'Brighton Bandit' leaves an auto auction treasure chest

Henry Payne
The Detroit News

Whitmore Lake – Metro Detroit is America’s capital of auto entrepreneurs, tinkerers, and motorheads. For every legendary engine shop like Roush or Lingenfelter there are dozens of small shops with men and women obsessed by the horseless carriage. And when they pass to that great garage in the sky, these enthusiasts leave behind automotive treasure chests to remember them by.

Jack "The Brighton Bandit" Conely’s chest is a bit bigger than most.

This Saturday Conely’s massive automotive belongings will be auctioned off here in Whitmore Lake. Conely died in 2017 at the age of 87. He left behind a trio of open-wheel racers, a Supermodified oval beast, dozens of production vehicles, Dream Cruisers, trucks, jalopies, as well as hundreds of engine blocks, heads, and exhaust manifolds (even an engine dynamometer) that he collected over a lifetime.

Jack Conely is survived by four children, including daughters Kimberly, left, and Jeri. The Indy car shown is in Saturday’s auction.

If metal could talk, they’d tell the colorful story of a self-made, Michigan Hall-of-Fame driver and engineer whose automotive passion built a career, raised a family, lifted him from the Great Depression to Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and introduced him to automotive royalty like Petty and Parsons.

It was a wonderful life. It was a classic Detroit life.

“If you’re into automotive, it’s neat. There are rare things that we’re not even sure what they are,” said Conely’s daughter, Jeri, sitting in front of two warehouse rooms packed with cars and parts. “There was no will, there was no trust, there was no list. We just don’t know what it’s worth. My dad was working right up until he died.”

Jeri and her three siblings have been assembling their father’s estate for months — all of it going up for bid Saturday in an auction supervised by Tim Nahri and Associates. The auction will be simulcast on the worldwide web.

“There are estate auctions like this all over the country every year,” says Ken Lingenfelter, owner of Lingenfelter Performance Engineering, a successful Chevy mod shop that, like Conely, has its roots in racing. “There are small treasures in these collections for someone who is looking for a car and has the passion to restore it.”

Dusting off their father’s collection has given the Conely family a comprehensive look at a man who was both well-known and intensely private.

Abandoned by his father in Michigan, young Jack Conely was found on the streets of Chicago and sent to Father Flanagan’s Boys Town in Nebraska during the Great Depression. It was at the orphanage for boys that Jack’s love for autos grew.

Conely’s children say he never spoke of his difficult youth. In his 20s, Jack flew planes in the Korean War, returning to his home state to raise four kids on his own.

All his children knew growing up was the race track. One of the race cars on auction is Conley’s 1962 Supermodified Roadster, a ferocious-looking monster with slick tires as wide as steamrollers.

“We were at the track as soon as we were born,” chuckles Jeri. “We lived in the pickup. We left Thursday night and got home Monday. We all grew up working in the shop. My sister Jackie sorted (connecting) rods, I sorted pistons, and Kimberly was the parts washer.”

That was the racing life of the 1960s, long before the posh, infield motorhomes and big TV contracts of today. A talented driver, Conely raced wheel-to-wheel on oval tracks with future NASCAR legends while the kids slept pickup-to-pickup at night with their families.

“He was good friend with Benny Parsons, and (Richard) Petty was in the same series — they also slept in their pickups and brought the whole family,” recalls Jeri.

Back home in Brighton, the kids worked at Dad’s race shop when they weren’t in school. “The shop was our baby-sitting service,” says Jeri.

One of the auction warehouses is knee-deep in Chevy small blocks — next to rows of heads and intake manifolds. With a dozen employees at its height, the Conely Speed Shop on East Grand River pumped out hundreds of race engines.

“When I was a little girl, (the police) would just shut down Grand River in Brighton and my Dad would test the cars,” remembers Jeri.

Popular in the pits for sharing his engine expertise, the straggly-haired Conely was known as the “Brighton Bandit” for stealing the show wherever he went. He set track records and won races across the eastern U.S. from Jackson to Sandusky to Toledo to Oswego, New York.

He took a shot at the Indy 500 twice but failed to make the 33-car field with an engine he built himself. That #89 car will be on auction Saturday — sans engine. Next to it in the warehouse is one of Gordon Johncock’s (another Michigan original) Indy cars, and perhaps the most valuable car in the collection — an Eagle Mk 5, made by legendary American driver/engineer Dan Gurney for the 1970 F5000 series.

Nahri and Associates says bidding will start at $50,000-$100,000 for the open-wheel racers. The Eagle needs a lot of work, but rare finds pop up in the strangest places. Renowned collector Miles Collier found an abandoned, 1968 Porsche 907 family heirloom in Europe in 2014, and — after three years and 3,000 hours of labor — restored it to original form. Estimated value? North of $3 million.

There are hidden gems here for Dream Cruisers, too: a 1963 Corvette Stingray, a ’67 Camaro, and a ‘34 International pickup truck.

“I’d like them to see (Dad’s cars) restored. I’d like to hear them again,” smiles Conely’s daughter Jeri.

Her father’s exploits took him to African desert rallies for Ford — and to Daytona where he drove for the Mercury Comet Durability run, a grueling test covering 100,000 miles around the steeply-banked oval for 40 straight days.

He always returned to Brighton. After his race career ended in 1974 — his right arm pained from a somersault crash down Jackson’s back stretch — he continued to build engines for IMSA, McLaren, and his son’s NASCAR truck team. In 1987 he was inducted in the Michigan Racing Hall of Fame.

“He gave a great speech,” recalls Jeri who attended the ceremony. “They gave him the microphone and they couldn’t get it back. He had no fear of public speaking.”

The public preview of the Conely collection takes place Friday, Sept. 28 from Noon- 6 PM. The auction begins Saturday, Sept. 29 at 10 AM at 11023 Hi Tech Drive in Whitmore Lake. For more information go to narhiauctions.com or call 810-266-6474.