For as much of an annoyance as rust represents to the average car collector—especially those of us north of the Mason-Dixon and east of the Mississippi—we sure don’t spend much time talking about the actual mechanics or chemistry of it. Sure, it seems simple on the surface; it’s just a chemical reaction that any high-schooler could understand, after all. However, as I discovered when explaining the process by which salt on winter roads makes rust so much worse, rust is a topic that can get complicated fast. In fact, it’s a topic that some engineers, chemists, and scientists devote their entire careers to, meaning there’s a wealth of information out there about how to prevent, mitigate, and ultimately live with rust.
Though Practical Engineering’s recent video series on corrosion doesn’t really address rust in the terms we gearheads typically do, it does lean on that wealth of information to explore just how much damage corrosion really does and the value of a good coating (along with correct application of that coating) to prevent rust. None of this will stop municipalities and states from salting the roads with the vigor of a man who’s angling for a heart attack salting his steak, but at least it gives us a better understanding of rust, its processes, and what we can do about it.
Have you ever gone looking for an early 1930s Buick hubcap? If you need one, good luck. The two-piece design didn’t prove very durable over the years and their scarcity can pose a real issue for anyone looking to do a correct restoration of one of the Flint-built beauties of the era. When the crew at the NB Center for American Automotive Heritage, in Allentown, Pennsylvania, discovered the paucity of restorable hubcaps out there, their solution was not to give up or compromise, but simply to build their own run of 30 reproductions—a process that required not only casting the two pieces but also creating a crimping tool to attach the pieces correctly.
That’s a small, but typical example of the policies and practices there, on the campus that used to be Allentown’s Boulevard Theatre (they kept the screen), all of which are centered on keeping an enormous collection of typical (i.e. not necessarily special beyond having survived seven or eight decades) mid-20th century American cars running, driving, and uncompromisingly correct. Preserving the original driving experience is paramount and is as much a focus as a historically correct appearance.
Other skills kept alive despite time having marched on for consumers include expertise like interior stitchery—right down to things like handmade windlace and door panel trimming; panel beating (sometimes you just have to make a fender from scratch); woodgraining using a bucket of water, Borax, and paint; and even simply the operation of machines that have controls at one time standard, but increasingly left behind in a world of CVTs, touch screens, lane control, and whatnot.
Why the focus on 1920s, ’30s, ’40s, and early ’50s cars, though? Simply put, the NB Center’s founder Nicola Bulgari (vice chairman of the luxury brand that bears his family name) early on identified those as the most emblematic of “American” cars and the middle-class supremacy of their time and place. It’s something he first recognized and came to value as a teenager in the 1950s and has chosen to help preserve for the benefit of the future—us included. One of Mr. Bulgari’s favorite utterances is that Europeans don’t understand American cars. Let us add to that neither do many Americans anymore.
Consider that Billy Joel’s Allentown came out in 1982. That’s the year I was born. I don’t remember the glory years of American manufacturing—but I do. The middle-class, aspirational-yet-attainable marques that make up the bulk of the NB Center’s fleet (I like that better than “collection”—collections need dusting, not oil changes) are a living, breathing monument to that era of promise and optimism. Here to inspire today’s generation, if they’ll let it.
Many do. You might expect the expertise in a facility like this to consist solely of old timers—the graybeards that knew the skill firsthand, or learned at the knee of those who did. They’re there, to be sure, but so are a lot of up-and-comers. Fresh, young faces excited to be working on machines 50 or more years older than themselves.
The Ford Model A’s good looks and low price of admission attracted millions of buyers before and after World War II. In later postwar years, those same qualities made the A one of the world’s most popular collector cars.
As a restoration project, you can’t beat a Model A: They’re simple, they’re supported by a vast network of specialists, and parts are widely available. That’s why hobbyists fixed ’em up decades ago and why many of those same Model A’s are being restored a second or third time by hobbyists today.
Bruce LeFebvre, the owner/restorer of this month’s stunning Bonnie Gray and Chelsea Blue 1929 Model A Standard Coupe, is a history buff and had always admired the Model A’s styling. “They look cool,” he says. “And Henry Ford was a fascinating character who really put America on wheels.”
