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.