The Old Car Guru on the Hill
Here’s one of those little known facts about a place in the Garrettsville community that maybe you didn’t know about because you can’t see it and you’re not an old car person. It’s not obvious; it’s in a barn behind a spacious older house. The only tipoff you might notice is a brightly colored blue and white 1956 Studebaker Champion off to the side in the yard. Studebaker always made flashy, sometimes oddball color schemes, and you notice the car from the road. If you pull down the driveway you will encounter a fairly nice, sedately gray-brown bathtub 1940s Packard in the drive and a couple other old cars and trucks. …… And cats!
Maybe you want to change the color of a 1936 Packard coupe—a full classic V-12 with a golf club door—that you bought at an auction for big bucks. Or maybe you have several of the later 1940’s bathtub Packards –not classics but mostly parts cars—that you would like to trade off. Or you have a 1950 Chevy pickup in sad, sad shape with a false stainless steel gas tank that has a rich history of moonshine running in West Virginia. Or maybe you might have the family’s 1970’s MGB roadster that by now needs body off full restoration and you want it done right. Or you have a 1930 Model “A” Ford that, even after a year of diligently working on it you can’t get it to run dependably and smoothly, and realize that you’re in over your head. Where could you go?
Well, there is Don Davidson and his son Don Jr. up on the hill. The elder Don is a retired restoration expert from the likes of L & N Old Car Restorations in Newbury. They say that, in his prime he could, and still can, replicate any antique car panel by hand, that he could rebuild any automobile engine ever made, that he still can create something from nothing in his garage. Don senior, age 70 or so, is still doing restoration on a small scale to some fairly classic cars with the help of his son Don Jr. “It’s not a business or anything like that; we just occasionally do some work for very picky collectors and seem to stumble onto old car deals. “My son is a really good mechanic, does a lot of rebuilding of the engines. I do a lot of the bodywork. When this old car stuff gets in your blood you can’t get away from it; people seek you out. Lots of times I go over to their garage and fix things, get ‘em going again.” The other day I did a house call on a teens Buick. Those cars did not have fuel pumps but rather had vacuum chambers on the firewall mounted higher than the carburetor. They were common on cars say 1915 through the early ‘20s. Well, luckily the owner had extra vacuum tanks because I had to take apart three of them to figure out what was wrong with it. The original one was missing a tiny part. I finally combined pieces of the three and got it working. The guy was elated; he says that it’s been running flawlessly since.” (Vacuum tank technology has been gone for 80 years or more and replaced by fuel pumps).
What’s the gauge of a body man who could take rusted out side mount wheel covers from a ’36 Packard and reform, re-fabricate and remake to concourse quality these one of a kind compound complex curved wheel covers. The only way I know what and how he did it is that I see the backside of the covers that are as yet unprimed. And I look around the barn filled with all sorts of oddball bodywork machines all jumbled together in no particular order! This is stuff you might only see assembled in the likes of Jay Leno’s restoration shop. Some of them I recognize, others I haven’t a clue. But Don does. I must admit that I am in awe of people like Don who can take apart something and innately understand or figure out how it works and put it back together again. Whenever I take something apart I have to make diagrams, take photos, depend on manuals, on friends, and hope that I will be able to put it back together.
And there are cats, basically friendly and curious cats patrolling the premises! Rest assured that there is not a mouse or a rodent within 10 miles of this barn. They check you out and then go over your car with a fine-tooth comb, as if they were on mouse patrol.
Don pipes up, “There is a guy that wants me to redo a 1936 Cord engine—That’s a full classic with a Lycoming engine. You won’t be getting any parts for that car at the local Auto Parts store. I’m gonna go take a look at it; probably will end up rebuilding it. Nobody wants to work on these old cars anymore. If you want anything pre-1960’s (i.e., my Model “A”) worked on these days you had better be able to do it yourself, because mechanics are hard to come by. Many of the teens and 1920s cars had absolutely marvelous and stunning technology—vacuum tanks, for instance and things like totally atypical steering gear boxes that you would never see again but worked perfectly at the time. Who now is gonna understand that sort of thing and rebuild it? Many of the old car restoration shops like L & N have gone out of business or switched to modern car repairs. There are not many restoration shops left. That’s why these people seek me out.”
In many ways Don is a clearinghouse for these old car collectors. Don can direct you, for example, to a glass shop that can remake the compound curves of 1960’s Chrysler products windshields. Those Chryslers were gunboats—behemoths—beautiful cars, but not exactly highly desirable collectable cars. They’re not reproducing windshields for those few cars. They have to be made to order,” he says.
“You see that Studebaker, I didn’t really realize that I was buying that Studebaker. I put in a ridiculously low bid on it at Hershey (a big national old car swap meet). I was on my way home and wouldn’t you know it the guy calls me and tells me he has accepted my bid. We had to turn around and go back and get it. I drove it all the way home with many stops for transmission fluid. We did some straightening out of the transmission and it’s really a good little car. Don’t know what I’m gonna do with it or that ‘46 Packard yet! But I gotta do something about these cats…..too many cats; they own the place!”