The Restoration From Hell Part Three
POST PURCHASE-THE AFTERMATH
Oddly enough the 59 Belvedere was the same ivory white color that my dad’s was 50 years ago. It looked like a good solid driver-a decent un-restored original. I kept it intact for over a year-it ran okay, it stopped, started etc. etc.. Pretty much all you could ask from an old car purchased from an unmotivated previous owner.I look back at those days as a high point in my relationship with this 50’s classic.
AFTER THE LOVE HAS GONE...
Cars have been compared to women since the days of the Model T. This makes sense. Treat either one like crap for any period of time and things go very askew. I had a car that came from a slightly askew relationship; actually, it was more like a battered wife relationship
The first day you own an old car is a lot like a first date on prom night-glamorous and full of promise. Take the makeup off and it’s another story.
The makeup came off way too fast.
In my case, the makeup disappeared when I decided to pull up the floor mats on the oldPlymouth to check the floor pans.Okay-here’s the "kids don’t try this at home” part.I don’t know how many articles I’ve read that tell you to completely go over an old car before you cut a check. That is so basic it should be written into constitutional law.
My car was unbelievably bad. The “floor pans” were thin layers of metal pop-riveted to what was left of the floor. Nobody with a conscience would haveconsidered that kind of work ethically correct but here it was.
I’d just paid full market value for a car with the kind of hack-job that wouldn’t have passed a Grade 7 shop class.
WELCOME TO THE JUNGLE
Later on I’d look at that point in the project as a high water mark.Two minutes of bodywork separated me from owning a Fred Flintstone classic-No floors and a bad case of road rash on the soles of the feet.
I’ll spare you the full lectures on a thorough examination of decades old cars-let my experiences speak for themselves. Anyhow, this where the serious bodywork auditions started-the circus was in town.
The first guy to show up for the job was a very talented Asian guy named Jimmy. The extent of this job came as a huge shock to him so Jimmy compensated by unleashing a barrage of f- bombs that would have humbled a Teamster.That was Jimmy’s way of telling me that this was a huge, complicated project.
Basically the car was a mess. He gave me a total estimate including the cost of supplies that came to $10,000..That was the fairest, most reasonable quote ever given in the history of auto restoration.I succumbed to a wave of stupidity that haunts me to this very day.
I turned him down.
At the time I was convinced that $5000 was a far more realistic price for this job. That, I thought, was a budget that would even allow for some new wide white radials-the high price of misguided, ill-informed optimism.
THE SEARCH GOES ON
The next guy in the audition line was a city employee. This guy was really cocky. He patched together rusty old transit busses and kept them from coming apart at their rust-encrusted seams. He moonlighted and over the phone he figured he could knock the job off during his 2-week vacation.
I’ll never forget the look on his face when he actually saw the car. The best way to describe it is to replay the video of Saddam Hussein’s last moments.
That look he had just before they pulled the trap door, the look full of sheer terror.That’s pretty close.As the auditions continued I got used to that look.
THE LINE THINS OUT...
The summer of 1990 was spent courting body men to take this job on. These guys crawled out from every rock within 100 miles. This was serious courting too. Far more effort that I’d ever made in the ‘courting women’ arena and the results were far less successful.Most experienced car guys will tell you-the stakes are much higher and the job is much harder to find a good body man over getting a weekend date.
Waaaaay harder. Even if your nickname is “Elephant Man Face”.
These would-be project guys ran the spectrum from alcohol to substance abuse. Both vices actually- more than half the time. They weren’t the pick of the litter humanity wise, but they could hold a torch and do a decent job installing panels. Plus I wasn’t in a position to demand urine samples
Still no takers-this really was a scary job even through their drunken drug addled hazes. That summer I like to remember as the” summer of lowlifes” lining up in my garage to soak up free beer. Not too many summer fun photos taken in ’90.Worse yet, these misfits knew where I lived.
SOMEBODY STEPS UP THE THE PLATE
Several months later I was in a shop and saw some really nice work being done on a 1969 Plymouth Roadrunner. The guy behind the project was a biker named John. He’d honed his skills while serving time in some of the nicer federal penitentiaries in the country. Didn’t matter-the work on the Runner was magic.Better yet, he gave me that long sought after figure of 5000 dollars for the job.
I never stopped to think why he asked me how much I wanted to spend. Later,I’d learn that this was his way of figuring out how much I’d bleed before the coma set in.I have to point out at this point that I’m not by nature, naïve, trusting or incredibly stupid. Over 20 years of working in the bar business exposed me to the absolute worst in human nature. I learned to lower expectations and not be disappointed when people met or exceeded those low standards
Cars will blindside you.
They prey on your weaknesses and manipulate your judgment. They cause you to shout down that little voice of reason and we start acting we do around beautiful women-goofy.We’ll to make some really bad decisions based simply on looks. We’d let Charlize Theron do open-heart surgery on us simply because somebody that great looking has to know a little something about very complicated medical procedures.
Men rationalize that because we believe that Nature isn’t that demonic.
Who’d install a sub-standard brain in a beautiful woman?Why wouldn’t a guy want to do the best job he could on a vintage car project and give us a fair price along with an honest day’s work?
Sadly those questions answer themselves.
