Highway Hot Dog

Iconic Wienermobile Keeps on Rolling

By Jeff Barnes

(Originally published in the Omaha World-Herald, July 8, 2017)

Whether it’s visiting supermarkets, rolling by in parades, or tooling down the interstate, the Wienermobile is an eyeful of fun.

Colorful and immense (27-feet long, 11-feet tall and seven tons heavy), the Oscar Mayer Wienermobile is a 80-year-old pop culture icon that just doesn’t age. At a recent stop for the vehicle at an Omaha Baker’s supermarket, little kids, their parents, and grandparents couldn’t help but stop and ketchup with the wienie on wheels.

20170709_194940022_iOSThose who drive the Wienermobile and represent the company know they hold a highly coveted position in driving a legend. “I still can’t believe I’m doing this for a job,” says Sean Miller, a University of Missouri marketing graduate hired on as a “hotdogger” (or Oscar Mayer Brand Ambassador). Around two thousand college graduates in marketing, advertising, journalism, or PR apply for the strictly one-year job. Thirty get brought to company headquarters in Madison, Wis., and only twelve get hired.

“They’re mostly looking for people who relish the opportunity for this,” said Miller at an Omaha appearance. Yes, a constant stream of condiment, hot-dog, and bun puns are part of the job.

The Wienermobile made its introduction in 1936 when Carl Mayer, the nephew of Oscar Mayer, came up with the idea to promote wiener sales. The first version just seated one and was but a fraction of the current model, but it quickly caught on and evolved over the years. They’ve been on Dodge, Willys Jeep, Chevy, RAM, and GMC chasses in their 80-year history.

 

It was in the early ‘50s that Oscar Mayer decided to expand the fleet to a second Wienermobile, and then to four, and then to the current number of six Wienermobiles on the road. A “Mini Wienie” was added a couple of years ago on a Mini Cooper chassis, and there’s now a cycle and a drone. Most of the full-size are 2016 builds with a couple 2012s, but the easiest way to tell them apart is by their personalized license plates (WEENR, WNRMBLE, OHIWISH, OSCRMYR, IWSHIWR, and OUR DOG).

 

A shop in Michigan builds the chassis and installs the V-6, 6.0-liter 300 VORTEC engine with 6-speed automatic transmission, while a California shop builds the fiberglass hot-dog body for the fiberglass bun. Passing through the gull-wing door, one finds a well-apportioned interior with individual seats for six, touch-screen controls for the sound system, navigation, and Bluetooth, a blue-sky ceiling with removable bun roof, and a ketchup walkway. Of course, its horn plays the Oscar Mayer Wiener jingle.

As official drivers of the Wienermobile, each hotdogger is assigned a region and a partner for six months, covering thousands of miles and promoting Oscar Mayer products with games, stickers, coupons, and – of course – the famous Wienie Whistle for the kids. At the end of that period, the hotdoggers trade regions, partners, and Wienermobiles for another six months.

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Miller in the Wienermobile, which features a gull-wing door, a blue-sky ceiling with “bun roof,” a bun-shaped dashboard, and a horn which plays the Oscar Meyer theme.

Driving the Wienermobile isn’t as difficult as it might look, Miller says. “Each of us gets training from the Madison (Wis.) Police Department so we get used to the height and turn radius, but it’s really a lot of fun. The chassis is similar to that of a UPS truck, although some mistake it for a Lambowienie.” Again with the puns…

Miller said the biggest difficulty in driving the 11-foot-high, 27-foot-long, 7-ton Wienermobile is people slowing down their cars to take photos or to honk and wave. “It sometimes blocks us from making our turns, so that can jam up traffic at times,” he said. “It’s all fun, though – they’ll have to pry the keys from my hand when the year is over.”

The ‘Birds and the ‘Bees

MOPAR Show Flexes Muscle with a Slew of Supers

by Jeff Barnes

A gorgeous spring Saturday brought out the blooms at the annual High Impact Performance Auto Club’s MOPAR Mega Meet at the Papillion-LaVista (Neb.) South High School today.  Here are a few of the muscle-bound Super Birds, Super Bees, Road Runners, Coronets and others showing up in their high-impact colors.

