“I’m really a nut for flatheads."
When Ken Gross throws a party, the invitation list often includes fellow flathead Ford V8 lovers. “I’m really a nut for flatheads. I was always fascinated with the engine, and I don’t know if it was because I was speed-equipment-deprived as a child or what. I used to look through issues of Hot Rod, and I just wanted all of it. And now I’ve got a lot of it.
Now he also has a large space to have gatherings, in his outsized three-door garage in rural Virginia. “It’s wonderful to have a workable space,” says Ken Gross, a hot-rod expert who is as astute about the dull parts of the auto industry as he is about the genuine art of the automobile.
His collection of almost a hundred intake manifolds for Ford flathead V8 engines finally has a dignified home too, after Gross built a new colonial house with a gracious three-car garage on five acres of rolling hills in Virginia.
“The first thing I did was pegboard the whole back wall, and I probably will put up another wall of it, because the manifolds seem to be breeding. Partly it adds to the ambiance, and it’s a nice, safe place. We don’t have earthquakes here, so the likelihood of something falling down is low,” he explains.
Above the garage is a large room that’s finished as a one-room apartment. As his home was being built, Gross had planned to use this space to store his massive car magazine collection. Local zoning didn’t allow an extra apartment, in the event he rent it out to a family in his single-family property, so he took out the closets. It turns out that without closets in the room, the local township doesn’t classify it as living quarters.
“Having a nice garage, which isn’t fabulous but better than some, is that you can conveniently work on a car if you want to work on it, clean it, detail it, paint it—you can do all that stuff,” says Gross. “I like that it’s a great place to put my intake manifolds and all my other automotive art.”
Gross took several years off of being a full-time auto industry journalist in 1998 to become the director of the Petersen Museum in Los Angeles, the car nut’s Smithsonian. He was tasked with overseeing the care and welfare of irreplaceable wheeled works of American history for four years, before recently returning to the world of magazine writing and to the east coast, where he grew up in the 1960s.
Until he built his new house, Gross says he never really had a great space to work in. “Our home in California wasn’t big enough. I usually could keep one car at home, in a pinch two.” That’s clearly not enough room for a guy who’s owned a Ferrari 275 GTB and a Dino, five Morgans, a Jaguar XK150, a Lamborghini, and a corral of British motorcycles, including several Vincents and three Ducatis.
When he found the site in Virginia, the foundation had already been poured, but Gross was able to specify the height of the roof, so he could install a lift. He also was able to plumb the garage for a gas heater and upgrade the electrical system for extra circuits and a 220-volt outlet for a welder and the lift. “You can run a lift on 110 volts, but they just work a lot better and a lot faster on 220.”
When he moved in, he painted the floor with epoxy, a standard practice with garage aficionados. “My garage is pretty small by comparison to some, but it’s got everything I need. It’s a happy space,” he says. “I mean, I go out there and I see all this stuff on the walls that I’ve been able to accumulate.”
Gross inventories the equipment in his garage: “I have power tools, impact wrenches, the lift, a decent jack, the facility to change oil, one of those extendable drain machines. While I don’t have welding equipment and it’s been a long time since I’ve done any welding, I want whatever it is I need there, and I want to have room to work.”
“Years ago, I used to have a three-wheel Morgan, and I did quite a bit of work on it, overhauled the engine. Growing up in high school, I did a lot of work on my cars. Over the years, I’ve tried to do as much as I can do.”
“When you’re taking a car apart, you run the risk, if you’re keeping stuff in different places, of things getting lost and confused and mixed,” he says. “To me, the idea is a place to put a chassis and close along side it, tables and racks to put up all the stuff and carefully label it, because it may be a year or two before you put it back together again.”
The house sits on a steep slope overlooking a large pond in front, and in back is a courtyard that gradually rises up a hill. Already Gross is thinking of expanding the garage. “We have five acres, so my hope is to extend this garage backward, which would work on my property and would actually look kind of nice,” he says. “Right now, I could put five cars on the lower floor if I put them on rollers, or four on rollers and one on a lift, so maybe five cars total. For my little collection of old Fords and manifolds—and I have an understanding wife who doesn’t mind parking outside—this is a great place.”