‘Like a Motorcycle on Four Wheels’

Rare Ford 1907 K and 1906 N Give a Century-Plus of Thrills

By Jeff Barnes

Without a windshield and doors on the car – and sitting high while cruising down a country road – 30 miles per hour seems amazingly fast. And you can’t help but feel anyone passing is staring right at you and wishing he was in your place.

It’s a thrill Rob Heyen never tires of in his 1907 Ford Model K. “It’s like a motorcycle on four wheels,” he said. The Milford farmer is generous in giving rides in both his car and his 1906 Ford Model N. He takes them to shows around the region, and friends and the occasional attendees get to go for a spin as he averages between 1,000 and 1,500 miles a year on both.

Many folks think Ford started with the Model T and built only that in the company’s early years, but these cars were among a series of models leading up to the iconic car. In fact, Heyen said, the cars represent extremes of what the Model T would be. “The N was the Model T light and the K was the Model T on steroids,” he said. “These two cars are the parents of the Model T.”

Heyen completely restored both of them from the frame up at the same time. “I had a couple of Model Ts in high school that I got running,” he said. “It was about 15 years ago I was whining to my wife Holly about wishing I had an old car.” Now he has five, including a Model T truck.

The Model K was Ford’s effort at a luxury touring car, but ultimately failed because competitors were too established and so much better. It has a six-cylinder, 405-ci engine, which was the least expensive six-cylinder of its day but still set a world endurance record in 1907. It was and is big with its 120-inch wheelbase and is tall.

“When I’m next to a four-wheel-drive pickup, I’m looking down at him,” Heyen said. About 900 Model Ks were built – 23 survive today and his is one of five that are still running.

A fifth-generation Nebraskan, Heyen is in the crop insurance business as well as farming. He found the Model K at one of his Illinois customers’ farms and – after four years of quibbling – bought it in December 2011.

“I immediately took it to its chassis,” he said. “Fortunately the mechanical didn’t need much work, but cosmetically it need to be completely redone.”

Heyen’s Model N might be even more special than the K. His is the third one off the assembly line, confirmed by the stamps on the engine and other parts. Even more fun, he has a photograph of the car from 1925 at a Ford dealership, with its likely owner standing next to it.

“The photo is from 1925,” Heyen said, “but I don’t know where it went from then to 1947.” That year it went to a small mom-and-pop museum back east and he bought it from them when they were forced to sell out.

The N was kind of the Mustang of its day, given its size and speed. “It was the most inexpensive four-cylinder car available at about $500,” Heyen said. “you couldn’t touch anything else with the same horsepower.”

It has 15 horses, which is a pittance by today’s standards but more than enough a century ago. “It’s pretty peppy when it’s firing on all cylinders,” he said. “Henry Ford’s cars were always light with good horsepower.”

(Originally published in the Omaha World-Herald, July 27, 2013)

Tangerine Dream

Omahan endures bumps along the way for one sweet ’74 Corvette

By Jeff Barnes

Pete Stoll has had plenty of fun with his own hot rods and one day asked his wife Brianna what she wanted.

“I told him I wanted a Chevelle but what I REALLY wanted was a C3 Corvette,” she said. Pete made some calls looking for the third-generation ‘Vette and in October 2013 found one – a two-toned silver-on-charcoal ’74 highlighted by a sweet tangerine stripe.

The car was going to need some work, however, pretty much a complete overhauling of the suspension system. Stoll turned the car over to a mechanic who identified himself as “the best in the world.”

“We put it in on February 18 (2015) and he said it would be done in a week,” he said. “By May 1, it was still in the shop. He had it up on a rack – I said ‘If you’re not going to fix it, I will.’ I brought in my tools and spent over 100 hours just getting it out of there.”

Stoll found some bad surprises upon getting the car back, such as grinding in the brakes, damage to the front corner of the hood, and a rear strut getting as bent as a horseshoe. There was a new radiator to replace the original that was punctured while the mechanic was working around it.

“Basically every time he touched something, he screwed it up,” Stoll scowled. “But we completely redid the suspension from the front to the rear – every bushing, every ball joint, everything had to be replaced. It was a total mess but now it drives like a dream.”

