Local man's car collection filled with pieces of automotive history

The only 1952 Manta Ray in the world is owned by Junction City man D.E. Lacer.

Submitted Photo

D.E. Lacer’s love of cars runs deep and has since he was a child, growing up with his parents — Darlene Lacer Hiatt and L.L. “Peanuts” Lacer — who made a hobby of collecting unique old cars.

He inherited his love of classic cars from his mother and lifelong railroader father — along with a small portion of their collection. Lacer said his dad at one point had about 120 vehicles in his collection at one time, which were housed in a small, private museum. 

Both of Lacer’s parents loved cars, he said. His mother was just as integral to the collection the family eventually amassed as his father was, he said. He considers her integral to his dad’s and his own success.

Lacer recalls piling into the family car on the weekends with his siblings and parents, driving into the countryside and searching for people who might have a classic car for sale.

“In my family, you had to be interested in cars,” he said.

Though his dad was never in the car business professionally, as his son is, but in the 1950s and 1960s, he was always on the lookout for interesting vehicles. They were relatively cheap back then, according to Lacer. 

Soldiers would bring cars home from overseas and no one wanted them — except people such as Lacer’s parents, who eagerly bought them up.

Lacer still has a few of these vehicles, including the first car he ever purchased with his own money and a unique, one of a kind concept car that now sits in an auto museum in Kansas City.

The first car he ever bought was a used 1970 XKE Jaguar, which he purchased for about $4,500 in the mid 1970s, when he was a junior in high school. 

“I thought I was pretty cool, driving around in it,” Lacer said. 

He has several more unique cars in his collection, but the memories attached to this one don’t have a monetary value attached to them, though the car is more valuable now than it was when he first bought it.

One of the more unique vehicles Lacer owns is the 1952 Manta Ray — the only one in existence.

“It was considered to be lost, but my mom and dad had bought it in ‘59, put it in storage and just forgot about it,” he said.

According to Lacer, his dad acquired the Manta Ray by trading three other vehicles for it.

“My mom and dad drove it back from Topeka,” he said. “Try to imagine driving that thing down the highway back in the ‘50s.”

It vanished for about 60 years before Lacer found it while looking online for a story about a much different kind of manta ray. He realized what he had in his possession — and that the rest of the world considered it lost or destroyed. 

The car has since been seen in several classic magazines and an episode of Chasing Classic Cars.

It’s a fairly recognizable car, because of its unusual look. It was designed by two aircraft designs and made to look as though it was floating along the road while it was driven. According to Lacer, it was one of the first fiberglass concept cars ever created.  

“It’s considered to be one of the most important concept cars out of the ‘50s,” Lacer said.

He loaned the Manta Ray to Kansas City Automotive Museum, where it currently sits displayed. 

Another vehicle in Lacer’s collection that he especially treasures is a 1935 Graham.  

“It’s got 9,000 miles on it and totally bone stock original, but looks like new,” he said. 

His dad preferred to keep his vehicles entirely original, scratches in the paint and all.

“If he bought it with a dent in the fender, it’s still got a dent in the fender,” Lacer said. “He just liked cars that were original and untouched.”

He doesn’t attend as many auto shows as he used to, but he still takes his vehicles on occasion. He has been to several big ones though, including the invitation-only Amelia Island Concours.

“There’s only one thing bigger than Amelia Island and that’s pebble beach,” Lacer said. “We hope to be invited to that too.”

He isn’t an active collector these days in that he doesn’t seek anything out, but enough people know of his passion for old cars that he sometimes receives phone calls offering him something interesting. 

“You just kind of trade for them, you hear about them — just what have you,” Lacer said. 

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