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1970 Plymouth ‘Cuda
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1970 Plymouth ‘Cuda
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1971 Plymouth Road Runner
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Class of ’70 – 1970 Plymouth Barracuda, Road Runner and Superbird
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1969 Plymouth Road Runner
1968 Dodge Coronet
1968 Dodge Coronet Super Bee
1970 Plymouth Superbird
1970 Plymouth Road Runner Superbird
1969 Dodge Superbee
1969 Dodge Coronet Super Bee
1970 Dodge Superbee
1970 Dodge Coronet Super Bee
1974 Plymouth Duster
1974 Plymouth Duster
1971 Dodge Demon
1971 Dodge Demon
1969 Plymouth Road Runner
1969 Plymouth Road Runner
1966 Dodge Charger
1966 Dodge Charger

Big Red Sled

Sister, Brother Find Dodge Pickup Keeps them Together

By Jeff Barnes

After their father passed away a couple of years ago, Janice Lopez of Omaha wondered if she and her brother would still have the connection to keep the siblings regularly talking with each other. As both liked muscle cars, she decided that could be the common denominator; in the course of looking for a car, she found a truck – a beautifully restored 1965 Dodge A100 cab-over pickup.

“I figured cars would be a good way to keep us together, and we both have cars now,” Lopez said. “But it started with the truck.” It worked, laughs her brother John Quade, who keeps truck in storage at his home. “She’s over here every Sunday morning for coffee, nice and early.”

When Lopez saw the ‘65 listed for the Kansas City auction (she was also born in ’65), she called John. “I told him we HAVE to go see this truck,” she said. This is not your typical cab-over Dodge – this has a 426 Hemi engine, an incredible tuck-and-roll upholstery job in the cab, and an ultra-stylish racing fin over the tailgate. “When I go to a car show, I want to see something unique, out-of-the-ordinary,” she said. “That’s what this is.”

DSC_0039The story behind the truck is unusual as well. Its meticulous restoration was carried out by an 80-year-old Iowa farmer who did two of the trucks at the same time, keeping one stock and making Lopez’s into a craftsman’s showpiece.

That included getting the crated 426 for the engine transplant. The original slant-six could be pulled from its “doghouse” housing, lifted over the passenger seat and out the door. If the Hemi ever needs serious servicing, however, the body would have to come off the truck to get to it.

“He did EVERYTHING on this truck,” she said. “A lot of times you’ll find restoration projects where some of the work gets farmed out, where they rebuild the truck, but someone else does the painting or the interior. He did it all, though – the body, the painting, the interior, all of it. He knew what he was doing.” She explained that when the farmer got so that he couldn’t drive anymore, he sold the trucks to a local Dodge dealer to display in his showroom. When the dealership closed a couple of years ago is how they got to auction.

“We were told not to call the original owner or he’d start crying,” John said. “But (the farmer) wanted to make sure it went to someone who’d enjoy it, keep it, love it, which is what we plan to do.”

Lopez shares her enjoyment for “Big Red” (as she calls the red-and-white truck) by taking it to shows – four in the past year including last year’s Riverfest in Bellevue where the truck took Best in Show. “The comments are really nice,” she said. “You get the old timers who smile and reminisce and then you get the young ones, and a lot of them ask ‘Where’s the motor?’”

She also took it to the recent World of Wheels at CenturyLink Center at the request of her Mopar club. They made sure it was seen, by placing it on the corner on the front walk.

She hasn’t done and doesn’t plan to do anything apart from oil changes. What about opening up that hemi? “I haven’t, but my brother has,” Janice said. John says he’s done it once or twice. “It’s fun – a bit squirrely, though, since the back end is so light.”

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Half-Ton Time Capsule

Blair restorer skips the work, nabs cherry ’76 F-100

By Jeff Barnes

Mike Patak is a master automotive restorer whose wheelin’, dealin’ and fixin’ have led him to encounters with celebrities like Jay Leno and Sammy Hagar. His spot-on restorations of ‘60s and ‘70s muscle cars have landed him among the pages of national enthusiast magazines, and he’s probably the world’s foremost Ford Galaxie restorer with more than thirty of his own.

So how is it that one of the favorite vehicles in his personal collection is a 36-year-old pickup that never spent a second under sandpaper at his shop?

DSC_0346Patak, owner of Mike’s Classic Cars in Blair, says he prefers not to do work he doesn’t have to and wanted to find a clean, red 1976 Ford F-100 pickup.

“I wanted to find a red pickup and restore it here, but the cost of restoring one is so expensive,” he said. It’s almost as if the gods were listening – Patak received an auction brochure in the mail which included a red 1976 Ford F-100 in Pennsylvania. Unbelievably, it was in original mint condition with 1,280 actual miles on the odometer. He put in his bid over the phone during the auction and won.

For Patak, 53, the truck is a personal “time capsule.” He was a 17-year-old working at a Ford dealership in Crete, Nebr., and decided he wanted a new truck for himself. “The ‘77s were coming out and mine was clearance-priced at $3,000,” he said.

