The wind blows the dust around empty lots in Fresno, California. It is 1944 and 16-year-old Bill Ray works his butt off at the Famous Department Store.
But to get to work from his home on First Street and Floradora is a job in itself. He walks; rides a bike; or begs, borrows, or steals a car ride. Until, that is, shortly after he sees the car of his dreams: a 1934 Willy, short on luxury but long, long on character. And he wants it. Several factors work against him.
“During the war,” Ray recalls, “nobody was making new cars. Gas was rationed at around four gallons a week. It was a seller’s market. And I was only a 16-year-old kid.”
So how did he end up with the car?
“I talked like hell,” he laughs. His friend, business associate (Vice President of Bill Ray Tile), and fellow classic car fanatic, Humberto Quiroz, looks up from the smart phone screen to confirm the point: “He is a very, very good talker, then and now.”
So Bill Ray bought the Willy for $600 and thus began his long road race to accumulate one of the most varied and stunning collections of classic autos in the entire Golden State. Amassing what is now a 25-vehicle collection, however, was less a scientific investment strategy than a long-running romance.
His next purchase, for $500, was a 1930 Model A Ford Coupe, and it’s still in his collection. And he just kept going and going.
“I bought the ones that caught my eye,” Ray says, trying to explain the motivation behind his classic cars. “At first, with the Willy, it was just to get around. It kept me working to pay the bills. And, oh, the stories I could tell you of what went on in the backseat of that car.” He laughs heartily, but then casts a fake stern look when I ask for details.
“I think it was in the early ’60s,” he says, “that I began to think, ‘These cars are really going to be worth something someday.’ So, in a way, I saw them as investments. I didn’t have any overall plan really. As I read about a car in the papers, or someone put me on to a good deal, or someone from one of the old car clubs approached me…that’s how the cars came to me one by one. You don’t really make money in the car business, you just make friends.” Quiroz joins in on the last phrase; it is a joke the two share.
The other thing they share is an abiding affection and respect for each other. Quiroz snaps away at the cell phone, receiving and answering texts as we talk over Cobb salads.
“He does just about everything at the business,” Ray says, referring to the three Bill Ray Tile stores he has built over the years, “including all the import and export deals, which he’s probably working on right now.” Then nods appreciatively to his friend.