DRAG RACING AND RESTORING MUSCLE CARS
By Jim L’Esperance
Having grown up in the fifties and sixties my friends and I became hooked on fast cars with lots of chrome and high horsepower engines. We soon realized that the guy with the hottest car had the best looking girlfriends. (The car was the attraction, not us.) Because my parents owned two bright red Ford Galaxy convertibles I was able to drive around in nice cars, and of course attract some pretty nice girls!
One day some friends and I drove out to Keystone Dragways, the new dragstrip that had recently opened about 30 miles east of the city of Winnipeg. When I saw my first Ford Thunderbolt go down the dragstrip I was hooked. It was not long before I was racing a 1967 Mercury Comet with a 427-425 h.p. motor.
I bought a Ford Ranchero with the 428 Cobra Jet engine in 1969, and was racing it when a friend of mine asked me to test his 1968 Javelin on the dragstrip. I thought the Javelin was just a grocery getter for Grandma & Grandpa, and I was reluctant to drive it. However, the car had a lot more get up and go than I had given it credit for; and another of my friends, Tom Matthes, offered to set the car up to race so we could see what it could really do. After Tom had performed his magic we found out this little Javelin could compete with all of the factory muscle cars and win a lot of the time.
One weekend I towed the Ranchero to Saskatoon with my dad’s old Galaxy he had given to my wife Linda. I was the #1 qualifier in the stock class, and I was paged to report to the pits. I figured they were going to tear down my engine because I was running so fast, but when I talked to the Tech Director he asked if we would consider racing the old Ford Galaxy tow car because they were short of racecars.
I asked Linda to race the car but she said no, she didn’t want to. I told her “you get $50.00 win or lose.” I could see her mulling that $50.00 over in her mind, and she finally said maybe she could, but she didn’t know what to do in a race. I explained she had to “watch the lights on the Xmas tree and floor it on the last yellow, and keep it floored until you pass the timing lights at the end of the track.” I raced first and I was up against the slowest qualifier – a sure win. My car stalled at the starting line, and I lost. Unbelievable!! I went to the pit and was waiting to hook the tow bar on her car to take the racecar home when she pulled into the pits. As I was about to hook up she informed me she had won! I went to watch her in the next round and she won again, next thing I know she has won race after race and is in the final. She lost to a Dodge with a 426 Hemi motor in a close final. She won around $200.00 that day plus the $50.00 tow money. We had a 10 hour ride home and lucky me, I got to hear her analyze the races and she pointed out what I was doing wrong and why I lost. She felt she was a better driver than me, and perhaps she should drive the Hurst AMX we had agreed to buy. I could keep busy in the pits while she raced. I had no choice but to talk to the Track Manager at our home track and get him to offer her a job in the pits, selling and cooking hotdogs etc. I sure was relieved when she took the job. (She’ll kill me when she reads this)
By 1969 American Motors was getting serious about racing. They contracted Hurst Performance Center in the USA to build 53 race cars to compete in Super Stock on the dragstrips in Canada and the USA against the other factory race cars sponsored by Ford, Chrysler and GM. Two of those Hurst AMXs came to Canada and one of them was brought to Winnipeg by Leonard McLaughlin Motors. The dealership raced the car for a short time and then sold it to my partner Brock Philips and I. We decided to name it The AMXpress; we bought a truck fitted with a flat deck, winch and a toolbox for hauling and we were off to the races. We raced the car for 6 years, running locally and at Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. Once in a while we went to the USA. We had a lot of success with the AMX winning many Eliminator titles and 2 Points Championships in Modified Eliminator. Tom Matthes was our Crew Chief, and kept the car running. In 1975 the car was destroyed in a fire and I ended my racing career. I moved on to fishing and my wife and I bought a cottage, which kept us busy.
Around 1984 the muscle car craze started again and by then most of the guys who loved these cars were financially able to start restoring them. We soon realized these cars were a better investment than putting your money in the bank. By the 1990’s with E-Bay and computers these cars were selling for huge profits. Car shows were popular and you could find 4 to 5 hundred cars at a weekend car show in a small city like Winnipeg.
