Celebrating Len

Photo for Celebrating Len

NAMGAR Pioneer, Len Renkenberger, passed away in late November 2012 as the January/February issue of MGA! magazine was being finalized. There was far more material regarding Len, his life, his friends, his passions, and his antics than there was space in the magazine. The stories continue...

Remembering Renk by Michaell Hughes

“I began my life long association with MGs and MG people when I was a teenager. Now I find myself writing of my memories of someone I've known as long as I've owned an MG, Len Renkenberger, known to his many friends simply as Renk.

“Renk taught me a number of things, some of which might be called “life lessons.” Among them: You don’t lean on cars (or stand on them, but that’s another story!)… Old cars are meant to be driven - NOT trailered… It’s okay to ask for help – one day you’ll be able to give it… A man’s tools are like his wife – you only take them out with permission and you don’t bang on them!

“Now since you are reading this in an MG club newsletter, you might mistakenly think that Renk was an MG enthusiast. Far from it, but in the nicest possible way! He liked his trouble in much larger doses than just MGs could possibly satisfy. He and Ruth had roots in Pennsylvania, where sturdy Studebakers were and are revered, so naturally he had Studebaker trucks and Studebaker cars, like one of those Wagonaires with the retractable roof panel so it could be used like a pickup. That one had a 327 V8 and ran like the dickens. I bet he would have had a Studebaker Conestoga Wagon or maybe the sports car equivalent, a Studebaker Doctor’s Buggy, in his stable if there had been some place for him to keep the horses. After all, there would have been no point in having them if he couldn’t drive them. And he drove! Some of his trips became legendary in the retelling. Like the time he found the '46 Bentley Mulliner saloon half exposed in a decaying barn near Charlottesville, Virginia and drove it home to Derwood, Maryland with no brakes, or the time he and a friend took part in a “T” Register rally through the original thirteen colonies during the Bicentennial and lost a rear wheel at speed on the Interstate. Or maybe the time that he and Ruth drove their freshly restored Mk II Deluxe MGA, “Albatross,” across the continent and back during one of hottest summers then on record to attend a NAMGAR GT.

“This guy simply loved old cars, and could make them sing. Of course, he also liked old trucks, old boats…you get the picture. He was fortunate to have in Ruth a life partner who absolutely shared his enthusiasms and they raised up a pair of kids, Lenny and Shirl, who have had the old car bug since infancy. When they were old enough to drive Shirl eventually got her own MGA and Lenny developed a love for TVRs.

“Renk cut his British car teeth on Triumph TRs. An early “small mouth” TR led to an early MG, in this case a decrepit TC, which he brought back to life and ran for decades. In forty years I have never seen the top up on this car. His preferred daily drivers for years of 75 mile a day commutes were a succession of TR6s, patiently rebuilt, welded up, whatever, each of which went hundreds of thousands of miles until they collapsed completely. We’d wave on the Beltway occasionally when we happened to be going the same way. When the kids got too big to ride around in the back of a “T,” he built a four seat TR6 out of bits from his old commuter cars. He found and restored a slightly more modern TD for Ruth so she could drive to events in an MG with the top up if it rained. This led to MGAs and then the Bentley and finally the Turquoise Texas Rolls Royce. It would be hard to list all the cars he and Ruth owned. Apart from a couple of fairly modern Mercedes-Benzs and the Studebakers, there had to have been a Jaguar or two in there somewhere and I know he liked Healeys, but maybe that was before my time!

