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.