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The Rebuilding of the Fiesta
The Body Work - John Woods

Michael Hillman

For those of you who may have missed the first half of this story, which, short of the guys at Zurgable Brothers, could be just about everyone, let me recap the story so far. I met my wife because she had the same car as I did and she acquiesced to date me out of hope of finding relief from ever mounting car repair bills. The uniqueness of how we got together was always a point of interest with our friends, and on her wedding shower cake, Audrey's staff placed two Fiestas under a logo of "Itís Fiesta time."

After years of faithful service, my car died, and I got Audreyís clunker and she got the new car. (Go figure!) Last spring, the second Fiesta began to show its advanced age and with the memory of Kermit Glass questioning my nuclear engineering credentials fresh in my mind, I threw all greed and humility to the wind and sought out Phil May's help in rebuilding just about everything mechanical in it. Phil, as it turns out, taught Ford just about everything they know about how to build and repair cars. He did a flawless job on the engine, and even today, a year later, I am reminded of his quality workmanship every time I turn the key and the engine jumps to life and purrs.

Now, finding someone to do the bodywork turned out to be a little harder than I expected. Over the years, the car had developed a good case of rust. Some might even have gone so far as calling it a "rust bucket." Most of my inquiries ended with the suggestion that it would be easier to start with a body out of the junkyard. While they were probably correct, it just wouldn't have been the same thing. I had set about to restore Audrey's Fiesta and that was what I was going to do.

After being laughed out of just about every auto body shop this side of the Mississippi, Paul at Zurgable Brothers suggested I go see John Wood, who runs a small body shop just off Route 15 and Stineweir Avenue. Now I liked John the minute I met him, especially since the first thing he did was offer me a bottle of good English beer. I sat patiently while John began to evaluate the condition of the car, which is a nice way of saying that he walked around punching holes through its rusty skin. After about fifteen minutes of listening to what can best be described as the sound made by four ten-year-olds popping bubble wrap, John let out a "Finally!" Biting his bate, I sheepishly inquired about its location and, with a smile, he handed me the car's license plate.

While the offer of the beer definitely influenced my decision, I asked John to do the body work for four reasons: (1) the body work I saw in progress in his shop was impeccable; (2) his price, like Mr. Mays, was a downright steal; (3) he didn't ask if I was an abuser of drugs for wanting to fix a Fiesta; and (4), most importantly, was the fact that the rear axle had almost come off when he tried to remove the two by fours which I had bolted to support the frame, so the car wasn't going anywhere anyway.

In spite of its dilapidated condition, John happily agreed to take it on, explaining that 'Its a little known fact that we in the auto body business are required to do pro bono work. The way I figure it, this project should keep my quota in the black well into the next millennium. Now understand, I'm going to take my time on this," John said, "while I specialize in collision repairs, restoration work is good for the soul, and working on this little car will be fun. Bring it back in three weeks and I'll get started on it. By the way, do you want that two by four, or can I have it?"

The following weekend I began the long awaited dismantling of the car. Everything that had not been removed for Mr. May, door latches, lights, windows, bumpers, seats, and nuts and bolts of every shape and size were removed, bagged, cataloged, and as usual, promptly misplaced or carried off and buried by one of our dogs. Three weeks later, as promised, John was ready to begin work on the car. Before the real restoration work could begin, John had to spend a fair amount of time undoing years of my patchwork. The two by fours were removed with great care, lest the car split in half. The plywood upon which the seats had sat for the past few years was removed with great difficulty, especially since I had super glued it in place. Then there was the fourteen gallons of Bondo...

John surveyed my car like a surgeon conducting triage. "Itís going to get a little ugly, there's a lot of rust that's got to be cut out, I think it would be better if you didn't stay around and watch. We'll call you when itís in the recovery room." And with that, John turned to his assistant and asked for the turbo-powered metal cutting acetylene torch and the jaws of life. And with that, I was out there.

