NORTH HOLLYWOOD, CA – Never has there been a car with a cooler name than the Astra-Gnome. And the logo! Isn’t that the snazziest thing you’ve ever seen???
And I got to see this phenomenal creation in person! How fantastic is that?? Almost as fantastic as the name…
Sorry. I just had to say it again. The name isn’t the only stand out, though. The design and story behind how it came to the Metropolitan Pit Stop in North Hollywood are pretty spectacular too. Yes. The Astra-Gnome is at heart, a Metropolitan.
But before we get to the car, here’s a little backstory.
Jimmy Valentine, founder of the Metropolitan Pit Stop, was a Metropolitan freak (I mean that in the nicest way possible). By trade, he was a sound man, even did special effects sound for NBC at the Burbank lot, my employer as well. He eventually opened his own recording studio in North Hollywood, right next door to where the museum sits today. His true passion, though, was with the Metropolitan automobile. He loved the little Mets so much, he stockpiled parts, searched the globe for interesting specimens, and created his own private museum. He became THE man to go to for anything Metropolitan, and, according to the folks who knew him, quite selective about who he granted entry to his collection. You couldn’t just walk in and check it out. Noooo! You had to be worthy. So I’m honored to have had the opportunity, even if Jimmy is no longer around to watch the gates. So how did I get so lucky?
My pal Kubo of the Hell’s Belles Car Club–a Met owner herself–invited me, along with Carey, a visiting Belle from Seattle, to an invitation only event at the Pit Stop. Jimmy Valentine’s daughter June now runs the place, and is a little more open about who gets to come through the doors.
Thanks to some not so hot brakes, Kubo’s Met had to sit this one out. Instead, she and Carey hopped in Kubo’s Datsun 1600 and I followed behind on the Bonnie Lass.
So many little Mets in one place! So adorable! So cool! So individual!
But it was the cars behind the closed doors that really knocked my socks off.
The smallish room had so many people (and chairs set up for the presentation) that it was hard to get a good shot of the room (plus, I had only the iPhone since I was on a bike), but the collection of cars! Just… wow. From the first Met Jimmy bought in the 70s after their ’57 T-Bird was stolen, to the insanely long hook and ladder Met used to carry children at an amusement park, to the only existing Pinin Farina-styled Met Wagon prototype (two were made, but one was accidentally crushed by machinery where it was stored). My personal favorite, was the Western Themed Met, set against a Route 66 mural, (clearly why I liked it, right?).
But the car that truly stole the show was the Astra-Gnome.
Designer Richard Arbib created the car for the 1956 New York International Auto Show, built on a 1955 Metropolitan chassis. The car also made the cover of Newsweek magazine that same year.
The body is constructed of aluminum over a wood frame. The deeply inset wheels, all black, give the illusion the car is hovering. There’s a celestial time zone clock, and of course, the bubble dome. Just a stunning work of art and a perfect example of the atomic age of design.
During the event, curator and all around Met Guy, Mark Lane–who gave a great tour of the collection–shared the story of how Jimmy got this amazing Met.
After the Auto-Show in ’56, Mr. Arbib sold the car to a guy in New York for around $35,000 bucks. The business man who bought it actually DROVE the car around the city for a year. Yes. It was street legal. Can you imagine seeing this thing rolling through Manhattan?
Sometime later, Mr. Arbib bought the car back and stored it on the top floor of a parking garage. As the years went by, the building owners built office space around it until the Astra-Gnome was walled in. How Jimmy Valentine found its whereabouts isn’t clear, but it took a lot of haggling before Mr. Arbib finally agreed to sell him the car (although he did want to keep the celestial clock. Thank goodness Jimmy convinced him to sell it complete). In order to get the car out, they had to dismantle the office cubicles and remove the freight elevator door. The car had been painted silver at some point, something Jimmy planned to correct. But first, he wanted to drive it.
Jimmy and his crew painstakingly restored the car back to the 1956 vision (what you see now in the museum), and if you’re lucky like we were, Mark will raise the bubble, and turn on the lights, and let you swarm around taking pictures.
If you get the opportunity… GO. It’s really stinkin’ cool.
Many thanks to Kubo for inviting me along, and to June Valentine and Mark Lane of Metropolitan Pit Stop for opening the doors and letting us share in Jimmy Valentine’s spectacular treasures.
Until next time!
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