In 1997 I retired from CP Rail, and with not a lot to do with my time I found myself hanging around the Show and Shines that took place in Winnipeg. The AMX’s were the ones that really drew me. The day finally came when Linda asked why we didn’t get ourselves another AMX to drive to car shows. My prayers were answered and the search began. We spent the next 6 years searching for a perfect rust free AMX. We bought a motor home and traveled for 5 months, all over the USA and Canada, searching for our car with no luck. We checked newspapers, magazines and car shows, but could not find the car we wanted. In 2003 a friend and I drove to New Hampshire to look at an AMX listed on E-Bay as “rust free and in perfect condition.” The car was rusted badly and full of Bondo to cover the rust. The upholstery was torn badly, and it turned out the pictures we were sent were at least 5 years old. It would have cost another $10,000.00 to restore this car plus the $13,000.00 U.S. the fellow wanted for it. I told Linda “That’s the last AMX I am looking at.”
One day in 2003 I stopped to see a friend’s racecar, and when I went into his shop he had a Chevy Vega sitting beside his racecar. I asked him about the Vega and he said he had planned to race it, but changed his mind, and it was for sale. A few days later I was at a yard sale with my wife and I bought a box of old hot rod books for $3.00. I was sitting in the car waiting for my wife and I picked up one of the books. On the cover was the story of the Baldwin/Motion Vegas. These were cars built by a speed shop for a dealer in New York in 1972. There were only about 12 of those cars built, and none were known to exist now. I realized my friend had the correct model to build a replica. I almost forgot Linda at the yard sale in my rush to go buy my friends Vega.
I bought the car, a motor and a transmission from him. My son Peter, my sister Sharon, my nephews Mike and Joel and I had the car running in no time. Another friend, Kevin Shale painted the car in the correct color scheme and applied the spoiler and hood scoop. After the safety was done I had the car appraised by Cherry Hill Appraisals. The car was valued at $21,000.00.
My replica Vega has been featured in Canadian Classics and Performance, a popular muscle car magazine. It is driven to car shows all summer. When I was looking for the hood scoop I was talking to a salesman at a parts dealership. He was asking about the Vega and I mentioned I had been looking for an AMX when I found the Vega. He said, “My dad collects old cars, and he has an AMX he might sell.” I gave him my phone number and forgot about it. A few weeks later his father called me and said the AMX was for sale.
I drove out a few days later to see it in Oakbank Manitoba, a little town just outside Winnipeg. I had a couple of friends with me who restore cars, Gerry Saunders and Colin Hillyard – an AMX expert. On the way there Colin said his wife had owned an AMX before he met her, and she had sold him on owning an AMX. Her car was sold years ago, and she never knew what had happened to it. When we arrived the fellow opened up the doors and we could not believe the cars he owned. A Plymouth GTX convertible, 2 Ford hide away hard tops – there were at least 25 to 30 valuable cars there. The AMX was at the front, all covered in dust. Colin had his wife’s old registration along, and when he checked the serial numbers he said, “I can’t believe it, this is her old car.” I bought the car on the spot; it was in unbelievable condition. The interior had been removed to keep the mice out of the car. There was a tiny hole in the floorboard (an easy fix), and the seats and carpet needed to be renewed. The paint was like new, not one flaw. The motor ran perfect, no lifter noise and no blow-by.
We are building a 390 motor for it to replace its 290 engine, and I have a super stock hood scoop to install. When I am done I will own a replica of my Hurst AMX.
When we were working on the car we had trouble with a carburetor leak and the brake light was staying on. We spent hours trying to solve these problems. One morning as I was about to leave for my sons shop the phone rang. It was Tom Matthes, my old Crew Chief. I had lost track of him, and I sure was happy to hear from him. I was telling him about the AMX, and the problems I was having. He said “pick me up, I’m coming with you.” Needless to say Tom fixed the two problems in minutes. The car will be appraised this spring, and after watching these cars sell on E-Bay I am sure I made a wise investment. Linda and I plan to give it to our grandson Kevin when he is sixteen years old.
We also helped race a 1971 Javelin, and I bought this car for my son Peter when it was taken off the track. He still has it, and it is sitting on a rotisserie. It will be our next project. All I need to do is figure out how to get Tom to move back from Kelowna to solve all the problems we are sure to have.
- Well, Linda has read this and its cost me the Vega. She said I had to give it to her if I expect to be forgiven!!
Replica of the Hurst AMX I built and still own.
I raced it in the 1960's and early seventies.
|Jim and his AMX|
|We built a 390 motor for it to replace its 290 engine||Poster of some of the cars Jim built and raced.|
|1972 baldwin/motion vega Jim built|