“With apologies to Ruth, any memory of Renk will not be complete without some mention of “Boschman.” Put simply, “Boschman” was a manifestation of Renk’s zanier side. Back in the '60s and '70s one got a prize inside the package when buying a pack of Bosch sparkplugs, kind of like a box of Cracker Jacks. Sometimes it was a bright yellow hooded plastic cape with the word “BOSCH” emblazoned in black on the back, I guess to wear at the track if it rained. Most folks threw it away. Renk kept his folded up in the door pocket of his yellow TC to wear when it rained, because he never put up the roof. We used to drink a little at car events before it became politically incorrect. One time at a Chesapeake Chapter Mini GOF in Williamsburg, Renk suddenly appeared, buck naked except for a pair of Ruth’s panties and the yellow hooded Bosch cape, and ran screaming at the top of his lungs into the motel pool! “Boschman” had been born. From that time forward “Boschman” would appear at any MG event at which Ruth and Renk were in attendance, if there was any body of water nearby. Swimming pools, off the end of a dock, the fountain at the Casino at Saratoga Springs were all magnets for “Boschman,” to the delight of onlookers and the embarrassment of Ruth, who over time (and with varying degrees of success) went to greater and greater lengths to hide her undies and the yellow “Bosch” cape from him at events until Renk finally gave up and eventually retired “Boschman” for good.

“If you go to all-British car shows, you owe it in part to Renk. Because of their far-flung automotive interests Ruth and Renk belonged to so many different British car clubs that it was easy for him to generate enough regional interest to make one happen. So he and several others in the Chesapeake Chapter organized the very first all-British car show in the U.S. at the British Embassy in 1976, which moved to larger quarters at the Naval Academy the following year and then on to Allen Pond Park: The Original British Car Day.

“If you own a “T” Series MG, and belong to the Chesapeake Chapter, Ruth and Renk were founding members, past Chairpersons, did the “Square Rigger” newsletter, hosted Chapter events big and small, helped found The Original British Car Day, and energized the older MG scene for decades. They also belonged to the Vintage Triumph Register, the Rolls Bentley Owners Club, the Studebaker Club, and countless other organizations. When they moved to the Eastern Shore, he found and restored a vintage Penn Yan wooden motorboat. If there was a Penn Yan boat club, or a wooden boat society, or a vintage outboard motor club, I’m sure that he belonged to it!

“However, if you own an MGA and belong to the North American MGA Register, you owe Renk a particular debt of gratitude. It was his idea. He had suggested to the directors of the New England MG “T” Register that they expand their “Variant” classification to recognize the post XPAG/XPEG MGs of the 1950s, such as the ZA/ZB Magnettes and the MGA and MGA Twin Cam, much as the “T” Register had earlier recognized and brought into the fold the pre-war MGs. No Dice. So he talked to a bunch of his MGA loving and MGA owning friends about how to respond to this and the upshot was a Sunday afternoon meeting at John and Linda Wright’s home in Temple Hills, Maryland at which NAMGAR was formed and organized along the lines of the “T” Register. My friend and neighbor, McGhee “Mac” Spears, became the first chairman and I became AM #2. Ruth did the NAMGAR newsletter for years.

“Of all the life lessons Renk taught me, the best one is not to be a “tunnel vision” enthusiast. Today I still own some of the MGs that first brought me into the hobby, but have expanded to Jaguar, Merkur, classic Mercedes-Benz, and even a ‘50s Dodge V8 Pickup. Renk, who loved a sturdy Studebaker pickup, would be proud.

“Here’s an example of Renk’s passion for the hobby, as well as his wry humor, culled from a 1979 issue of the Chesapeake Chapter newsletter, “The Chesapeake Square Rigger.” I’m gonna miss you Boschman!”

Renk On Trailering

It has been called to my attention that many members of the M.G. Fraternity feel that I have a very intolerant attitude toward trailering with a ‘T’ series.

It has been further suggested that the only reasons I have such an aloof attitude is that I am a master mechanic and do not have to take the whole family along on ‘T’ trips. Anyone who has seen me on the road sides of Virginia, Colorado, Kansas, or Florida with the bonnet up can dispose of this first point quickly. Secondly, we are a very close family. When one goes, we all go—usually in two old MGs. But on other occasions we have taken turns driving the fun car (M.G.) and drudgery car (closed modern). However, there are many occasions when we wish to take two cars and two drivers sharing the comfort of one car as many of my critics do. In such instances we trailer with our ‘T’.

As positive proof that I do believe in trailering with a ‘T’ type and do actually practice such I submit the following photograph.

