Not long after that school got under way. I had a new group of Auto Shop II kids every year, and some of them were better than others. I knew every one of them, since theyíd all been in the Auto Shop I class a year or two years before. This year most of the kids in the class had already helped me out on the 2-car project, picking up parts, sorting them out, stripping the car down, and that sort of thing. I wonít say the car was in a basket, but it was in a pile of parts in the back of my pickup when some of the kids and I hauled it over to the Auto Shop room at the high school.
Really, rebuilding the car wasnít that big a deal Ė building a street car from a pile of parts like that would have been a lot more work. A midget, even an MMSA midget, is built to be a minimal vehicle. There just isnít anything more there than is absolutely necessary. In fact, a real purist would say that a MMSA midget was loaded to the gills with accessories that just added extra weight Ė things like a clutch and a transmission, which you donít often see on regular midgets, even though there was a good reason they were on the MMSA midgets. The cars were designed to be easy to build, easy to maintain, and easy to fix, so really it wasnít a difficult project for my kids. We only actually worked on the thing one or two class periods a week, and it gave me the chance to demonstrate some things along the way.
The rebuilding of the 2 car was simplified even more by the fact that I didnít have an engine for it. I did have the old cracked V8-60 block that weíd scavenged from Frankís uncleís barn. We could use it as a template to see how things would have to fit, but unless I could come up with a good one, the car was going to be a long way from running. I had hopes of finding an engine that needed a rebuild, along with enough parts to do the job, but as we got along into the fall it was getting more and more clear that it was going to be a second-semester project if I could find the stuff I needed at all.
But, I wasnít finding it. There just wasnít any í30s Ford stuff to be found in junkyards by 1964. Oh, there might have been the odd rusted piece here or there that had escaped when stuff had been loaded on a truck to be hauled off for scrap, but that was the exception, not the rule. I can tell you thatís the way it was because Iíd spent a lot of time in August visiting junkyards within a hundred miles or more of Bradford, but not one stinking V8-60 engine could I find, repairable or not. I wasnít the only one looking, either; both Don Boies and Phil Sharp were in that Auto Shop II class, and between them they hit a lot of junk yards too, and came up just as empty handed.
Oh, you could find them, but you had to go to places like Hemmings Motor News to turn one of them up. They were antiques now, and worth a bunch more than they had been ten years before Ė and scarce as henís teeth, to boot. You might easily find yourself paying five hundred or a thousand bucks for a piece of junk that you might have paid ten dollars for ten years before.
But I wanted to restore the 2 to a running car, not just a roller, so I kept my ears on while we worked on the rest of the car. Things went pretty well; there was a lot of stuff there that we could use, most right from the 2 car with some straightening and bending. A lot of car restoration, especially outside the engine, is just tedium. You do it because it has to be done. Parts had to be cleaned, and not just washed down, but paint and grease removed, occasionally rust to be wire brushed, and metal to be replaced in one way or other. At least I had a lot of cheap if untrained talent to do it, but the point of my having the untrained talent was to turn it into trained talent, so it worked out pretty well, and progress was steady.
It turned out that my appearance out of virtually nowhere at Frank Blixter Ford back in the summer got a lot of old-days yarning going, and Vivian, of all people, got the bug worse than most. It was a little surprising because she didnít know some of the old MMSA guys all that well since sheíd only rarely traveled with us, but she turned Sherlock Holmes on us to try to track down the more-or-less regulars who had been lost along the wayside. Since a lot of the people were still involved in racing in one form or another, she decided that the only time for a reunion could be in the dead of winter when everything was pretty well shut down. Working with old notes and pay stubs, she managed to turn up several people who had been missing for years, like Sonny Ochsenlaager and Woody Vanderlessen, although how she did it Iíll never know. One day along in the first part of November she called me up to chat a bit, and announce that Squirt Chenowith and Scotty Lombard were even planning on driving in for our reunion the first weekend of December up in Livonia.
I suppose that was what got me off the dime more than anything else. Iíd just figured on taking a roll of snapshots of the reconstruction project to show around to the gang, but when I mentioned it to the class the general agreement was that they could have it presentable if they put off the other classwork until after it was done. Since I figured it would be more fun to take the whole project with me, even if it was just a roller, I let them talk me into it.
