Story by Brian Earnest
Photos by Angelo Van Bogart
As far as Lee Abrams knows, he and his twin brother Gary are the only guys goofy enough to ever turn a 1954 Kaiser-Darrin into a full-blown drag car.
In fact, they’ve done it twice.
The first time around came back in the early 1960s, when the teenagers somehow talked their dad into letting them by a battered Darrin for the princely sum of $150. The second time came many years later, when Lee discovered the faded hulk of a race car residing in Florida and got a chance to buy it back. The second time around has proven to be just as much fun as the first for the Tucson, Ariz., resident, who has turned his “Miracle Car Wash” grass roots racer into a show-stopping show pony that is still capable of turning some exhilarating times on the drag strip.
“When I got the car done and running [a second time], it was unbelievable. It was an unbelievable feeling,” says Abrams, who will be showing off the car for a second time next month at the Iola Old Car Show in Iola, Wis. “And to have it again in its racing form … it’s just amazing. I didn’t build it to race it, I built it to show it, but I built it like I was going to race it.”
Abrams’ long love affair with his wild yellow Darrin began in 1961, when he and his brother scraped up enough money to buy the damaged car, even though they weren’t old enough to drive. Only 435 of the ground-breaking Darrins had been built seven years earlier, and they were destined to become collector prizes decades later. But none of that was on Lee and Gary’s minds at the time. “We were just about to get our driver’s licenses, and who wouldn’t want a little two-seat sports car?” Abrams laughs. “We didn’t know what a Darrin was, we just knew it was a little two-seater sports car and what teenager wouldn’t want that? And back then it wasn’t such a big deal. It really wasn’t. Back then, they weren’t bringing big bucks. Now the prices have just gone through the roof.”
After failing to talk his sons out of buying, the twins’ father actually helped them patch up the body and get it running. The boys had a grand time with the Darrin as their primary mode of transportation in Cleveland before the family pulled up stakes and moved to Tucson. The Darrin came along, flat-towed across the country. After relocating, the boys transplanted a 265-cid Chevy V-8 into the Darrin and began finding plenty of challengers at stop light drags around their new home. One race led to another, and one engine led to another, and before long the boys were traveling out of state and crisscrossing the country drag racing the Darrin gasser they called “Dare-n” at any venue they could afford to visit, collecting boxes of A/Modified Sport trophies in the process.
“We raced it around the streets for a bunch of years and kept putting a bigger and bigger motor in it and finally made it into strictly a drag race car,” Abrams said. “We raced all through the ’60s then around ’70 or ’71 we sold it because we both had families and both really didn’t have the money to deal with it anymore. It was expensive because we were always trying to make it faster and faster and it kept breaking and we couldn’t really afford that.”
Abrams believes the car went to Chicago briefly, but he lost track of it not long after he sold it. He didn’t hear anything more about the car for 35 years, and didn’t even know if it still existed. In the meantime, Abrams had bought another red Darrin in the mid-1960s and recently loaded it up with a fire-breathing 502-cid V-8. He remained a Darrin enthusiast and club member, but never heard a word about his long-lost yellow racer. Then fate intervened out of the blue.
“I always kind of wondered what happened to it,” Abrams said. “Then in about 2006 we were at a Kaiser convention and my wife overhead folks talking about a yellow Kaiser-Darrin that had been raced and she came and got me. I found out who had it and it turned out to be a club member who lived in Florida.”
Abrams contacted the man, who confirmed that he did have the car and had owned it for many years. Abrams wanted to buy it back and arranged to go see the car, but his enthusiasm for such an undertaking was dampened when he finally got to see what was left of it. The Darrin had been sitting in neglect for many years, and had apparently been damaged in a fire in Chicago before that. “There wasn’t much left. It was in pieces and only the body [was left], but I knew it was our car. How many Darrins are painted yellow and have ‘Miracle Car Wash’ on them? Well, he didn’t really didn’t want to sell it. He was thinking about restoring it and he was in his mid-70s and had had it for a long time, so I knew that wasn’t going to happen. But I kind of closed the book at that time because I figured it was beyond doing anything with it at that point.”
Not long after that, however, Abrams found out through an ad in the Kaiser Bulletin that the Florida man was “selling off all his stuff” and was willing to part with the Darrin racer. “He kind of said, ‘Well, if anybody should have it, you should, because it was your car,’” Abrams recounted. “So I bought it back and started to restore it back to the way it was when we raced it.”
That meant basically starting over with everything except the body – and even that needed a lot of patching and fixing again. But Abrams wasn’t in a huge hurry and enjoyed the challenge of piecing the car back together as nearly as he could to the original. That meant a 454-cid big block under the hood, a clutch flight transmission like it had in the old days (to convert a TorqueFlite into a clutch), some vintage Vortex mag wheels, and a completely reconstructed 1-inch boxed tube frame.
“It took five years to re-do. The body needed a lot of reconstruction, but the hardest part was just to find the vintage parts, because I wanted certain things so it was what it was back then. Like the Stewart Warner period gauges … and finding Sun Tach Transmitters that worked … It wasn’t physically tough, it was just challenging to find those parts.
“It was a tremendous amount of work, but I don’t mind that. I just wanted to make it as authentic as I could. I’m not a painter and I’m not an interior guy, but I’m a great mechanic and I’m good at fabricating … I guess I would be a shade-tree mechanic from back in the day.”
Using his memory, period photos of the car and the remnants of the former paint job as a guide, Abrams re-created the car’s decals and paint job. On the side is the same “Miracle Car Wash” logo — the car wash was owned by Lee and Gary’s father and was one of their few sponsors in the 1960s — and the same “Dare-n” signature on the front fender, as well as the car’s old 610 race number stenciled ahead of the rear wheels. This time the stenciling was all airbrushed in paint and covered with a clear coat instead of decaled. “You couldn’t get those stickers now,” Abrams joked. “We got a guy to airbrush those on and clear coated to make it permanent… We didn’t have a lot of sponsors. We had a local radio station, KTKT radio in Tucson, and a Shakey’s pizza parlor next to the gas station we owned, and they helped us. My dad owned the car wash … We didn’t get a lot, but it was fun. We really had a good time.”
Abrams did manage to save a few meaningful pieces off the old car. “We when we bought it [in 1961] my dad helped fix it the best he could because it was a fiberglass car and not many people knew anything about fiberglass cars then,” Abrams recalls. “He worked with some Masonite and also there was some fiberglass repair kits then and he did the best he could to fix it, and he did a pretty good job actually, because some of the work he did when I got the car back was still there. It was amazing. I actually cut that part out and I keep it in my garage now.”
During its salad days, the wild 1,400-lb. “Dare-n” could turn a 9.50 quarter-mile at 150 mph. When he built the racer for a second time, Abrams never had any thoughts about trying to threaten that time, or even have the car back on the drag strip. Drag cars and drag racers have a strange way of winding up on the track, however, and Abrams has had a few chances to turn back the clock and wind his Dare-n up just like the good old days.
“There’s a drag strip in Tucson that will let me come out and run 1/8-mile!” Abrams says. “The car doesn’t meet their safety requirements now, but they let me run 1/8-mile, and it runs as good now as it did then! It’s fun and it makes me feel like I’m 17, 18 again. The last three years, they’ve let some of us old drag racers come out and run. They let us, so I go!
“It always ran straight, and it runs straight now. It’s just a kick that you’re driving a car you drove in your teens, and now I’m in my 60s and you get that same feeling. I guess that’s the best part, you feel like you’re a kid again.”
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