Renk Towing

Len Renkenberger Remembrance- Bob Vitrikas

“Len was always ready to help an MG owner in distress. I met Len in July 1976 during my first outing with my newly restored MGA. A brand new brake hose had come apart leaving me 60 miles from home with no brakes. None of the British parts suppliers had the hose in stock, so there I sat. Len came to my rescue and offered to take one off a car he had at home, only a few miles away. I was amazed. This fellow, whom I had never met, would take a brake hose off his perfectly good MGA to get me on the road and homeward bound.

“Len was a recruiting agent for NAMGAR. In the process of retrieving the hose, Len told me about this new organization dedicated to MGAs called the North American MGA Register and suggested I should join. How could I refuse this kind fellow who just handed me the brake hose from his MGA and helped me install it on my car? I sent in my NAMGAR registration as soon as I got home and have been a member ever since.

“Len was innovative. I recall a conversation with Len one day when he explained how he fixed his TR6, a daily driver with one end in need of serious repair. So Len bought another TR6 that had one good end, the one he needed. As he lined up the cars in his driveway to begin swapping parts he thought, "Why go to all that bother? I can just cut the two cars in half and weld the two good ends together?" Len did just that taking care to align the frame by closing the doors. Len drove that two tone TR6 for several more years! Len did things his way. Another wonderful Len Renkenberger story involved painting his post war Bentley. A normal person would take great pains in painting this precious car in a climate controlled paint booth that is kept as clean and dust free as an operating room. Not Len, he used a bug sprayer to apply the paint and he and Ruth spent the better part of the afternoon catching leaves before they fell into the paint. It was Fall.

“Len changed my life. As the newly appointed Historian for NAMGAR, I decided I would write a book on the MGA to help spread the word on this wonderful car. I kicked this idea around with Len and asked him for advice on how I should proceed. Len suggested I contact Dick Knudsen since he had written several books on the T series. I contacted Dick and he kindly served as my mentor as I researched, wrote, and got my book published. As a result of writing the book, I have made lifelong friends around the MG world. These MG enthusiasts have enriched my life beyond measure and helped define who I am. Len, I can never thank you enough for what you have done for me and for MGA enthusiasts. Enjoy your ride on the last open road.

Octagonally, Bob Vitrikas”

Contemplating Renk- John Wright

“I sit here at my computer two days after Renk's memorial service. Still without words, but full of feelings. As many of you know, Renk was a close friend for many years. In a roundabout way we met R&R through Dick Embick, a TC owner from back in the early days. Dick knew we had a TD and invited us to attend a Chesapeake Chapter "T" Register picnic being held in a park near Rising Sun, MD. This is the time Mac Spears was driving a borrowed TF in which the rear brake line broke, spilling the brake fluid. Mac managed to run the car up the road embankment, saving himself and the TF. Very impressive. But we were also impressed by the friendly and happy group of folks that all had this common affection for the MG marque. We were on the MG route with our choice in cars by then, although any MG friends were few and far between. Here was a guy, an engineer, that you could talk to and get answers from. Anything like why a TD can judder in reverse to how to put a decent paint job on an MG in your driveway. People from all walks of life were in this club and they all got along just fine.

“Renk and I became fast friends, and I listened, and listened. Although we lived almost a hour away, for a number of years every Friday night we made the trek to Derwood, MD from Temple Hills, MD. Often in the TD, Bugeye, or XKE. We had a nice little padded area in each of these cars for our son, John, who was about four years old at the time, Linda and I in our early 20s. Johnny has told us that he still can picture all the bolts and rivets inside the boot of a Bugeye. Something I no longer brag about! We drank wine and smoked a few cigarettes. R & R introduced us to all manner of nice wines. What you can do with the corks and how to make a collage of labels from around the world for under the glass of a four foot patio table. We heard about buying their Mercedes at the factory and driving it around Europe for several weeks. We discussed the racing past of his yellow TC and we always went to his smallish garage where he had packed way more cars and parts than could be imagined. His love for the TC was passed to me as well, as I now have "Roots" the wonderful '47 TC that Renk later restored for another Chesapeake Chapter friend, Bill Porter.

