Atlanta cop’s drive is his Decatur car museum

How could a young Warren Pickard ignore the twinkling chrome, rumbling engines, sparkling rims and bold paint jobs of passing cars? It was as if his own toy cars had swollen to real-life proportions in front of his eyes.

Growing up in a house smack in the middle of a busy intersection in Columbus allowed for hours of car gazing. Sitting on the front porch, he could be found memorizing every curve, make and model he could. The then 5-year-old Pickard would eventually embark on a lifelong fascination with four wheels.

These days the 42-year-old Atlanta police officer is owner of Relics & Rarities, part-car museum, part-ice cream parlor in downtown Decatur. It’s the culmination of a lifelong obsession with all things auto. Located in a former automotive shop across the street from Decatur High School’s gym, Relics & Rarities lives up to its name. Where else can you grab a couple of scoops, eyeball an impressive array of collectible cars and watch kiddies climb on a custom Spider-Man pickup truck or pose with life-size versions of The Simpsons?

After seven months of extensive renovation — much of it done himself — Pickard officially opened the garage doors in September. He charges $2 for museum admission or a free visit with a purchase. Decatur denizens are beginning to discover the place and he’s already hosted children’s birthday parties. Despite battling 3 inches of water in recent floods, Pickard continues to gas toward his goal of making his venue a go-to destination.

He culled together collectibles and automobiles, some he’s hoarded for years, as homage to the historic U.S. Route 66 and items from that era’s heyday.

“Not being able to drive it,” he says, “I bought everything that helps fulfill my own image of what Route 66 is.”

Stepping inside Relics & Rarities is like crossing back five decades into a classic malt shop. Banana splits and other frozen treats await. Checkerboard tile floor, twisted neon, vintage metal gas station signs, toy cars and an overflow of Americana memorabilia fill the place.

Luigi Barzinni, a tourist from Ohio, is strolling past. The Relics & Rarities signs draw the curious Vietnam veteran inside. “I’m stuck in the ’50s and ’60s,” Barzinni says, explaining his affinity for oldies and doo-wop music.

Barzinni passes by a vintage mock barber shop, complete with an actual chair. This and more help celebrate an era when cell phones and mp3 players would’ve seemed as outlandish as Dick Tracy’s radio watch.

And then there are the cars, a total of 18. A blue and white 1950 Chevrolet Styleline Deluxe, a powder blue 1965 Mercury Monterey, a 1968 Atlanta police car, and a yellow 2002 Chrysler Prowler are among the rides on display. A gold 1974 Bricklin SV-1, one of fewer than 3,000 made, easily reels in attention, its gull-wing doors opened in full mast.

It’s all look-but-don’t-touch in the car museum, and Pickard is happy to give impromptu tours and answer any questions.

The other side of the building is what he refers to as the fun gallery, a place where kids explore vehicles like the Spidey truck and a SpongeBob SquarePants Pontiac Firebird. Among the eye grabbers is a giant milk shake sculpt, once used for McDonald’s advertising, which doubles as a mini-golf hole. A small opening in the base allows kids to putt a ball into the shake.

Next month Pickard plans on having a slot car track installed in the fun gallery with races and lessons taking place each Saturday. Relics & Rarities will allow racers to bring their own cars or rent one from the shop.

Throughout his 21 years on the police force, Pickard’s sights have been set on the goal of opening a car museum as a segue into retirement. (He plans to retire in five years).

He’s taken only two vacations in nearly 20 years and can’t recall taking a sick day. He’s chalked up extra hours working as an off-duty cop at local sporting events and other venues, enabling him to save money for his car jones. He’s sacrificed romantic relationships and having a family to realize his dream.

Although he claims some of his cars might fetch more than $50,000, he’s been careful about his purchases. Driving, he says, is part of the whole hobby adventure. Pickard drives back roads and stretches of countryside looking for old vehicles wasting away in yards. His typical game plan is to score cars he likes at an affordable price and have them restored to peak condition. For instance, around 1999 he snagged the ’65 Monterey for $1,300. Today it’s worth approximately $28,000, he says.

Frank Fletcher, owner of Atlanta Racing Enterprises in Scottdale, has been spending the better part of the past 20 years helping Pickard reach his goal. Although the auto shop specializes in Nissan Z cars, Fletcher has worked on many of Pickard’s vehicles. He even helped Pickard figure out a way to keep the Bricklin’s doors constantly open without damaging the car.

“So many people want to step on your dreams,” Fletcher says. “I’m an entrepreneur, too. ... I remember all the naysayers. So I encouraged [Pickard] to do what he wants to do.”

To echo “Field of Dreams,” now that Pickard has built it, he hopes they will come. Requests for more menu items is leading him to add hot dogs beginning in November. His ears are open and he’s keeping the faith.

“My plan is to roll new things out slowly. It’s really about what the community wants. I really think it will sustain.”