Friday, January 9, 2009

George Watterson and the great Safari (Part 2)

Well, here we are again. A good Friday to us all. Weekend right at the doorstep and I'll be enjoying long days in the shop getting the GA Bronco closer to done. Oh to move on to project number next- that pile of Model A parts screams at me every time I walk into the shop. Sooner than later we hope. 

So, lets get down to business with this Part two of our series. To really get things moving, I'll go ahead and knock down a few of the ones that, for the most part, didn't pan out. 

As I think I'd said previously, regarding some of this rumored treasure, I had been hearing about a good number of these for quite some time and for some reason, a lot of these stories seemed to involve forgotten Corvettes. Number one on my list was one that went all the way back to high school that involved a big block mid-year Corvette roadster that was sitting in a pig pen in a neighboring small town. I had always heard that "you can see it from the road" if you just knew where it was. Well, I thought back to one of the more reliable sources on this one and went back to get the map. When I was sure I knew where I was going I set out. I found the farm, I even found what just had to be the pig pen as it was exactly as described, but of course, no Corvette in sight. Just a small, sloppy, muddy pen that I remember had an old style outhouse on the edge of it. Amazingly, later that same year I was speaking with a gentleman in my fathers local Corvette club who owned a pristine frame-off restored '65 396 roadster ( a pretty rare car ) who happened to live in the same town as the supposed "pig pen" Corvette. I told him the story and was absolutely floored when he said that that was his car! Not that it "was" his car, it "was"( in present tense ) his car. The very blue '65 396 roadster that I knew him to own and show and that was the fabled "pig pen" car. He'd had the car since the late '60s and had blown the engine many years ago so he parked it out on his property with a tarp over it waiting to someday fix it. This part I'll never forget- he claimed that he had finally had enough and decided to bring the car back to life after he'd discovered that his hogs had been rubbing up against it like a tree and had worn the sides of the body down the bare fiberglass! No joke. And if you saw the car, which he had professionally restored, you would not be able to envision it having ever gone through that. So I guess you could say this one did ultimately pan out, but it sure didn't look like much at the start. One down. 

Another one that I'd heard about but never got to the bottom of, was a solid axle Corvette sitting in a creek bed. This was reported to be in the same town as the pig pen car ( must have been quite a place back in the day ). I spent an entire day with supposed reliable directions and came up with nothing but soaked shoes. 

Again in the same town; It was reported that a '70 GTO Judge convertible ( another very rare car ) was parked on a hay wagon inside a barn. This actually came from a very reliable source who knew enough to know what it was and that it was a truly rare car, and swore that he'd seen it. I went right to the house, saw the barn that was described to me, and had a very squirrelly conversation with the gentleman who lived there who claimed that he not only didn't have the car, but didn't even know what one was. To this day I think the car was in that barn but I'll never know. He was just a little too intense about how much he "didn't" have the car. 

Next up were a few that actually panned out. 

I had heard many times in high school of an old Corvette in a field ( lots of Corvettes in this story aren't there? Blue color town with a Chevrolet plant would be my answer to that one ) that was in plain view of the road. Well, I tracked my way back to the person who seemed to know where this was and set out with their direections. Surprise, surprise! 1966 Corvette roadster about 50-60 feet from the road out in the middle of nowhere. Not exactly abandoned as reported as it sat between two well kept barns that clearly belonged to the farmhouse about 300 yards up the road. Why do people with barns leave interesting old cars outside to rot? A question to be answered another time I suppose. Anyway, I pulled off the road and went over and looked this thing over and found a very interesting old car. 1966 roadster with a 425hp 427, 4spd, hardtop, with side pipes. Car was done in a classic 60s California treatment. For starters it was a silver car with black psychedelic panel paint inserts, radius wheel wells, no front or rear bumpers, 60s series tires all the way around on chrome reverse wheels, and, you guessed it... six tail-lights. Jan and Dean daddy-o! It was almost strange to see such a California beach cruiser 'Vette sitting in rural Indiana. The hood was unlatched so I saw that it still had at least a big block of some kind in place, it had period M/T valve covers, and all of its deep groove pulleys were still there. Now, here was the craziest part of all- it had the original keys in their original 1966 Chevrolet leather fob...  in the ignition!!! Swear on my life. Now, understand, this car has sunk in the ground up to its rims. It has been here for a solid 20 years at least. What could possibly be the story? Well, I walk up to the farmhouse and knock on the door and have a very nice conversation with the old lady there. She tells me all about the car and her son that owns it. Apparently he was in the service, stationed in Clarksville,Tn., in the 1960s, and bought the car from a fellow serviceman ( probably from California I'm going to safely guess ) and brought the car back home to Indiana in the early 1970s. She thought he'd parked it there sometime around 1975-76. She said it wasn't for sale and that the son keeps promising to come and get it. As far as I know it's still there. 