So class time for the next month or so became nothing but shop time. I figured that there was no way we could be all the way done and the thing needed paint if it wasnít going to look like a project under way, but then a miracle occurred.
One of the kids I had in my Auto Shop II class was a kid by the name of Keith Henderson. He was a little squirt, not into sports, and not very popular; I frankly thought of him as being a little on the dumb side. His grades in the class were OK, if not spectacular, and he tended to be a loner. But, one day he came to me when paint was an issue on something or other, and said, "I can paint that if you like, Mr. Austin."
"You sure?" I asked.
"Oh yeah," he said. "Thatís one thing I do pretty well. Iíve got some special tools that I like to use."
"Tell you what," I told him. "Bring your tools in, and Iíll let you give a try on one of those odd body panels. If it comes out all right, Iíll let you do it on the car."
Well, lo and behold he came in the next day with a box of oddball gear Iíd never seen before, other than one thing that looked sort of like a miniature paint spraying rig. He set it up like he knew what he was doing, and I gave him a hood panel that had been thrown into what was once Spudís junk pile to see what he could do. Most of the kids were a little amused at this Mickey Mouse stuff Ė it didnít look much like a regular spray gun, but he settled down, loaded this little gadget up with Candy Apple Red and went to town. It didnít take him long to have that panel looking better than new. There were no runs, no drips, no sags Ė just a beautiful piece of paint work.
"What the heck is that thing, anyway?" I had to ask him.
"A Badger airbrush," he said. "I donít think itíd be anything youíd want to use for painting a whole car or anything else big, but it really is the berries for doing fine detail work."
Well, I was impressed and the rest of the class was too, especially when he changed the paint in the thing and started doing some further artwork on the hood panel. It took him several changes of paint, but by the time he was done, he had this good-looking babe riding a white horse painted on the red of the panel, using nothing but the airbrush, even for the detail work. I mean, it literallywas a work of art.
"Good grief," I said, shaking my head in surprise. "With that kind of talent it seems like a waste to use it just to put color on a car."
"Yeah," he agreed. "But itíd be a real good looking car."
So I let him do the 2 car, several coats of high-gloss colors, working from some black and white photos of the car that I had borrowed from Frank to get the paint scheme right. The original 2 had been red with a white trim, and Keith stayed with that, but the color was richer and deeper, shining and glossy even before it was waxed. He even did the "Frank Blixter Ford" freehand, and it really looked professional. Back when the car had first been painted I think Spud at least used a spray gun rather than a brush, but it really was never one of the better looking cars. It certainly didnít have a paint job like that. That was just the body work; he also sprayed the frame and suspension pieces. On top of it, Iíd sent a few pieces out to be chromed, and Iíll tell you what, by the time we got done after pushing to make the reunion it was really a show car, or would have been if weíd had an engine. The busted V8-60 that we had looked so crappy I decided to just show the 2 car without it, as an empty roller at the reunion.
I probably could have loaded the 2 car in the pickup truck, but unloading it at the place where the reunion was going to be held would clearly be a pain in the butt. Fortunately, one of the other teachers had a small flatbed trailer he used to haul a big lawnmower around in the summer, and he offered it to me to haul the car up to Livonia. That meant Arlene and I had to take the pickup truck up there with the car Ė not a big deal, even though it was cold out for December and the truckís heater left a little to be desired.
It was a little bit of a hassle to unload the 2 car from the trailer and push it into the banquet room of the hotel where the reunion was going to be held. It had gotten a little dirty from being trailered out there in the open on the flatbed trailer, but Arlene and I set to it with some wet rags as people showed up, and we had it looking pretty darn good before long.
Letís just say it got a lot of "ooohs" and "aaaahhs" from people who could easily remember what it had really looked like back in the day. "You sort of got it wrong," Spud told me, his fingers wrapped around a Strohís. "It never looked that good, even when Arlene had a fresh wax job on it."
"But isnít it sort of like how you would have liked it to look?" I smiled.
"Well, yeah," he said. "But running all that dirt, there was no way it would have stayed that way."
"Too bad you donít have an engine in it," he replied.
"Yeah, thatís proving to be a tough one," I agreed, and gave him a thumbnail account of all the hassles I had been through looking for a V8-60. "Keep your ears open if you ever hear of one, I could sure use it, but Iím not about to sign over my firstborn child for it, either."