“He did teach me how to paint. I was in the habit of buying an MGA for $50 to $250 and fixing a bunch of errors bestowed upon the poor car by a string of previous owners. Nothing like sorting out a beat up old car and making it work in total over and over again. You end up seeing all methods of achieving a "fix." Every time I would run across one that I just had to share, I would call Renk and we would have a chuckle. But I need to move to the next "level" of MGA restoration. I needed to paint something. We had our plan and every once in a while Renk would drive down to our house where I would have an MGA ready to spray. We had a little routine, which consisted of starting early, just after the dew and before the bugs woke up. The other big part of the plan was to have a tweezers in the back pocket just in case a few bugs were awake before we got to work. Renk and I probably painted three or four cars down there in our Temple Hills driveway in the early 1970s. I remember the first one. It was a black Mk II MGA. The big discussion was would it take one quart or two. Money was thin so I opted to buy just one quart. I had gone over the car and filled all the little paint chips and such with one big tube of Nitrostan. Renk arrived and said no way could we cover all those red splotches with one quart. I had to run up to the paint store and buy another quart of black Centari at $6 a quart. It actually turned out pretty well and because of the paint job, I got several more bucks when I sold it. When Johnny graduated from High School in 1985, we painted his MGB red in the driveway. When Google Earth came to being ten years ago or so, you could still see the pink ring on the concrete drive from that paint job. When I told Renk this story years later he had quite a chuckle and it took us back for a bit.

“Renk taught me patience. He taught me that the only acceptable outcome is the right outcome. He taught me to be a teacher of my skills. He taught me how to interact with all people from Admirals to repairmen, and everyone in between. He taught me the value of friendship.”

Remembering “Renk”.... by Hank Rippert

“My encounters with Len and Ruth began in the early 70s when we were collectively involved with the formation of local Chapters of The New England MG T Register. I think our first face to face was at The Register's AGM in January 1973. Renk, Ruth, and Mac Spears drove to Andover, MA to present a unique proposal to the Board. When it came time on the agenda for Chapter Business, I delivered what I thought would highlight The Delaware Valley Chapter's high level of MG enthusiasm. Didn’t quite draw the standing ovation I was anticipating. It must have been my delivery....

“Next up was Team Chesapeake Chapter. The three-man tag team (no offense Ruth) laid out a detailed thesis on why the NEMGTR should expand its membership base to include the MGA.

“Thorough would be an understatement and there was no doubt that Renk really wanted to make it happen. The discussion went on for about 45 minutes, then Register Chair and Co-Founder #1, Dick Knudson, offered the following, “You have a great idea but, why do you think you need the T-Register to make it happen? You already have a list of MGA owners that are ready to join and I’m sure there are many T-Series owners that also have MGAs. Why don’t you folks start an MGA Register? What if we dedicated space in every issue of TSO for the next year to promote your plan?” End of discussion! So much for the thesis.... The rest of the story continues in every issue of MGA!

“Renk invited the Delaware Valley Chapter to the 1st All British Car Show to be held at the British Embassy. As I recall, only four DVC T-Series cars made the trip down to D.C. from Philadelphia. My brother, Tom, made his entry onto the Embassy grounds with a bit of Yankee flair...his TD had no brakes! Renk took command and identified the problem; the rear hard line had been rubbed thru. With a pair of vice grips, he ‘pinched’ the line and clearly stated, “Don’t leave here with my vice grips! When this is over, you guys will follow me home, and we’ll get you fixed up.” We did. We drank a few of his beers and Renk pulled a brake line off of a TD in his garage, installed it on Tom’s TD, and we were back on the road to Philly.

“If you have heard the story of “Renk and the Run Away Wheel” while on the ‘76 Bicentennial Rally of the Original Thirteen Colony’s, its all true...I was there. And, for the record, Renk did cross the finish line in Philadelphia!

