Richard Pellow collected cars, both as a successful towing company owner and as a vintage auto buff.
Born in northeast Minneapolis in 1931, the son of an ice cream factory worker, Pellow rose from a pit-crew mechanic to body shop owner and finally kingpin of a family towing empire in the Twin Cities. A vocational school graduate, he wound up a three-term Republican legislator from New Brighton focused on cutting regulations and government bureaucracy — and along the way kicked up an ethics brouhaha when he sponsored two bills viewed as favorable to the towing industry.
When Pellow died with Alzheimer's disease in late 2019 at 88, he left behind a collection of 50 or so rare cars — including his first purchase, a 1935 Ford Cabriolet. There's the dean of the set, a 1905 Cadillac Model F, and a 1936 Hudson Terraplane Custom 6 convertible, believed to be one of only six left in the world.
Now his children are selling off their father's collection of cars and auto memorabilia in a live on-site/online auction Saturday, June 26, in St. Paul. Details and a short video can be found at tinyurl.com/PellowCarAuction.
"We've had six people flying in to look at certain cars the last few weeks," said son Roddy, 62, of Isanti, who followed his father into the local wrecker business.
Auctioneer Yvette VanDerBrink said Pellow "started from nothing" before building his successful businesses — as well as a "wonderful" car collection.
Even if you have no room in your garage for a 1948 Cadillac Fleetwood limo, the auction includes vintage hood ornaments, cash registers, a player piano, tin auto signs and old hubcaps.
"My dad never threw anything away," Roddy said. "He always walked on the curb, never walked on sidewalk, because he liked to find things like bolts in the gutter."
Pellow, the youngest of three children of Wisconsin-born Maurice and Letha Pellow, helped in the pit crew when a buddy raced at the inaugural Daytona 500 in Florida in 1959. At the time he was working as a switchman for the Great Northern Railway, according to a 1960 St. Paul directory that shows him living in New Brighton.
As Pellow and his wife of 62 years, Jean, began raising their five kids, he plunged into the auto world. He bought his first auto body shop in 1960 and Milt's Towing and Salvage in St. Paul by 1967, which mushroomed into an array of towing, insurance salvage and wrecker sales businesses.
Along the way, he founded the Minnesota Professional Towing Association, served as vice president of a national towing group, and was entered in the Tennessee-based International Towing and Recovery Hall of Fame in 1981.
"My dad always said he was no smarter than anyone else, but no one would outwork him," Roddy said. "He said success was not built on 40-hour weeks."
One Christmas in the mid-1970s, the family helped unpack a semitrailer truck that had rolled over on the road. "Towing is a 24/7 business," Roddy said.
In his late 40s, Dick Pellow made the leap from tinkering under the hood to collecting special cars. He purchased the Ford Cabriolet, one of five 1935 Fords on the auction block Saturday.
A decade later, he went to the State Capitol as a member of the House of Representatives, serving three terms between 1989 and 1996. A close ally of former Gov. Arne Carlson, Pellow contributed more than $18,000 and his own offices for use in Carlson's 1990 campaign.
"Dick genuinely liked people and liked to help people," Carlson said when Pellow died on Dec. 23, 2019.
While in the House, Pellow sponsored a bill to nix the Highway Helper program, which would have left stranded motorists with flat tires or dead batteries basically one option: to call a tow.
As ethics questions flamed up, Pellow removed his name from the bill. He steadfastly insisted he was merely trying to help his industry fend off governmental overreach into the private sector. He also was known to clash with state transportation officials, and once tried to put the kibosh on the Metropolitan Council.
Of all his cars, that 1936 Hudson might attract the most attention. It's rumored to have belonged to track star Jesse Owens, a gift from Hudson after his gold medal victories in the 1936 Berlin Olympics in Nazi Germany.
Roddy Pellow is trying to confirm the Owens connection they learned from the sellers, predicting the rare six-cylinder convertible might fetch $60,000 in Saturday's auction.
"My dad loved being a people person," his son said, remembering his old man's stint as Zephyrus, Prince of the West Wind, at the 1993 St. Paul Winter Carnival.
When Pellow died, former campaign manager Scott Anderson compared him with characters in writer Horatio Alger's rags-to-riches stories.
"He had the persona of a tough guy," Anderson told the Star Tribune at the time, "but he had a huge heart."
And a pretty nifty bunch of cars to boot.
Curt Brown's tales about Minnesota's history appear each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at email@example.com. His latest book looks at 1918 Minnesota, when flu, war and fires converged: http://strib.mn/MN1918.