Ripley, Oklahoma, is one of those ossified, pocket-sized towns hard under the expansive Midwest sky. Hollywood could film a depression-era epic there with little more than petty cash, a little help from the wardrobe department, and a sprinkling of Model T and A Fords.
If you’ve been to Ripley chances are far more than even it was because you were attending the Mid-America Shelby Meet and Rick Kirk invited you down to see his place. That was certainly the case for us back in the ‘90s when we made what we thought was a side trip to RK Machine where Rick Kirk and a small crew provided tool and die machining expertise to American industry.
When industrially minded politicians invoke “the heartland” this is what they are referring to — dependable, skilled workers turning out carefully crafted, practical bits of steel. That such parts and the workmanship that went into them are typically lost inside yet larger machines and behind big corporate logos is of little importance to those making them. To stand out on the plains is to feel your speck-like humanity against a much larger canvas, and to Rick doing your best in a larger success must have felt natural.
Anything with a Blue Oval on it was a talisman to him and fodder for his sprawling collection…
Ford Motor Company was that larger success to Rick Kirk and anything with a Blue Oval on it was a talisman to him and fodder for his sprawling collection. Naturally attracted to drag racing — the roads are straight and long in the heartland — and born in 1947, he was primed for Boomer nirvana in Ford’s Total Performance era. The core of Rick’s gatherings centered around his Lightweight Galaxie, A/FX and B/FX Comets and early Cobra Jet to mention just a few of his cars.
Later Rick branched out to restoring muscle-era iron for others and built a 427 Cammer Falcon wagon for himself. Heck, he even built a pint-sized, Pinto-engined tractor puller. We can’t recall if it was turbo’d or not, but it definitely sported a big Ford oval.
But the cars were just the beginning. Performance parts were carefully hung along the walls in Rick’s main car display—what once was Ripley’s narrow movie theater. Intake manifolds were a favorite, and at a glance the rows of dual-quad and tri-power intakes seemed familiar FE and 289 jewelry. But a second look and a little docent-like tutoring from Rick would show that that was a Boss 429 tri-power intake… and that a Cleveland dual quad. Over there was an X-numbered GT-40 whatever, and that FE bellhousing on the far wall was magnesium.
It didn’t take long to understand Rick Kirk had long ago moved past basic and was specializing in Ford unobtanium. If a part was so rare even Ford faithful had no idea such things existed, Rick probably had two of them, and those two would have been the only two ever made.
If a part was so rare even Ford faithful had no idea such things existed, Rick probably had two of them…
Past the cars and parts in Rick’s personal museum in downtown Ripley, Rick also had several barn-like buildings just out of town. This was RK Machine’s headquarters, but the barns seemingly packed by a flood originating in Dearborn, Michigan, dwarfed the machine shop. Dealer signs of all descriptions, tools, parts, posters, shop manuals, displays and other normal collector fodder was everywhere, but Rick also had display cases of Ford objecta far beyond the usual swap-meet fodder.
Memorable examples were silverware from the pre-war Ford executive suite and endless examples of label pins celebrating WWII production excellence, anniversaries and so on. The best of this was nicely displayed, but there was so much that it inevitably turned to piles in the corners and shadows. That only made the visual treasure hunting more fun.
When we heard Rick died January 29, 2018 of complications from an infected leg wound, his passion for Ford collecting was naturally our first thought. But that soon gave way to memories of the unassuming, always smiling man. Rick was a large, big-block kind of guy and we never saw him in anything other than the Midwest uniform of jeans, cowboy boots, a plaid shirt or maybe a Ford event T-shrit and an RK Machine baseball cap over a big grin.
More often than not he’d somehow make his approach unseen at some Ford reception or industry party until, bang, there he was big as a mountain and wondering how the heck you’d been and what was new. Gifted with a country boy’s turn of phrase and master of the deflected answer, Rick was a natural horse trader with a memory for cars and people, and he had that knack for being truly interested in you. Thousands of people are certain they had a unique relationship with him. But most of all he was genuinely happy to have unearthed yet another impossibly rare Ford trinket and be on the hunt for the next acquisition.
Rick Kirk was one of those that have made our journey though the Ford world such a memorable and pleasant experience. He’s missed, and we hope the best of his amazing collection finds its way to a larger audience under brighter lights.