There was a great surprise found during the restoration – this was a numbers-matching ’74 Corvette. Stoll was stunned to find the car in that state, adding that the previous owner certainly didn’t know it. “It’s got a double-roller chain and gears for timing, and that wasn’t stock,” he said, “and it only has 76-thousand miles on it which is not bad for a 40-year-old car.”

The Stolls had one more hassle to contend with for the car. After Brianna stepped in to replace the taillight lenses, they found they the gas gauge didn’t work. The thinking was that a wire above the gas tank wasn’t in, so for the next few weeks they had to measure the fuel level with a dipstick while waiting for the tank to empty enough to drop it and get to the wire.

While Stoll went off on a camping trip, Brianna decided to take another look at the wiring and found that a tankectomy wasn’t needed. “It took me ten minutes to find the problem, ten minutes to find the tools, and ten minutes to fix it,” she laughed. “I tossed him the keys when he got home and said ‘Fixed the gauge’.”

From the VIN, Stoll was able to get a copy of the original sticker for the ‘Vette and now knows that it was “born” on March 29, 1974, was loaded with every option available to it and was shipped from its final assembly in St. Louis to a Chevrolet dealer in East Detroit. He thinks he and his wife are the third owners.

The Stolls have shown the car six times and won five trophies, and they only show where there’s a cause to support. She’s an accountant for the Council Bluffs Public Schools, so last year they entered the car in the Thomas Jefferson Orchestra and Band fundraiser, where they took best of class, including more than fifty cars from the ‘70s and ‘80s. They’ll be back for this year’s on August 27.

Anything learned after the three-year adventure? “Don’t buy another Corvette!” laughs Stoll. “This is our first and last. But it is a blast to drive.”

Sand Hills Survivor

Omahan rescues a rare ’57 Chevy HydraMatic pickup from western Nebraska pasture

By Jeff Barnes

“There’s gold in them thar hills” goes the rallying cry; Patrick Schmid found his gold in the Sand Hills of western Nebraska, but this metal had a decidedly turquoise tint.

Although not yet at the end of its frame-off restoration, Schmid nonetheless has revealed a beautiful 1957 Chevy 3100 half-ton pickup from the hulk he rescued north of Gothenburg. The previous owner in 1979 removed the engine from the truck and put it into a car that his wife could drive. From that point – parked in a pasture among the cattle – the truck sat for thirty-five years waiting for its rescuer.

Better than a typical ’57, however, the truck had a very rare “HydraMatic” automatic transmission. It was about 15 feet from the truck when Schmid first went to view the truck, indicating someone tried to steal it before its weight made him give up.

This wasn’t the first Chevy pickup restored by Schmid, a service manager at Sealand Marine. Right out of high school he bought a very rough ’56 half-ton that he completed himself over three years. His father owned a service station there in Grand Island, “and one of the proudest moments I’ve ever had in my life was hearing him tell my mom that I did a great job on it and made it look brand new,” he said.

Schmid sold the truck, however, to pay for a move to Omaha and rent on an apartment with his girlfriend and future wife. The marriage didn’t last, however, and even though he was able to move on from that, he couldn’t forget that truck.

He eventually remarried and told his wife if he ever found another Chevy pickup to restore, he’d buy it. “She told me my old truck was ugly, but said to go ahead if I ever found one,” he said.

That opportunity came around four years ago when attending an auto swap meet in Lincoln. Schmid didn’t buy anything there, but wandered into the last building and started looking at ads posted on a wall. One of them was a photo of the rusting ’57, sitting in a pasture.

The owner wanted $1,500 for it – ironically, the same price for which Schmid sold his restored ’56. This one was missing an engine, hood, and other components. “He knew it was rare, though, and that explained the price – I wasn’t about to quibble with him,” Schmid said. “The HydraMatic is so rare it’s not even funny.”

Chevy just did not make that many pickups with automatic transmissions in 1957. “The Cameo was rare (a little more than 2,000 built in 1957), but they made fewer of these than the Cameo,” Schmid said. He hasn’t been able to track down the exact number built, but it’s certainly much lower now.

The difference between this truck and the equivalent manual transmission truck is around $20,000, he said. An acquaintance well familiar with the brand says he probably has around a $55,000 truck, although Schmid said he hasn’t and may never get it appraised.

