It wasnít until I got back close to Bradford that I started to wonder just what Arlene was going to say about my showing up in the new car. Letís face it; even with the good deal I got, I knew the Mustang wasnít quite what she had in mind for a new set of wheels. It could be worse, I thought. I figured sheíd probably exhaust herself on that before Iíd tell her about buying all those old MMSA parts, and then Iíd be home free.
I should have known better.
She just plain fell in love with the Mustang from the first time she laid eyes on it. "Oh, wow, honey," she gushed. "Did you buy that for me?"
"Hey, remember, you were the one who wanted the station wagon," I grinned, realizing that my plan had gone to hell and decided Iíd better be taking a different track right on the spot. "I bought it to replace the F-85, if youíll remember correctly, but if youíre real, real good maybe I can take you out on a date with it some night. After all, I need a sexy car to impress my best girl."
"Oh, sure," she grinned. "I suppose your idea of a date is taking me out to some dark spot and trying to get into my panties."
"You can think of a better kind of date with a car like this?" I laughed.
"Well, maybe Iíll have to take you up on it," she smiled.
Things could have gotten real interesting in the next few minutes if it werenít for our three romance wreckers, who had somehow looked up from the TV set long enough to discover that daddy had shown up with a new car. Iíd learned years before that kids were real good at wrecking situations that could be turned into spontaneous sex, and this one was no different.
So, I compromised by celebrating the new car like a family man should, by having all the kids crawl into the back seat. I took the whole family down to the Dairy Queen to wreck their dinner, which was getting pretty close since Iíd shot most of the day in Livonia. Of course, between the ice cream, the sugar, and the new car, the kids were wound up pretty tight and just about bouncing off the walls, so Arlene and I didnít get any time to talk for a while. I did manage to tell her that it was the right Frank Blixter after all, Iíd met some of the other old MMSA people, and a lot had changed with everyone.
It wasnít until after we got home and Arlene decided to delay supper on the strength of all that ice cream and the kids were either watching TV or out playing that I managed to tell her most of what happened over the course of the day. Of course, I told her about the old MMSA cars being sold for scrap metal, the visit to the barn, and the fact that the only surviving MMSA car was her battered and broken old 2 car.
"Maybe you ought to talk to Frank about that," she suggested. "He might be willing to let your Auto Shop II kids restore it for old timesí sake."
I didnít expect her to play into my hands that way, either. "Funny you should mention that," I grinned. "I had the same idea, and Frank bought off on it."
"Why doesnít that surprise me?" she shook her head.
"Well, I thought it was a good idea," I shrugged. "I might have let it go by if it was any other car than the 2, but it just about broke my heart to see it sitting there messed up like that. I prefer to think of it the way you used to drive it. Thatís how I like to remember you and it in the old days."
"Youíre just looking to get laid, arenít you?" she giggled. "Well, buster, youíre getting your wish just about as soon as the kids are asleep."
All in all, when it was over with, what I thought might be a real confrontation sure came out a lot different than I had expected. In fact, a few days later we got a sitter for the evening, drove over to Hawthorne to the drive-in and spent the whole of the movie in the back row, necking and touching just like we were kids on a date. It was the kind of dates kids are supposed to have but Arlene and I had never had. When the movie ended, we took off toward home, but rather than heading into the house I drove the Mustang down the lane to the back of the farm where we wouldnít be bothered and tried out sex in the back seat. Maybe it would be OK if you were a kid and didnít have any better place to do it. While it was fun in a way, we decided that once was enough of that, but it was nice to have finally had the experience.
That was the only time we ever tried it, but there were several times over the course of the next three years that Arlene and I would get sitters and head off for an evening date, sometimes to a drive-in, but more often to races here and there. After my experience with Bradford and finding the MMSA guys again, it didnít seem like it was as big a deal to just get out and enjoy some racing. We visited a number of different tracks within a hundred miles or more, both dirt and paved, just for something different to do and someplace different to go.
Iíd have to say that the Mustang injected some romance back into our lives. After youíve been married for a while things sometimes get a little automatic, and kids and bills and work and stuff take a lot of fun out of life. Having that car somehow gave us a way to put a little fun back into it, and eventually I came to realize that it was worth every cent that Iíd paid for it, for no more reason than that.
The day after my run to Livonia I had to head back to doing the driving with the kids. I had to pay for taking a day off by extending the sessions longer the rest of the week so the kids would get their hours, but it all worked out to my advantage in a different way. As luck would have it, I had several kids who had signed up to take Auto Shop II the next fall, and it wasnít too difficult to find some volunteers to go up to Livonia and get all the car parts. One of the kidsí dads had a large farm stake truck, and he volunteered to go along and haul stuff.
