Hartman Wilbur had so little interest in sports that when a member of the Super Bowl-winning 1972 Miami Dolphins brought his Rolls-Royce to Wilbur’s Auto Service, the proprietor had no idea who he was — and couldn’t have cared less.
What Wilbur did know — and care deeply about — was cars. A plain-spoken master mechanic, he ran auto-repair shops in Little Havana for nearly half of his 97 years, the last at 561 SW Eighth St.
Like the barber shops and hardware stores of a certain era, Wilbur’s became an unofficial mens’ club, a place where guys could hang out, chew the fat, ponder the workings of the internal-combustion engine, and sample home-made baked goods that grateful customers brought.
But unlike many barber shops and hardware stores, no pinup-girl calendars adorned the walls at Wilbur’s.
“My dad was a man of few words,’’ said Victor Wilbur, “but he wasn’t one to approve of that kind of thing.’’
Which isn’t to say he didn’t use the kind of language one might expect in such a male bastion.
One customer, Victor remembers, came by even if he didn’t have car problems. “I just stopped in because I haven’t been insulted yet today,’’ he’d say.
Hartman Wilbur was born July 18, 1915, in Alexandria Bay, N.Y.
The Wilbur family settled in Miami’s Edgewater neighborhood, north of downtown, in 1925. The following year, the killer hurricane of 1926 destroyed their home.
Wilbur, who was infatuated with machinery since childhood, became a streetcar conductor on a downtown-to-Coral-Gables route before World War II. He was drafted and sent to Trinidad, where he repaired military aircraft and, according to his son, built a motorcycle “from scratch.’’
When the war ended, Wilbur returned to Miami and worked briefly for Pan American World Airways at the Dinner Key seaplane base, before opening his shop.
He hated war, his son said, and never owned a gun.
If the Wilburs never got rich, it wasn’t because they weren’t busy. Victor recalls times when the appointment calendar ran two weeks ahead, with a staff of six mechanics, but his dad often made small repairs for free or settled for tiny profit margins.
He never took advantage of a customer’s ignorance, Victor said, and never advertised.
“Dad would say, ‘There is enough wrong with cars without making things up...’ There was never a recession for us.’’
In a 2006 interview with The Miami Herald, Wilbur said: “You see car dealers charging $50, $75, $100 an hour. I feel bad charging that kind of money. I just can’t face the people with them prices.”
Wilbur had a fondness for British cars like the Austin and Jaguar, and for Checkers. He became so expert at Rolls-Royce repairs that luxury dealerships and other mechanics brought him problems they couldn’t fix.
“Every now and then I’d get a Rolls and go to Wilbur, because he was the only one who knew what to do,’’ said Gabe Cortez, whose Plaza Tire & Auto, at Northeast 30th Street and Second Avenue, has been in business since 1977. “He’d tell me how [to fix the car] or he’d do it, and he’d never charge me.”
His dad felt that a foreign car could never run as well “out of its element’’ as it could in its country of origin, Victor Wilbur said.
Historian Paul George, a longtime customer, said that Wilbur was among the first to install after-market air conditioners in the 1950s.
“Wilbur’s serviced all cars, domestic and foreign, but the shop’s specialty was custom work, installing air conditioning and power steering on domestic and exotic foreign cars, from VW’s to Stingray Corvettes, to Alfa Romeo and Rolls Royces, before these options were ever available,’’ George wrote in a tribute. “In fact, when his shop was installing air conditioning on VW Beetles in the ’50s and early ’60s, VW sent factory technicians over from Germany to see how he was doing it.’’
Wilbur also collected classic cars, including a Rolls, George noted, but “the most special was probably the 1948 Tucker that he acquired when it was six months old. He later sold it to a museum.’’
Victor Wilbur said his dad made some wacky deals on cars, including taking a kilogram of gold from a customer who owned South American silver mines as partial payment on a Rolls.
If need be, he’d invent what a customer wanted, his son said, such as hydraulic controls for a partly paralyzed woman.
As the neighborhood evolved and Eighth Street became Calle Ocho, Hartman Wilbur hung on, although he spoke hardly a word of Spanish. He didn’t mind the city changing, he said in a 1994 newspaper interview, but didn’t see the need to change with it.
One change he didn’t welcome, but grudgingly accepted: the influx of German and Japanese cars.
“I didn’t approve of them,” Wilbur told a reporter. “You went over there and fought in the war and you’re mad at them. Same thing with the Japanese.”
In 2006, Wilbur, by then widowed from the former Ann Molchanoff, closed the business.
“We hadn’t kept up with the electronics,’’ his son said. Shop manuals cost as much as the actual car did when Wilbur’s opened for business, and property taxes were skyrocketing.
At the time, Hartman Wilbur told the Herald: “A farmer and a mechanic, he never make no money. They struggle along for years making nothing, and it’s only when they sell their land that they make some money. Anyway, at my age, it’s time to find something else to do.’’
But Wilbur never really did find something else to do, his son said. He descended into dementia, and died New Year’s Eve at the Miami Veterans Medical Center nursing home.
Hartman Wilbur didn’t want a funeral, his son said, so none was held.