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About Sunbelt

About Sunbelt

April 24, 2003

All Geared Up: Sunbelt Owner Rogers Has Passion For Antique Cars

By John Katsilometes

Jim Rogers owns 189 antique automobiles. Of that number, 106 are fully restored, low-mileage machines gleaming with polished chrome and buffed-out paint.

The tires are new, the upholstery shows nary a nick and the interiors are immaculate. These old-timers would be classified by any car buff as "classics."

But they are not very good cars.

Says who?

The owner.

"People say, 'Why don't they make 'em like they used to?'" Rogers said during an interview at his office at KVBC Channel 3 this week. "Well, it's a good thing they don't, because they were not good cars. The Fords, the Buicks, the Cadillacs, they were all right for their day, but the engineering was pretty crude. the suspension was bad.

"They were all underpowered. They didn't have any extras you didn't have any power steering, power brakes, and you sure didn't have any air conditioning until '53, when Cadillac came out with air conditioning."

So why would Rogers (whose business savvy has boosted his estimated worth to $300 million) spend millions on a bunch of old cars, many of which would be out-performed by an '88 Yugo GV?

"They made them beautiful," said Rogers, owner of Sunbelt Communications Company, which is composed of 15 television stations in the western U.S. (including KVBC). "And they were unique."

No argument there.

Rogers' collection, valued at around $5.5 million, is a celebration of American-made automobiles, along with a few foreign-made cars favored by U.S. collectors. Antique cars have long been a passion for Rogers "It could be called a sickness, or an obsession," he says with a smile that will be unveiled formally Friday during an invitation-only opening at the Sunbelt Auto Collection Museum on Gragson Avenue.

The museum sits a couple of blocks south of the Channel 3 studios, near the corner of Bruce Street and Washington Avenue.

Rogers' plans for the museum which is actually a giant shed erected just two weeks ago are to open it for schools for educational outings and charities for fund-raising tours.

"I'd like it open for groups mostly, those who would really appreciate the cars," Rogers, 64, said. "Most likely we'd have groups of 50 or 60 people. I have no intention of making it a public thing, but if a charity wants to arrange to have an event and charge $20 a person and keep the money, that's what we'll do."

Groups or individuals interested in arranging a tour of the collection can call 657-3248.

Using his antique car collection as a mechanism to raise money for charity is entirely in character for Rogers, who has pledged between $240 million and $250 million to universities throughout the West, including the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

The University of Arizona law school is named for Rogers, and he's also made substantial donations to USC, Idaho State University in Pocatello, the University of Idaho in Moscow and Carroll College in Helena, Mont.

Rogers splits three months of the year in Pocatello and Helena; his base the rest of the time is Las Vegas, which has become home to his collection (though roughly 50 cars are still stored in Idaho and Montana).

Among the cars on display are a 1926 REO bus (a gaudy black-and-orange rig laden with brass trim and woodwork that must be seen to believed), a '31 Cadillac 452A V-16 convertible, a '40 Ford Woodie station wagon, a '41 Cadillac convertible, a '49 Chrysler Town & Country convertible, a '51 Mercury Convertible, a '53 Buick Skylark, a '53 Oldsmobile Fiesta, a '53 Chevrolet Corvette (one of only 314 ever built and one of approximately 100 still in existence), a '57 Chevrolet Bel Air and and a '72 Rolls Royce Corniche convertible.

Kid stuff

Rogers' fascination with cars dates to his early youth. Born in Tennessee as an only child, Rogers' family moved to Los Alamos, N.M., where his father, Frank, worked in the town's nuclear laboratories.

"When I was 7 years old there wasn't a car on the road I didn't know. I don't care whether it was the make, model, year, horsepower, transmission, anything," Rogers said. "I was always fascinated by cars. And when I was 14 my dad bought me a 1940 Ford two-door sedan."

So guess which make of car launched Rogers' collection.

"When you get into car collecting, the first car you buy is the first car you owned," Rogers said. "So the first car I bought was a 1940 Ford."

Wheeling and dealing for new/old automobiles is part of Rogers' lineage.