The Explorer (now better known as a sport utility vehicle) included a special stripe kit, chrome bed rails, hood ornament and bumper guards. Because it was a dealer-installed trim and option package, Patak did the installation work himself then.

DSC_0317He drove that truck for about three years until getting married and having a child necessitated buying a new Fairmont station wagon. Still, fond memories of the truck kept him on the lookout for another as he began collecting cars.

Patak’s auction win didn’t have the Explorer package, so he added the “Explorer” ornament, bed rails and stripes to create the package. For the striping, he had to pull the design off a junked truck using onion paper and then have it custom made.

He put new belts on the 302 two-barrel V-8 engine (“Just a typical, doggy, mid-70s engine,” he calls it). He put on new tires and wheels, but kept the original tires which still have nubs on them. But nothing else had to be done.

DSC_0358It IS in pristine shape. It’s very rare to find a vehicle of that era without a cracked original steering wheel or dashboard, and the upholstery is shiny and new. Patak pulls the seat forward to reveal the foam backing of the seat – that’s usually dried, cracked and powdery at this point in a truck’s life but even it looks showroom-fresh.

“It even smells brand new in the cab,” Patak said. “There are no squeaks when you go over bumps and the engine is as smooth as the day it was built. It’s got the original AM radio, too; when I was a kid it would play music, but now it plays corn markets and Rush Limbaugh.”

Patak said he’ll eventually get around to finding a bit more about the truck’s history before he bought it. “This was a work truck, not a collector vehicle,” he said. “It’s not likely that someone would buy it new and store it in a temperature-controlled environment, but that’s what it looks like. It’s amazing it would look as new as it does.”

Now that he’s found and recreated the truck from his teens, can he ever imagine parting with it?

“I guess I AM ‘Mike’s Classic Cars’ and technically everything I have is for sale,” Patak said. “There are a couple of guys who have asked about it, but none have come up with anything that says they like it more than me. And I love it.”

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(Originally published in the Omaha World-Herald, March 2012)

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The King of Chrome

Custom ’28 Model A Pickup Emerges from 50-Year Slumber

By Jeff Barnes

It’s not often that a prize-winning hot rod pulls a Rip Van Winkle like Ron Saathoff’s just did.

After winning many a competition half a century ago with his 1928 Ford Model A pickup truck, he put the cranberry-red-and-chromed beauty away and got on with life. Now 74, the former co-owner of Papillion Sanitation has lived close to his hometown of Glenvil, Nebraska, for most of the past 20 years.

It was only last year that he pulled the “King A,” as he’s nicknamed the truck, to shine once again and catch the eyes of show-goers as it did at last month’s World of Wheels in Omaha and won the “Old-School Hot Rod” class.

dsc_0060Saathoff bought the truck in 1961 in Hastings, paying just $100 for it. “It was a normal Model A (pickup), not rusted out or banged up, with just a few fender dings,” he said. “I got its four-cylinder (engine) running and ran it that summer.”

He worked on it continuously from his home near Hastings, driving and making improvements. “In 1963 I got it licensed to drive and took it to a show in North Platte and got second place,” Saathoff said. “It actually wasn’t even running at the time.”

He kept on driving, improving, showing, and winning “until it got to the point where it was too nice to drive.” At that point, the king became a queen, as in trailer queen – if it goes anywhere today, it goes in its custom-painted trailer.

dsc_0101By 1965, he “retired” the truck. He did a show in Omaha and another in Denver in 1968, but then put the king on ice for five decades, kept in its trailer inside of a building. He showed it in 1970 at a Chrysler Plymouth dealer – a natural venue for a Ford with an Oldsmobile engine – and two or three other spots but no competitions.

Things changed last year. Saathoff was talked into showing the pickup at the Tri-City Rod and Custom Show in Grand Island, but he opted not to compete. But by putting the truck out there again, Saathoff caught the eye of the World of Wheels organizer who wanted him to bring the car to Omaha. “I said I didn’t know if I wanted to haul it that far,” Saathoff said, “but he promised me a prominent spot and the more we talked I decided I would.”

Lucky for Omaha. The “King A” is gorgeous example of the “old-school” builds for which Saathoff won. This is from a time when the hot-rodders did their own engineering, making their own parts rather than buying something and bolting it on. He has all kinds of makes and years into this: the engine is a 1957 Oldmobile Rocket, the transmission’s from a Cadillac LaSalle, the rear end from 1940 and ’46 Fords, the front axle from the ’40 Ford but with steering gear from a ’47 Olds. The tail lights were taken from a ’58 Chevy and the radio is out of a ’55 Ford.

dsc_0066As can be guessed, Saathoff is justifiably proud of having done all of the work himself, except for the roll-and-tuck upholstery and the last paint job. For the King’s return, he got it repainted professionally last spring. “I got it all sandblasted first,” he said. “The first time I had painted it myself without a paint booth.”

