By Gary M. Hughes
This story starts in the summer of 1964. I was 17 years old and was working for a crop dusting outfit in Great Falls, Montana. My job was driving the chemical truck and flagging for the airplanes in the field. That truck sure ran good on aviation fuel! I kept melting the valves though.
One day while driving to work in my primer gray 1941 Chevy coupe, I spotted a 1940 Chevy convertible parked in a yard with a 'for sale' sign. At the time I thought it was the ugliest car I had ever seen and pitied the person who was trying to sell it. It was painted a light pinkish red, which was actually a faded red. The paint job was done with a brush or roller and there wasn't a straight panel on the entire car. What a mess! The second day I passed by the car, I thought it was so ugly it was kind of cute. The third day I stopped to look at it and the fourth day I HAD TO HAVE IT! I had never seen another one like it.
The gentleman who owned the car drove a hard bargain and would not dicker on the three-hundred-dollar price tag. That was a mountain of money to me at the time, but I thought I would be able to earn that much during the summer. The gentleman agreed to accept payments until it was paid for, as long as he kept possession. Faithfully, each week, I would cash my thirty to fifty dollar pay check, take a few dollars for expenses and give the rest over to him. At the end of the summer when the job was done, I had paid only two hundred eighty five dollars. Fifteen dollars short! I was devastated!
My father thought I was crazy for trying to buy a rattletrap ugly old convertible and I should put the money away for college like sensible people my age were doing (yada yada yada). It was he, however, who came to my aid and gave me the extra fifteen dollars. I gave him a ride the day after we bought it and that was the first and only time he ever rode in that car. His advice was to have it towed to a junkyard and consider the investment a lesson in stupidity. Mom thought it was kind of cute too and talked to him. She convinced him it would be a better lesson in stupidity if I had to keep it. She was successful in rescuing my car from the crusher.
My '41 coupe was a real dependable car. It had a 1953 six-cylinder motor with 235 cubic inches of raw horsepower. In fact, I had set a track record at the drag races in Lewistown, Montana - running aviation fuel. It did a quarter mile in less than one phase of the moon. It wasn't long, however, until the '41 became motor-less and the convertible had a real dependable 1953 six cylinder motor. The '41 ended up going to the crusher. It was probably sent to Japan and could now be living its life disguised as a Toyota.
Winter was coming and my only car had a hole in the canvas top where a cat fell through and a heater that didn't work. The winters in Great Falls can get a little chilly (like forty below zero) and my dad said I should bundle up. My mother was correct about the lesson - I was proving myself as the stupidest person he knew. I simply couldn't be his son!
Over the next two years, I had many jobs and bought and sold at least a dozen cars, but I always kept the convertible because I really loved the damn thing.
During the year of 1966 I was living in Idaho Falls, Idaho and was working for Delmonte Foods driving a forklift... without aviation fuel. I was succeeding in becoming less and less stupid by this time. The convertible got its first face lift at Lloyd's body shop. Lloyd allowed me to do some of the grunt work in his shop to save some of the expenses. Lloyd taught me a lot about bodywork in the time I spent there. The project took about three months, cost about four hundred dollars and ended up with a straight body and a midnight blue metal flake paint job. Unfortunately, the primer cracked and the paint job ended up looking like a sun dried mud bog, but looking at the car from down the block wasn't too bad. Lloyd said he would repaint it, but I would have to help. Just at that time, Uncle Sam decided I should help him in the Viet Nam effort instead. So, I did. The convertible would have to wait.
Late in December 1968 I returned to Idaho and found the car smashed on the drivers rear fender. Someone had run into it while it was parked and no one knew who did it or when it happened. I found an old fender, put some primer on it, bolted it on and drove it back to Great Falls on January 2nd, 1969. The trip was not uneventful as the radiator blew up and the starter ate the flywheel. A trip that should have taken a few hours took about a week and I received more lessons in stupidity. That January was the coldest in the history of Great Falls. The top still had the same hole, which was a little bigger now and the heater still didn't work but I did have really warm clothes.
After a couple of months of celebrations, the convertible and I moved on to Missoula where higher education was more desirable than going to work. The State of Montana in conjunction with the University of Montana had a special program to re-train and re-introduce veterans who were having trouble adjusting to civilian life. I guess they thought I qualified because I never showed up sober for my unemployment check.
The next six or seven months in Missoula was a great time. Many of my oldest and best friends from both Butte and Great Falls were going to school there and we really had fun.
I found and replaced the blown fuse for the heater and then summer came. The only bad experience I can remember is getting evicted from an apartment because I had rebuilt the transmission for the convertible on the living room carpet. Some landlords don't have any understanding at all. It was too cold to work outside and I did get most of the grease out of the carpet! After graduation, I decided to move to Seattle and look for legitimate work. My parents were in Seattle and said there were plenty of good paying jobs there.
The trip to Seattle ended for the convertible just west of St. Regis, Montana where the front universal joint on the drive shaft came apart. Like Humpty Dumpty, even with the help of the Kings horses, the universal joint was not going together again. Gene, from Gene's Standard Service came and got the car and towed it back to his shop. He was very nice and said I could leave it there for a week or two and come back and get it when I could. I paid him and hitchhiked to Seattle. The following week, my dad decided he should protect his fifteen-dollar investment and help me gain possession of the car one more time. We got a tow bar, trailer hitch and away we went to St. Regis.