"My dad was always trading cars. I think there were some years when we had six cars," Rogers said. "There was a time when we were driving back from El Paso to Albuquerque and we were driving a 1949 Roadmaster Riviera and my dad saw two Chevrolets -- a hardtop and a station wagon -- sitting at a car dealership. We stopped, took everything out of the car and my dad traded it on the spot.

"We put the stuff in the cars and away we went."

From the '40 Ford, Rogers "graduated" to other cars that prompted pangs of nostalgia.

"After you get that first car, you buy the cars that are kind of related to it. I bought a '40 Woodie and a '40 Ford convertible," he said. "Then you bought the cars that your parents couldn't afford, but that you always wanted and envied ... I love the '49 Buick Roadmaster Riviera, but I always wished we could have owned a '49 Cadillac Coupe de Ville -- which has the same body exactly, except it had the fins on it. So I bought one of those."

Rogers hit a vein of gold for the year 1953.

"That was a milestone year for General Motors. The first Cadillac Eldorado, the first Buick Skylark, the first Oldsmobile Fiesta all came out that year and they were the first cars with wraparound windshields," Rogers said. "So I had one of each of those. I think I have the only set of Olds-Buick-Cadillac that there is. You go a little further and you have to have all the '53 General Motors cars -- the '53 Chevy and the '53 Pontiac.

"And this is the 50th anniversary of the Corvette, so I bought a '53 Corvette."

Sounds logical.

In search of ...

Rogers enjoys buying leverage afforded any $300 million man, but he also spends ample time seeking cars through avenues used by any other collector.

"I do all the searching myself," he said. "I have a guy named Mike Pratt, who is a wonder. He runs the whole group (eight employees are entrusted with restoring and maintaining the collection), and he and I are on the phone every night. Not most nights -- every night. And we're always tracking down some car."

The two seek deals in long- established publications, such as Hemmings Motor News, and such sites as oldcartrader.com. But nothing beats the personal touch, Rogers says.

"You talk to Harry Jones about a car, and he doesn't have one, but he says that Bill Smith does," Rogers said. "Then you're in the network -- it's just like collecting anything else ... My wife (Beverly) says, 'You know you're in trouble when you go into an auction and the auctioneer says, "Hi Jim, how are you?" ' So we're known, yes."

Though Rogers' collection is of high value, he doesn't own any of the most expensive antique cars on the market -- the average value of Rogers' collection runs around $50,000 to $55,000 per car (and they are for sale for anyone in the market for, say, a '54 Kaiser Darrin).

"We don't have any of the million-dollar cars. We don't have any Duesenbergs or those types of cars," Rogers said. "My collection started with the ones I originally bought, and they are something the common man could make enough to buy. Nobody could afford to buy a Duesenberg."

A particular attraction is the 1931 Cadillac V-16 convertible. The car's behemoth engine (and Rogers owns two, one in the vehicle and another for display) weighs 1,800 pounds. That's the largest engine ever dropped into an American-made car; engines in today's cars weigh about 500 pounds.

"You put that engine into one of today's cars, and it would fall out," Rogers said. "But you think about 1931 -- why would you have a car with a V-16? There were no highways, you know? ... But Americans fell in love with automobiles and they made their statements through automobiles."

Without hesitation, Rogers says his favorite car is the '49 Buick Roadmaster Riviera convertible, a slight variation of the car featured in "Rain Man" (acute Buick fans will note the variance in the chrome trim along the side of the Roadmasters built in '49).

"They were big, 4,800 pounds," Rogers said. "It had a 150-horsepower engine in it, no power steering, no power brakes. Nothing. But they were magnificent machines."

Rogers' cars of choice for around-town driving include a new Ferrari and Bentley. When asked which of his old friends he'd take for a spin on a lazy afternoon, Rogers said, "I don't drive them."


"I don't have time," he continued. "I wish I did have the time. But what I do enjoy is bringing people down here, running tours. What is really interesting is to invite people who are my age or even a few years younger to come through and say, 'My father had this or my grandfather had that and it was a beautiful car.' "

And in the hands of Jim Rogers, it still is.

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Sunbelt Antique and Classic Automobiles Company
1500 Foremaster Lane
Las Vegas, NV 89101-1103
(702) 642-3333
Contact Curator
Mike Pratt 702-649-0110