Saathoff thinks the truck will stay in the family for at least another fifty years. “We’ve got twin 15-year-old grandsons,” he said, “and I have this, an Olds Toronado, and a redone ’57 Olds. I’ve told them they could have their pick of the cars when I’m gone – Aaron wanted this and Adam wanted the Toronado. When we started it up, Adam went around saying ‘I think we should share this one’.”

dsc_0076(Originally printed in the Omaha World-Herald, April 23, 2016)

Pony Pride

Papillion Man Restores ’66 Mustang to Showroom

by Jeff Barnes

“Rust never sleeps,” sang Neil Young. When Frank Smith got his 1966 Mustang, he wasn’t going to even give rust a chance to breathe.

The retired Papillion, Neb., executive has worked on cars since he was 16 and has done 20 to 25 restorations. “I always wanted to do a Mustang, though,” said Smith. “I had a ’70 Mustang fastback years ago that I really liked and wished I’d kept.”

This time around he wanted an earlier year, specifically a ’66, ’67 or ’68 as they’re the most valuable of the “pony” cars. A friend tipped him off about the ’66 coupe that was sitting in a yard in Weeping Water, Neb. Smith made the buy and drove it home.

“I was just going to fix it up originally, but I ended up taking it down to every last nut and bolt,” he said. “It wasn’t a bad car, but just had a lot of rust and Bondo and I didn’t want any piece with that on it.” That meant that the only remaining original parts of the body ended up being the cowling between the hood and windshield, the roof, and the small strip between the rear window and the trunk.

In the from-the-ground-up restoration, which Smith has carefully itemized over four, single-spaced pages, he has rebuilt systems for fuel, cooling, electrical, exhaust, steering and suspension, and braking. He had the block rebuilt, reassembled the engine, and now has it dyno’ed out at 277 horsepower (it was originally 200). The car has the “pony” interior offered as an option in 1966, featuring stampeding mustangs running across the seat backs.

The “icing on the cake” was the new paint job – 15 coats of “crystal white” pearl coat. “The original color was a flat white,” said Smith, 69. “The guy who painted the car said ‘You don’t REALLY want to put flat white on THIS, do you?’ It didn’t take much convincing.” Blue rally stripes completed the restoration.

The restoration was started in August 2004 and completed in June 2008 but wasn’t without its speed bumps. A wiring harness kit ordered for the car came without labeling on the wires. “It took me six months to figure out,” Smith said. “I did have a wiring diagram, but without labels on the wires, it was just trial and error to see what went where. I’d get something hooked up, and something else would go out.” How many wires was that, hundreds? “It was a LOT,” he confirmed.

It took far less time for the restoration to get recognition. Smith took the car to the annual Mustang Car Show at Nebraska Crossing near Gretna in September and came home with the first-place trophy.

The Mustang was a nice change for Smith, the former owner of 12 companies. He’s done 10 Mercedes restorations, along with those for an MG, Triumph Spitfire, Nissan 300ZX and a Jensen Healey. “The nice thing about Mustangs is that everything is available on the aftermarket and relatively inexpensive,” he said. “I like Mercedes (for restorations), but they’re so expensive – it’s $1,600 for a used Mercedes bumper and $69 for a new Mustang bumper.”

This is not to say the finished result is less – the demand for Mustangs is greater than that for Mercedes.  “I’d get maybe $75,000 for this on the coast,” said Smith. “If it were a Shelby Mustang, around $250,000. But I don’t plan to sell it – I’m enjoying it too much.”

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All of his hobby work takes place in his immaculate 1,700-square-foot shop off West 6th Street in Papillion. Smith used to do the restorations from his garage at home, but the projects started to crowd into his marital bliss.

“Five years ago, my wife said you’re either getting a new shop, a new hobby or a new wife… I found a new shop,” he said. “It’s an expensive hobby, but I do enjoy it.”

(Originally published in the Omaha World-Herald, March 2011)

Pulling in at Chevyland U.S.A.

by Jeff Barnes

I’d passed the little Nebraska museum called “Chevyland U.S.A.” on I-80 for decades without stopping. Always had to be someplace else, and the one time I was driving by with another car-loving friend we both assumed it was closed and or abandoned.

