Most drivers zipping through the plastic and fiber glass glare of Maryland's Route 1 fail to notice the old-fashioned Oldsmobile signs at an auto showroom in Hyattsville.
But they caught the eye of Paul S. Swedlund, an amateur photographer who was captivated by the signs and who labored for several months to find a showplace for them when the dealership moved its operation to a new building across the street.
The signs, still hanging from the former Lustine Oldsmobile showroom, are expected to be moved by the end of the year to two automobile museums in Michigan and South Dakota.
"I saw in the signs a sort of style that doesn't exist anymore, a sort of relic from America's commercial past," Swedlund said. "They evoke a lot more than what the signs themselves might say. They evoke an era when things were different. They sort of show where we've been and where we're going."
"They're great," said Linda Gonzalez, assistant to the president at Lustine Oldsmobile/Buick Inc. which is donating the signs. "They're right out of 'Happy Days.' "
The signs probably date from the late 1930s or early 1940s and were some of the first factory-made car dealership signs, according to Lou N. Kairys, Lustine's president.
The R.E. Olds Transportation Museum in Lansing, Mich., will add to its collection one of the signs, a neon vertical version about 15 feet high with a small stem at the bottom. Turquoise neon letters, spelling "OLDSMOBILE" and connected to each other, cascade down both sides of the sign. Yellow and blue porcelain steel with red porcelain trim forms the base of the sign and a red porcelain circle with white letters reading "PARTS" points into the Olds showroom.
In Murdo, S.D., the Pioneer Auto Museum will receive a horizontal sign about 12 feet wide with pink neon tubing featuring "OLDSMOBILE" lettering and yellow and blue porcelain steel. A neon "SERVICE ENTRANCE" sign and a triangular red and white "OLDSMOBILE SERVICE" sign will also be shipped to the 35-year-old antique showplace.
Besides their age, the signs are unique, Swedlund said, because the use of porcelain steel behind neon tubing was rare when they were made. Swedlund, a 26-year-old lawyer whose interest in old cars and automobile paraphernalia stems from his family's longtime car collecting hobby, first noticed the sign while driving at night on Route 1 last May. He took shots of the signs and returned a couple more times to photograph them again.
He read in a newspaper ad about a month later that the Oldsmobile dealership was moving across the street to a temporary location.
Swedlund asked Kairys about the fate of the signs and was told that the dealerships had no plans to move them to the new facility. Then Swedlund made an offer: Let him find a new home for the signs at no cost to the company and Lustine could donate them. They struck a deal.
"Lots of places were interested but they didn't have the facilities to display them or they didn't have the money" to pay shipping cost or erect them, he said. "Several museums were interested in the vertical signs until I gave the dimensions. Then they'd say, 'We don't have room for something that big.' "
JoAnne Jager, president of the R.E. Olds Transportation Museum, said, "We're interested in the history of transportation here in Lansing, the home of Oldsmobile," and although the vertical neon sign is not from Lansing, "it represents the expanse of the industry across the country."
Before moving to the District to attend Georgetown Law School, Swedlund had lived in South Dakota and remembered hearing about the 40-building Pioneer Museum. He phoned officials there, and they, too, were interested.
"These signs are a part of automotive history, and they just fit in right with our others," said Dave Geisler, owner of the Pioneer. "Unfortunately so many of these signs get trashed."
Swedlund calls this effort his "virgin voyage on this side of preservation." "Most people don't recognize things that are only 30, 40, 50 years old as being worthwhile," Swedlund said of commercial artifacts. "But they have to be preserved or 100 years from now they won't be here."