Bruce wasn’t what you would call a Model A expert when he started shopping for one of his own about a decade ago, but over the course of this project, he gained a lot of knowledge.
“I didn’t know my ass from my elbow about Model A’s, but I knew I wanted one,” he says. “I saw one online located in a town called Peculiar, Missouri—so I bought it for $6,500, then my friend Roger Parrott and I spent almost 10 days going out and back to get it.”
Bruce’s reasonably priced, online auction fi nd was a nice-looking car, though maybe a little worn and in need of attention. It had already been converted to hydraulic brakes —a selling point and something which would’ve been on Bruce’s to-do list anyway. Outside, the car wore aged green paint and inside there was what looked like water stains on the upholstery. Some fresh interior pieces, some paint, and some general sprucing should have brought it back to like-new condition — or so Bruce thought. But once back at his shop in Connecticut, a teardown revealed a lot of hidden rust, wood rot, and some hasty body repairs, too.
“When I first saw the car, it didn’t look bad at all,” Bruce says. “But once we started taking it apart—we took the headliner out, the seats out, and the side panels —you could see it was packed with body filler and there was haphazard fiberglass work that looked like bandages holding it together
Editor’s Note: We recently heard from Dennis Kazmerowski, who has decided to resurrect a never-finished fiberglass body based on Strother MacMinn’s concept for an American coupe to compete at Le Mans. He’s making headway and wanted to share with us exactly how he got started with the project in the first place.]
It started in August 2021, still in COVID-19 lockdown with much time to think about the past, present and future. I was talking with my good friend Geoff Hacker (founder of Undiscovered Classics and auto archaeologist) and shared with him a dream of my youth: the car on the August 1960 cover of Road & Track, the LeMans Coupe. While the car may have been beautifully designed and was ahead of its time in styling (that’s one of the reasons I fell in love with it back in 1960), the LeMans Coupe is far more than a design study. The original project was the brainchild of John Bond, the publisher of Road & Track magazine.
Bond was not just a publisher, he was also a designer and engineer. For years he penned a column in his own magazine, Sports Car Design, where he talked about independent and production sports car development. It was toward the late 1950s where he challenged himself and his readers to design and build a car that would win the 24 Hours of Le Mans race, something his friend Briggs Cunningham had nearly done in the early 1950s. Bond pulled together a team which specialized in design and engineering, and over a series of articles in 1957 and 1958, the LeMans Coupe project emerged. The lead designer of the shape of the car was the legendary teacher, mentor, and stylist from the Art Center in California, Strother MacMinn. Looking back in history, this makes the LeMans Coupe one of the talked about and recognized “specials” back in the 1950s.
While the design and history of the car is significant, it was always the visual impact that the car made on those seeing it that, too, caused me to remember the car for nearly 60 years. Sadly, Geoff, who has tracked down the surviving coupes built from MacMinn’s design, shared that the car shown on the cover of Road & Track magazine had been destroyed early on in an accident. But he knew where a virgin body was that was produced from the original molds. He shared the contact information with me and the wheels started to turn. I talked with the owner and after a few phone calls we agreed on a price, and my project began. Little did I know what I would be getting into.
So the project began when the body arrived at my New Jersey home in July 2021. I immediately re-read the Road & Track LeMans coupe articles, and I noted that one of the articles shared that production bodies were made very thin to keep weight down for racing purposes. This may have been good 60 years ago but over the years, with no inner structure, the sun had taken its toll and weakened the body. What I started with was a body shell with no doors, windows, wheelwells, or hood cut out. Just a shell. This project was and is going to take a lot of work
As I read the articles, I tried to hold true to the original chassis ideas but even they changed by the time I read the last article, so I went with the original dimensions and worked around what I had. It’s a long, thin car built for a V-8 engine. Could it have won at LeMans? That’s the subject for a different story. With Geoff’s guidance and my persistence, the car started to come together. Everything has to be made for it and when you think you have a problem solved – it’s not. The car is a work in progress and should be very fulfilling in the end, and I imagine that’s how Alton Johnson felt when he was building the first LeMans Coupe at Victress in North Hollywood, California.
