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Fair's most notable rides won't budge

Acentennial exhibit rounds up antique carousel horses and vehicles ranging from a Model T to a Sherman tank.

Published February 13, 2004

It may be the only place you'll ever see a Sherman tank, a 93-year-old Rolls-Royce and an homage to hippiedom all under the same roof.

For more than year, officials of the Florida State Fair have been working on an exhibit that chronicles its first 100 years. There are plenty of photographs and artifacts, plus some antique carousel horses and a film presentation.

But for car buffs, by far the most impressive element of the Celebration of the Century is a lineup of cars, motorcycles and other vehicles that symbolize different eras of the past century.

"We're trying to show not just the fair's history, but the way America has changed," said Rick Vymlatil, the fair's executive director.

The idea, originally, was to have 10 vehicles, one from each decade. But fair officials quickly discarded the notion of adhering strictly to that plan.

"We were having so much fun, and people kept bringing cars in," said Joyce Covington, the fair's special events coordinator. "Everything we have is so unusual. We just didn't want to limit it to 10 vehicles."

There were some other problems with the initial idea, she said. Right at the start, fair officials thought they had a line on a pre-1910 car. But it turned out to be from 1911.

So, through Monday, there are 15 vehicles on display at the Charles M. Davis Special Events Center at the Florida State Fairgrounds. Some decades have a couple of representative vehicles; other decades have none. But the vehicles all have something to say about their era.

Covington says that fair officials fudged a little with one of the oldest cars, a 1911 Auto-buggy. They had hoped for a slightly older car that they would deck out in regalia typical of the first Gasparilla parade (in 1904, the same year the fair started). They couldn't find anyone who would lend them a 1904 car, so they borrowed a 1911 model and decorated it with paper flowers, like the cars in the first Gasparilla.

The exhibit features two 1911 cars. The other is a Rolls-Royce touring car.

From the 1920s (1921 to be exact) comes an REO Speedwagon, a 1-ton work truck that gave its name to the top 40 band of the 1970s.

Also from 1921 is a McCormick-Deering tractor.

"The reason we have this is that it has spiked rear wheels, from before they put rubber tires on tractors," Covington said.

One of the most impressive of the very old vehicles, Covington said, is a 1921 Model T truck. It's been owned since 1928 by the Bailey family, who ran Bailey's General Store in Sanibel. About half of the 83-year-old truck is original - including three of the four tires.

From there the exhibit jumps ahead to the 1940s, with an M4A3 Sherman tank and a Crossley, a car manufactured right after the end of the war.

The first two motorcycles in the exhibit come from 1959 (a Wasp) and 1962 (a Jurak B-20).

Most of the older vehicles are on loan from local private collectors, especially Edward Rusinek of Zephyrhills. He owns the Auto-buggy, the REO Speedwagon, the 1921 tractor, the Crossley and the two motorcycles. The tank came from the Armed Forces Military Museum in Largo.

The 1950s also bring the first boat into the exhibit, a Lone Star Meteor.

"It's the cutest thing," Covington said. "It looks like a little frog."

For later vehicles, local businesses got into the act.

An oldies radio station loaned the fair a 1965 VW split-window bus, festooned with peace symbols and other icons of the era.

"It's our tribute to the peace years, the hippie years," Covington said.

The other 1960s vehicles are an Amphicar, an vehicle that travels on land or water, and a bright pink 1965 Thunderbird.

Barney's of Brandon contributed a Yamaha Wave Runner. There's a bit of stretch involved here, Covington admits. It's a 2004 model but it's representing the 1980s, because that's when Wave Runners first became popular.

The modern era is represented by a Centennial Edition Harley-Davidson from 2003, which the motorcycle manufacturer released to commemorate its own 100th anniversary, and by a 110-ton Caterpillar MT 600 Challenger tractor.

Yes, that's right, 110 tons. That's 220,000 pounds.

"This is the most beautiful tractor you've ever seen in your life," Covington said. "It makes the Sherman tank look small."

It also shows how far motor technology has progressed over the lifetime of the Florida State Fair. Just a few steps away from the 110-ton, air-conditioned computerized tractor with a CD player are the 1-ton REO work truck and the tractor with spikes instead of tires.

[Last modified February 12, 2004, 12:51:07]

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