Arizona man found the highway to hot rodding

L yall Herwig likes to think ahead. He’s looking forward to 2007 when he can arrive at his 50th high school reunion behind the wheel of his restored 1957 Ford Fairlane convertible.

“I can hardly wait to get to it,” said Herwig, 67, who graduated from Poynette High School (north of Madison, Wisconsin) in 1957. The transplanted Wisconsin native now lives with his wife, Colleen, in Lake Havasu City, Arizona ‘ a place Herwig called, “A mecca for people who have the old car bug.”

Having worked for 25 years as fleet manager for the Department of Transportation, Herwig said, “I’ve been in the car business all my life.” As a high-schooler, he earned 75 cents an hour at the local garage (and as a pinsetter at a bowling alley), but he managed to save $2,100 to buy his first new car: a 1957 Ford hardtop. “The minute you had a driver’s license,” Herwig said, “you had to have wheels.” His first car, which he got shortly after he got that coveted license, was a 1941 Plymouth.

Herwig and his buddies soon made cars their focus. “We used to go out to [my buddy’s] place and fix our cars,” he recalled. Then he took a course in body work, and the blueprint for his passion was set. “I used to buy ’em, fix ’em up and sell them.”

Herwig’s passion used to be Harley-Davidson motorcycles; he and his wife drove them cross-country and met many other aficionados. “When you’re younger, motorcycles are fine…it’s a neat way to travel. You become almost like a family,” he said. But after his wife had several back surgeries, “We had to find something else to do as a hobby,” he said. Their love of wheels ‘ mixed with their need for a smoother ride ‘?led them back to vintage automobiles.

Lyall Herwig is especially proud of his 1940 Plymouth, which received honors this summer at the Street Rod Nationals in Louisville, Kentucky.

In 1993, Herwig bought a 1940 Plymouth. “That was my first attempt at street rodding,” he said. The rust-free Plymouth was purchased from its second owner in West Bend, Wisconsin. Herwig took the V-8 engine and transmission from a 1976 Chevrolet and transplanted them into the Plymouth, outfitting it as a street rod. He has since put more than 50,000 miles on the car.

“A year ago,” he said, “I took it and tore it apart.” He replaced the glass and running gear, among other components, and added power brakes and steering and air conditioning. He’s especially proud of the Plymouth; not only has it taken honors at several Prescott, Arizona, events, in August, 2005, it was picked as one of six street rods honored (amid 12,000 entries worldwide) at the Street Rod Nationals in Louisville, Kentucky.

“To me, it was a big deal. They [the awards] make you feel good,” he said. “[It means] somebody else likes what you did.”

Not only does Herwig love his Plymouth, his wife does, as well. When they went to look at it for the first time, Colleen immediately said she had to have the car. “I’ve always said this is your car,” Herwig added. Soon after, it became her daily driving car.

A few years later, in 1995, Herwig purchased a 1947 Ford, mainly for the memories the car invoked. When his father returned from World War II, Herwig said he purchased a 1946 Ford coupe. Herwig was only 8; “I sat pretty proud in the front seat,” he recalled. “I always liked that particular model.”

His turquoise stunner has won numerous awards, including nods at the Goodguys shows in Charlotte, North Carolina, and Scottsdale, Arizona; Top 15 at River Tin Street Rods in Paduca, Kentucky; and it was also featured in a 2002 issue of Northern Rodder magazine.

Working part-time on the restoration, Herwig estimates it took him about four years to completely disassemble and rebuild the Ford. “I do what you call retro-rodding,” he said.

“When you street rod, you try to modernize that car,” he added. From the outside, the car retains its original look; inside, it has power brakes and steering, air conditioning, and a Ford 5-liter, fuel-injected V-8 engine. While traveling to shows nationwide, the Herwigs put about 35,000 miles on the car.

Amid the 90-degree heat in Arizona, Herwig restores his cars in a cooled garage, and he prefers to work solo, although he does meet every morning at the local coffee shop with buddies who also love old cars.

“I’ve been kind of fixing cars all my life. You have to learn a lot of different type trades,” he said.

“I take my time doing what I do,” he said. “It’s better than paying for a psychiatrist,” he said, adding that the restoration process can prove a therapeutic distraction, if needed. “It keeps your mind very active.”

Already hitting the garage with his ’57 Fairlane, Herwig is eagerly awaiting his 50th reunion to share his shiny red convertible with classmates from a lifetime ago. Those memories, Herwig knows, are a big part of what his hobby is all about.

“It reminds you of your youth…and you’re with people who have a common interest,” he said. “It’s the friendships and the people you associate with.”

And while Herwig can’t recall just how many cars he’s owned in his life, it’s likely the three he owns now won’t be his last.

“If there is one car I’d like to buy,” he considered, “Colleen has always wanted a rumble seat.”

Sharon Korbeck Verbeten is a freelance writer from De Pere, Wisconsin.