LOWER TOWNSHIP — Bob Smeltzer remembered him as a man who offered a Mercedes owned by Adolf Hitler, and used as a getaway car by Luftwaffe commander Hermann Goring, as collateral for a small business loan.
Ralph Waldo Emerson Cox Jr. used the German touring car to secure a line of credit in 1964 to found one of the first campgrounds in Cape May County. The county is now dotted with campgrounds.
Cox, in lots of ways, was way ahead of his time. And yes, the car was more than enough to secure the bank loan for the Wildwood Canadian Campground.
“I enjoyed Ralph. He was an eccentric and a very interesting individual. You could listen to him for hours,” said Smeltzer.
The auction of the extensive collection of cars, planes, buses, fire trucks, steam-powered trains and other memorabilia Cox collected during his long life, which ended two years at the age of 97, was a backdrop to remember Cox himself.
The vintage cars were only a small part of his life. Cox was also known as a pioneer in aviation, who flew the Shah of Iran around during a locust invasion in that Persian country in 1950, took part in the Berlin and Korean airlifts, and responded to the Cuban Missile Crisis.
During World War II he was a U.S. Navy aviator, who graduated first in his dental school class in 1939 but then decided he wanted to fly. He got his wings shortly after Germany invaded Poland.
Most looking at the car collection on Friday, the preview day for Saturday’s auction, knew Cox as the founder of U.S. Overseas Airlines, the largest employer in Cape May County for a brief time after World War II.
Using a wooden hangar at Naval Air Station Wildwood, Cox assembled a fleet of military surplus planes and flew paying customers all over the world. He had six DC-7s, four DC-6s, and 12 DC-4s. Before the federal government squeezed non-scheduled airlines out of business, Cox was a major player in the growing field of low-cost air travel.
“He lived the life of probably four different people. He saw and accomplished so much. It was amazing to me,” said his son Ralph Waldo Emerson Cox III.
A Pittsburgh native, Cox said his father was set to be a dentist when the sky started calling him. He flunked his physical for the Army Air Corps due to high blood pressure but was accepted by the Navy and was given the task of patrolling for enemy submarines.
After the war military aviators were buying up surplus aircraft and starting their own airlines. There were about 500 start-ups in 1946 operated by ex-military pilots, all filling a void as commercial airlines could not keep up with demand.
Cox could not afford to buy a plane, even military surplus, so he rented his first one, a DC-3, and began flying to New York, Boston and Miami.
“When he started the airline, my grandmother sewed the curtains for his first airplane,” said Maureen Harriscq, Cox’s daughter.
He was flying out of North Carolina until 1949 when one of his mechanics who had summered in Wildwood told him about the empty hangar at Naval Air Station Wildwood. Cox worked a deal for the hangar space with Cape May County, which owned the airport after the war, and bought four DC-3s from American Airlines.
Cox kept expanding and at one point also had operations in California.
“He was the largest non-scheduled air carrier in the world at one time,” said Harris.
His travels, and, according to his son, his scouts, alerted him to good deals for his car collection and he could often use his planes to bring them back to Cape May County.
“He could tell you where he got each car, where it came from, the owner’s names,” said Cox.
That’s why the family believes the story about Hitler’s Mercedes. Though it couldn’t be confirmed, a background check found it was built for and delivered to the propaganda wing of the Nazi Party.
Harris said she was always told the 1935 Mercedes Benz 500K Tourenwagen was Hitler’s own car and Goring tried to escape in it as World War II was coming to an end.
“He found it on his honeymoon and brought it back on the (ocean liner) Mauretania,” said Harris.
The car already sold before the auction along with 1932 Auburn for $2 million. Harris said other cars were sold over the years including a Mercedes once owned by Hitler’s foreign minister Joachim von Ribbontrop and a Packard owned by famous singer Jeanette MacDonald.
The cars, trolley cars, buses, fire trucks and other vintage transportation _ even horse-drawn wagons and carriages _ that are left drew a large crowd on Friday. Hundreds of people filed into the NASW hangar that U.S. Overseas Airlines once used to see the collection and register to bid at Saturday’s auction.
“I could get this running in about two weeks,” said one man as he looked over a 1951 Ford convertible.
Bidders can take part in person, by phone, on the Internet, or simply leave a check for the maximum amount they will pay for at item, said Rubert Banner, of the international auction house Bonham’s.
“There’s something for everybody here. They’re haven’t been many collections like this,” said Banner.
Some marveled at the cars but others came to look at fire apparatus, airplane engines, old bicycles and wooden music boxes.
As the commercial airlines grew the Civil Aeronautics Board slowly squeezed the small non-scheduled airlines out of business. By 1964 they had taken all the business away.
“He always said they put us on a starvation diet and then they accused us of losing weight. He said the big airlines forced all the little guys out of business,” said Harris.
Cox retired from that business proud that in 18 years a passenger had not suffered “so much as a scratch,” Harris said.
The collection took over the hangar for a while as the Frontier Village Transportation Museum, but eventually it ended up in Cox’s barn in Rio Grande.
Smeltzer said it’s a shame to break up such a collection. His son, Cox III, also admitted to being sad about selling off the collection, but he put it in perspective.
“He was more of a treasure than all this stuff,” he said.
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