"I might have an idea," Carnie Ė er, Jerry Ė said. "Iíll have to do a little digging, but Iíll see what I can do."
Of course, having the only surviving MMSA midget at the reunion brought out a lot of memories, and there was some serious yarning and telling tales of the old days going on, and there was plenty of time to catch up on what had happened to people. For the most part, we werenít kids anymore; weíd grown up in over ten years. Most of us had more-or-less-regular jobs now, although most of us still had our fingers in some racing pie or other to greater or lesser extents.
One of the things Iíd always wondered about was what Dink ever wound up doing with those two fat Greek girlfriends heíd been living with the last time I saw him. Much to my surprise, they were still as heavy as ever, and he was still living with them Ė both of them. There was something like six kids between the two women and another one on the way. The girlfriends hadnít grown any lighter in the passing years, but Dink didnít seem to mind an awful lot. They still werenít married, but shared a home they were buying over on the other side of Livonia. I didnít ask Ė Arlene did and told me later Ė that it was all one big happy family and sometimes the kids werenít totally clear on who Mommy actually was. That was pretty irregular for that day and age, but in ten years it wouldnít seem quite as strange.
Woody, whoíd taken off after the 1951 season, had drifted to California and just never made it back to go racing. He had a dream job now Ė he was working for Carroll Shelby in the shop that built the Shelby Cobra, which was absolutely the hottest car on the road in that day and age. While Woody wasnít racing himself, he had been on the team that had gone to Europe the previous summer to take the World Manufacturerís championship. He told us that the 289 Cobra was a real sweet car, but the 427 was a monster that took some deciding who was going to be the boss. He still was unmarried, but said that he liked winters in southern California a hell of a lot better than the ones we had in Michigan.
It turned out that Sonny Ochsenlaager was about the only one besides me and Arlene who wasnít still actively involved in racing in one way or another. He was teaching political science at some college in Iowa, which when you got down to it was a pretty good deal for him since it was a big interest of his. Still, he admitted that hanging around all these racers was giving him the desire to get back out on a short track some time or other.
The catching up and reminiscing went until late, and there was a fair amount of booze involved, so I guess it was just as well that Arlene and I had made up our minds to take a room at that motel that evening. It was a good time, and we all agreed that weíd have to get together again sometime and do it again.
* * *
With that out of the way, there wasnít much I could do but take the car back to school, park it in the back corner of the auto shop room, throw a plastic tarp over it and hope that one of my old-time contacts could turn up a motor for it somewhere. The rest of December went by, then Christmas break, and then January, and I didnít hear a word from anyone. With our fun taken care of, I the Auto Shop II kids were back to the books weíd shoved aside while weíd been getting the 2 car ready for the reunion. I will admit that over that couple months after showing it off, I gave a little thought to dropping another engine in it, just to have it running, but doing it would screw up motor mounts and connections that would be hard to put back if I ever did turn up a V8-60. Besides, if I did that it wouldnít be an MMSA midget anymore, and that was sort of the whole point of the project.
On the other hand, maybe some other engine would work well enough for what I wanted it for Ė after all, I primarily had it as a teaching tool for the kids. In any case, in early February it was too damn cold to go prowling around junkyards looking for a small six cylinder or Chevy II four-cylinder, or even some import job that would be about as big as could fit in the engine compartment.
Then one day, out of nowhere, a guy in work clothes showed up at the door to the auto shop room while Auto Shop II was going on. "Are you Mel Austin?" he asked.
"I was the last time I looked," I told him.
"Iím from Arthur Freight Liners," he said. "Iíve got a couple deliveries for you."
"For me? Here?" I frowned. "I donít know of anything Iíve got coming."
"Couple crates, about two by two by three," he said. "Heavy buggers, too. Iíve got the bill of lading here, but itís in Spanish and I donít know what the hell it says."
"Let me see," Art Gonzales said. "I can probably read it." Art was from a Mexican family, and I knew he read a little of it.
"Sure," I told him. "I sure canít."
"I canít make it out real well," he said after a little more puzzling out than I would have thought necessary. "Itís not Spanish, itís Portuguese. Itís from Simca S.A. in Rio de Janeiro. It says itís supposed to go to Livonia Import Autos in Livonia, but transshipped to you here."