One of the neat things about us living on the farm was that I had plenty of extra space in various outbuildings that wasnít being used. We had a garage for the regular cars, and an equipment building that Iíd started turning into a shop little by little. However, I didnít really want all the old midget parts in the way in the shop. Until I could get time to sort it all out I decided to just stack it on the concrete floor of an old chicken coop that hadnít been used since weíd lived on the place.
The following Saturday, a bunch of us, both kids and parents, took off for Livonia, with a stake truck and a couple pickup trucks, which I figured would be enough to haul everything. It almost turned into a fight over who was going to get to ride in the Mustang until I decided to just ride in one of the trucks to keep it from getting out of hand. Arlene decided to stay behind, since this was a work trip and there was no point in reminiscing with Frank when it might stand in the way of getting something done; weíd already planned another trip up there to do some reacquainting.
Iíd called ahead the day before, of course, and Frank met us at his uncleís farm, dressed in work clothes. "Boy, you didnít waste time, did you?" he said.
"Got to get them while theyíre hot," I laughed.
"Speaking of hot," he grinned. "Thatís a good description of how Perry feels after you pulled that double shuffle on him over that Mustang. The closer raked him over the coals pretty good on that one."
"Well, Iím sorry about that," I told him. "You taught me pretty good, though."
"I never taught you that little trick."
"No, but you taught me the thinking behind it," I laughed again. "Tell you what. Tell Perry Iím sorry, and promise him that when I get ready to trade the Mustang in that Iíll come see him first."
"Good deal," Frank smiled. "Heíd like another shot at you."
Once again, I might as well tell the rest of the story now. I saw Perry every now and then, maybe once every other year on the average for years and years to come. The first thing he always asked me was, "Are you ready to trade in that Mustang yet?"
"No," Iíd always tell him. "I think Iím going to hang onto it for a bit yet."
The í64 Mustang, especially the convertible, was an instant classic from the moment it rolled onto the showroom floor, and for once even I was smart enough to realize it. I only drove it on a regular basis for a couple years, but I kept it around for driving occasionally on nice summer days, usually with Arlene as my regular seat cover, and kept it parked the rest of the time. I wound up putting "historic vehicle" plates on it in 1990, and I still drive it regularly in parades here in town, and once in a while to a classic car show. Itís never actually been restored; I just kept it in good shape. I saw Perry once at a classic car show after he retired, and he still wanted to trade me. No such luck, Perry; that car is now worth a good deal more than I paid for it, even counting inflation.
To get back to the story, I basically just pointed the kids at the pile of stuff and told them to load up anything that looked vaguely like it might be automotive, and if there was any question, load it anyway. Most of the pieces were fairly small, some of them already in boxes and peach baskets and the like, but the big hassle was loading the remains of the 2 car. The wheels were all off it and the engine was out of it, but it was still pretty heavy, and it was an all-hands job to get it up into the stake truck.
"Boy, thatís a worse mess than I remember," Frank shook his head once we got it out into the light of day and could get a good look at it. "I think youíve got your work cut out for you and the kids, Mel."
"Looks like it," I said. "But it ought to be worth the effort if it keeps the kids interested and they learn something."
Iíd noticed a fairly complete engine sitting off in the corner when Iíd been there earlier in the week, and like any V8, it wasnít light, even if it wasnít very big. Once I could get it out where I could take a look at it, I thought I remembered why it was sitting there Ė it had a cracked block, and weíd more or less dumped it where it sat back in about í52. There werenít a lot of spare engine parts sitting around, but there were a few and we took them with us. Other than that, there werenít any complete engines to be found.
It took us longer than I expected to load all the stuff up Ė there was a lot more there than I had figured, although much of it was clearly junk. Still, you never quite know what junk piece might be valuable in that kind of a situation, so it was worth taking with us. The trucks were all stacked up pretty high when we started back for Bradford, and frankly, it looked like we were on our way to a scrap metal yard.
The day was getting late by the time we got everything unloaded into the old chicken coop at home Ė everything except for the 2 car itself, which was too big to go in the door of the chicken coop, so it went into the barn. I made a mental note that Iíd have to take a chainsaw to the side of the chicken coop and put in a garage door the first chance I got. Arlene and the kids were there, of course, and Arlene was almost broken up to see the mess that her old car had become. "Thatís worse than I thought it was going to be, from what you said," she told me.
"Donít worry," I grinned. "Daddy is going to fix it."
