J. Francis Werneth, the founder of the DeSoto Owners Club of Maryland who reveled in collecting vintage Packards, Buicks, DeSotos and Studebakers from the golden era of American auto manufacturing, died of internal bleeding Jan. 7 at his Carney home. He was 87.
“He truly loved old cars and his favorites were DeSotos. He was such a good guy,” said Gary Ruby, a longtime friend and fellow car collector. “He had lots of auto memorabilia, and when it came to old cars, he could take questions and spout out answers. He was extremely knowledgeable.”
Joseph Francis Werneth — who was known as Francis — was the son of L.A. Robert Werneth, a Baltimore Gas & Electric worker, and Barbara Discherl Werneth, a homemaker. He was born in Baltimore and raised in Lauraville, and later moved with his family to Carney.
Mr. Werneth graduated from St. Dominic parochial school in 1949 and Baltimore City College in 1953. He worked as a route salesman for the old Rice’s Bakery before joining Beneficial Life Insurance Co. as an agent. He retired in the 1970s from the company.
In addition to collecting and listening to early jazz recordings, Mr. Werneth had a passion for old cars. His first automotive purchase was a two-door 1949 green Plymouth coupe. The day before he turned 16 in 1950, he bought a 1941 Plymouth for $170 that he later drove to his high school graduation.
Catching the auto collecting fever led Mr. Werneth to eventually acquire the three four-door Packards from 1940 and 1941; two Buicks, 1937 and 1941; a mid-1950s Studebaker; a 1970 Pontiac; and four DeSotos that were a Chrysler product.
“He had a DeSoto from the first year they were built, which was 1929, and the last, which was in 1961, when Chrysler stopped making them,” said his wife of 54 years, the former Margaret Bahr, who shared her husband’s interest in car collecting.
His personal favorites, according to his wife, were the 1929 and 1959 DeSotos.
In 1976, Mr. Werneth founded the DeSoto Owners Club of Maryland, which held their first convention of show cars at Laurel Park, followed by a banquet where trophies were presented to winning owners. The club currently has 80 members, Mrs. Werneth said.
After discussions with Mr. Werneth, Greg Walters, an Ohio resident, established the National DeSoto Club in 1987. The group has grown to eight chapters in the U.S. with almost 1,400 U.S. and international members.
Mr. Werneth had been a member of the Buick Club and Ford V8 Club. For more than 55 years, he was a member of the Antique Automobile Club of America, serving as president of its local Chesapeake Region in 1991 and was its longtime historian. His wife had served as region president in 1987 and 1988.
Between 1991 and 1998, Mr. Werneth undertook researching and writing a series of articles on the history of Maryland Duesenbergs for the Auburn Cord Duesenberg publication.
The fabled Duesenberg, one of the classic motorcars of the 1920s and 1930s, was manufactured first in 1913 in St. Paul, Minnesota, when the company was founded by two brothers, August and Frederick Duesenberg. The company later moved production to Auburn, Indiana, and gave rise to the expression, “it’s a duesy.”
Mr. Werneth had amassed an extensive library of publications and reference works about cars, including early automobile advertising, sales literature, books and owner’s manuals.
“He even had DeSoto memorabilia that came out of showrooms and just a ton of books and literature,” Mr. Ruby said. “At the shows he was always looking for owner’s manuals.”
He and his wife enjoyed attending car shows throughout the nation, including nearby meets in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Virginia. Since 2012, Mr. Werneth and his wife were fixtures at the Hunt Valley Horsepower meeting on Saturday at the Hunt Valley Towne Center.
“Francis and Margaret were special because they could bridge generations,” said Will Williams, founder of the show. “People knew him for decades and with his engaging smile, got to know a ton of people, and he was able to enrich the next generation of automobile enthusiasts. He was so respected that it can’t be understated.”
Mr. Williams added: “He wasn’t a one maker auto guy but was rather very broad. I remember sitting in his kitchen and Francis bringing out scrapbooks and photos from his vast archive.”
The car that Mr. Werneth drove during the week to work and on errands was a Volvo. On weekends, he’d occasionally race it at the York US30 Dragway in Pennsylvania.
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“I remember Francis showing me a trophy he’d won from the raceway and he was real proud of that,” Mr. Williams said.
He eventually got rid of his auto collection.
Mr. Werneth’s collecting mania didn’t end with cars. He also collected toy cars; items related to Baltimore history, the Great Baltimore Fire of 1904, the Orioles and Colts; and local breweriana from the National Brewing Co., American Brewery and Hamm’s Beer.
He also enjoyed collecting menus from Baltimore establishments such as Haussner’s, Miller Brothers, House of Welsh, Madison Night Club and Angelina’s, among others.
He was a member for a half-century of the Knights of Columbus and had volunteered with the Box 414 Association and Meals on Wheels of Central Maryland. He was a financial supporter of the Maryland School for the Blind and the Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee.
Mr. Werneth was a communicant of St. Isaac Jogues Roman Catholic Church in Parkville, where a Mass of Christian burial was offered Jan. 12.
He is survived by his wife and several cousins.