In the late 1950s and early ’60s, it was the full-size cars offered by the Big Three manufacturers that kept enthusiasts coming back for more. By 1960, the intermediates were still a few years away from entering production and Ford was now offering the less-than-thrilling compact Falcon, but with models like the GalaxieSunliner and Starliner, there was still plenty to get excited about within the Blue Oval camp. When Robert Fuchs, a self-employed farmer from Arlington, Nebraska, first began seeing ads for the Ford Starliner, it was love at first sight.
“I graduated from Arlington High School in May of 1961 and decided to treat myself to a graduation present by ordering a new Starliner,” Robert recalls. “Dad and I went to Diers Ford in Fremont, Nebraska, and we were told that the assembly plant was ending production, so they probably would not be able to fill any more orders for the remainder of the ’61 model run. I was really disappointed!”
Not to be deterred, Robert and his dad pushed harder on the salesman, who soon said that the dealership had placed an inventory order for one in white with a red interior and that he might be able to make some last-minute changes. “I wanted a blue one instead, and the salesman said he would call the Twin Cities plant and call us back later in the day,” Robert says. “True to his word, the salesman called back in an hour and said they had six Starliners left on the assembly line, and he had made arrangements that mine would be the last one assembled and as I had ordered it, in blue with a blue interior.”
As promised, this 1961 Ford Starliner was the last car off the assembly line at the Twin Cities, Minnesota plant for the 1961 run, and Robert took delivery on July 3 of that year. The Starliner came equipped from the factory with the 352-cu.in. V-8, three-speed column-shifted manual transmission, 7.50 x 14 Goodyear white-sidewall tires, hub caps, backup lamps, cloth and vinyl bench seats, padded dash and visors, full carpeting, tinted glass all around, cigarette lighter, clock, push-button AM radio, and the all-important Cambridge Blue exterior paint. Base price was $2,730 and with options and destination charge the final MSRP was $3,056. Robert was given $600 in trade for his 1952 Ford Victoria, his high school car.
With all-new styling for 1961, the Galaxie Starliner (a two-door hardtop with semi-fastback roofline) was more rounded, sleeker, and much more cleanly styled than the previous year. The model retained a few of the 1960 design cues such as the lower beltline trim, bright-metal rock guards behind the rear wheel openings, and the signature trio of star emblems on the C-pillars. Although the Starliner still had rear quarter fins that were popular in the late ’50s, they were much smaller and clearly understated
The car’s real beauty, however, stood out in the rear, with jet-age-styled taillamps that contained backup lamps centered within. All Starliners rode on a 119-inch wheelbase and used upper and lower A-arms and coil springs up front and a live axle with semi-elliptic leaf springs at the rear. Just 29,669 Starliners were produced in 1961, making them a rare sight today.
Back in November, we were excited to learn that Dave Shuten, of Galpin Speed Shop, will be restoring the X-Sonic Corvette to its 1960s appearance. The X-Sonic was a groundbreaking custom car in the late-1950s that not only inspired Ed Roth to begin crafting his famous bubble tops, but also helped introduce the custom-car world to hydraulics.
Hydraulic suspension (and its spiritual descendent, airbags) on custom and lowrider cars is commonly known today. But where and when did hydraulics make the leap from being aircraft parts to automotive suspension pieces? The answer, of course, is in post-World War II California, where two enthusiasts—seemingly separately and unbeknownst to one another—used parts found in military surplus stores to create the first suspension systems that could be impracticably low for car shows but raised for driving
One of those men was Jim Logue, a North American Aviation employee who lived in Long Beach in 1957 and took inspiration from Citroen’s factory hydropneumatic suspension to modify his 1954 Ford. The other was Ron Aguirre, a resident of Rialto, who around the same time saw a hydraulic ram being used for dent removal and thought he might use something similar to avoid future violations for the lowness of his 1956 Corvette. Today, Logue and his Fabulous X54 have faded from popular memory, but Aguirre’s bubble-topped X-Sonic persists as the poster child for “the first” hydraulics-equipped custom car.
As a successful contender on the indoor-car-show circuit of the 1960s, the X-Sonic went through a few iterations and wound up heavily modified, including the aforementioned bubble top, substitution of a Turboglide transmission for the original three-speed, and even the elimination of a conventional steering wheel in favor of an electric motor controlled by toggle switches! The bubbletop and unconventional steering marked the transition of the car from street custom to all-out show car.
