By Andra Bryan Stefanoni
PITTSBURG, Kan. —
For at least 12 years, as near as Bill Smith can remember, his 1968 Camaro had been covered in dust on a car lift three feet off the ground in his barn.
When Smith, 55, of rural Frontenac, Kan., was diagnosed last September with non-operable liver cancer, he returned home from the doctor with his wife, Roseanne, and expressed regret that he never got around to restoring it.
“I’ll probably never get to drive it now,” he told her.
It had no motor, no front fenders, and pieces were scattered about. After having purchased it on a whim from a Mulberry, Kan., man, Smith had driven the car home, started to work on it, but then life got in the way.
In 1996, Bill and Roseanne, both alums of Frontenac High School, took over Alber’s Marine, a new and used boat store started by her father in 1986. As business owners and parents, there was little time for the car. It continued to sit.
“When he said he’d never get to drive it again, that’s when I thought: ‘I’ve got to figure out something,’” Roseanne said.
She began making phone calls. Her requests to nationally televised car restoration programs didn’t pan out, so she turned to someone local.
“Roseanne called me and asked did I know of anyone who could work on it,” said Tony Simon, an Arma resident who by day works for Atkinson Industries, but in the evenings and on weekends tinkers with classic cars. His specialties include wiring and rebuilding engines.
“I told her it would cost $60,000 and may be too late if she had it done professionally. And no one person could do it, even if they were retired,” Simon said.
The fellow car enthusiast took matters into his own hands when Roseanne explained her husband’s diagnosis and his regret that he’d never get to drive it.
“We all can relate to that,” Simon said, choking on emotion.
John Newbery, another local classic car enthusiast who is retired from the Pittsburg (Kan.) Fire Department, signed on as the parts coordinator.
“We all tuned in to that real quick,” Newbery said of Smith’s regret.
Also jumping on board was Mike Sand, Newbery’s neighbor in rural Pittsburg. He has long been known in the local classic car world as a body man. Now retired after decades in the auto parts business, Sand spends his time restoring cars in his garage.
“I had two contract jobs lined up to work on, but I cleared my calendar,” he said.
Ira Reikin and Brad Hill, who works part time at O’Reilly Auto Parts, also signed on.
And so it went, with one call leading to another until a crew of some 20 or more men were committed.
On Nov. 7, 2012, they loaded the Camaro onto a borrowed trailer and took the frame to Reiken’s house.
“I’ve been working on classic cars since I was 13,” Reikin said. “I ended up with the whole front end — suspension, front brakes, steering.”
Hill worked on the rear end — axle, brakes, differential — “all the stuff that puts the power to the road.”
The body went to Sand’s garage, where he and others began the bodywork, sandblasting the frame and stripping it down to bare metal.
“Everyone had a piece at his house at some point,” Newbery said.
Jack Simon, retired from Simon’s Meat Market in Weir, Kan., enlisted the help of his 9-year-old grandson Ethan Henry to help clean and scrape parts.
Holland Alignment helped on the front end work. Eddie Craddock donated an engine, a 350 cubic inch from the mid-1970s. A former drag racer, he had the parts in his garage. Sharp’s Automotive sold the group parts at cost, and PPG/Ditzler Primer Co. provided primer.
Bob Romine, of King’s Automotive, rebuilt the transmission, the exhaust and the front seats. Neptune Automotive donated a radiator and rebuilt the heater core. Saia’s Auto and O’Reilly’s donated paint and paint labor.
Lyle Telfer, an employee at the Crawford County Courthouse who collects old license plates, donated an original classic car plate. And John Munger donated the use of his spray booth, where the bare metal was transformed into a beautiful Cortez Silver, a 1969 classic car color requested by Smith.
Also donating were Larry Zerngast, O’Reilly Automotive, End of the Road Garage, Jake Grilz and Custom Awards.
Jack Alvested, a member of Rollin’ Nostalgia Car Club, said about 15 of the club’s members were among those who signed on to help after having looked for a project for a few years.
Jim Steele, a retired city of Pittsburg employee, learned of the project at Daylight Donuts, where many of the guys involved have gathered almost every weekday for years.
“I volunteered to be the grunt,” he laughed. “It sounded like a great project.”
Sand said the first month of the project, “at least five or six guys were here every day.”
“It was a lot of fun. We had the coffeepot going, got to visit. We made a lot of friends.”
Bob Romine, who heads up King’s Automotive, said the most challenging part was classic car restoration not being an exact science.
“A lot of parts have to be tweaked and massaged,” he said. “When you’re using reproduction stuff without the original molds, it doesn’t go together exactly. But we made it work.”
“We had a lot of headaches; it wasn’t a piece of cake. We put in a brand new radio and it didn’t work,” Reikin said. “There was a lot of problem solving. Then before we knew it, we had a running car.”
Smith, meanwhile, was focused on survival. He had lost weight, had no energy and had to undergo chemotherapy treatments at the University of Kansas Medical Center.
“Our goal was transplant, but he did not meet the protocols,” his wife said. “And they couldn’t do surgery because it would compromise too much of the liver.”
It was a rough time for the couple physically, emotionally and financially. Roseanne had undergone open heart surgery on Memorial Day weekend of 2011.
“Our last few years have been pretty rough,” she said. “The car project gave him something to look forward to.”
He did, and by early March — 120 days after the project began — the final touches had been done by Oz Custom Upholstery in Columbus, Kan. Smith regained some weight, a little energy and couldn’t wait to go get it.
Because he’s taking medication, he is not allowed to drive.
But Newbery, who went to Columbus to get the car, allowed Smith to break the rule on the way home.
“When I gave him the wheel, you couldn’t have gotten the grin off his face with sandpaper,” Newbery said. “Seeing that look on his face was well worth the fight to get it done.”
Since then, the Camaro has once again been returned to a lift — this time carefully covered in Newbery’s garage. Tonight, they’ll officially unveil it at the Rollin’ Nostalgia Car Club’s first cruise night of the 2013 season, and will hand Smith the key.
Smith, for whom the future remains unclear, is certain of one thing: “I’m not going to put it back on that lift,” he said. “I’m going to drive it. I’m going to take it to cruise nights.”
He also might go on a classic car trip being organized with Warren Rhuems, another local classic car enthusiast who helped with the project — perhaps Denver, Colo., the group says.
But first, on May 1, Smith will return to the University of Kansas Medical Center for a new round of scans to determine whether the cancer has been contained. The guys who helped bring his car back to life are hopeful the project in some way will play a positive role.
“There’s a lot to be said for positive thinking,” Newbery said.
Smith said the project taught him there “are a lot of great people out there, and this is a lot of them. I could never repay them for what they did.”
“We’ve already been paid.”
The Rollin’ Nostalgia Car Club Cruise Night will be held today in the parking lot between Big Lots, Payless and Applebee’s in the 2800 block of North Broadway Street in Pittsburg, from 6 until 9 p.m. today. It is open to the public.