Lee Bestul built his removable-top roadster with help from
his dad more than 50 years ago.
After much prodding, that’s about as close as Lee Bestul will come to bragging about “his” car.
No matter how impressed you might be with the car that bears his name, good luck trying to get Bestul to toot his own horn. It simply isn’t happening.
And what is his car, exactly? Well, that takes some explaining. Suffice it to say it’s your basic 1946-57 hand-built, backyard special; a one-of-a-kind, jaw-dropping, head-scratching, low-slung, removable-top roadster that hardly anybody seems to know about, outside of a few Iola, Wis., locals that have seen the car rolling around town and the surrounding rural roads off and on for the past 50-plus years.
But the rest of the car world will know soon.
It seems impossible that a car so unique could be stored literally yards from the Iola Old Car Show grounds — “Ground Central” of the car hobby in the Midwest, at least for one week each July. And it’s downright preposterous that, despite the fact that he lives literally a few steps from the show gate, Bestul’s stunning one-off has never been on display at the Iola Old Car Show. In fact, it’s never been to a car show of any kind. Period.
But that is about to change this week, as Bestul and his car finally make a long-overdue appearance under the feature tent at one of the country’s largest old car hobby events. It’s a safe bet that Bestul will be one of the busiest fellows at the show — busy trying to explain what his car is all about, how he built it, and why there is only one like it to the crowds that are sure to gather around him.
“He’s too humble. He would never brag about his car,” noted his wife, Joan, who has been Lee’s sidekick since the car was still on the drawing board. “He’s been asked before to be in the show, but he would never do it. He’d always tell them, ‘It’s not ready,’ … or, ‘It’s not done.’”
Instead, Lee happily worked taking tickets at one of the show gates for years. He won’t be at the gate this year, however.
“This will be the year,” Joan said. “This will finally be the year that he gets his due.”
So that brings us back to the question: “What is that thing, anyway?” Lee Bestul has heard that line far too many times to count.
“After it was finished, my brother and I drove it out to California,” he remembers. “And it was hazardous driving freeways around Los Angeles … I’d have a car on either side of me asking me what it is, and what’s under the hood. Mostly, ‘Hey, what have you got under the hood?’ … That was a riot … That was the worst, but the police stopped me a couple of times wondering, ‘What is that thing? …”
Then, there was the time up in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula when Lee and his wife decided to go for a Sunday drive. “I got chewed up royally in Iron Mountain,” he recalls with a groan. “We were on a trip up there and we stopped for a noon lunch, and they had had the Ford plant for making station wagon bodies, but they had closed the plant up — they said it was due to foreign competition … We come out of the restaurant and there were three women and they latched onto me: ‘You’re driving one of those foreign cars that put us out of business!’”
He never got much of a chance to tell them he built the car with his own hands, and some help from his dad, in a Wisconsin shed way back in the 1950s. “They weren’t about to listen to anything about that,” he adds with a chuckle.
So why did Bestul build his own car from scratch, spending probably thousands of hours and enduring more fits, starts and aggravation than even the most hard-core car nut could be expected to put up with? Well, because he could. Or, at least, because nobody told him he couldn’t.
Read more about Bestul and the history of his car in the July 9, 2009 issue of Old Cars Weekly.
The car was finished in 1956 with black paint and a hood scoop.
Bestul borrowed its bumpers from a 1939 Dodge and its grille
from a late-’30s Plymouth. The headlights came from a 1937
Buick. The instrument panel and controls came from a ‘51 Ford,
while the gauges themselves came from a 1950 Mercury. It went
through several changes over the years, including a coat of pink
paint. Back in 1999, it underwent its most recent transformation.
New doors and floorboards were fabricated, a new interior and
top were pieced together, and all the pink paint and rust were
removed. Today, the car is white.
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