Puttin’ on the Ritz

From John Deere to Ferrari, there’s no doubt that Larry Olson loves anything with a motor. A tour through the Ritz II will confirm that. Larry was born and raised in Veblen, SD and moved to southern Minnesota at the age of 12. He graduated from high school in Hanska, MN (10 miles south of New Ulm). “We grew up poor,” recalls Olson. “Dad loved cars but with five brothers, we had to learn to share rides in two cars; a 1951 Studebaker and a 1959 Pontiac. Three of us were in high school at the same time. I usually rode with friends. I didn’t buy my first car until I was 21 years old, but I guess I have made up for lost time since then.” After graduation from high school, Olson joined the Air Force. He purchased his first car while in the Air Force, a 1959 Olds convertible. His next car, purchased shortly thereafter was a Corvette. You might find it odd that someone who just purchased a ‘59 Olds would follow that up with a Corvette. However, once you get to know Larry you will understand that he truly loves cars…all types of cars. The first vehicle that catches your eye is a bright red 2010 Ferrari. Next the ‘33 Ford 3-window might stand out and after that a couple of hot rods and you haven’t even made it out of the first building yet. He even has a John Deere toy collection on display. The car fever got Larry in the 1970’s. “I guess it started when I began to read Hot Rod magazines. One day I was in the legion having a beer with a friend. He had a ‘37 Ford for sale. He wanted $300 for it and I couldn’t resist. I purchased the car and we fixed it up. It was my first hot rod. That got me hooked on hot rods.”

In the 1980’s Larry was working for Peterbilt in Minneapolis. He continued to build his collection purchasing a ‘33 and a ‘40 Ford 2 door sedan. In 1986, he moved to Kansas City where he lived for six years and it was there that he built his first “3-window” Ford. In 1987, he built a ‘37 Ford Roadster. That car was picked by Boyd Coddington as the Pro’s Pick at the Street Rod Nationals in Louisville in 1988. His cars had won other awards before, but this was the most prestigious award he had won to date. In 1990, he built a ‘40 Ford Convertible for the 50th anniversary of the car. This car also won a Pro’s Pick at the 1991 Street Rod Nationals in Oklahoma City, OK.

Larry now lives in Sioux Falls with his wife Carol. He is a salesman in Peterbilt Fleet Sales with Rush Enterprises in San Antonio, TX. He also has a farming operation. Larry and Carol have two daughters who love cars, especially the Ferrari and the Cadillacs. Carol enjoys cars also with her favorite being the ‘57 Chevy. Cars are a family affair with the Olson family.

Touring Larry’s “garage(s)” was a real treat. The tour was interrupted a couple times to answer calls from friends and business associates in the industry looking for input or just to talk cars. You can see the twinkle in his eye as he describes each vehicle in his collection. Of course each one has a story and we’ll share a few with you.

Right now (and this may have changed since we interviewed him for this story) he owns 31 cars including street rods, muscle cars and exotics as well as motorcycles.

Oddly enough having worked with Peterbilt trucks most of his life; he does not own a custom Peterbilt truck. However, he is looking for one to rebuild. He only has one pickup/truck; a 1956 Ford pickup big window (red one sitting on a pallet waiting to be restored).

Larry has a wide variety of cars from exotics to muscle to street rods but when asked what his favorite was he didn’t have to think long. “Today it is the ‘33 Ford 3-window coupe. This is the same model that was in the ZZ Top video “Sharp Dressed Man”. “Ford was so far ahead of everyone else at the time. The shape and lines on this car were, and are, just gorgeous.” This was THE sports car of the 30’s and cost about $430 at the time. My favorite exotic is the Ferrari without a doubt. There is no finer car built in the world. When asked if he knew fellow Ferrari enthusiasts Cecil Schoeneman and Bruce Eide, Larry said, “I met Cecil once and I know Bruce well.”

The Ritz II is the name of Larry’s “garage”. The name came from a dance hall he and his brother-in-law owned in the seventies in Lismore, MN called the Ritz Ballroom. The 5,400 square foot facility was built in 2005. He needed “a little more room” so another 6,700 square feet of warehouse was added in 2009.

Larry uses a number of local and regional artisans to build his vehicles. I spent a lot of time in salvage yards and swap meets looking for materials but I have a core group of talented people that help me now. Brandon native Kevin Bowman, does most of the chassis work as well as the fabrication and sheet metal work. “The hot rod has to sit right. You have to have the eye for this and Kevin and I are on the same page. For my money, he is one of the best chassis builders in the Midwest.” Matt Bliss works with Kevin and is also very talented. He can paint also. The engines are done by Tim Mathern in Aberdeen. “I chose him because Kevin works with him and we work well together. These guys know how I think. I give them direction but they know what I want.”