Unlike his first truck, Schmid this time farmed out the engine, transmission, and upholstery; everything else he did himself. That included things he didn’t want to do, such as restoring the spare-tire mount option on the left-rear fender. Most trucks don’t have and isn’t as visually appealing, but he wanted it as close to original as possible. Schmid also doesn’t like green but there was never a question that he wouldn’t repaint it as the original Indian Turquoise.
The truck gods have obviously taken a shine to Schmid for his restoration. He went to the same Lincoln swap meet a couple years after getting the truck and found a dealer selling used license plates. He found a set of 1957 Nebraska plates with the number “1-1957.”

“I got them restored to put on the truck,” he said. “I’ve been offered five hundred bucks, but I wouldn’t sell them.”

(Originally published in the Omaha World-Herald, March 29, 2014)

‘It’s Not Fast, But It’s Fun’

Papillion Man Takes 1951 MG Midget Through Three Generations

By Jeff Barnes

It started as sort of a Christmas present for his wife back in 1972.

Leon Timmerman had already been collecting cars for a few years when his wife Joan decided she’d like an MG convertible. “She said ‘Those are so cute – I’d like to have one of those’,” recalled Timmerman at his Papillion home. So he found one – a 1951 MG TD Midget that he bought from an Omaha man.

“He had the (original) engine and the transmission lying on the floor next to it,” said Timmerman. The British import was in pretty good shape and had a Jeep motor in it; the 1500cc, four-cylinder engine, from a ’56 MG on the floor was what had been in it.

Timmerman, now a retired electrician, returned the engine and transmission to the car, reupholstered it, repainted it and put new tires on the vehicle … and thus a family favorite was born.

It started with Joan driving their daughters to school in it. “Then Jayne and Joy drove it to school when they were old enough – they were hot shots with it,” he said. Papillion High School once had a “neat car” contest in the mid ‘70s when the girls were going to school there; as expected, there were Camaros, Mustangs, Chevelles and other muscle cars. “But they showed up with the MG and they won it,” he said.

There’s a lot of love for the little burgundy beauty, but also the occasional pains. One day he and Joy were out driving, he said, “and she let out a yelp – an oil line had broken and was spraying hot oil on her foot.

The MG is now a third-generation Timmerman roadster. Granddaughter Jillian (22) drives it when she’s home for the summer from the University of Missouri. “Every summer I have to get the proper insurance for it when she comes home,” he said. “The antique car insurance won’t cover her until they’re 25.”

Since Jayne and Joy today have their own families with driving children, Timmerman bought another convertible MG, this time a ’50, in 1988 with that in mind. “We wanted an MG for each family,” he said.

Both MGs have found space in his basement garage with three other cars: twin 1919 Studebakers purchased separately from bachelor brothers in Wilbur, Neb., and a true “land yacht” – a 1960 Pontiac Catalina convertible. All of those cars are total restorations by Timmerman, who in his main-floor garage is still working on a 1935 Studebaker Dictator. “They quit calling them that after Hitler,” he said.

Timmerman, 74, also bought, restored and sold a number of cars before the current group, including a 1920 Studebaker touring car, a 1915 Model T roadster, a 1907 Orient buckboard, a 1930 MG boat tail and a 1948 Pontiac Streamliner.

His 53-year hobby began, he says, at the instigation of his wife. “Joanie liked old cars – we dated in a ’48 Pontiac, almost identical to one we had here later.”

But what got him to the second car, the third, the fourth, the fifth, etc.? “Stupidity,” he said with a hearty laugh. “I just liked them – it was something to do.”

The Timmermans have something in their garage for each grandchild. Evan, 20, who goes to the University of Nebraska-Omaha where he is a linebacker for the Mavericks, helped in the restoration in one of the 1919 Studebakers. Haley, 22, likes the 1950 MG while Molly, 19, has taken a shine to the 1960 Pontiac.

The ’51 MG, however, is the love of the family in spite of its flaws. “It’s very high maintenance,” Timmerman said. “The brake cylinders are aluminum, which is a problem, and there’s always a problem with corrosion, plus it’s had couple of broken axles. It doesn’t have a lot of power – its top speed is 55 miles per hour – but it really sings when you get it out on the road. It’s not fast, but it’s fun.”

Jam-Packed Packard

Omahan’s 1955 Caribbean Convertible is Optioned Out

By Jeff Barnes

Howard Hunter’s triple-toned Packard always gets a double take.