Over the course of the summer, I had some of the auto shop kids out to the house from time to time to help me sort through the stuff, just to see what all I had and what could be done with all of it. It was a longer project than I thought it might be, partly because I was trying to keep notes of what all we had and what I was going to have to find.
It wasnít a big job for some of the kids and I to strip the 2 car down to the frame to see what we really had to work with. The car had hit a light pole sideways and had the side all bashed in, and it looked to me like the frame was well and truly screwed. Fortunately, among the stuff that we brought back was the frame of the 53 car, the one that Hap had bashed in Schererville back in 1953, the one that Hoss and Peewee had done a quickie job of rebuilding that summer. As luck would have it, the 53 carís frame was bashed on the other side, and the thought crossed my mind that a mix and match might result in a useable frame.
I probably wasted several hours sitting there and staring at the two frames, trying to figure out how to go about dealing with it. Iím not a bad welder but Iím no magician at it, either, and it looked like it was going to take a magician to do it right.
After thinking about it longer than I should have, I finally called Frank and got the address and phone number of Spudís shop down in Indianapolis. The next day, I got in the Mustang Ė anything for an excuse to drive a new convertible with the top down, of course Ė and headed on down there.
Spudís shop was in a nondescript metal building only a mile or so from the Speedway. In fact, I had trouble finding it until I worked out the numbers from neighboring buildings. It was only after I got out of the car that I saw a sign on the front door that said in letters no more than an inch high, "McElroy Racing."
I walked in the door, to discover a woman about my age sitting behind a desk in a cubbyhole. "Hi, can I help you?"
"Yeah," I said. "Is Spud or Peewee around? Iíve got a frame problem I need some help with."
"Theyíre both out back," she said. "Iím afraid weíre pretty busy right now, weíre trying to fix up a couple bent sprint cars."
"No big rush," I said. "I just need some advice at this point."
"Well, thatís cheap," she smiled. "What kind of car?"
"Midget," I said. "Spud and Peewee built it a few years ago."
"Well, Iím sure theyíll be glad to help," she smiled. "Why donít you come on out back with me?"
The shop was bigger on the inside than it looked from the outside, and it was neat and well kept. There were a couple guys working on a rather bent up sprint car that looked about as bad as the 2 had before I brought it home. Their attention was on the car, and they didnít look up when we approached. "Spud," the woman said. "I have a gentleman here who has a frame problem with one of your midgets."
"What year is it?" he said without looking up.
"I think you built it in í48 or í49," I said.
Spud looked up with a puzzled expression on his face and said, "Holy shit! Mel! Where the hell have you been?"
"Funny how people keep asking me that," I smiled as he got to his feet. "Iíve pretty much been where you left me; itís just that you were the one who went away."
Of course, everything came to a screeching halt for a while so we could catch up on each other a little. It was probably ten or fifteen minutes before he said, "Now, whatís this about a car, or were you just bullshitting me?"
"You remember the 2 car?" I said.
"I remember we stuck it in the barn out at Frankís uncleís place when we got back after that last full season," he said. "It was a mess."
"Right," I said. "Right now, itís sitting in the barn at my place, and itís still a mess." I explained how I planned on restoring it with my auto shop kids, and explained the problem with the frame.
Peewee had been monitoring the conversation without saying much of anything. While I knew him, I didnít know him very well, "Shit," he shook his head when I explained it. "I havenít worked on one of them rail frame jobs in years. In fact, the wreck of the 53 was the last one that I can think of."
I explained my idea for mixing the two frames. "That sure as hell sounds like doing it the hard way," he said. "When Hoss and I rebuilt the 53 that time, I didnít piss around with an old Ford frame, they were getting a little hard to find anyway, and when you did find one theyíd be all rusted to shit. I just got some C-channel and welded up a replica."
"Isnít that a little hard to keep true?" I asked.
"It ainít easy, but itís a hell of a lot harder to keep a tube frame true, and we do that all the time," he said. "Considering some of the stuff we have around here, I could probably throw the basic frame together in an afternoon, if I had all the stuff I needed. On the other hand, if you want a true restoration, you about have to use the old frame."
"Would you be willing to give it a try?"
"Not right now, weíve got people breathing down our necks as it is," he shook his head. "You donít need to be in a huge rush about it. Itíll be a while before I could get to it."
"Good," I told him. "I honestly think the rest of the job is mostly going to be about just doing it, but the frame would be the tough part for me and my kids."
"No big deal," he smiled. "Those were the first race cars I built. Itíll be nice to see one of them whole again. In fact, if Spud will agree Iíll just charge you for materials."
"Thanks," I replied gratefully. "Iím sort of doing this on a shoestring out of my own pocket."