Most of the painting is done by Byron Dose in Tea and Jeff Roling in Kingsley, IA. Another Tea resident, Brad Smith, also does some painting for Larry. Brad is painting Larry’s next car and he also painted both of his motorcycles. “When I have two cars going at once it is necessary to have multiple guys helping me.” For body work and upholstery Larry uses Little Slims (by Renner exit) and Tracy Weaver at the Recovery Room in Omaha. “I met most of these guys going to hot rod shows but others have come from referrals. I have known Kevin for the longest time. Cars are just like a piece of jewelry. I see the cars in my mind long before we build them. It is my own personal idea. It is like giving birth. It is your deal. You can buy a new car, but you just cannot duplicate a hot rod. Not everybody likes my designs, but that doesn’t bother me because I like them and that is what matters to me.” When it comes to color Larry says, “It’s pretty hard to beat black with flames.”

When asked if he sees the finished product before he begins to rebuild Olson said, “Eric Brockmeyer draws up the picture from my instructions. He is very good at reading my mind. You build from the wheels up. You have to have a lot of patience. Everything has to come together. These people are artists and they sometimes work on their schedule or when they are “inspired”. This is what makes them good at what they do. It also can lengthen the time it takes to finish a car.”

“My favorite car I would like to own is a 1933 full fender Ford Roadster and as of today I own one. (That was one of the phone calls he received when we were talking.) Stay tuned for future build of this 1933 Roadster. Friend and fellow car enthusiast Bobby Alloway found it for him in California. Bobby has a hot rod shop in Tennessee. He is currently working on a ‘63 split window Corvette for Larry. They met thru hot rod runs like the Goodguys Show. Bobby has been building hot rods for over 30 years. He is a professional builder who has won the prestigious Riddler Award. Larry was just down in Tennessee with Bobby talking about this car, which will be ready for the SEMA Show in November next year. Another car Larry has is his 1933 Ford Victoria (Vicky). This 1933 beauty is one of just 4193 produced. The car was so successful, Ford stepped up production to over 20,000 the very next year. “I have known about this car for 25 years. There are probably less than a thousand of these cars left today. I purchased it from a friend in Humphrey, NE.” Bobby Alloway did the chassis work on the car (a minor chop on the roof). He also put his own special wheels on the car. (He only puts his wheels on his cars but since he and Larry are good friends, he put them on his car also.) Another car with an interesting history is Larry’s 1962 Chevy. The car was originally sold at a dealership in Alabama, Gene Crump Chevy. The dealership has since changed hands but it is famous as the dealership that gave a car to a well-known sheriff named Buford Pusser. Some of you may know of Sheriff Pusser from the movie Walking Tall. “We wanted to re-build this car but after we started tearing it apart, we found the car was in such good shape that we did not want to change it,” according to Olson. “The production date stamp was still recognizable 4-22- 63. So instead of re-furbishing it, we just painted under the car and chassis and decided against any further work on it. We put a fresh 327 engine in it but when a classic car like this is in such good shape, you don’t mess with it.”

Larry has been involved with Automania since its start five years ago. The Automania event has grown tremendously over the years due in large part to the volunteer efforts of auto enthusiasts in the area. From its humble beginnings to a three-day show. Born out of the success of another summer event (Hot Summer Nights) the event’s organizers led by Bill Nelson knew a Hot Rod Car Show would be successful. Larry was the sponsor for the Beatles tribute band, Abbey Road, the first year and that is how it got started. “It just started out as car people coming downtown for one night to share their love for cars. We had 800 vehicles and a bunch of people the first year and it has grown from there. Cars came out of the woodwork for this event. The key is that it’s FREE. It is a family event.” This year on Friday night it will still be downtown with the band and special guests like George Barris and hot rods, but Saturday the event moves to the fairgrounds. Sunday the event begins with breakfast at J&L Harley and then concludes with area garage tours. Car builder, George Barris, will be at Larry’s garage all day Sunday.

Similar to Automania, Larry has been involved with the Winterfest of Wheels show for the past two years. This show has also experienced tremendous success in its relatively short life. “This show is unique with the quality of vehicles it presents. Dave and Karen Leisinger are the real driving force behind this show. They had the idea and we just helped them make it a reality.”

Larry Olson is a true “car guy.” “I like cars from the thirties to the seventies and the eighties, but I have friends from all over the board. Some of my friends just like muscle cars, others Corvettes. I have an appreciation for all vehicles. I like my vehicles individualized. I never have to worry about finding my cars in a crowded parking lot. I try to make each one unique.”

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