In 1926, the Buick Standard had been around for a year already. It replaced the Buick Four series for 1925 and was priced below the larger and more powerful Master series. The Standard used a 207-cu.in., 60-hp six-cylinder and rode a 114 3⁄8-inch wheelbase, while the Master had a 274-cu.in., 75-hp six and a 120-inch (or longer) wheelbase. As a two-door sedan, the Standard offered much of the style and build quality of the Master, at a $200 discount (equivalent to nearly $3,000 today).
Those early days of this car’s existence are a bit murky. Bill says the oral history passed down to him, along with the physical evidence uncovered during his efforts to revive the Buick, suggest it was just a few years old when sidelined with a cracked engine block. A fine line is still visible from the resulting repair.
“Most of the miles were put on before 1928. After it was fixed, the original owners placed her in storage. Then came the Depression. She hibernated through World War II, Korea….”
A used Standard Six sedan was a good car in 1928, but nothing ground shaking. Betty must have been in particularly nice condition to get repaired and then stored for what amounts to about three and a half decades. What had once been a common and unremarkable entry-level Buick was, by the early ’60s, an unusual sight.
A farmer in Richmond, Massachusetts, just southwest of Pittsfield, purchased the car around that time.“Other than touch-up paint and typical mechanical maintenance, she was all original,” Bill says. “The intention was to restore her to new condition since she was in such great shape. He started the motor and drove her around the farm to make sure she ran.
“All the parts were there and in perfect condition, but the project was sidetracked by his 1919 Buick roadster project. Betty was sold to a family in Pittsfield in 1968 for $50. I have the bill of sale from that purchase.
“They were able to free her engine, fill the tires, and drove her home from Richmond under her own power. They changed the oil, replaced the horn, and added a brake light switch so they could get an inspection sticker. She still has the Massachusetts inspection sticker from 1970.
“They coated the hood with clear coat, touched up a few places where the paint had chipped, and painted the grille bezel to protect her bare steel. They replaced a couple inner tubes and used the same tires. I presume the tires are ’40s or ’50s vintage. They left the rest of the car as a survivor.
”After some fun in the summers of 1969 and ’70, however, the family wasn’t satisfied with how Betty was running.
It’s done. After seven years, plenty of money, and the able assistance of some local and national experts in Corvair restoration, my 1966 Chevy is done. Murphy’s Law applied many times, and many times the car resisted being rebuilt, but we did it.
Before 2014, I had been preparing to age out of the car hobby. But then I found the Corvair quite unexpectedly. It was my car—the very one I’d bought the day before going to Vietnam the second time, back in 1968. All the experiences I’d had and memories I’d made in it mattered more to me than the vehicle itself. My wife agreed that I should buy it and rebuild it. (Love that woman!)
As of the last report, five things needed attention to complete the restoration.
1/ The speedometer cable that runs off the left front wheel needed to be reattached. That was easy.
2/ After we got the engine running, we discovered the cylinder-head-temperature gauge didn’t work. The original thermistors have long since been out of production, and finding a working replacement was a formidable task.
3/ The stalk that controls the driver’s-side mirror needed to be replaced. Originally, that stalk had a Chevrolet bow tie on it. Corvair guru Duane Wentland found one; it was rechromed, and it’s on.
4/ The mirror-adjustment cables have plastic stops, which had deteriorated over the past 50 years. No replacements were available. But Duane had one, which he loaned to drivetrain builder Rex Johnson. Rex’s daughter had recently purchased a 3-D printer. We carefully measured the part and had the printer fabricate a new one. Installed, it works just fine.
5/ The engine ran ragged at highway speed. The four carburetors needed to be adjusted to run properly. Rex bought an air-fuel meter, which he inserted into the exhaust, and he drove the car a few miles. Turns out, it was running lean, not rich as I had suspected. After calibrating the carbs to the correct air-fuel mixture, all four work properly and the car drives beautifully.
Nothing is finished until the last detail is in place. Now it is exactly as it was.
