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Rick Brinneman and the Collection of a Lifetime

This Houston Gasoline sign is Rick’s most favorite. It is double-sided, 48 inches in diameter, baked porcelain over metal, and dates to the 1930s or early ’40s. Rick and Karen Brinneman pictured with their two boys Garrett and Jack.

By Melanie Saxton
Photos by Visage Photography

Rick Brinneman has been a car nut since he was 6 years old. At 15 he bought his first car with his own money. By the time he graduated high school he had owned a total of 10 different classic cars, but never more than three at a time.

“I started collecting vintage oil company and car dealership advertising pieces approximately 17 years ago,” says Brinneman. “We’d just bought our house and I wanted to do ‘something’ of my own in the garage.” Inspired after cleaning out his grandmother’s garage, he brought home a vintage Empire State Motor Oil can. This tin lithograph had graphics of the Empire State Building, an old single wing airplane, and three vintage race cars along the bottom edge of the front of the can. Fascinated, he built a shelf and began lining it with collectibles.

Brinneman buys, sells and trades. “When I first started collecting I had a very limited budget, sometimes only being able to spend $40 on a sign,” he says. “Plus, I wasn’t comfortable or knowledgeable enough to know what was ‘real’ or what was a fantasy/reproduction piece. It’s always ‘buyer beware’ and new collectors should always ask a lot of questions.”

Over time he found ways to add to his collection, including eBay. “I’d go junking (today’s equivalent of American Pickers) or go to garage sales and find items to sell to help fund my hobby,” says Brinneman. Treasure hunting became a lifelong hobby. “I bought my first metal detector with my own money when I was just 9. I’d look for coins (another early collection) and dreamt of finding a huge ‘hoard’ of silver or gold.” Brinneman was also influenced by his great uncle Johnny Paul, an original member of the Beer Can Collectors of America BCCA club. “At one point he had 7,500 unique beer cans in his collection,” says Brinneman. He’d come to town and we’d go junking. This was in the early ’70s.”

“Automobilia” is a term given to anything collectible relating to classic or vintage automobiles. It includes old car dealership signs, early hood ornaments, old automotive display advertising, old auto related matchbooks, lighters, car dealership promo cars (1/24th scale plastic model cars given out by car dealerships), vintage car parts used for display (some examples include steering wheels, hub caps, radiator caps, shifter knobs, oddities that were one off marketing items—two-way passing mirrors, stop light finders, etc).


A Thousand Items and Counting

“All you need is a little imagination to create your own display,” says Brinneman. “I once met an elderly gentleman with a 1920s automobile in his living room. He didn’t live in a large house but loved the car so much that he convinced his wife to let him display it in the house. Can you imagine?”

Brinneman has been married to Karen for 18 years. “She’s put up with a lot!” he says. “At one point she referred to it as my obsession, and admittedly it did consume a little too much of my time. It took her a while to admit she enjoys the final product.” He and his very tolerant wife share a home with about 150 signs. “Someone asked me several years ago how many signs I owned and I made a guess of about 75. I had no idea that I actually owned twice that amount! With all of my ‘smalls’ — collectibles that don’t take up much room — the estimate is close to 1,000 items.”

Brinneman’s purchases have slowed considerably, but he still looks whenever he gets a chance. “My collection is fairly mature at this point and I don’t have much room left. There are some specific items I’m still looking for — Houston Oil Company of Texas, Sinclair Aircraft Sign, etc. I took up the hobby when items could still be found at the source (they still can, just not as much). That’s where the fun is — finding it at the source! I always say anyone can buy a collection, but the fun is in hunting down the pieces! It’s a rush when that garage or barn door opens up and you find something cool. It doesn’t have to be valuable to be cool!”

People often ask Brinneman how he knows what to pay or what to buy. “The answer is easy,” he says. “Only buy things you like and pay what you think is fair. The only person’s opinion you need to consider is your spouse.” He and Karen have two boys — Jack, 10 and Garrett, 15 — and both kids think the car stuff is cool. “They’ve been drug along to many automotive swap meets, garage sales, picks, etc. They already have dibs on certain items, which means I’ll never sell them.”

There are specialty insurance companies that cover these special types of collections. “My specialty classic auto insurance company (Hagerty) mentions in their ads that a car hobby is a lifestyle. They understand there is a crossover of people who have vintage cars and they also collect related memorabilia.”

As with any collectible field, some items are common while others are rare. “My items have been purchased from many different sources. Some were found at automotive swap meets, garage sales, estate sales, old defunct car dealerships, old bulk oil plants that distribute items to area service stations, etc.,” says Brinneman. “Some items were found through networking. All of the items pictured are original and were used at service stations, car dealerships, etc.”


The “Sign” of His Times

Sometimes a simple conversation can lead to a coveted find. Out of the blue, Brinneman received a call from a Houstonian who heard he collected Houston Oil Company items. It took a couple of months to close the deal, but in the end both parties were happy.

“My favorite piece is that Houston Gasoline sign. The Houston Oil Company of Texas was founded around the time of Spindletop, 1901,” says Brinneman. “The history is still a little sketchy, but there weren’t many stations and not many signs were made — in this case, probably less than a hundred. I’ve owned a few of these signs over the years, but am glad to own this one.”

Interestingly, most collectors end up finding and meeting each other at different events. The Houston area has its fair share of sign collectors and car enthusiasts. “There have been some rivalries, mostly friendly,” says Brinneman. “You learn to keep your cards close to your chest when working deals. If word gets out, you may lose to someone else. Sign collecting is especially competitive. For me it’s always been a hobby and not about the value of items. As I mentioned earlier, it’s the chase and find that makes it fun.”

All in all, collecting is a hobby that can be started at any age and on just about any budget. “I just happen to have an interest in cars, but I’ve met people who collect buttons, sports memorabilia, telephone insulators, etc. It provides something to always look forward to, kind of like your next vacation,” says Brinneman. ‘If you do your homework there will always be another opportunity just around the corner.”

No one knows when the next great find will materialize… but eventually it will. “I’ve traveled tens of thousands of miles going on these treasure hunts. They don’t always pay off, but they are all memorable and I don’t regret any of them. I’ve made some great lifelong friends in the process.”

Various original 1930s through 1950s car dealership and service station advertising signs include porcelain coated and painted metal signs.

Neon advertising was very popular in the 1940s-60s. Neon was used at most car dealerships and service stations. Porcelain-coated metal neon signs generally are the most sought-after by automobilia collectors.

No collector’s garage is complete without at least one vintage gas pump. This one in the corner is a 1940s Gilbarco brand electric gas pump restored with the Texaco brand.

A 1940s Whiz Car Wash Powder can. Whiz was the best in the business at creating eye-catching graphics. Vintage Whiz cans with assorted graphics are very popular with collectors.

An assortment of motor oil and specialty product cans and vintage metal quart oil cans, most from Texas oil companies and many containing their original contents.

A vintage metal oil can.

Rick with two old stock 1940s advertising posters for Walker Mufflers.

His cast iron toy car collection from the 1920s and ‘30s.

A 1940s neon Desoto Automobile sign.

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