His 1955 Packard Caribbean convertible is a true land yacht, meant to cruise in style, comfort and luxury. There’s power EVERYTHING in its two-and-a-half ton frame, sitting on a unique torsion-bar suspension system that keeps an even keel for a smooth ride. For what it’s worth, Jay Leno has one of these in his garage.

Hunter bought the car in 1977 with his wife Joan’s father. John Schumacher had been a Packard dealer in Nebraska City for as long as Packards were manufactured (1956) but the nostalgia factor caused them to look for one to share.

“He wanted one and I was handy with things,” Hunter said in explaining the partnership. “We found it in O’Neill – the previous owner was a farmer and car collector and was going to use the car to tow his boat-tail Auburn.”

It didn’t take much convincing to spend the $1,800 for it – this was a rare car. It had most of the offered options, only 500 were made, and this was number 13. When they got it home, they found out the engine needed an overhaul; Hunter did that and also replaced a second antenna. “We didn’t have to do too much more, other than a LOT of polish,” he said. Even the convertible roof was in great shape; Hunter had to replace the cylinder, but the pump worked great once he degummed it.

Schumacher often drove the car between Nebraska City and Omaha; when he passed away in 1986, he left the car to his son-in-law. In the years since, Hunter’s put in new seats, repainted 95 percent of the car, replaced the carpet and put on wire wheels to get it close to a being a fully optioned Caribbean.

“This was a car that was way ahead of its time,” he said. “It’s got power windows, brakes and seats, a heater under the seat, torsion-bar level ride suspension – it was considered ‘America’s Rolls-Royce’.” The Packard emblem and nameplates are even plated in 22-karat gold. He’s also added the original wire wheels to the vehicle and went to the added step of finding a 1955 Nebraska license plate from “55” county – the front plate has the initials “JMS” as tribute to his father-in-law.

The engine is Packard’s first overhead-valve V8, which displaces 352 cu. in. and replaced the old, heavy, cast-iron side valve straight-eight that had been used for decades. It turns out about 275 horsepower. “With a full tank of gas and myself, the car weighs just over 5,000 pounds,” Hunter said. “I’ve kept track of every time I’ve filled the car since the overhaul – it gets 8.5 miles to the gallon and you can get up to 15mpg on the highway.”

It’s a very distinctive car, even more so with the three-tone paint job of White Jade, Fire Opal Red and Black Onyx. Hunter, 75, is the semi-retired owner of Nebraska Leasing and Finance Company who has entered it in a number of shows.

“It’s ‘trophied’ out – we’ve won people’s choice, best of show, sponsor’s choice, and best orphan,” he said, for makes no longer manufactured or supported. “It’s really a pleasure to own and show.”

And it’s certainly rarer than when he and Schumacher bought it – he figures there are maybe only 200 Caribbeans left from that year, according to registrations. “There may be some in sheds that nobody knows about, but that’s about it,” Hunter says.

(Originally published in the Omaha World-Herald, Oct. 1, 2011)

Triple Treat

Omahan’s Corvair Passion Puts Three ‘64s in the Driveway

By Jeff Barnes

Gerald Graeve will tell you he and his wife Kathryn didn’t plan to own three 1964 Chevrolet Corvair convertibles – but now that he does, he wouldn’t part with them for anything.

If there was a favorite of the three for the Omahan, it would probably be the rare one: the blue Monza Spyder, featuring a 150-HP Turbocharged engine. Only around 1 percent of the Corvairs built for that year were Spyder convertibles; it’s special all around, right down to each of its original Kelsey Hayes wire wheels.

“This was a limited production and one of the first cars in America to have the turbocharged engine,” Graeve said. “GM wanted to give it a little more ‘ummph’.” He gave it a little more flash himself, when he had it repainted 23 years ago with six coats of hand-rubbed lacquer.

The blue Spyder was owned by a Valentine, Neb., man who stored it in his parents’ barn while he was in the service in Vietnam. “He was killed there, and when he died his (heartbroken) parents died.” The car was in the barn from 1965 to ’72; Graeve said he bought the car at their estate sale for a now unbelievable price of $200 (that particular style would likely bring twenty to twenty-five thousand dollars today). “It was in perfect condition,” he added. “But that was 1972, three years after the Corvair was discontinued – no one wanted them then.”