November, we found, is not the month to tow a car with every component in the front-end totally shot, across three mountain passes. After about two miles and ten feet, my dad reminded me of the opportunity I missed a few years earlier to haul it to the junkyard and again reiterated his doubts about being my father. The car went back to Gene at the Standard Station. Gene agreed to store it until the spring of the following year and refused any compensation for his trouble. He had lots of room and liked doing favors for people. We stuck it in the corner of his shop, covered it up and left it in hibernation for the winter. The trunk contained most of my worldly possessions - my record collection and my hi-fi record player.
After the spring thaw, I decided it was time to get the convertible. During a phone conversation with Gene, he revealed his wife was in the hospital with cancer and was not expected to live much longer. Since the hospital was in Missoula (40 miles away), Gene's shop was temporarily closed and he asked me to wait a few weeks before I came for the car. Three or four weeks later, I called Gene and was informed by an AT&T recording that the number was disconnected. That day, I drove to St. Regis and discovered Gene's wife had died and Gene had declared bankruptcy because of the medical bills. There was a Sheriff's auction and everything in the shop was sold, including my car! There were no records of the auction and even though I had title to the car, it had been left for over thirty days without anything in writing and was considered an abandoned vehicle. Someone told me they tried to contact me but could not find me because I was such a transient. I had trouble believing that one, however. At any rate, the car was gone and no one could tell me where it went. The only thing I knew was it had sold for fifty dollars.
During the next ten years, I wanted to spend most of my time trying to find the car. Instead, I got married, had a couple of kids, bought houses, started businesses, and became less and less stupid. I really would rather have spent all my time being a bum and looking for the car, but pressures from outside sources controlled my destiny. I did spend a few vacations in Montana looking for the car, but not as many as I could have.
In the summer of 1979 I had given up any hope of ever seeing my beloved convertible again. I had decided to go to Montana and see if there was another project car that I might be able to purchase at a reasonable price. Ten years away from the automotive hobby was wearing me down and for my own mental health, I needed to get involved once again.
Pete had a lot of old junk cars parked in his yard in Superior Montana. He saw my shiny new 1979 Thunderbird automobile with T-tops and Washington plates and decided his cars were a lot more valuable than I thought they were. Flaunting the appearance of possible wealth in front of Pete was another lesson in stupidity. The stupid one decided that there would be no purchase of any of Pete's cars on that day.
I told Pete the sad story of the loss of the convertible and he then astounded me by saying the convertible that was at the auction was a '41 and not a '40. Further queries determined the car he witnessed being sold at auction was, in fact, my blue metal flake '40 convertible. He knew who bought it and knew the person still had it. The only thing I had to do to get the information was to provide Pete and his family tickets to the Baseball All Star game being played that summer in the new Seattle King Dome. I told Pete I thought the game was sold out but I would try to get him some tickets for the information. Pete then gave me directions to Fred's property where I should find a big green barn and a small mobile home.
The road to Fred's property was not much more than a glorified Jeep trail but dents and scratches on a Thunderbird was a small price to get there. Nothing was going to keep me from my visit with Fred. Stupidity converted the Thunderbird into a mountain goat and I arrived at Fred's property to find the barn door open. The convertible was sitting inside the barn. In my excitement, I guess I forgot to introduce myself to Fred and went straight to inspect the car. It had been repainted a light blue, which was actually a faded royal blue. The paint job was done with a brush or roller and there wasn't a straight panel on the entire car. What a mess! There was a hole in the top. No doubt, this was the very same rattletrap ugly old convertible I loved.
There is something distinctive about the clicking sound of someone drawing back the hammer of a shotgun. Hearing the gruff voice telling me not to move reminded me of how impolite I had been. Pleading and begging, I introduced myself to Fred. That convinced him to lower the gun barrel and after my fear subsided, I told him the story and produced the title to the car. He then informed me it was his property as he had purchased it legally at an auction, had owned it for ten years, and it was rightfully his. Besides that, he was the one with the gun! I had no defense for his arguments, but wasn't going to give up just yet.
Fred's wife, Isabel, was a lovely lady. Around three hundred pounds - curlers – Mumu - less than five brownish colored teeth. She and Fred didn't get much company because of the road, and she was eager to share some fresh baked brownies and coffee to be able to visit with someone other than Fred. I obliged her offer. Getting to know Isabel and Fred was easy and we had a meaningful conversation about my youth in Montana and the history of the convertible. During the conversation, Isabel said "Fred, you are an old man. You only drive that car on the fourth of July. I think you should give the car back to Gary." Words cannot describe just how beautiful that woman appeared to me at the time. Fred, like most husbands, paid little attention to his wife and again stated the car was his and he was keeping it.
Knowing the little woman was on my side, I decided to make a bold gesture. I placed ten one hundred dollar bills right there on their kitchen table and offered them to Fred for his trouble. Isabel could not stop staring at the stack of money. Fred said, "You have got to be kidding!" I assured him that I was not kidding and started feeling stupid again because I may have been able to offer far less with the same effect. One more banter with Fred about whether I was kidding or not, caused him to produce an Old Cars Price Guide which listed the convertible having a value of about twenty thousand dollars. I had no idea the car was that rare and Fred knew more about it than I had given him credit for. My budget was one thousand dollars and I was getting nowhere fast. After a series of negotiations, Fred finally settled for five thousand dollars. There went my budget once again!
My wife said, "You paid how much for what? What are you, president of the Stupid Club?"
I guess I have yet to learn my lesson. Maybe my dad was right!