Under what can only be called a craftsman's hand, John managed to successfully strip the Fiesta down to the bare frame and all the rusted parts were removed, which--I soon discovered--amounted to a rather sizable portion of the car. Following the removal of all unusable metal, John handcrafted a new undercarriage and welded it to the six remaining inches of the original frame. With the body now ridged for the first time in years, John set about installing new rocker panels, new rear fenders and a used hatch back from a local junkyard. With the exterior again bearing some semblance to the shape of a Fiesta, John turned his attention to the interior, again handcrafting all the metal work, including the floor pans, spare tire compartment and trunk.

Every few days I would eagerly stop by John's to see what could truly be called a metamorphosis. While admittance was always a six-pack of good English beer, it was always worth the price. Once the course bodywork was done, the fine work began. The car was hand sanded down to bare metal, yearsí worth of minor dents and dings were revealed and masterfully repaired, and all the major body components, e.g., the door, hood, and hatchback, were realigned to their original factory specification.

Following extensive priming, the actual painting went quickly and flawlessly. Before I knew it, John had turned the rusty gold Fiesta that I had despised for so long into a sleek, metallic, dark jade green touring machine, or something to that effect. Even Audrey admitted that the car had never looked so good, even when it was brand new. I was astounded with John's impeccable work. I was even more pleased when John's bill was exactly what had been agreed to, even though the scope and depth of the necessary work proved to be much more than he had bargained for.

With newly painted car in hand, I headed down to Quality Tire to have tires put on the newly painted rims. Bob Mort took one look at the new paint job and smiled. "I heard from Paul at Zurgable Brother's that you were restoring that old rust bucket of yours. Audrey still hasn't found the right medicine yet to keep you under control, huh?" Chuckling to himself, he disappeared into the back of his store and quickly returned with tires he had specially ordered for me. I gingerly handed him the newly painted rims, which he handled as if they were gold relics. "I hear Phil May did your engine work. Good man Phil. You know I sponsor his son's race car?..." As we traded jokes about Thurmont, Bob mount and installed the new tires without a single nick to the rims, a feat I've unfortunately been unable to repeat.

Recognizing that the quality of the work on the Fiesta to date had been exceptional, I decided that I would go all out and finish the car right. I figured what was missing was something that would make the car rather unique, like the real wood interiors found in Rolls Royce's. As I was plotting my strategy with Joe Wivell, Jr. (who managed to keep a straight face through it all), Joe suggested that I use walnut, some scraps of which he had saved from a project many years back. Under the watchful eyes and skillful hands of Ed Reaver, Emmitsburg's Premier Cabinet Maker, the scrap walnut was quickly cut, glued edge to edge and planed down to size. What had been raw walnut boards days before were now beautiful walnut panels.

Following Ed's detailed guidance, I set about shaping the panels to fit the inside of the Fiesta's doors and then with the help again of Richard Broadbent, they were finish sanded, sealed and installed. I then removed all the original fake wood on the dashboard and replaced it with the scraps that Ed had thoughtfully saved for me. For the coup-de-grace, a walnut stereo deck was also made and installed.

After spending a week tracking down the hinges, bolts, and other car components that our new puppy had carted off, I was finally able to finish the reassemble the car. And, after some minor shakedown problems (e.g., the windshield wipers flying off at an inopportune time during a heavy rainstorm), I was finally able to return the car to its daily duty of transporting me back and forth to work. Needless to say, Audrey was pleased as punch with the results. She even managed restrain herself and not mention that my original time estimate of two weeks had turned into five months, and my original cost estimate for the total restoration, upon which she had based her approval, had been exceeded ten fold.

In the end, the car Audrey berated Ford for fourteen years ago is getting close to 37 miles per gallon and is humming along steadier then ever. Following the tightening of the last nut and taping of the last electrical lead, I sat down and wrote a long letter to the current Chairman of the Board of Ford Motors, reiterating the story you have just read. I attached a copy of Audrey's original letter, and photos of 'My' Fiesta, just so he would know "...the rest of the story."

Michael lives with his wife Audrey, and PJ, his trusty Jack Russell, on their farm southeast of Emmitsburg, where he eagerly awaits the arrival of Strawberry Daiquiri season.

Read other stories by Michael Hillman