Sad to say, the other cars were also obtained after the death of the previous owner. Graeve bought the red Corvair in 1984 from a widow who was not interested in keeping it after her husband passed away. Similarly, the butternut-yellow Corvair joined the family when the Graeves met a woman in Iowa City in 2000 willing to part with HER deceased husband’s old car.

He said he drives the red convertible fairly often, and used to drive it in the Benson High homecoming parades when their sons attended the school.

Graeve first fell in love with the Corvair after his graduation from Earling (Iowa) High in 1958. The car came out the year following, and he went on to own three others before his present three.

A former public relations official of 34 years with the Union Pacific, Graeve, 70, also owned a carpet cleaning business that became his fulltime job after taking early retirement with the railroad in 1996 (“Mr. Steam” is now owned by their son, Pat.)

Corvairs are well known for the engines being located in the rear of the car. It’s difficult to talk about the car without thinking of consumer advocate Ralph Nader. In his 1965 book “Unsafe at Any Speed,” Nader singled out early models of the car for their potential to roll over in turns. GM addressed the problem in the 1964 models (and Graeve said 1964 Corvairs and later are the most desired), but the damage was already done to sales of the popular car; the advance of sportier, more powerful compact cars like the Ford Mustang also took away potential sales.

The upside is that it made the car collectible, at least as far as Graeve is concerned. Someone once offered to trade him a 1957 Chevy for his blue Corvair; even though the ’57 was probably worth three times the value of his at the time, he said wouldn’t and couldn’t trade.

Graeve said there’s a Corvair for each of their three sons (Pat, Shawn and Shane), but for now he’s enjoying them, especially for Sunday afternoon drives with his high-school sweetheart. “We ride to recapture our youth,” he grinned.

(Originally published in the Omaha World-Herald, Oct. 24, 2009)

Wagner Composes a Masterpiece

Omahan rebuilds a namesake 1911 motorcycle

By Jeff Barnes

They were born in the same city and share the same name, but the only relative connection Howard Wagner shares with his 1911 Wagner motorcycle – on display at the Joslyn Castle Car Classic, July 27 and 28 – is that he knows it like no one else.

The 3.5-HP motorcycle joined the family in 1973 after the Omahan first came across it in Iowa City. “I was looking for some parts for an Indian motorcycle I was working on,” said Wagner, 86. “(The parts dealer) knew my last name and was sure I’d be interested in it. I tried to pretend I wasn’t – I figured it would cost too much and we still had two boys at home.”

He left it and returned to Omaha where he kept talking about it in front of his wife Ruth, who also appeared disinterested… or so he thought until she gave him a check for Christmas 1973 to buy the rare motorcycle (Mrs. Wagner died a little more than a year ago after their fiftieth wedding anniversary).

It wasn’t in running order. The front wheel was off, the oil and fuel tanks were off and repainted, several pieces were missing and the leather drive belt was shot. “Someone fooled around with it in trying to get it running, and the person I bought it from didn’t get all of the small parts when he bought it, like the fender braces and tank mounting,” Wagner said.

Wagner was able to find parts and re-fabricate others, sometimes borrowing from other Wagner owners to have the parts copied and duplicated. The motorcycle starts by battery rather than magneto (both options were offered in 1911) and Wagner finally found the batteries were carried by Radio Shack.

Like Wagner, the Wagner motorcycle was born in St. Paul, Minn., although in 1901. Its founder, George Wagner, manufactured the cycles until 1914 when the company folded, but during his dozen or so years of building, he was doing some unusual things. For one thing, he positioned the engine down low when most others were high. He used the looped frame as part of the exhaust system itself, and even produced a women’s model that his daughter rode and promoted. The vehicle, interestingly, was promoted for rural mail delivery, replacing horses.

Howard Wagner’s has always been a fan of the old motorcycles. His first job in high school was working part time at an Indian motorcycle dealer, and working for another one in Minneapolis after leaving the service in 1947. When he came to Omaha he tried for a job at the dealer here but was turned down and ended up working on heavy trucks until his retirement in 1991.

He was working on the Wagner at a leisurely pace for most of twenty years until he found out the brand would be featured at their fall 1990 meet of the Antique Motorcycle Club of America in Davenport, Iowa. He switched to high gear to get the motorcycle completed for the meet, getting it repainted in the original gray with red and gold trim. Wagner and his Wagner ended up taking all three of the available awards in Davenport; of the five Wagners at the meet, his was the only one running.

