I am finally taking the time to share the story of how I found my grandfather’s 53 Buick Riviera at a swap meet. Even twelve years later, it’s still hard for me to believe. The Buick is not just a car to me, its part of my family history, so I’ll begin by sharing a bit of background about my grandfather.
Denny Sermersheim was part of “the greatest generation”. He was given the nickname “Summertime” by his C.O. during World War II. His love of engines started at an early age. Denny attended Carter Carburetor School in St. Louis, MO, and was working at Allison Engineering in Indianapolis, IN when he enlisted in the Navy. After attending Packard Marine Engine School, he was the engineering officer of the Ron 9 PT Boat Squadron. Based in the South Pacific, Denny’s squadron was the team that rescued John F. Kennedy when he was stranded on an island behind enemy lines. That story was depicted in the 1963 film “PT 109” staring Cliff Robertson and Robert Blake. I’ve shared a great photo that I have of Denny, with a smile on his face, making a still out of scraps in the jungle to make the time at war a bit more bearable.
After the war, not wanting to live with humidity ever again, Denny moved his family from Indiana to Inglewood, CA. He never lost his enthusiasm for perfecting the performance of an engine so he went to work for Harry Mann Chevrolet and then on to Simpson Buick. In 1953, wanting to own his own business, Denny bought a piece of land in Twentynine Palms, CA, about two hours outside of L.A. He went back to Jasper, Indiana, where he had grown up, to enlist the help of his father, Heamer, to build a home, and Denny’s new business, “Summertime’s Carburetor and Electric Service”. The Business slogan from day one was: “Engines Tuned Like A Fine Violin”. Like myself, my great-grandfather Heamer was a cabinet maker and musician.
While back in Indiana to pick up Heamer, Denny purchased a brand new 1953 Buick 2 Door Riviera 56R for $3500. Before he left the lot, he had a plaque installed on the glove box door that read: Built Expressly for Denny Sermersheim. They drove the new Buick from Jasper to Twentynine Palms to get started building the new house and business. From the photos they took along the way, it looks like they had the time of their lives, sightseeing and goofing off along Route 66. Over the years, the Buick made that trip with family several more times.
When “Summertimes” opened, it had the newest equipment available, a great sign out front and floors that were always so clean, you could eat off of them. Over time, Denny made various changes to the Buick. We have the receipt and photos from when he upgraded the engine and drive train. Some of the things he did were to add an Edmunds intake manifold, two Carter carburetors and a Judson Electronic Magneto. He also had the valve covers, exhaust manifold and other items chrome plated. The chrome still looks great today. In the early 60’s the car was repainted from the original green to gold and around the same time, Denny took the Buick to Tijuana, Mexico for new leather tuck-n-roll upholstery.
My parents met while in high school in Twentynine Palms. After college and career choices, they settled in suburban Los Angeles. Growing up, I have great memories of spending time with Denny and my grandmother, Silver, in Twentynine Palms, and when they would drive the Buick into the city to visit us. One memory for example, is that I would be out in the garage, and Denny, liking to partake in a little nip now and then, would pull a bottle out of some hiding place, look at me, put his finger up to his mouth and whisper Shhhhhh, he’d take a drink, and put the bottle back into hiding. I thought it was a funny secret. To me, he always seemed happy and he never met a stranger no matter where he was.
Denny passed away in 1976 and although I wanted that Buick so bad, I was not old enough to drive yet. Silver sold the house/business in Twentynine Palms to move closer to my family. With limited space at her new home, she needed to sell the car as well. She sold it to a “friend” of the family for $3000. with the stipulation that when I was old enough, he would sell it back to her. When I was ready to drive and wanted the car, he had a change of heart and refused to sell it back. We never knew what happened to the Buick after that.
In 1999 I acquired a 56 Ford pickup truck from my dad’s brother. It needed a lot of work so on a Sunday morning; I dragged my wife Jill down to the Long Beach car swap meet to look for parts. I didn’t find anything I wanted so I said, “lets go home”. Her response after getting up really early and walking around looking at car parts all morning, was to at least let her walk the rows of vintage cars for sale. I was ready to leave, but thought I should probably walk a few rows since she had been so patient. Getting towards the end of the first row, I couldn’t believe what I saw. I said to Jill: “that looks like my grandfather’s Buick”! We got a little closer and out comes: “that IS my grandfathers Buick”!! The hood was up and right before me were his two chrome air cleaners with his silver “Summertime’s” sticker on the front one.
The older gentleman standing by the car asked: “who is your grandfather?” I told him, Denny Sermersheim as I pulled out his business card, which I have always carried in my wallet. He looked almost as shocked as I was and asked me to wait a minute while he collected all of the original paperwork out of the car. He had the original purchase agreement from 1953, every registration from when Denny and Silver owned the car and the receipts from the various work, including the engine upgrade. I think we were all stunned to say the least.
It turned out that this guy took ownership from the “friend” my grandmother had sold the car to through a bad debt. Being a vintage motorcycle collector with numerous vintage cars on top of it, his wife wanted him to thin out his collection and get his money back out of the Buick. He had the Buick at the swap meet the previous month and had been offered close to his asking price. Luckily, he didn’t accept it. Although he had a really high price on the car, after hearing my story and realizing that my grandfather really was the original owner, he lowered the price substantially to get it back in my hands. Even at the lower price, I didn’t have the cash, but with the help of my mom, Dana, we knew we had to make the deal happen.
A few days later, Jill and I drove down to Orange County to pick up Denny’s Buick. The car was in the EXACT same condition as he had left it in 1976. His mail was still under the seat, my grandmother’s cigarette butts still in the ashtray and that plaque that reads, “Built Expressly for Denny Sermersheim”, was still on the glove box. It turned out that the Buick had sat under a car cover in the Nevada desert all those years, and was never driven. The car didn’t have any rust or damage from being exposed to moisture so even the chrome was still in great condition.
I immediately had to drive it to my parent’s house since everyone in the family was so excited to see the Buick again. As we all stood in the driveway looking over the car in disbelief, Jill pulled the original Bill of Sale from the glove box to show my mom. She looked at it and said: “Can you believe this? The original payment was made on June 24, 1953 and today is June 24, 1999, exactly forty-six years to the day; the Buick is finally back home where it should be!
The whole experience of being reunited with the Buick has been a once in a lifetime event. The entire process felt like something “bigger” was at play than just a stroke of luck. Denny is still such a big part of my family’s life, so many years after he passed away. My parents, now in retirement, live in the house that Denny and Heamer built in 1953, where “Summertime’s Carburetor and Electric” was in business until 1976. My dad purchased the house in foreclosure a number of years ago and we remodeled it to suit their needs today.
We have so many photos throughout the time the Buick has been in our family so I wanted to share a few here. I also had some T-Shirts made in honor of Denny and the spirit of “Summertime’s”.