There was no sign inviting us to get off at the Elm Creek exit. No “open” sign ablaze in its front windows. Letters had fallen off its main signage. The grounds looked unattended and the building interior was dark, with no cars or people seen around the building. We could see the Chevrolets through the large front windows of the metal building, but they were packed and looked more like they were in storage than in a display. The director of another car museum had told me he’d heard of some legal situation that had it closed.

But this past Sunday I had some free time after an engagement further west and decided I’d stop at Chevyland and try to at least peek through the windows. I got off at the exit and found the mile-long gravel road to take me there. I was happy to find no gate to keep me out and pulled up to the building – and there was an “open” sign on the door! I grabbed my cameras.

dsc_0734I walked in and found a room filled with display cases and shelves packed with model cars. The elderly man behind the counter said hi, and then I made the mistake of saying “I’ve wanted to see this for years – I thought this place was closed up.”

“Why would you think THAT?” he said, obviously perturbed. “We’ve been open for forty years!” Rather than dig a deeper grave, I stammered “I – I dunno.” “We’ve been open for forty years,” he repeated. “Don’t know why you’d think we were closed…” I told him I was happy he was open, paid my $6 and walked through a hollow-core door to the cars.

You immediately walk into the “old car” smell, which I really hadn’t smelled for longer than I can remember – and it was great. The first car you see is the bright red 1958 Impala, which may well be the cherry of the collection. I was born in ’58 myself, and always enjoy finding one in place of a ubiquitous ‘57.

dsc_0720I snapped some photos to study later because I had a lot of ground to cover. I looked down the length of the metal building and saw there must be seventy, eighty – wow, maybe a hundred cars in here. My five-minute-peek-through-the-window was turning into a full expedition for which I hadn’t budgeted time.

Just as it looked from I-80, cars were jam-packed in here. There didn’t SEEM to be a rhyme or reason for the collection, other than being a focus on Chevrolet (I found out later he wanted to get the sport/coupe for every year, not the sedan). But I also found a Laser 917 kit car, a fire engine from the Syracuse VFD, an MG, motorcycles, bicycles, and other things.

dsc_0699It was incredible to behold – but also kind of sad. Dust covered the cars and some had bird droppings. Tires had gone flat. There was interpretation on some of the cars but not all, so with the overwhelming numbers, the crowding, and the weak lighting, you really couldn’t appreciate the car before you.  Decent photography was next to impossible.

From newspaper articles posted in the museum, I found out the owner – Monte Hollertz – was a central Nebraska farmer who had bought a new pickup in 1964. He couldn’t wait to take delivery from the western Nebraska dealer so his local dealer got a small plane to fly him to the truck. On the way there, Hollertz noticed out the window a rusting ’32 Chevrolet in the backyard of a farmstead. He found that car on his return trip, bought it, and fixed it up into a dirt-track racer. He then bought another Chevy to restore and now was hooked. Profits from farming went into buying and restoring the Bowties. He scoured southern Nebraska and northern Kansas car lots and farms, buying cheap and fixing up.

 

When I visited with Hollertz on the way out, I asked about the gorgeous ’58 Impala. “Originally, I found this ’58 convertible that the guy wanted $50 for – I offered him $30, he took it, and I brought it home and fixed it up,” he said. “I met a kid who had this ’58 and talking with him, he said what he REALLY wanted was a convertible. I showed him the one I had, he liked it, and we traded straight up. So I only have $30 in this.”

For most cars, he didn’t worry about the cosmetic aspects – he was mostly interested in getting the motors going. The cars filled his barn, so he then started a museum in a closed skating rink in Minden (home of Pioneer Village which also has an amazing auto collection). A year later in 1975, he bought the land on the interstate and built the new museum.

20170205_222555799_iosMore and more people came, and he bought more cars – at one point he had 115, with all but four years covered of every sports model Chevrolet built between 1914 and 1974. But now interest has dwindled and Hollertz is into his eighties. Posted letters testify to his fight and failure against the state of Nebraska to erect a legal sign near the interstate to bring people to his museum. Since admissions won’t pay for it, he’s had to sell a few of his cars to pay the taxes. I asked him how many cars are now in the collection – he doesn’t even know at this point.

I don’t know how many mom-and-pop car museums are left in America, but it’s probably fewer than Hollertz has cars. I know I hear about more closing than I hear about them opening – heck, CHRYSLER even closed its own museum last year! So while it’s here and while you can, the next time you’re tooling down Interstate 80 in central Nebraska, how about pulling in at Chevyland U.S.A.?

