By Gary Buehler
Little did I appreciate my 1939 Willys four-door sedan, the first car I owned.
I wanted to make the Willys into a stock car, since stock car racing was all the rage in the early 1950s. During summers on his farm, my Uncle Fritz took me to stock car races at the Monroe County Fairgrounds in New York, and I was enthralled watching them.
Most of the stock cars were old 1935-’40 Fords, who ran along with a few odd Chevys that were modified for racing. Modifications to these cars often included a reduction in weight by removing all unnecessary interior items, including upholstery, seats and window glass; completing some engine modifications; cutting off unnecessary fenders or extensively modifying them; building roll bars and heavy-duty bumpers; and, of course, painting big numbers on the sides of the cars.
I had my racing plan for my ’39 Willys all laid out for me through my experiences at the stock car races.
Townsend had bought the ’39 Willys sedan as a new car, and I doubt he ever drove it over 30 mph. He was a town highway department employee who drove the heavy equipment and was responsible for all truck and equipment maintenance. He maintained and treated his Willys the same way. I took this wonderful old car and tried to make a stock car out of it by modifying it the same way drivers prepared the Fords and Chevrolets I had seen at stock car races. What a shame. I even painted large white numbers on each side of the Willys: "144 1/4.” I was 13 years old, going on 14, and I thought it was the cleverest thing in the world.
Then it was time to test my race Willys. Since I had mowed the hay field on the north side of the farm house and Uncle George had bailed all the hay, I thought that if I hauled all the bales out of the field and into the barn, I would have a great oval race track to drive across.
After two days of hard work, all the hay was in the barn. I never thought to share my plans with anyone. That may have been mistake number one. I made a few passes around the “track” when no one was around and it was fun. Way too much fun.
The next morning, as the dew clung to the stubble of the hay field, I discovered that by going as fast as I could in that little, underpowered four-cylinder car down the straight away and into a corner, I could actually slide around the corner like the big boys did in the big race cars. To complete the slide, I would pull the emergency brake handle and lock up both the rear wheels at just the right moment. What fun!
About the third time around the track, with locked rear wheels sliding the car perfectly sideways, the right rear wheel caught a large rock sticking out of the ground and the car went up on two wheels, almost rolling over. Even more fun and thrills.
I didn’t realize Uncle George had gone out to fetch the cows and happened to see this spectacular two-wheel skid on his way back to the barn. Nor was I aware he had seen “the race.” All I saw were the cows coming down from the side hill toward the barn.
I drove back to the side yard, parked old “144 1/4” and went in for breakfast. I was almost through with breakfast when Uncle George came into the house with fire in his eyes. I was banned from the hay field forever, given a safety lecture and told I was lucky to be alive and never do that two-wheel spin again. As a last painful punishment, there was no more “race track,” only a lowly hay field.
However, I still had old “144 1/4” and I still thought I was a race car driver. What was I to do? For days, I worked on the car, changing the oil, cleaning the spark plugs, checking and re-gapping the points and cleaning all the oil and grease off the engine until the paint shined. All the time, I wondered how fast my race car could actually go, but I had to wait until the perfect time.
One day, I was asked to watch the kids while Aunt Erma and Uncle George went to town. I asked my nieces and nephew if they would like to go for a car ride. Of course, they were all excited about the possibility of this great adventure. Since I had removed the back seat from the Willys, we took the blankets from the kids’ beds so they had a place to sit in the back of the car. I had a 7-year-old, a 6-year-old and a 3-year-old seated on the back floor of the Willys, and I was their 14-year-old driver. What was wrong with this picture?
Dale complained he couldn’t see out of the front windshield or the side windows, because he was too short. We went hunting in the back of the farmhouse for something he could sit on. We found a copper tub used for heating water on the stove when washing clothes. We turned the tub upside-down in the car, put a blanket on it and we were ready.
Before going on our adventure, I told everyone we could not speak of this when Aunt Erma and Uncle George returned. Then off we went, down the hardtop road to the dirt road that ran by the farm, down to the Gulf, back to the hardtop, and then back to the farm for a total of about seven miles. We drove carefully and slowly past the few farm houses on the hardtop. Then, in second gear, we turned and slowly drove up the steep hill on the dirt road to the top and stopped. Then the instructions from the driver were to hold on tight for the run to the bottom of the hill.
From a dead stop, the speedometer crept up to 25 mph, then 40, then 55 and ever so slowly moved to 60 mph by the bottom of the hill. At that point it was time to slow down. After arriving back at the farm, the car was carefully parked in the exact spot where it sat before we left. The blankets were quickly put away, the copper tub returned to the back room, and things returned to normal — whatever that was.
I only remember Aunt Erma calling me out to the back yard that evening to talk to me. She asked if I knew what could have happened and made me promise I would never ever do anything like that again, especially with her children. When Aunt Erma had a special talk with you, you listened intently. When you made a promise to Aunt Erma, you would never think of breaking it. I now have come to believe there were angels on both of my shoulders. God Bless Aunt Erma for her insight and wisdom. And I still wonder how she knew what happened that afternoon.
I went back to school in September, and when I went to the farm, the car was gone. I didn’t need to ask anyone what happened to it. My bet is Uncle George called the junk man to pick it up. That act may have saved my life, or that of someone else.
Your best source for all things Willys is our Standard Catalog of American Cars 1805-1942. Check it out in our Old Cars Weekly online store today!