He went to another meet in Wichita in 2010 and again, his was the only one still operating. Topping it off, it was the cover story for The Antique Motorcycle magazine in 1991. “Oh yes – it still runs great,” says Wagner. “I’ve had it up to 40 (mph) but I think it could probably even do better.”

(Originally published in the Omaha World-Herald, July 27, 2013)

A Honey of a Hudson

1955 Hudson Wasp is Two Tones of Sweet

By Jeff Barnes

People usually avoid wasps, but Diane Andress said people practically run her off the road to get a closer look at hers.

The Omahan is owner of one sweet 1955 Hudson Wasp sedan, and with its distinctive two-tone coloration, continental kit and unusual design, it definitely catches the eye of fellow motorists. “They want to know what it is,” says Andress. “I tell them it’s a Hudson. ‘Who made the Hudson?’ they ask, thinking that it’s a Ford or Chevy model. ‘HUDSON made the Hudson,’ I tell them.”

Some debate whether it’s a true Hudson. This is one of the cars built in the first year of the Hudson-Nash merger which created American Motors, so it’s sometimes called a “Hash.” The Hudsons received new bodies in 1955 which didn’t sit well with the make’s traditional fans, and sales of the Wasp dropped by almost two thirds. The company attempted a completely new design for Hudsons the following year which backfired even more. Hudsons went out of production after 1957, evolving into American Motors’ Rambler line.

As a result, said Andress, you don’t see many Wasps around; she knows of a dozen. She used to be involved in Hudson groups, particularly the “5-6-7 Club,” referring to the last three years of Hudson production. “Those years aren’t fully accepted by the Hudson purists,” she said.

The car floats like a butterfly but doesn’t exactly sting like a bee – its 4,500 pounds is pulled by a small Jet 202 flathead-6 engine. “She doesn’t like going up steep hills,” Andress confesses. “If it’s moving fast, it’s fine going uphill; if it’s moving slower, people like to honk at you.”

An interesting feature of the car leads to an interesting nickname. The Wasp’s front seats fold backwards to create a queen-sized bed in the car; it picked up the moniker “the Babymaker” as a result. Andress confirms that the car is great for drive-ins (which are about as rare as a Wasp anymore). She and her husband Matt once hauled the car to Nashville via trailer, but still used the car bed for a nap break in on the way.

She bought the car nine years ago from a dealer in Plattsmouth from whom her brother had also purchased a car. “I went to look at a Kaiser-Frazer he had,” she said. “It was so big and black and ugly. This one was next to it and I loved it.” Andress said the car had been over-sprayed with another car’s paint (which took three days to buff out), but she only paid $3,000 for it which she called a steal.

Andress calls hers a “girl’s” car. “It’s so simple that I can work on it, but I haven’t had to do much,” she said. “The only thing I’ve done to it was install the headliner, which I did all by myself.” The sunburst-yellow portion of the two tone paint job was redone, but the black is still original as are the 63,491 miles on the car. She said new carpet will likely go in this year, but everything else on the car works.

She bought the car while her husband was out of town. “He called home and I said ‘Honey, I bought a car.’ ‘What did you get?’ he asked. ‘A Hudson.’ ‘A WHAT-son?,’” she related. “He wasn’t as excited about it as I was, and still thinks I should sell it, but I love it.”

(Originally published in the Omaha World-Herald, May 1, 2010)

FORDutopia

Yutan, Neb., man assembles a shrine to the blue oval 

By Jeff Barnes

Great Henry Ford’s Ghost!

There are probably a few more graphic expressions you could use when you first walk into Jim Murray’s garage near Yutan. From floor to ceiling, he has assembled pristine examples of the past 75 years of Ford Motor Company production. Among his 20 Fords you’ll find sedans, coupes, pickups, a hot rod, a dragster, a sports car and usually something unusual about each one.

He nicely framed the collection in the metal building with automotive advertising and other car ephemera to make this an ultimate man cave.

“I’ve always been a car nut,” said Murray, 62, “but I didn’t have the time or money ‘til the kids were out of school and out of the house.” He retired a few months ago from his drywall contracting company; sons Mike and Greg now run the company with Murray helping out occasionally.

Murray previously operated the company in Texas and California. While in California in 1991, he came across the car that started it all – a 1967 Ford Fairlane nicknamed “Big Red.”