Anyhow I trusted a very sketchy guy named John to take on a very complicated personal project based solely on how well he tacked one piece of metal on a car.Let the carnage beginI wanted to take the body off the frame for John. My basic skills were good enough for that task plus I could organize the thousands of parts that make up cars.No way-Johnnie wanted the car up at his shop right away. I started calling him Right-on John because he liked to punctuate every sentence with “right on”.
It was like listening to an endless loop of ‘What’s Goin’ On?’ by Marvin Gaye. Anyhow, Right-on John tore that car apart faster than an unlocked BMW on a big city street.I t was magic. He did more in half a day than I thought was possible in a week. This guy was skilled and motivated. It was like something out of a dream. At that rate, I thought he’d have it painted in a week.
Talk about a life of illusion.That was about it for nearly a year with Right-on John. He took on several smaller cash jobs and shoved the old 59 into a dusty back corner. That didn’t stop him collecting over 1500 bucks worth of up-front money for that half day of work. He did run a nice cultural exchange program. Every time I went to see the car I was introduced to surly patch-wearing bikers as part of the package.
You just can’t buy that kind of experience at a travel agency.
Anyhow, the dust piled up on the car but it wasn’t dull around the shop. John didn’t like his partner so he punched the guy’s lights out and saved all those nasty legal costs associated with dissolving a partnership. Except for the part where the ex partner wanted to lien up or grab my car. I had to jump in there when that came up but I wasn’t too worried.I’d seen how he fought.
John had another bad habit-he hated to pay his bills. I found out that when I saw the sheriff’s seizure notice on his door. John was cagey enough to grab everything including my car before that but he forgot one thing. He skipped the part about telling me too.After some rigorous Jim Rockford-like detective work I found out where my car was hidden. It was in a much smaller, dustier shop with no paint booth but at least it was there and part of some court ordered seizure.The same pattern emerged.
Nothing happened.Several months later I went to check on the weekly non-progress report at John’s shop and found another sheriff’s notice. You have to ask yourself what kind of landlord would rent out anything bigger than a doghouse to a deadbeat lowlife like Right-on John.
But there it was and again, there wasn’t my car.This story had a happier ending. Johnny was on the other side of the building just driving away pulling a trailer with the forlorn hulk that used to be my car. Talk about luck.Johnnie was going to do this midnight move and eventually call me I guess but this worked out a lot better.
THE NEW SHOP
By now you’d think the shock value wouldn’t be there but you’d be wrong. The new “shop” turned out to be a leaky old grain shed 30 miles out of town. Oddly enough he started to work on the car again in that dump. The body and frame came apart and he cut huge chunks out of the floors and trunk.
He also left gaping holes where the quarter panels used to be.
That, in Right -on John’s world was progress.After that burst of energy John decided that the car could probably sit for 2 more years but not before relieving me of another 1000 bucks. That was pretty much it for the Right-on John era so I brought a trailer out to scoop the car .
I had to resist the urge to bounce this guy off every wall in that crap-shack he called a shop for 2 reasons-One was the fear that the old barn would crumble into moldy sawdust after any impact and…two; this guy was really well connected in biker-land so the John Wayne strategy was shelved.
Instead I spent Good Friday 1992 loading up a rusty frame (complete with newly stuck motor thanks to John storing it outside) and a gutted 59 Plymouth body.
Have you ever seen a graphic video of an autopsy? This was the automotive equivalent.
To my lifetime shame and against everything John Wayne stood for, I shook this slimy weasel’s hand when I left.
There’s a special place in fin-car hell for that guy.
PUTTING THE PIECES BACK TOGETHER
Illogic dominated that summer. Believe it or not I took the seats to an upholsterer even though the car was spread out over my whole garage with no chance that things were going to change.I like to look back at those days as delusional but positive.The body sat in my garage and it was supported by an old lawn mower where the floor pans used to be. Doors, fenders, and millions of unlabeled parts were strewn all over the garage floor.
The frame was outside-you can’t hurt what was already trashed.It was the world’s biggest jigsaw puzzle with no pictures.
TWO MORE YEARS GO BY.
The seats were done in a year. They looked pretty good gathering dust in my basement.Meanwhile another rogue’s lineup of would-be project coordinators showed up at my garage including Jimmy the Asian guy from years ago.
This time he when he saw John’s carnage he didn’t get that familiar scared Saddam “just before the trap door opened” look.
It was more like that famous Life Magazine photo in 1968 where the Vietnamese general busted a cap into the prisoner’s temple.
Jimmy had that same mixture of pain and shock on his face.He wished me luck.
Things were getting pretty desperate. Believe it or not, I’d financed this disaster through a bank. It was a small miracle that they didn’t ask for progress reports complete with photos. My banker had some pretty serious heart problems –accurate, un-doctored pictures would have had me up on manslaughter charges.Another year goes byBy now it was 1995 and nothing had changed until I ran into a guy I’d known since I was a kid. He was really pissed off that this project had gone so off the tracks.His nickname was Crank and he was a veteran hot rod builder.
Many, many more months went by until I took the car out to his shop on Easter weekend 1996.That might seem like a lot of time had passed between decision and action but car world time is lot like geological time-a year is like a fraction of a second.Crank found out pretty fast that he in way over his head. He was a decent welder but this job required skills and microsurgery, not a sledgehammer and lots of plucky optimism.
That’s where Wally came in.