Harrison Elmo Brooks, 96, engineer for WBAL, collector of antique cars

April 27, 2004|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

Harrison Elmo Brooks, retired chief engineer for WBAL radio and television and a vintage-automobile hobbyist, died after a brief illness Wednesday at Homewood at Plum Creek Retirement Community in Hanover, Pa. The former Hampstead resident was 96.

Mr. Brooks was born in Baltimore and raised in Snydersburg, Carroll County, where his parents owned and operated the J.H. Brooks grocery store.

At an early age, he became interested in electricity and radio and enjoyed tinkering with automobiles. After graduating in 1923 from Hampstead High School, he worked installing electricity to farms and businesses in the Carroll communities of Hampstead and Lineboro.

In 1941, he was working for the company that was installing a radio transmitter for WBAL when the station hired him. He became chief engineer in charge of WBAL's transmitters, which later included those used for television.

Mr. Brooks was also involved in the building and installation in 1958 of the Baltimore skyline's landmark 730-foot candelabra tower rising from Television Hill. He retired in 1973.

During the early 1950s, Mr. Brooks began to collect antique automobiles. He scoured junkyards and attended car shows, looking for the unusual and the routine.

While attending a show on Long Island, N.Y., he found a 1914 battery-powered black Rauch & Lang Gentleman's Speedy Roadster. The car was little more than a pile of nuts, bolts and pieces of metal - an imposing challenge that he tackled.

Mr. Brooks had the components of the German-made car packed and trucked to his 6-acre Hampstead farm, where it underwent five years of intense restoration before it again hummed over country roads.

The car had a speed of 25 mph - which also was the distance it could travel between battery charges. The spacious coupe had seats in front for the driver and passenger, and a fold-up "mother-in-law seat" for a third rider.

Mr. Brooks - dressed in a period white motoring duster complete with arm-length driving gloves, black bow tie and tweed snap-brim cap - enjoyed driving the car in area parades.

Rather than the usual steering wheel, the car was guided by a tiller bar. In 1960, the car won junior and senior awards at the prestigious American Antique Car Association show in Hershey, Pa.

Another mechanical challenge was a 1917 Model T Ford he located on a farm near Manchester. The farmer had jacked up the rear of the car and used the wheels to power a saw for cutting firewood. Mr. Brooks bought the car for $465 and restored it to operating condition.

"Collecting was more fun when I first began because in those years it was still possible to buy a vintage antique car from its original owner," he said in a 1979 Sun Magazine article. "I can't explain it, but there's a tremendous satisfaction in that - rather like buying a good horse from a man you trust."

In 1969, he discovered a four-cylinder Nash Metro that had been built in England, resting in a weed-choked Carroll County junkyard. For $50, he purchased its frame, fenders and body. The engine was useless, the transmission missing.

Back at his workshop, he removed the gas tank and installed an 84-volt, 3-horsepower electric motor powered by eight 12-volt batteries. Its top speed was 35 mph, and during the oil crisis of 1974 he enjoyed noiselessly humming along while other motorists were waiting in lines at filling stations.

"He was mild-mannered and a good mechanic. He was just an intelligent guy who enjoyed repairing and working on his cars," said Elwood E. Swam, a Hampstead lawyer and longtime friend.

Other cars in his collection included a 1926 Model T Ford, a 1931 Model A, and 1936 and 1940 Chevrolets. Mr. Brooks also kept a four-door Dodge sedan that he had purchased new in 1940. In later years, he had two Chrysler Imperials - a 1956 and a 1971 - that he used in his daily travels, until giving up driving in his early 90s.

"It was an interesting collection of cars, and he really enjoyed them. He had a wonderful 1948 Packard four-door deluxe custom that was a gem," said Sterling E. Walsh, a Carroll County real estate broker and car collector. "It just wasn't owning the cars, it was also the friendship and camaraderie of other owners and collectors that he enjoyed."

Mr. Brooks was a member and former national judge of the Antique Automobile Club of America. He also enjoyed collecting antique toys.

He was also a member of St. Mark's United Church of Christ, and Lebanon Lodge of the Masons.

Services were held Saturday.

Mr. Brooks is survived by his wife of 73 years, the former Mary Kiziah Mathias, who shared his enthusiasm for antique autos.

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