Oakland Mills man carries on family tradition of restoring cars

Sherman Taffel's Columbia inventory includes a 1963 Chrysler Imperial Crown, which is the widest American car ever built

  • Sherman Taffel is pictured at his home with just of few of his vintage automobiles: a "62 Buick Skylark, and two Jaguars.
Sherman Taffel is pictured at his home with just of few of his… (Algerina Perna, Baltimore…)
April 03, 2011|By Janene Holzberg, Special to The Baltimore Sun

After cranking the engine to circulate its motor oil and spraying a couple shots of starter fluid under the hood, Sherman Taffel held his breath as he inserted the key.

His 1962 Buick Skylark — the first car with a lightweight, aluminum V8 engine — roared to life with a single turn of the ignition. After sitting outdoors since November, it rumbled contentedly on a bed of dry leaves, raring to go.

"That's how you wake up an engine that's been sitting idle," said Taffel, a retired Baltimore city educator and an expert and vintage cars. "It has 114,000 miles, on it and it still runs great."

Since he began collecting 42 years ago, Taffel has amassed a fleet of 23 cars of various makes and models, most of which he keeps at his 73-acre farm in Goldvein, Va., where he and his wife, artist Camellia Blackwell, run an artistic development center.

His Columbia inventory includes a 1963 Chrysler Imperial Crown, which is the widest American car ever produced, and a 1965 Triumph TR4 that he drove in college. He also has a special fondness for Jaguars and is a past president of the Nation's Capital Jaguar Owners Club, a nonprofit organization based in Washington.

The longtime Oakland Mills resident will share tips and talk shop Wednesday night as a guest lecturer at the central Howard County Library. "The Art of the Motorcar: Restoring Classics" is open to the public.

It all began, as love affairs often do, when Taffel caught his first glimpse of the 1948 Dodge Custom parked in the driveway of the family's home in upstate New York. The year was 1952, and he was 7 years old.

"Dad was rebuilding the cylinder head, and I sat on the fender and held the wrench on a nut until he'd say, 'Turn it quick,'" said Taffel, wistfully reliving his first under-the-hood assist.

The late Benjamin Taffel, a radio engineer for the Army Signal Corps, had saved up for nearly four years for the car and was maintaining the vehicle himself, setting a meticulous standard that his son has aspired to his entire life.

The navy blue Dodge was known as a "Getaway 6" for its six-cylinder, semiautomatic engine that stood out from the crowd with its clutch for first gear and lever-operated second and third gears, he said, and it was a beauty.

It sported a sculpted front fender that flowed onto the door panel instead of stopping abruptly at the door's hinge, a high-end aesthetic feature that less-infatuated observers might have overlooked, Taffel said.

"They really don't make them like they used to," he said.

"These cars are all my children, and just like children, they each have their own personality," Taffel said. "That's what attracted me to them in the first place."

He got his first car, an Austin Healey Sprite, when he was a sophomore at the Bronx High School of Science. The British import, with headlights that sat on the hood like a frog's eyes, was his reward for maintaining good grades. He and his father restored it using salvaged parts.

The two bought the wrecked vehicle, engine and seats from junkyard haunts and worked on restoring the car for a year and a half, finishing by the spring of his senior year and just in time for his school prom. It was 1963, and bands like the Animals, The Dave Clark 5, and Jay and the Americans ruled the airwaves.

"There is no better father-son or parent-child bonding experience than working together on a car, especially if you rebuild it yourself," he said. This is one of the tenets of the Jaguar Owners Club, which emphasizes family-centered activities.

Many people are driven by sentimentality to hunt down a replica of their first car or the car their father or grandfather drove, but that was never Taffel's primary motivation, he said.

He focuses instead on cars with "engineering sophistication and stylistic significance for their era," models that made some kind of breakthrough in their day, he said.

He also likes his cars to be "clean and bright," and so he breaks with purists — who want everything original — by installing electronic ignitions or more comfortable seats, he said.

"If there are mechanical or electrical upgrades that make a car more reliable and enjoyable, then I do them," he said.

Paul Verchinski, a past president of the Jaguar club in D.C. who also resides in Oakland Mills, likened Taffel's knack with cars to the TV character of MacGyver, a resourceful secret agent who bailed himself out of tight situations with everyday materials.

"Somehow or other, Sherman pieces things together and never gives up on a problem," he said. "Even if it takes him six months, he will figure it out. He's quite innovative."

In Taffel's combination garage-workshop, which he built to complement the architecture of his contemporary redwood home, a 1976 Jensen GT — one of only 500 manufactured in Britain —sits atop a hydraulic lift. Underneath it is his 1963 sage-green metallic Chrysler Imperial Crown, which came with 31,000 original miles and rides "as smooth as silk."

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