“Renk and Ruth were ‘regulars’ at NEMGTR GOFs and quite often Renk would bring along his special friend, Boschman. Boschman wasn’t really into the car show scene, but he relished in the bar scene late at night. If there was water anywhere in sight, clear the decks! SPLASH! Boschman is in the pool (or fountain)! The guys that have fun with their cool British cars know how to keep them running, are willing to help a likeminded enthusiast keep his/her cool British car on the road, and truly enjoy a good laugh at their own expense...well, they are a rare breed and our hobby has lost one of the best! Safety Fast, Renk!”

A Len Renkenberger Experience- Steve Mazurek

“Our first encounter with Len was at GT-1 in Harper’s Ferry, WV, but from our perspective the encounter was brief and uneventful. We were not MGA owners at the time, just a couple of gawking “kids.” The GT was primarily populated by east coasters: Len and Ruth were very busy trying to keep this first meet pulled together, so the interaction was modest, at best.

“The first regional in Dearborn the following fall was a different matter. We had our MGA and were actively involved in planning the event. We helped Bruce and Jan Nichols with registration so were able to meet everyone who attended and spent more time interacting with the attendees.

“This regional GT was held at the Dearborn Inn in Dearborn, MI, just outside of Detroit and across from the Greenfield Village and Henry Ford Museum complex. It was a fairly prestigious location at the time. We had asked the Inn’s conference planners to aggregate us in one of the larger out-buildings so that we would not disturb the other guests during our stay: a perfectly reasonable request. When the time came, the management, failing to heed our advice, spread the group out between the main building, some small cottages, and other lodgings on the property; interspersed amongst the other guests.

“This also happened to be a time when the Ford Motor Company was on strike and management was in deep negotiations with the United Auto Workers Union. As luck would have it, the Ford negotiators, high ranking officials at Ford, were also staying at the Inn and these were some of the folks we were interspersed amongst.

“Diane and I were in charge of hospitality, thus we had the hospitality room. It was in one of the small cottages, which had four guest rooms. Thinking that the entire cottage was claimed by NAMGAR attendees, we didn’t hesitate to place the keg right in the middle of the cottage’s foyer. As luck would have it, at least two of the other rooms were occupied by Ford negotiators.

“NAMGAR people were in and out all evening, sitting around talking MGAs, etc. Around 10 p.m., hotel Security showed up and asked that we reduce the noise level. We agreed… that lasted about fifteen minutes. Security visited several times. We explained that if the hotel management had heeded our request, we would not be having these conversations. Soon Security told us to move the keg and the party.

“With the help of Len and some others, who shall remain nameless (age prevents us from remembering everyone else involved), the keg was hoisted and carried off to the lobby of the main building and firmly placed quite near the entrance and registration area. This seemed to upset some of the guests who, it happened, were attending a quite exclusive wedding reception in the same general vicinity.

“This time the hotel manager showed up, regaled in a tux and champagne bottles in hand, to inform the blue-jean clad crowd that we didn’t belong there either. After some quick negotiation, which included a statement that we were not moving until we had an approved place to go, we were given a small banquet room far from the evening’s other activities. The NAMGAR crew was quickly informed of the new location, and the party continued late into the night and early morning.

“Sometime in the vicinity of one-ish a.m., Len, having been known to drink more than two beers on occasion, headed back to his room, which also happened to be in one of the outlying cottages. Now the rest is hearsay. Neither Diane, nor I, was on hand to witness this event. But it did make a great impression. The distance from the main building to the cottages was a bit of trudge; the path was not well lit, nor well marked. Needless to say, it was dark outside. Apparently, Len was a bit confused about which cottage his room was in and happened to try to enter a cottage entirely occupied by Ford executives, who were not particularly happy with the ruckus that Len was making in the attempt to enter a room: not his.

“Hotel Security was called, Ford Security was called, and we believe, the local police were also invited. In any event, Len found himself “assuming the position” against the clap-board siding of the cottage amidst the pucker brush on one side of the building. Len did not suffer fools well, so the exchange between all the involved parties probably took a bit longer than it normally would have. But, eventually, Len was escorted back to his room.

“The first regional GT was a great success, but NAMGAR has never been back to the Dearborn Inn, nor has the Dearborn Inn ever invited NAMGAR back. All’s well that ends well ….

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Last updated on March 18, 2013.