“I used to go to shows year round with my wife (Carol) and the kids,” he said, “and there it sat at a Pomona swap meet – the car I’d been looking for my entire life. This was one of eleven two-door sedans built with a 427 (cubic inch), dual four-barrel four speed.” Murray said he bought it and raced it in California, and a few times after returning to Omaha, adding “It’s definitely a highlight of the collection.”

On the center of the floor is a bright red 1952 F-7 Big Job flatbed hauler, which originally enjoyed a life as a New York City fire truck, featuring overhead valve V-8 Lincoln motor. It carries a 1950 F-1 with a flathead V-8 with a five-speed, which Murray bought restored from a friend. “I always really liked it,” he said. “I take the both of them to shows – it’s always a good little head-turner.”

He’s also got a 1964 Ford Thunderbolt, an experimental drag-race only automobile of which only 105 were built. “This terrorized the racetracks across the U.S.,” Murray said. “Ford Motor Company gave them only to professional drivers – it was too fast for average drivers, running 10.30s (seconds on quarter-mile tracks) out of the box.”

Atop one of the racks is a 1956 Fairlane Club Sedan, which Murray said is an exact replica of what he drove in high school, apart from having a 427 engine in it. He found the sedan at an auction in Iowa with 11,000 miles on it, and had to change the gray paint job to orange and white. The previous owner – a 90-year-old farmer – very rarely drove it, taking his pickup instead.

By contrast, Murray drives all of his cars and enjoys driving them. “People always ask ‘Aren’t you afraid you’ll wreck it?’ when they see me with one of my cars,” he said. “I always say, ‘No, that’s what insurance is for.’ The last accident I was in, someone rear-ended me at a stop sign in 1969.”

In the course of collecting, Murray added cars at a rate of one or two a year but says he’s done for the most part. For the expected finale, he’s building a 1961 Ford Starliner, the fastback version of the Galaxie that was used in NASCAR. You don’t see many, since production was limited and racing took a toll on those that were run.

“This one’s pretty unusual, with a 390 and 401 horsepower,” Murray said. “The color’s about perfect – black with a red interior. When I’m done I’ll take it on tour for a couple years before I start to drive it much.”

(Originally published in the Omaha World-Herald, Dec. 17, 2011)

In Pursuit of Adam-12

Childhood Obsession Becomes an Adult Possession of 1971 Plymouth Satellite “Pursuit Special”

By Jeff Barnes

Remember “Adam-12” and Officers Malloy and Reed? George Houts does.

He fell in love with the 1960s and ‘70s cop drama, along with other police and firefighter shows of the era. “Anything with lights and sirens,” said Houts, 44. “I grew up next to a fire station, and every time I heard the sirens, I’d take off after them.”

Houts grew up in a Shrine family, and when he joined the Tangier Shrine in Omaha he decided to join a vintage iron group. In finding a car to drive in parades, however, he didn’t want just an antique car – he wanted a 1971 Plymouth Satellite “Pursuit Special,” just like Malloy and Reed drove on “Adam-12.”

After looking for months, he found a car in Omaha about five years ago on Craigslist. It was a copper color with a white vinyl top, but would work well for a conversion. “The man was selling it for his parents,” Houts said, “but then he changed his mind.”

Houts kept looking and finally found and bought another in Memphis, that wasn’t in nearly as nice of shape. He had yet to start work on it when – three years ago – the first seller called Houts back and said he was now willing to sell. Houts got a loan from his credit union, unloaded the first car, and began his journey.

It was a journey across sand, as in lots of sandpaper. The car was in great shape and the vast majority of body work was in removing the original coat and preparing it for the new black-and-white color scheme. “I didn’t tell the guy I bought it from what I planned to do, and I drove it for a year without doing anything to it,” Houts said. “I started to hate the idea of doing anything to it.”

An Omaha friend with a body shop who gave Houts instruction on body work, decided to jump start the project for him. “I was at his shop with the car,” he recalled. “He grabbed a piece of sandpaper, did a couple quick rubs on the hood, and said ‘There – now you’re started’.”

Through the fall and winter of 2009, you’d find Houts in his garage, sanding down the Satellite while watching reruns of “Adam-12”. Once he had gone through a couple of seasons and completed the sanding, the friend helped with the painting and the decals which replicate those on the TV show’s car.