Next up we have another Corvette, this time a supposed mid year roadster right in town parked in a front yard on a dead-end side street. Again, I get the directions and point my Mustang, this time, towards town. Well sure enough, a 1965 marlboro maroon Corvette roadster sitting in a heavily shaded front yard at the very end of a dead end street. No wonder so few had seen this. I pulled in the driveway of this exceedingly run down property and, although it looked like someone lived there, it looked empty at the time... or so I hoped. I walked over and inspected the poor old girl. Original maroon paint was cracked and burning off in places, it had a vinyl covered hard top, a decent camel interior with guess what?... a high horse tach. That's Corvette speak for a 6,000 rpm redline tach ( unlike hyd. cammed cars which had a 5,500 redline ), which means this is a solid lifter high horsepower car and, because it didn't have fuel injection emblems on the fenders, is a real live 365hp 327 car. What a great shame. This car also looked like it was on its 20th year of sitting on wet ground. Complete with its original t-handle shifter and stock spinner hub-caps- all but one if I remember. 

Now we move onto what turned out to be a pretty cool visit with a good old dude. I'd heard about a completely original '62 Chevrolet 409 sitting outside next to a towing company's building right outside of Bedord. Again, research, directions, etc. and I was off. Well, before I even got out of my car when pulling in the lot of the wrecker business I could see the front fender poking out from around the side of the building. There it was, a real live '62 409 and it certainly looked untouched and original. Again, sitting outside next to a huge building but what can you say? I spent a good amount of time looking it over. It was an anniversary gold non-SS Impala with a white interior, bench seat/ 4spd, Sun tach on the column, and full hub caps. 409 emblems were in place and whoever owned it wasn't trying very hard to hide it. Soon an older guy came around the corner and greeted me. I told him I was admiring this car and asked who owned it. He said that he did and had bought it new in 1962 in California. He was at a train station waiting to make his way back to Indiana after serving some military time. To pass a few hours he went for a walk and came upon a Chevrolet dealer and this car was on the showroom floor. He had never bought a new car but was dreaming of a 409 since they had been released in '61. He said that he actually had the money on him but was planning to buy one as soon as he got home to Indiana. He fell for this particular car so hard that he bought it that day, blew off the train, and drove it home. What a nice way to break in a new engine. I've since heard that it has made its way inside the building and has also been spotted at a paint shop in the same town. 

Last in this bunch is the old lady with the time capsule MG TD in her basement. Another one that had really been around a long time. I never could get a bead on where exactly this was and couldn't remember the original source. I did ask around but couldn't even get a street name. About 3 years later I was again visiting my folks and saw an ad in the local paper for a TD. I called and spoke with a woman who couldn't answer anything about it and recommended that I just come over and see it for myself. I did, and you guessed it... down in her basement. It was there alright and looked as though it was probably worn out when it was parked there 20-30 years ago. Nothing but a parts car at this point. The basement was wet and unfortunately the MG was not alone as a Model T touring and some kind of '30s Plymouth sedan had also been down there for far too long. Some good did come from it as I bought a stunning 1959 Silvertone guitar and matching amp from her that had once been her husband's. So it wasn't a wasted trip but I certainly didn't find the time capsule TD that I'd always heard about. But hey, now I knew. 

Lastly we come to the big daddy, George Watterson. I didn't know of  George Watterson yet, but I did know that way too many people were telling me tales of a bone yard west of the southern Indiana town of Mitchell that had every kind of 40s and 30s American car you could think of. Crazy stories of Zephyrs and Packards sitting out in fields and scattered down in the woods, and no one seemed to know how or why or more importantly, who? So, it was back to the original source of this gearhead tall tale from the cript... Steve at Fultz's Napa.