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From Basket Case to Beauty

Dentist Caps Off Restoration of Rare ’53 Corvette

by Jeff Barnes

(Originally published in Auto Enthusiast magazine, December 2013)

As a dentist, Joel Janssen has plenty of experience in restoring incisors and molars to their former luster. By far, however, the biggest, toughest, most expensive project he’s had in making pearly whites shine again is his 1953 Corvette.

Janssen is a long-time car collector with a particular interest in Corvettes. He owns a dozen of them, including every year from the Fifties. “But if you’re any kind of collector, you have to have the first year,” he says.

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He found the ’53 in an issue of a collector magazine about 25 years ago, listed by the owner of a NAPA store in Michigan. “I called for it and found out he’d already sold it to a broker I knew in Hastings, Nebraska,” Janssen said. “I then called the broker and he asked if I wanted it. ‘Pretty much,’ I said. He paid 25-thousand for it and I paid him 35-thousand – and we both were happy.”

The car got to his home in Papillion, Neb., in two trailers, with the chassis, motor and transmission were in one and the doors, harness and other parts in the second. “It was a basket case,” Janssen said. “It had been in a fire and was really a mess. Some of the burned parts were replaced with reproduction plastic, there was no top and the front buckets were broken. We used a forklift to get it off the trailers.”

Thus began an eight-and-a-half-year restoration, led by Gary Sortino of Papillion. Typically, the two take about five years for a restoration, but seven years alone were spent on the fiberglass body, turned on a roll-around dolly in the paint shop. There’d be a gel coating, sanding, another seal, heating, letting the car sit for three to four months, more sanding, etc. Lather-rinse-repeat.

“When paint shrinks, it cracks and the plastic continues to cure over the years,” says Janssen. “Then it took three and a half years to put it back together. Making things fit took most of the time and you have to have the correct screws, the right springs, the right belting, use the proper quality, the right facing and stamping. All of that is judged.”

All of the early ‘53s were handmade on hand-laid fiberglass, Janssen said, and actually were poorly made. “This car is better than the original – you’d have to intentionally make it look bad to bring it to original, which nobody is going to do.”

Janssen did some amazing sleuthing to find the other components of the car such as original, asbestos-lined spring leafs and original cast-aluminum buckets for the headlights.  He also found a new original stock top in Minnesota; not opening the box after it was shipped to him, he put it away until ready for the installation.

“When I opened it eight years later, I also found a top for a ’54 in there, too,” Janssen said. “I would have given it back, but it had been so long since I bought it I didn’t remember who it came from.”

The top is a prime example of how persnickety the ’53 Corvette can be. Janssen said the initial install of his ragtop took him 45 hours due to the weak bow system of the frame. “It still takes six hours to make it properly fit,” he added. “Now, I rarely drop it.”

In keeping the restoration completely stock, the “Blue Flame” six-cylinder engine was rebuilt to specifications, as well as the carburetor. Would that Janssen’s ’53 started with a V8 rather than its six. “It just goes ‘buzz’ – it wouldn’t beat anything,” he said. “In spite of the fiberglass, it’s heavy. The six-cylinder engine weighs more than a V8 and puts out only 150 horsepower. It’s basically a big truck engine with three carbs.”

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It only has about 60 miles on it since its completion twelve years ago, but Janssen said he and his wife Lynette will now drive it more. “It’s old now, and after a point, there’s nothing you really can do to keep fiberglass from moving,” he said. “You can work and work to get it perfectly gapped and it will still shift apart.”

So is it at all fun to drive? “No!” exclaims Janssen. “You feel all the tar marks in the road and hear all the wind noises – it goes ‘clunk-clunk-clunk.’ But it hasn’t done badly – it looks really nice for what it is. It’s time to enjoy it.”

(NOTE: Janssen’s 1953 Corvette is now on display at the Speedway Motors Museum of American Speed in Lincoln, Nebraska)

 

Dictator for Life

’35 Studebaker rules affections of collector

By Jeff Barnes

As far as Leon Timmerman is concerned, he has a Dictator that will never fall from grace.

His 1935 Studebaker with the unusual name has found a home in his Papillion, Nebr., garage for more than 40 years. He didn’t shower it with TLC after he bought it for $600 in 1972 – in fact, he didn’t even touch the car for 35 years.

The Dictator has been kept stock as much as Timmerman can allow. “I’m no hot rodder – I want them like they were,” says the retired electrician. “It’s kind of classy and I didn’t want to change that.”