"Well, then, I guess itís for me," I shrugged and turned to the truck driver. "Is it going to be any problem for you to back it up to that overhead door in the back of the shop to unload it?"
"No, no problem," he said. "But have you got a fork lift here? Those things are too heavy to just kick off the back."
"No fork lift, not in the whole building," I admitted. "But if theyíre not too heavy we ought to be able to manhandle them."
Needless to say, everything in class stopped while the truck driver backed his rig up to the door. The two crates were heavy, but a dozen kids plus the two adults made quick work of getting them sitting on the middle of the shop floor. Iíd soon signed for them, and the truck driver was on his way. "Now," I said, "I guess the thing to do is to see what we have here."
One of the kids hustled over to the wood shop and came back with a couple claw hammers and a crowbar. Those crates were really solid and sealed with steel strapping, so it took us a while and a little bad language before we got the top of one of them off.
There inside sat a beautiful, brand-new, still-smelling-of-paint V8-60. The only thing that didnít look exactly right was the fact that it had "Simca" cast into the cylinder heads.
I usually tried to avoid swearing in front of the kids, and managed to this time, but only by an eyelash. "What the living heck?" I said. "Thatís a V8-60 all right, Iíd know one anywhere. But Simca? From Brazil?" I was just a little bit dazed, but I finally put two and two together: Simca plus Livonia Import Autos only added up to Carnie, er, Jerry. "Go ahead and get the box the rest of the way off of it," I told the kids. "Leave the other one boxed up for now. Iíve got to go make a phone call."
It only took me a couple minutes to get Jerry on the phone. "Carnie, what is this Simca V8-60 business all about?"
"Great, they finally got there," he replied. "Takes them for freaking ever, doesnít it?"
"I sure wasnít expecting that when I opened the box just now. And a brand new engine! I didnít know they were still being made!"
"Not in this country, not for years," Jerry said. "Back, oh, about 1950 or thereabouts, Ford shut down making them in this country, but Simca in France, which is owned by Ford, still made them. Theyíd been making them since sometime in the thirties. Now, I knew that, but not real well, if you know what I mean, but I figured there might be a few spare engines kicking around over on the other side of the pond. So, I did a little more investigation and found out that Simca wasnít making them in France anymore, but had shipped the tooling and stuff to Brazil for their plant there. From there on it was simple, except like I said, it took them for freaking ever to get them shipped."
"Well, Iíll be darned," I said, still watching my language since I was in school. "How much is this going to cost me?"
"Not a cent," Jerry said. "All paid for. It took a little messing around, but it involves a little corporate back scratching."
"A Carnie special," I smiled.
"Something like that. Letís not get into the details. You donít want to know them, anyway."
"I get it. One of those kinds of deals," I laughed. "But why two? One is all I needed."
"One is all you needed this year, but there was no point in going through the hassle again. Frank told me youíve got all those other parts still sitting around, and you know as well as I do that youíre damned well going to build a 66 car."
"Well, yeah, that thought had been in the back of my mind," I admitted. "But I sort of gave it up when I had so much trouble coming up with a V8-60."
"Well, now, your troubles there are over with," he laughed. "Hey, we may even get to watch a couple MMSA cars race again someday."
That was something Iíd never thought of, although I had to admit that it sounded intriguing. I thanked Jerry, of course, and headed back to the classroom, hoping the kids hadnít gotten into too much trouble while I was gone. I got there and discovered that theyíd gotten the Simca engine out of the box, all right. It was dangling from a chain fall and being inserted into the engine bay of the 2 car when I got back.
"You kids are something else," I smiled. "Knock that off for now, the bell is about to ring. But any of you who want to come back after school can help get it finished up."
When the kids came back after school, most of them, Arlene was there Ė Iíd called her to take off work just for this. It didnít take us long to get the engine bolted into the 2 car. It still used a six-volt battery and I didnít have one of those laying around, but half a dozen kids were sufficient to push the car to get it started, with Arlene in the seat wearing the biggest grin Iíd ever seen. We had to push it for a ways across the school parking lot before the engine fired, but for the first time in nearly a decade a V8-60 barked from under the hood of an MMSA midget and took off running on its own.
I donít recall ever hearing a much sweeter sound.