So there I was, talking with Steve about this lost graveyard of pre-war American cars. Apparently he and a friend had gone down there many years before and had tried to talk to an older gentleman that they spotted on the property. According to Steve, not only was the man not interested in talking with them but was pretty forceful about getting them off his land and back in their car... with a rifle. He went on to say that the old man had been in trouble several times over the years for shooting at people, so Steve considered himself lucky. I asked if he would tell me how to get there and he was honestly pretty hesitant as I think he could see how serious I was and didn't want me to get shot. Well, I didn't want to get shot either! But, I was now on a quest and this felt like the one all the goose chases had been leading up to, so I pressed him. He gave in and wrote out the map on the back of a Napa receipt. It was about 20 miles away. I hopped in my trusty old Mustang, headed to my folks house to pick up my camera, and was off. 

Before I even got to the point of destination on my little map, I started seeing the cars. 1950s Lincolns, Packard Clippers, various 40s 50s 60s Chevys and Fords, in the weeds, in the woods, and on both sides of the road. This was like driving into some crazy county that was a border to border old car cemetery. I slowed down and couldn't see a turn off road, a driveway, nothing. Were these cars all dumped here from the sky? No gate, no way to get to them between the road and the drainage ditch. The strangest thing of all was the fact that they were all parked with their wheels turned. They all looked as though they'd been wheeled into a parking space and shut off. Finally, as I was just about to go back and see if I'd missed a turn off, I spot an old 1950s two-tone camper trailer about 100 yards off the road with smoke coming out of a little stack on the roof. Parked next to this little hovel, which was surrounded by junk cars, piles of trash, scrap sheet metal, and old lawn mowers, was, of all things, a shiny new extended cab Ford F-150! Never before has an innocent new car given me a more creepy feeling. 

What I did next I would never do today...  I pulled right in. Pulled about 20 yards in from the road and shut off my car. I sat there for a while hoping whoever lived in there would come out. That way if things got violent from the downbeat I could just fire up the car, back out of his drive like Jim Rockford, and be gone. But no, nothing. Nobody was coming and nothing was moving. So, I slowly got out of the car and just stood next to my open door for a while looking around. Out back behind the trailer I could see that not only did the land go on for as far as you could see, so did the cars. I could make out some model A bodies, some fat fendered 1940s stuff and...  bang, there it was... the door on the trailer flew open. I jumped a foot and my heart stopped. "What do you want?", a very old and impatient looking man yelled to me. Having rehearsed a short shpeal of medium "untruth" on the drive there, just in case something like this very thing were to happen, I launched in with,"Hi, my name is David Steele and I'm an automotive journalist. I'd like to talk with you about your car collection." This was followed by an agonizingly long pause while the old man processed what he just heard, all while his eyes were locked on me. Finally, he said,"You want to see my cars do ya?". "Yes sir", I said, "I sure do". After another long pause he responded,"A dollar a car, and be here tomorrow at 7." And with that, he slammed his trailer door. 

A dollar a car. He never said how many cars. Is he serious? He does mean seven in the morning right? 

So there it was. I got what I was asking for and then some. The old man called my bluff.

 The next morning I was up at 6 and heading towards this crazy old man's field of rusted dreams. My camera packed, extra film, a tape recorder and 5 blank cassettes. And in a deep pocket of my camera bag- about 150 dollars in one dollar bills. Who was crazy now? 

Have a great weekend folks. I'll see you all back here on Monday with the conclusion of our 3 part Safari series. 

1 comment:

biggearhead said...

This reminds me in some ways of the summer in high school where my friend and I basically spent our time bothering people who were trying to sell their cars in the Trader paper. We didn't have much of a sense of wasting someone's time at that age, we just wanted to get close to some fast junk. I have some pictures from that summer. It's heartbreaking how easy it was to roll through the right neighborhood and find a '70 Camaro or a beat up but still salvageable '69 Gran Sport (yeah, that guy annoyed me, so I left without bothering to consider buying his GS350 with ram air).