Houts didn’t have exact plans on where to place the lights, siren, decals and other accoutrements on the car, but that’s where having the show on DVD came in handy. “I was constantly looking for reference points, stopping and studying it any time they had a shot of it on screen.”

Houts worked to make it as authentic as he could. Like the LAPD of the time period, he uses radiator hose, bolted into the driver’s door, as the holder for the officer’s baton (which is glued into the hose). “They did it cheap back then, and if radiator hose worked, that’s what they used.”

He got a metal fabricator in town to make the car’s “hot sheet” desk, which displays an old list of license plate numbers. Another friend made some realistic-looking shotguns out of wood to bolt into the car, and Houts has found other items to finish the unit, including cones, police tape, a radio, helmets, and even a tray of plastic drive-in food for when he goes “Code 7” (on break).

Houts, who owns the Northwest Animal Hospital with his veterinarian wife Jodi, now shows the car in parades as part of his Shriner activities, and occasional car shows. He won first place in his category of Plymouths at the annual World of Wheels show.

“The real reward, however, is in seeing kids’ faces when you drive by with it,” he said. “It’s what inspired me as a kid, so it’s worth it if it does the same for them.”

(Originally published in the Omaha World-Herald, May 14, 2011)

Road Warrior

Highway worker recreates 1935 Ford road department truck as a moving memorial

by Jeff Barnes

Among the more dangerous of public service jobs is that of a highway worker. From 1944 to 1999, says Tom Miller, fifty-five Nebraska Department of Roads workers were killed after being struck by passing motorists.

“That’s at least one killed per year,” says Miller, a senior highway maintenance worker based out of Elkhorn. In remembrance of those workers, and as a caution to motorists to watch for his brethren, he has created a very special moving memorial.

Miller, 52, has restored a 1935 Ford 1 ½-ton truck as a roads department work truck of the era. Affixed to the side of the truck is the name of all 55 of those workers who lost their lives while on duty.

It’s fitting that the truck should commemorate those workers, Miller said, as the ’35 Ford ton-and-a-half was THE workhorse of the road department. “It’s much, much smaller than trucks of today,” he said. “You could fit one of these in the box of one of our 2007 Sterling dump trucks. But back then, this was the truck.”

For that reason, Miller didn’t “prettify” it. Its canvas seat cover is stained and torn. Its road flares and kerosene cans show chipped paint and rust, as does the “Men Working” sign on the box tailgate.

“I wanted it to look like it did day-to-day,” he said. “These trucks were used for WORK, when most of the work was done by hand.”

As a road worker himself, Miller runs snowplows on West Dodge Road from 120th Street out to Miegs St. in Valley; during the summer he’s a highway striper. A Fremont resident, Miller said he’s had an interest in old cars ever since he was five years old, and recently restored a 1931 Ford Model “A” Deluxe roadster, an ‘82 Corvette, and a ‘57 two-door hardtop.

But it wasn’t his idea to do the truck. He said had just finished a patrol car restoration for the state patrol, “and then my boss saw it and said ‘Nice – why don’t you do one for us?’”

He found the truck in Uehling, Nebraska, in 1999 and soon began the three-year restoration project.

The truck didn’t have a dump box when he found it; it had a corn sheller on it that had to be removed. A box was found on another truck in the Ponca Hills area, and to make it fit on the chassis, the truck had to be shortened by four and a half feet. The engine was also frozen up, but a family friend, the late Ralph Crisp, got it running again.

When he got the truck, it was missing the radiator shell. “And those are VERY hard to find,” Miller said. “I eventually did find one in a barn at Wahoo, but was going to pass on it since it was so bent up and dented.” His father John Miller, 85, took a look at it, however, and said he’d be able to fix it. He did.

Miller doesn’t consider the truck complete; he’s still searching for a plow for the front end which may take awhile. That doesn’t keep him from displaying the truck at shows or taking it out for other special events. It was the first vehicle across the West Dodge Expressway on July 27, 2006, after that roadway was opened with John Craig, director of the Nebraska Department of Roads, riding with him.

Thankfully, said Miller, the death toll on highway workers has dropped. “We’ve made fines higher and made the public more aware,” he said. “Fatalities have dropped significantly – is IS working – but this will continue as a rolling memorial to remind people about the danger.”

(From the Omaha World-Herald, Sept. 12, 2009)

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