He is only the third owner of the car and has had it the longest. He bought it from a Lincoln man who had inherited it from his father who bought it new. That son had plans to restore it but never made it happen. “It wasn’t running so I had to tow it home,” Timmerman said, “and I had a hell of a time – it just wouldn’t track.”

He didn’t have to do a lot to it – he put some sealant around the gas tank to keep it from leaking and cleaned up the fuel system.

“I did some sandblasting for the fenders and there was a lot of paint missing on the top, so I repainted those two areas,” he added. “The upholstery was rotted, so I had a friend do the seats and I did the doors, the headliner and the visors. There had to have been a million tacks in there when I was doing the headliner and panels; I did use mostly tacks install the new but not nearly as many as they did at the factory.” He also repainted the simulated wood grain on the dashboard and around the inside window frames.

Timmerman’s fairly sure that the original six-cylinder engine is in the car with its 82-thousand miles. “This one still had the engine pans, and they typically threw these away if the engine was overhauled,” he said.

When the Dictator came out in 1927, the term didn’t have the connotation that it would have in ten years. As far as Studebaker was concerned, “Dictator” meant that the model “dictated the standard” for other cars to follow.

The name wasn’t that popular in some of the European monarchies to which the car was exported; Studebaker changed the name to “Director” in those countries and all was fine.  Even after Benito Mussolini came to power, the Dictator was still acceptable among American consumers. With the rise of Adolf Hitler, however, the end was near – in 1937, the Dictator was rebranded as the Commander (which had been dropped as a Studebaker name in 1935).

Timmerman, 79, is just a year older than the car but plans to keep it for the long haul. “I once thought of selling it, but it seems lately that four-doors are going up,” said the long-time collector who’s owned several other Studebakers. “And these were just amazing. There’s not a Phillips screw on the whole car – just flathead screws – and it was all hand built.”

As happy as he is with the Studebaker, he calls it a “20-foot car,” meaning it looks its best from 20 feet away. You can see paint chipping away around the corners of the door and the windshield wiper is missing. It has a “spray-can-chrome” bumper along with other minor imperfections, but it’s not like he plans to show it.

“The big reason I don’t show is typically something breaks just as you’re getting ready to take it out,” he said. “These tires are forty to fifty years old and one would probably blow while I was out. It drives very nice, though – it’ll go 50 slicker’n a whistle.”

(Originally published in the Omaha World-Herald, January 2013)

Love Studebakers? Check out my features on a 1952 Commander and a 1938 Studebaker COE Hauler!

For the Love of a Lotus

dsc_0024Plattsmouth enthusiast tricked into building himself a roadster

by Jeff Barnes

(Originally published in the Omaha World-Herald, February 2011)

About seven years ago, Ed Fisher got a call from a car-collecting cousin in Arizona wanting some help on an overseas car buy. The cousin wanted to order a new, limited-edition British sports car – the 2005 Lotus Elise – right off of the production line.

A sales manager at Precision Toyota, Fisher was able to assist. He recommended the specifications and options that would help ensure its resale value. He suggested getting the sport package since the cousin said he’d be doing some racing. Fisher even gave his personal preference for the car’s color – maroon.

 

All the while, Fisher was very envious; he had coveted the Elise since it was first announced in 2003. “I really got excited about this car,” he said. “I’m a 21-year Toyota employee and this was a one-of-a-kind car with the Toyota engine and powertrain.”

Fisher was in a meeting at his dealership about five years ago when he got paged to meet with a customer on the showroom floor. When he got there, he was met by his wife Anna, his adult children, his mother, all the dealership mechanics and other employees – and riding on the transport behind them was the Lotus Elise that he had been tricked into building for himself.

“I started bawling my eyes out,” Fisher, 51, said. “It was pretty gutsy on my wife’s part, because she needed to really track it, had to buy it from a New York dealer and then had to ship it here. I’m really impressed with my kids for keeping it secret for two years.

“I worked hard at putting my wife and kids through college and wanted to buy myself a car after I got them through. But it’s not easy for me to spend money so my wife did it for me.” (Anna is a doctor and also a professor at Bellevue University.)

What Fisher has is very rare – there are only about 400 Elises with the sport package and he said there is probably only one or two with this color. And he’s absolutely in love with it and its handling. “The first time I took a corner with it,” he said, “I thought ‘I should not be taking it this fast’… and then I said ‘Wow, I should have taken it faster.”

Through the Sports Car Club of America, Fisher has raced in competitive autocross for a couple of years around the Midwest and was a class champion in Nebraska, running against Vipers and Corvette ZO6s. “They’re heavier but have more horsepower, and I’m lighter but more nimble,” he said. “But it’s not about the engine – it’s about the handling. You don’t have to have all that much horsepower to be fast.”