I invite readers to check out the entire saga, which is documented on this site in considerable length with text and photos. It details how I bought the car in the first place, sold it to buy a Corvette, got it back after marrying the woman who bought it, sold it again when the divorce was imminent and storage was an issue, then lost track of it. How I remained mildly curious about what had happened to it between 1978 and 2014, wondering whether it had been junked, maintained, restored, or left to rust away in a field somewhere. How a Craigslist ad posted on a North Dakota site got a response from a fellow in Detroit Lakes, Minnesota, who believed he had it. And how a scrap of paper in an old briefcase had the VIN, which confirmed it was the same car.
This is the story of a car obsession. The family asks that the actual names not be published, but otherwise the story is true in every particular. In the late 50s, Roy was a typical “1960s father” who cared for his family, but was never really close or part of it. All of his friends and peers used to regard him as one of the smartest people they knew… and it was probably true. He ended up being self taught in electronics for years before going to school to finally get his degree. Roy’s family has always looked at the story of his decline with sadness, seeing someone so brilliant fall into such a delusional place in his later years.
Roy’s neighbor in 1958 bought a brand new Cadillac Fleetwood Sixty Special, as they did every two years. That car spoke to Roy and he was determined to have it. In 1958, it was nearly the pinnacle of luxury and, after all, Cadillac was the “Standard Of Excellence.
He pestered his neighbor, almost from the day they bought the car, to sell it to him. He always intended to get it with less than 10,000 miles on the odometer and he was determined to keep it that way. It didn’t happen. When Roy bought it, the odometer had rolled past the 10k mark, just barely, and he was quite upset. But he bought it anyway.
In those days, that was okay. Any obsession that wasn’t particularly severe could go unnoticed, and things would go on just fine. Early on, though, Roy’s obsession with the Cadillac was clear. In his wife’s words, it was like “him getting to pick out his favorite child from a group, and dote all his attention just on that child. But for him it was a car, and not a child.”After Roy bought it, he hardly ever drove it.
Over the years, he kept it in the home garage. He’d fire it up, wash and wax it, but then never went on any long drives. So, from 1961 for another decade, Roy only drove the Cadillac about 400 miles. Really. Other than a funeral once, most trips were about a mile down the road to his friend’s shop to clean and detail the car, about two times a year.
The last time the car was driven was in 1969 and the last time it was registered was in 1972. But even then it was never driven in most people’s sense of the word. In 1980, Roy bought a house “in the country,” an hour and a half outside of Chicago. The car remained in the city garage, completely untouched, until 1989 when it was brought to the country house. Over time, Roy became more and more protective of the car, allowing no one to drive it or sit in it.
The end of 2020 meant that my 1974 “rolling restoration” Buick Apollo wore a few coats of primer and ran well enough for longer road trips. It still needed some attention paid to small items after five years of heavy lifting.
A few things inside the car have been bothering me a great deal. As always, my mistakes and small triumphs are here to encourage readers to pick up the tools and DIY it. An average Joe, even one who is a faculty member in an English Department, can get an average old car back on the road. Why wait for that perfect (mentioning my favorites) E-type or GTO? Start with something you can afford, even something with four doors, and learn by doing.
After my last column on the car, we did indeed go apple-picking before the arrival of what passes for winter in Virginia these edgy days. I was working on other projects during the cool months, so the Apollo went only on a few jaunts.
Then, around New Years, I removed the dash to put in a vintage radio and address a few other issues. I’d yanked a hideous aftermarket RADwood-era FM radio with a cassette player, a box with flashing turquoise lights and busy displays, taking it to the electronics recycler. Begone! Then I began to hunt down a Delco from the mid-1970s that would fit. Or mostly fit.
I imagined that as soon as I switched my radio on, I’d hear songs coming from David Bowie’s swan-song to Glam, Diamond Dogs. You remember? Halloween Jack who lived in Hunger City, atop the ruins of “Manhattan Chase”? There was nothing cooler for a 14-year-old in the second half of the Cold War. Our parents had built fallout shelters just before we were born; we early Generation Xers joked about rushing with tanning blankets to Ground Zero. Bowie was whistling with us in the Atomic Dark.
With my luck, however, I figured the first sound I’d hear would be “Muskrat Love” by the Captain and Tennille.