I hung around talking with Peewee and Spud for a couple hours while they got back to work on the bent up sprint car they were working on. The two of them had had a few adventures of their own over the years, and Spud had more than a few at Indianapolis as a driver and then a car owner. It was good to hear some of those stories, and good to know that I was back in touch with another old friend.
When I finally got back on the road toward Bradford I had a load off of my mind. Like Iíd told Peewee, it really wasnít going to be a huge deal to rebuild the rest of the car, except for the engine. The car really was pretty simple as it had been designed for field maintenance without using lots of tools, and it used lots of stock parts. I still hadnít done a full inventory, but I knew by then that I had enough other spare parts around that I could do the chassis up into a roller without too much difficulty or parts hunting.
I had, however, determined that the one V8-60 weíd brought home with us was so much scrap metal, except maybe for a few parts that could be rescued. If nothing else, it could serve as something to use for sizing, but the car wouldnít be running with that engine. That didnít seem like a big problem, since there used to be a lot of V8-60s around and I didnít think Iíd have much trouble finding one.
What was starting to act like a problem was that I was going to have to be hauling stuff around. It was going to take a pickup truck at least to haul those frames down to Indianapolis and back, getting an engine home, and other larger bits and pieces. I sure wasnít going to mess up the family car or the Mustang with that stuff! I had managed to get along for years living at the farm without a pickup truck, but sometimes it had been a pain in the butt. Now, I began to think that maybe I could justify having a pickup around. It wouldnít have to be a real good one, just an old beater I could haul stuff with, and maybe drive to school when there was too much salt on the roads to want to drive the Mustang. Since Iíd come in well under budget on buying the Mustang, it didnít seem like such a bad idea. There was no point in going overboard on it; I figured I could keep my eyes open.
One of the nice things about driving around with all the driverís education kids was, well, we drove around a lot. For the next few days, I kept my eyes open for people selling trucks out of their yard. One day, up toward Hawthorne, I saw a gray Ford F-100 with six under the hood and three on the post sitting out in the yard with a "For Sale $100" sign on it. No one was around, but Arlene and I headed back in the evening and managed to find someone. The guy said it used a little oil but was otherwise pretty sound, and I wound up not arguing about the price.
On the way back to Bradford I found out that the guy had been stretching the blanket just a little bit when he said it used "a little" oil. A little, perhaps, if you owned a well. Figuring that for a hundred bucks I didnít have a lot of room to gripe, I pulled the truck into the shop, and spent a weekend putting new rings and bearings into it. After all, it wasnít the first Ford engine Iíd rebuilt and I doubted it would be my last.
Although the old truck didnít look very good, it proved to be fairly reliable and was useful in the years to come. It was close to a month before I had it running to my satisfaction. One day I got a couple of Auto Shop kids to come over and help me load the two bent up frames of the 2 and 53 cars. The next day I took a day off from driverís education and headed for Indianapolis again.
Peewee was as good as his word. It was just an absolute joy to watch him work; he really was a magician with that stuff, better than I could dream of being. It took him no more than four hours to turn those two old frames into a new one that was just dead solid perfect. "That ought to do you," he said finally. "If you were really going to race this thereís a few things Iíve learned over the years that Iíd be tempted to incorporate, but with you wanting to keep it pretty close to original, thereís no reason to go that far."
"You actually did a pretty good job with it back then," I told him. "I donít want to think about how many miles those cars must have raced back in those days."
"Thatís true," Spud agreed; weíd been standing around shooting the bull and helping out from time to time when we could. "I doubt that thereís ever been an Indy car built that got the mileage on them that some of those old cars did, especially the first-year cars like the 2. I donít know if Frank has the records for those days anymore, but if he does he could probably come up with a good guess. All I can say is that it was a hell of a lot, and those cars took a hell of a beating. When you get right down to it they were tough little puppies. Any real race car today takes a hell of a lot more babying than they ever did. Christ, these rear-engine Indy cars, some of them wonít get a dozen races on them before theyíre too beat to shit to use again. They may be fast, but their fragility just makes it hard on their owners."
"Thatís why you got out of them, right?" I asked.
"Yeah, itís too expensive for a poor man anymore," he shrugged. "Sprint cars, midgets, modifieds, theyíre still built to last, and weíre known for building good ones. Itís good that youíre doing this, Mel. The MMSA gave a lot of enjoyment to people over the years, and itíll be good to keep a piece of that alive so people will understand what the good old days actually were."
Late that afternoon I headed back to Bradford with the frames in the back of the pickup Ė the leftover pieces of the two old ones and the new one. Having that new frame was going to be the key to making a go of this whole project, and now that I had it I was a lot less worried.