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He’s also run in a few street races at Mid-America Motorplex at Glenwood and has won best in class twice at Omaha’s World of Wheels. The car has even been featured on two SCCA calendars.

It’s been a bonding experience for himself and his son Dustin and son-in-law Kraa (married to daughter Maria), who both help him detail it for shows. “We all love cars and it’s definitely drawn us closer together,” he said.

isher said he’s been astounded by the attention the car’s received. He doesn’t trailer the Lotus, but drives it to where it’s supposed to go. “I’ve had a crowd of around 20 people while I’m gassing up the car,” he said, “and I’ve seen people almost cause wrecks on the interstate while trying to get pictures of it while driving. I’ve even had kids come up and ask me for my autograph.”

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Mountain Monster

’78 Toyota Land Cruiser restored to original glory

By Jeff Barnes

(Originally published in the Omaha World-Herald, December 2012)

When he was transferred from Wyoming to Omaha, Jim Cicarelli was forced to leave a love behind.

The retired Union Pacific employee once owned a Toyota Land Cruiser while living in Wyoming. “I had a ’77 that I had bought new,” he said. “My kids grew up with it and they loved it. It got you into areas no others will go, in the mountains and in the snow – it’s an animal.”

When the U.P. sent him to Omaha as locomotive distribution director, he bought a bigger truck to make the move; he couldn’t afford both vehicles and sold the Land Cruiser.

In the back of his mind, and despite now being a flatlander, Cicarelli wanted to get back into a Land Cruiser. In 2008, after making up his mind to find and restore one, he found a 1978 in Loveland, Colorado. “It was olive green and advertised that it had some rust,” he said. “It had a LOT of rust, more than I had bargained for.”

He got the price down substantially, then bought it and sent it to a Land Cruiser specialist in Salt Lake City for a year-and-a-half restoration and new Desert Sand paint job. It was then brought to T&M Automotive in Omaha, for the chassis and interior work. “It’s kind of funny,” Cicarelli said. “They do work on Corvettes and Lamborghinis, but they said when anyone came into the shop they’d first go over to check out my Land Cruiser.” That shop had it for more than a year itself, and then finally came home to Cicarelli eight months ago, nearly three years after he’d bought it.

Cicarelli, 64, enhanced the original by adding bigger tires, a “snorkel” air intake to pull in cleaner air, a new stereo system, air conditioning, updated front seats and reupholstered rear seats. The new power steering is a must, he said – if the Land Cruiser gets stuck on a rock while off-roading without the power assist, if you’ve got your thumb in a steering wheel hole when the wheel suddenly straightens, it could tear that digit off.

The SUV only has 125 horsepower, but more than makes up for it with 200 foot-pounds of torque. “It had a lot better torque than a Jeep, because you didn’t need a special transfer case for lower gears,” Cicarelli said. “It’s not much on the highways, but it’s a Cadillac off the road.”

He didn’t take it out much this summer, using the time to get some additional “bugs” out of the vehicle and make it completely drivable. He admits he won’t drive it nearly as hard as the last Land Cruiser because of the investment, but does plan to trailer it to Utah this coming spring for some four-wheeling and some elk hunting. “A vehicle like this, you do NOT want sitting in a garage,” he said.

It obviously is a big hit with other bow hunters as well. “If a bow hunter drives by he’ll honk and give me thumbs-up,” Cicarelli said. “Most other people think it’s a brand new Jeep.” He said the vehicle has a cult following in the Rockies with rallies and a Land Cruiser museum in Salt Lake City.

Cicarelli said the Land Cruiser was developed in the 1950s with the U.S. military asking Japan for a Jeep-type vehicle that they could purchase locally. Sales took off in the ‘60s, he added, “and they sold close to a million of these by the late ‘80s. They’re getting harder to find now – most of them are rusted out or in junkyards by now.”

After rescuing his from the rust, Cicarelli has infected most of the rest of the family with nostalgia – oldest son Jed has already bought a Land Cruiser to restore and youngest son Jon is looking for one.

Pretty in Pedal

By Jeff Barnes

Hope everyone got what they wanted for Christmas! Of course, when I was a kid and as soon as I could run, I wanted to ride. The pedal car was at the top of the list for a birthday or for Christmas, and it wasn’t long before we had one. Unfortunately, it was my brother who got it…

If you had a pedal car, odds are that your model is on display at the Museum of Automotive Speed in Lincoln, Nebraska. Here are a few photos of their collection – can you spot yours?

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