By Gary Graupner
Above, Gary Graupner proudly poses with his son in front of his first major restoration project. Photo courtesy of the Graupner Family Archives.
As a guy born in the 1950s, it was natural to grow up loving cars. They all looked different, unlike today where you can’t tell a Caddy from a Kia. Those huge chrome, two-toned battleships of the days gone by were majestic, and they made a guy just want to have something like those to cruise in.
This is a story about my first attempt at fixing up an old car. It wasn’t the first car I owned, but it was the first one that I drug home, as what many described as a wreck, rust bucket, bucket of bolts, etc. Looking back on it now, some 38 years later, I wonder how I ever managed to get it done, but I am glad I did.
Naturally, I thought age 16 would be the key to having something cool and fast that I could take girls out in, and impress my friends, but alas, a few minor glitches, like no job and no money, made my dreams crash in short order. My dad had his eye on a car for me, but of course it was not the awesome machine I envisioned. He brought home a nice little Valiant Station Wagon with a six and a three on the tree shifter, and we soon appreciated that although it was far from cool or fast, it beat walking or riding a bike. After working during high school and college, while having a few other cars along the way, I married Nanette and we planned our future together. Cars were the last thing on her mind, but I yearned for a hot rod, or cruiser.
We rented a couple places, and of course money was tight as she began her career in banking and I in the insurance industry. Our goal, of course, was to get a house, and start a family. We were pretty much the average young couple in the early 1970s.
I learned how to do most anything on a car, out of curiosity, and necessity, and I went to car shows, read Hot Rod, Car Craft, Street Rodder, and anything else about cars I could get my hands on. My dream project, though, seemed a million years away.
One day, I went over to Spalding Wrecking to get a part for my everyday car, and happened to spot a lineup of old cars from the 1930s sitting forlornly in waist deep weeds a bit off the road near the entrance to the yard. I parked and walked over to see them, and soon a nice old guy came over and asked if he could help me. It was Dolph Spalding, the owner. I could tell these cars had been there possibly since the pyramids were built, as they were looking pretty sad and forgotten. Some had license tabs that had expired before I was born.
I spotted a 1937 Chevrolet, which I liked the lines on, as I had seen some hot-rodded ones around town, and I asked him if they were for sale. He said yes, and on that day in September of 1975, I made a deal to buy one for $200. I wrote him a check, and he got me the title, and I told him I would be back on Saturday to claim my treasure, and tow it home. On my way home, imagining how cool that old Chevy was going to be when I fixed it up, I came to a horrible realization. I had not talked over this purchase, or the logic of it, with Nanette, and frankly I wasn’t even sure if we had the extra 200 bucks. My skills as a master salesman were going to possibly be tested, and I wondered in the back of my mind if I might be living in that old Chevy after she saw it! If you have ever heard the expression, “It’s sometimes easier to ask forgiveness than permission,” then you might understand where I was.
Nanette loved me, but I think she thought I lost my marbles when she heard what I did, and she saw the Polaroid picture I took of it. Saturday seemed like it would never come, but over to Spalding’s I went with a couple friends, a borrowed truck, and a chain. In looking at what we were up against, the car was sitting in waist deep weeds, and it was sunk down into the dirt past the rims. All four tires were flat, but only on the bottoms! I had brought a hand pump, so I worked up a good sweat spending an hour hand pumping them up, and praying they would hold air, which they did. However, I could hear the cords popping and snapping in the tires as they sat there, so we didn’t know if they would hold air long enough to make it home. The next problem was that the brakes were rusted to the drums, so we could barely get it to move from its grave there in the field. The plates said 1956, which was likely the last time it was driven.
We made it to Pines with me sitting in it, steering and using the emergency brake to slow down, although the wheels were smoking most of the way from the rusted drums. When we got about two blocks from the yard, I realized I had a big problem too. A nest of hornets had built a football-sized nest behind the dashboard and they were not happy to be going on a road trip. I had to stop and use a tire iron to knock the nest down, and then pull it out of the car. After most of my mad passengers had flown away, we headed home again, and made it to where the tracks cross Pines by I-90.
When we hit the tracks, I heard two loud booms as two of the tires exploded. Not wanting to stop for fear of getting a ticket, and wondering if we could get it moving again, we just kept going while I saw chunks of rubber flying off those blown tires, and we made it the two miles to my Father-in-Law’s place. We were renting half of his duplex, and when he saw what I drug home, he was nice, but probably wondered about his daughter’s choice of a husband, and the foolishness of renting to relatives.
Now the car was unhooked, and out of the tall weeds and thirty years of dust and dirt blown off, and I had a chance to examine the car. I found that it’s better to examine them closely before you buy them rather than after you buy them! Sometimes a rust free car ends up being a car that has free rust. After I had it sandblasted, I found that there was some Chantilly Lace in the body and floor. Also, I found a dead cat in the trunk that was nothing but a pile of bones and fur.
My dream was to get it fixed up and running in a year or two, and I spent every spare moment working on it, and learned a lot. First of all, rusted bolts and nuts tend to shear off, and a lot of heat, liquid wrench, and swearing is needed when disassembling an old car. It also helps, as I would find out during re-assembly, to mark and bag the parts so that you don’t have a two-ton puzzle with no directions to deal with!
I made some dumb mistakes too, like throwing out the old delaminated glass, never thinking we would need them for templates for new glass. Also, I poured the contents of the gas tank on the weeds in the gravel behind the garage, thinking that the nasty looking stuff that had once been gasoline, would probably kill the weeds. It did, and it stunk so bad that I envisioned that the EPA would be coming with handcuffs for me a month later, when it still stunk to beat hell!
When you do an old car, whether it’s a restoration to original condition or a hot rod, which is the route I decided to go, either way, you should try to figure out what it will cost you and then double it. Hopefully you will be close. Jay Leno once said that if you don’t have into the car twice what it’s worth, you didn’t do it right!
During those next two years, I scrounged up parts, even hiking into the hills to an old Chevy-like mine, to get a better fender, and traded parts. I went to swap meets, and many wrecking yards, and found a guy with a wrecked Camaro from whom I got the engine, transmission and rear end. I figured out how to wire a car, did all the bodywork, and some painting, carpeting and some upholstery too. What I couldn’t do, I either paid for, traded for, or helped with, and ended up with a pretty little two-tone, blue hot rod Chevy.
It was a lot of fun, and since that first project, I think I have done a couple dozen cars of all kinds, from total restorations, to fix-up-to-sell models, and usually when I sold one, I gave Nanette the profit from it, and she could spend it on the house. That way the hobby is fun for all.
Now I am 61, pretty much retired, and when I see an old car needing a restoration, it just makes me tired to see it thinking of the work! We still have two old cars, a 1939 Packard and a 1971 DeTomaso Pantera. Also, I have a couple of young grandkids, so something tells me that there may be some wrenching and painting in grandpa’s future yet!
A lot of guys I have known over the years that got Old Car Disease ended up divorced. My wonderful wife Nanette has put up with all this madness, like grease tracked in on her rugs and furniture, late-night projects in the shop, friends needing help at all hours, UPS trucks bringing boxes of parts with scary prices on them, and a lot of other stuff that was above and beyond. I am grateful to her for all that. Hot rod projects and restorations can be fun and rewarding hobbies if you are up to the challenges and have the support of your wife and family. You meet a lot of great people, and you have a lot of fun stories like this to share.