Marysville man’s kit cars save a bit of the past

B arry Hilbert of Marysville says he is lost in 1959.

Looking around his museum-style home, I saw why.

There are old Philco TVs, Popular Science magazines from the 1940s and ’50s, a movie projector, pictures of his 1959 Thunderbird convertible, and a Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoon book.

The back bedroom is dedicated to a fantastic model railroad layout with teensy Breck shampoo billboards. I used Breck back when I had a ducktail haircut.

Michael O’Leary / The Herald

Barry Hilbert of Marysville owns two King Midgets, kit cars made popular through advertisements in Popular Science magazines.

Born in 1950, I share Hilbert’s fascination for the era. We reminisced about Hula Hoops and Ed “Kookie” Burns from the TV show “77 Sunset Strip.” Actor Efrem Zimbalist Jr. drove a 1959 T-Bird in Hawaii.

Hilbert, 62, still has a Bell and Howell camera he won in a Kellogg’s contest and took to Disneyland in 1959.

While attending Riverside High School in Ramona, Calif., Hilbert saw his dream car.

“The student parking lot looked like ‘American Graffiti,’” Hilbert said. “Right in the center row would sit a King Midget II. Little ads in my dad’s Popular Science and Mechanic’s Illustrated magazines got me to send 25 cents for the catalogue to buy the Model III.”

The collector still has the catalogue.

“I rode a bike,” Hilbert said. “That’s how cool I was. The car cost $680. I made a dollar a week cutting lawns.”

When his stash grew enough by 1961, he stepped up from two wheels into a 1930 Ford Model A Coupe. After the Army and college, he started buying cars, including two 1959 Ford Skyliners, a 1959 Continental Marc IV convertible and the ‘59 T-Bird.

According to the King Midget Car Club, the cars were billed as both the “World’s Number One Fun Car” and “World’s Most Exciting Small Car.”

In 1946, Claud Dry and Dale Orcutt, who met while both were Civil Air Patrol pilots during World War II, designed the King Midget as an inexpensive car that anyone could buy. The single passenger kit car contained the frame, axles, springs, steering mechanism, patterns for the sheet metal and an assembly book.

In the late 1940s through 1951, you could buy an assembled model with a 6 horsepower engine.

By 1951, for $500, buyers could get the second model, a two passenger convertible, powered by the 7.5 horsepower engine. It had a black three-spoke steering wheel, brown plastic seat upholstery, no speedometer and no reverse, but that could all be modified with options.

In 1991, still without a Midget, Hilbert saw an advertisement for one in Bremerton.

“By land, and ferry boat, I got to his home by a lake,” Hilbert said. “It was a clear fall day, and there sat a 1967 red and black top with 9,500 miles. He wanted $2,900, top dollar at the time, and we worked a trade for my excellent 1962 Ford Galaxy.”

The 1967 Midget has the original Goodyear tires. He got his white 1965 Midget about six years ago.

“On nice days I love letting people discover this special car,” Hilbert said. “The key is a presentation folder I carry with blow-ups of the ads, articles and photos from the catalogues. This really lets people understand the Kings.”

On an outing, an elderly couple admired his car.

“The man said he had sent for the King catalogue in the ’50s while in high school, but had never seen one until mine. We talked about an hour, and as he walked away he turned and said ‘Thank you for having it here for me to finally see.’ I could almost see a tear.”

Hilbert has shown the cars at shows. One time he used the Continental to drive Sen. Henry M. “Scoop” Jackson in an Everett parade. He also drove singer Teresa Brewer (“Til I Waltz Again With You”) in the T-Bird in a Lilac Festival Parade in Spokane.

There are no records to indicate how many King Midgets were made or how many grace garages today.

Hilbert said he loves the 1950s post-war optimism from that decade when the country was hot for new products. He carefully preserved his share of the goods, including his precious autos.

“Having restored and shown cars since 1961, Kings since 1992, I understand the value of originality,” Hilbert said. “The appeal is in the way it was built and preserved.”

If you are lucky enough to see Hilbert tooling around in his favorite King Midget, you might get a surprise. The car is so small he can wave out both windows at the same time.

Columnist Kristi O’Harran: 425-339-3451 or

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