basis, and it has already been promised to Paget as she appreciates it even more than I do, I think. It always creates a little bit of a stir when people see it, as it is so different. In the 14 years I’ve owned it, I have never seen another on the road.”

•1988 Avanti Convertible –– “This was a trade-in 16 years ago. In the mid ’80s, I was the authorized Avanti dealer here in Palm Beach. The original Avanti debuted in 1963, and was designed by the great Raymond Loewy for Studebaker. It is fitted with a high-output 305 cid that Chevy used in the Monte Carlo.

“The Avanti, even the later-model ones, are cars you either love or hate; there is no in between. I have owned an Avanti since the 1970’s and am a huge fan. There were less than 100 convertibles ever made, and whenever I take it out, it gets a lot of attention. When people ask me what it is, I say, ‘It’s the New Buick!’”

The Ragtops collection and the cars on display, the majority available for purchase, is open to the public Wednesday through Saturday 10−5, with the other days by appointment: 561.655.2836, ty@ragtopsmotorcars.com and ragtopsmotorcars.com.

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