Edward Towe, a former Montana banker whose unrivaled collection of classic Ford cars and trucks became the centerpiece of a major Sacramento automobile museum, died March 13, his family said. He was 97.
Mr. Towe was a Midwestern farm boy with an entrepreneurial drive by age 15, when he repaired and sold bicycles in Paullina, Iowa. He began buying used Ford Model T cars and turning them into farm wagons, sparking a passion for the brand during years of ventures that included owning a Ford dealership and driving new models to California to sell at a higher profit.
By the time he was a successful banker in Montana, he returned to buying old Fords as a hobby, starting with a 1923 Model T roadster that he bought for $75 in 1952 and restored as a family project. He went on to buy more than 250 cars and trucks that made up the biggest Ford collection in the world, including vehicles representing every year from pre-Model T production to the 1950s.
"It was just a hobby that outgrew itself," said his daughter Kristin Updegraff.
After Mr. Towe's collection outgrew a museum in Deer Lodge, Mont., he was invited to move the bulk of his cars to a fledgling Sacramento museum run by the California Vehicle Foundation. In 1986, he took the wheel of a 1930s- vintage Ford to lead a caravan of transport trucks carrying his vehicles to the Towe Ford Museum on Front Street north of Broadway.
While the attraction flourished, drawing tens of thousands of visitors annually, Mr. Towe was hit by the Internal Revenue Service with a $4.5 million tax lien related to his former banking interests. To pay the debt, his collection was broken up and auctioned in 1997 to buyers from around the world. The sale of more than 110 antique Fords raised more than $2.1 million, including $205,000 for a 1906 Model K and $204,000 for one of only four 1904 Model B touring cars known to exist.
Meanwhile, 34 buyers kept their Fords at the Sacramento museum. Since then, classic cars of other brands have been added to the collection of vehicles at the renamed California Automobile Museum.
"This museum would not exist without Edward Towe," Executive Director Karen McClaflin said. "We still display more Fords than any other marque. His collection is what put us on the map."
Mr. Towe was born in 1914 to farmers in Norway, Iowa. He worked his way through engineering school at Iowa State College and worked as a draftsman for aircraft companies during World War II.
He owned a gas station, farmed in Iowa and ran a dairy freeze business in California before buying a small bank in South Dakota. He went on to own interests in 14 banks in Montana during 43 years in the industry and retired in the 1970s.
Mr. Towe had five children from a 71-year marriage to his wife, Florence, who died in 2007. He lived in Montana and near Tucson, Ariz., before moving to Sacramento about a year ago.
Although his lifetime spanned the automobile age, his favorite Ford was a boyhood classic.
"It was a 1914 Model T," his daughter said. "That was the year he was born."