July 25, 2013 at 1:00 am

Stories of Concours d'Elegance's classic cars as impressive as exteriors

Model Rachel Burford stands next to a 1957 Ford Fairlane during the Concours d'Elegance press conference. (Jose Juarez / Special to The Detroit News)

“So, let me tell you a story about this car…”

That’s how Keith Vrabec learned from an old mechanic that the suspension on the Roy Tyner No. 9 Pontiac Grand Prix he owns had been gas-welded decades ago by a cash-strapped racing crew, using a wire coat hanger because they couldn’t afford conventional welding rod. Tyner did the welding himself, a skill he’d learned from his mother after her days in a World War II shipyard job.

Beautifully restored classic cars are sleek, glamorous and impressive. But the eight beautifully restored classic NASCAR racers that will be on display in Plymouth Township at Sunday’s Concours d’Elegance of America have a little bit extra to offer: the tales and lore they’ve accumulated in decades of careening from track to scrapyard to body shop and back to center stage at car shows and parades.

“They have their own lives, histories and legends,” said organizer Hank Gabbert, a former drag racer who designed past racing-related displays for the Concours, including dragsters and the 33-car grid of vintage Indy cars two years ago. “NASCARs in the early years were door-slammers — the same cars you could go buy at the dealerships.

“Of course that all went away, and today’s race cars are very specialized. My idea is to let people see what they were really like when this all started.”

You don’t even have to be a NASCAR fan to appreciate the tales of triumph, tragedy, comedy and gritty American spunk associated with these vehicles, which hark from the days when racing wasn’t so regimented and cars weren’t cookie-cutter and corporate. Gutsy, macho drivers might well be wielding a wrench or a welding torch just before slinging their racer around quarter-mile dirt circles or bigger tracks with hallowed names like Pocono and Darlington.

The 1952 “Fabulous Hudson Hornet” of driver Herb Thomas — arguably NASCAR’s first major star — was rescued from a salvage yard, said Jack Miller, who found and restored the car, which now resides at the Ypsilanti Automotive Heritage Museum.

Miller, whose family had been Hudson auto dealers, located the beat-up Club Coupe in Kentucky in 1980. Some years later, leafing through a box of Hudson paperwork given to him when American Motors Corp. was going to throw it out, he came across some promissory notes that drivers had signed years earlier, in return for AMC cars to race. And indeed, the vehicle number for Miller’s Club Coupe matched the one Herb Thomas had signed for, decades previously.

“This car has 15 wins to its credit with Herb Thomas driving it,” said Miller, who’s authored a book, “Total Domination,” about the Hornet racers. “Mostly on dirt tracks — they’d qualify at maybe 80, 90 miles an hour.”

The 1969 Ford Talladega Torino of Benny Parsons clipped along a little faster than that, behind a 427-cubic-inch tunnel port engine, and still makes appearances at shows and tracks with owner Barry Miller of Portland, Ind., who’s even paced some ARCA races and done laps at the Brickyard in the bright-yellow No. 98.

“It’s the only Benny Parsons car that’s still in existence, that anyone knows of,” said Miller, who notes the car then was passed on to other drivers, wrecked, rebuilt and wrecked again. Wendell Scott, who’s known for being the only African American driver ever to take the checkered flag in what is now the Sprint Cup series, was one of the racers who used this vehicle, which sports a Holman-Moody chassis.

Bryan Skanes of Lexington, Ky., is bringing another rarity — the 1972 Dodge Challenger known as a “mule car” – it was a sort of prototype for a kit race car Chrysler intended to produce as emissions regulations and other changes were starting to put pressure on automakers. The Petty racing empire was to help with the merchandising, along with other big names in racing.

Rumor has it, Skanes said, that only three of the cars were built with the Challenger body. He and his late father – “an old-time stock car racer” — found this Challenger, which had undergone body changes and other indignities, and restored No. 74 to its bright-blue, 600-hp glory. “It’ll hit 160 mph without pushing,” he said. “For a restorer, it’s such a joy to see this car taking those turns around the track.”

An ordinary Stanley door hinge cobbled up to a battery box confirmed for Vrabec, of Wilkes-Barre, Pa., that the old wreck he bought in 1992 wasn’t just any old 1969 Pontiac Grand Prix. He’d purchased the vehicle from a scrapper in Delaware and parked it at the family farm for nearly two decades.

An avid Grand Prix collector, he had his suspicions about the car, and eventually located James Lee, who’d been a teenage pit crew member for Tyner in the 1960s. “He said, ‘Well, tell me something about the car,’ ” recalled Vrabec, who described the then-fancy non-standard tilt steering column and power windows. “And Lee chuckled, ‘Yeah, you got the car. We called it Roy’s Limousine.’ ”

Lee directed Vrabec to also look for an oddly placed clutch pedal and that hinge on the battery box, and both were still there 40 years after Tyner made a splash in the red, white and blue Pepsi-logoed No. 9.

Eventually Tyner’s distinctive paint scheme was replicated, and hand-lettered by well-known race car artist Jim Chandler, who persevered despite illness to finish what turned out to be his final work of art.

“People wanted to work on it. It’s not just the car. It’s everything that was attached to it — the men, the connections, the stories,” said Vrabec. “This car was a loser — it never won a race. But it has a rich history, and when we showed up with it at Darlington, the guys just came over — and they started to cry.”

Melissa Preddy is a Metro Detroit freelance writer.

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