NORMAN — Bart Conner is a certified gear head. As a child he was the kind of kid who would tear down the family lawn mower engine and put it back together for fun.
Conner’s dad was an engineer and they share a passion for interesting and unusual automotive technology. The family never had a new car; they paid cash for used Lincolns with suicide doors and other distinctive used rides. Conner’s first street legal vehicle, after a succession of mini-bikes and go-carts, was a 1948 Willys Jeep.
“There were three boys in our family and we all pitched in $200 and bought a $600 Jeep,” Conner said. “We loved it; six-volt battery, four banger flathead engine that would go about 48 mph flat out.”
His dad started a photo album called “Bart’s Toys” to chronicle the various cars he’s had over the years. There’s a snapshot of Bart with the Willy in the suburban Chicago neighborhood where he grew up.
“It had a canvas roof and doors flapping in the wind,” Conner said. “It’s 20 below zero and I’m driving it wearing a ski jacket, just as happy as can be.”
Admitted to Oklahoma University on a gymnastics scholarship, his first two years of study were in the aerospace, nuclear and mechanical engineering program. Because of opportunities to work as a commentator for NBC television sports and stints on promotional campaigns, it appeared his academics should be headed in a different direction. Conner graduated from OU in 1984 with a degree in journalism. He is probably best known for being an Olympic gymnastics gold medalist.
Conner has gone on to build a sports training, philanthropy, media and motivational speaking conglomeration in Norman with Olympic gold medalist spouse Nadia Comaneci and former OU coach Paul Ziert.
Through all the various experiences, occupations and interests, Conner has never lost his love for interesting automobiles. He has attended performance driving schools and done some racing in 5/8-scale replicas of cars from the 1930s on the Legends circuit. Conner digs going 80 mph sideways.
“If he had the garage space, Bart would have 30 more cars,” Ziert said.
Conner has owned everything from a 1984 VW Rabbit to a Porsche 930. He still has a Ferrari purchased new from Big Red Sports and Imports in Norman back in the late 1980s when the dealership was a licensed franchisee for the legendary Italian brand.
“I’m not a car expert, but I love cool cars,” Conner said. “I saw this 1958 Cadillac Coupe de Ville in California and had to have it.”
He was immediately attracted to the audacious body style with enormous body sheet metal tail fins. They were a design detail that has become a symbol of the era’s popular culture. It’s a car so long that it barely fits in Conner’s garage.
“The designers of those 1950s cars came from the aviation industry and that’s why some of those components look the way they do,” Conner said. “And the Vegas turquoise color just pops out at you.”
The busy executive has a standard-issue late model Chevrolet Tahoe as a daily driver but the Coupe de Ville goes to his craving for something different and stylish to drive. And he does drive it.
Observing the stunning Cadillac on NW 36th Street and following it to Conner’s residential driveway is how this article came about. He was transporting his young son and pet aquatic turtle home from gymnastics meet one Sunday afternoon.
“I take it out mainly when the weather’s nice,” Conner said. “It’s not terribly practical for daily use but I get it out a couple of times a month.”
When he does, there are a lot of thumbs-up from other motorists. People want to know what year it is.
“Older generation people will tell me how they used to have one and never should have gotten rid of it,” Conner said. “I’m inspired by some of the progressive technology that car had for its time. There’s a foot peg on the floor next to the dimmer switch for advancing to the next pre-set radio station. That’s pretty cool for 1958.”
There’s also a feature called Autronic Eye. It’s an oval device that sits atop the left dash to detect oncoming headlamps and dim the Cadillac’s bright lights automatically if you neglect to manually. The Tri-Power engine uses a system of graduated carburetor performance for fuel economy that would instantly turn it into a roaring beast if you put the pedal to the metal.
“There’s a full size Kleenex box on a little swivel underneath the dashboard,” Conner said. “So you just swing that out if you want a tissue.”
It’s a car with character and small details like this make it extra special. It’s the vehicle’s personality that most appeals to Conner.
“Style is a big thing with me and this Coupe de Ville just grabs your attention,” Conner said.
Have you seen a cool vehicle around town? Writer Doug Hill is always looking for cars to write about for this column. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.