Reviving cruiser from past

History: Two sheriff's office employees find and re-create the first official Howard County sheriff's car, a 1974 Dodge Coronet.

May 08, 2002|By Lisa Goldberg | Lisa Goldberg,SUN STAFF

Twenty-seven years to the day after a Howard County sheriff accepted the first set of keys to the first official sheriff's car, Howard Sheriff Charles M. Cave sat in a near-exact replica yesterday and turned the key.

"Let's fire this thing up," Cave said, as the car, a powder blue 1974 Dodge Coronet purred and its owners, sheriff's employees Deputy Terry Chaney and security officer William Gamber Sr., watched.

It took less than five minutes yesterday to unveil what took the two men nearly two years to conceive and create - a copy of the first car assigned to a county sheriff. It will be used to promote the department.

"We did it to add a little history, bring back some history," Chaney said before handing Cave the car's keys during a brief ceremony outside the Howard Circuit Courthouse.

The idea for the car, which likely will be used in ceremonial events, not for day-to-day activity, grew from discussions Gamber and Chaney while working at the courthouse's security station in summer of 2000.

They said they wanted something to reflect their good feelings about their work for a law enforcement agency that dates to the county's earliest days. They knew that other area agencies and their employees had successfully re-created early police car models and were using them for show and nostalgia.

"We're proud of the office here," Gamber said. "We're proud of what we do, and we wanted something to say, `Hey, look what we've got.'"

Finding the car proved a challenge. Internet searches initially proved fruitless. Gamber resorted to creating a "wanted poster," complete with a finder's fee, while Chaney glanced into each yard he passed, looking for sale signs on cars.

In August, they got a hit. An Internet search turned up a Dodge Coronet for sale in Lakeland, Fla. Within days, Roy Stecher, chief of the Howard Office of Central Services and the county employee who handed the first car off to Sheriff John J. Votta on May 7, 1975, forwarded old memos confirming that the Votta car was a Coronet hand-me-down from county police. (Before 1975, Howard sheriff's employees drove their own cars when on official business.)

A few weeks later, the men drove to Lakeland, where they bought the mint-condition car for $3,500 from a couple who decided it was too big for their use.

Gamber, who restores cars, spent the next several months, working at his Carroll County home, stripping the car - which had too many luxuries for a police car - of all but the essentials. The Lakeland car was also the wrong color, inside and out. The first sheriff's car was powder blue, the Dodge the men bought a yellow blaze.

Sheriff's employees helped with sanding, and local businesses did the work Gamber could not. The men also had a picture of the shield on the side of the first car blown up and re-created for the Coronet.

As they worked, the men relied on memories of the only two deputies whose employment dates to Votta's days as sheriff - Lt. Ronald Esworthy and Cpl. Sandy Timmons - to be as faithful to history as possible.

By yesterday, the car was nearly complete. Gamber said he still has to hook up the radio and do other minor work with the siren and a light.

"If I didn't know better, I'd swear it was one of the originals," said Howard police fingerprint examiner Al Hafner, who was a county officer when the department was using Coronets.

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