Story and photos by Joe Essid.
In the first two parts of Project Apollo, I discussed finding, buying, and shipping my vintage car. That part of the story had largely been out of my hands, but once the car showed up, its future was mine, with the help of a few trusted mechanics. Hemmings veterans have been through these experiences, but novices may find a few things of interest here.
Do it Run? Setting Priorities
When I looked at the 1974 Apollo just unloaded from the truck, I was not disappointed. I gazed upon a model of automobile I’d not seen, save on the Internet, since 1989, the year I sold my original Buick. It can be too easy to get a little giddy at such moments. This Apollo had what I had wanted in my original car. It lacked a vinyl top and leaky hatch. It added a four-barrel atop a more powerful motor and dual exhausts, even though in this example it meant not a 455 conversion but the inevitable small-block Chevrolet V-8.
The truck driver who unloaded the car warned me to “keep the pedal down” when I moved the Apollo. I only had to go about 100 yards down a major road, then 200 more feet down my driveway and paved farm-road to our garage. Yet there I found myself, the car’s bill of lading resting on the passenger-side bucket seat, with a vehicle that cut off three times in 500 feet. I survived that first drive, glad the car did not arrive at rush hour. My house fronts a road with a 55 MPH speed limit, but after 9 p.m. it gets sleepy. The Apollo struggled, shutting off as if it were flooding. At least the Buick steered and braked well. My original ’74 loved to lose much of its braking at the most interesting times.
Once I wrestled the car into the garage, I disconnected the battery and went to bed. The next morning, I began making choices.
I drive our other two classics regularly and have no desire for restored-down-to-the-last-cotter-pin garage queens. My goal has always been to experience a particular vehicle as it had been intended, rock chips and all, on the open road. All that is possible with our state’s vintage plates, minus annual taxes and inspections.
Before any road-trips, I had to start bringing the Apollo back to life, but where to start? I remembered a Madison County mountain boy who asked me about a friend’s used car sitting out for sale.
“Do it run?”
After going through the mechanical records AJ had thoughtfully provided me, I began my list. In the ’70s, most young guys I knew—cruisers, not racers—would immediately blow their spare cash on painting a newly acquired used car. I planned, however, to copy my classmate Arpi, a skilled mechanic. He once found a superb ’67 Firebird 400 coupe for next to nothing. The ‘Bird’s silver paint was badly chipped and faded, and everyone my age got after Arpi to “finish” his Pontiac. Instead, he explained, as if we were little kids, that drivetrain, brakes, and suspension should always take precedence. Only then would he think about paint.
That became my plan as I looked over the Buick in the cold light of day. I made a list as I leaned over the engine bay, then slid under my car with a light. The aftermarket dual exhaust system was shiny and clean, yet unfinished after the mufflers. I’d have to get that completed. Check. Fix the carburetor. Check. Tune it up! Check. Inspect brakes and suspension components. Check.
I think I wrote down “brakes” twice. If a car won’t go, I can call a wrecker. If it won’t stop, someone else might be calling a hearse.
Finding the Right Shop
There’s never been any question about who would do work I could not handle myself. Not far from me Manakin Auto Service is run by one of my late father-in-law’s favorite former employees. Robert Callahan has many decades of experience with cars like mine, and his son Larry has worked on a number of street rods.
While I waited for Larry’s rollback to show up, I prepped the Buick, stripping waterlogged original carpet and padding from the area around the bucket seats, something AJ or an owner before him had taken from a different, later car. Red velour? That would have to go at some point. I was oddly delighted to see that Washington State’s recent heavy rains had somehow gotten inside the car yet no damage had been done. The floorboards seemed as good in the cabin as they had looked from beneath. Then I opened the trunk. AJ had replaced the weather-stripping there just before he sold me the car, so that area was dry and rust-free. I noticed a little hole drilled in the lowest point of the spare-tire well. It was nearly the same spot I’d drilled one in my first Apollo.
I gave my list to Larry and off the car went. A few days later, he phoned. “We need to talk about that Buick. Come on by.”
With a sinking feeling, I did. The Apollo had overheated when I pulled it up to his rollback. Had I ruined the motor? No, Larry said. It needed a water pump. He was good at replacing them for me. I’d blown one on our ’70 El Camino, the first time I took it out after we purchased it, following eight years of storage.
At the shop, Larry pulled the struggling Buick onto his lift, the car’s choke tied open to keep it running. We looked underneath. “Driver’s side manifold ain’t right. This fabricated bracket for the transmission is all wrong. Same for fabricated brackets the motor mounts sit on. Makes the engine tilt up at the front, pressing the distributor against the firewall. And the exhaust is crimped…” on it went, until he lowered the car. Even in AJ’s photos, none of these particular issues could have been spotted.
“Should I just call a crusher?” I said, serious about the car’s fate. Maybe I could part it out to buy a stock Apollo or Ventura, not some cobbled-together custom.
Larry’s eyes twinkled a bit behind his glasses. “Naw. It’s a good solid car. That Chevy engine runs really strong. I can fix the timing and carb. It needs bushings up front, but that’s cheap. So I asked daddy to look her over.” Robert is spry, but he no longer turns wrenches. His mind, however, is a veritable catalog of old parts.
“So you gotta get us some things and bring them over,” father and son explained to me like some Greek chorus that I half expected to follow me home until I ordered the parts. Larry’s and my search of their boneyard did not turn up anything we needed. Robert was grinning when we returned to the office. “Go on the Internet and find me a rear-dump manifold for a Chevy 350. Gotta point straight down, too. There were 237 of them at Dorman’s Web site.” Robert is full of surprises, but his being a fluent Internet user was an eye-opener. “Anyway, to get her running right, we need the motor-mounts and frame cross-member first.”
After that I felt a little better about the Apollo, and at home I dove into a site that gnashes the teeth of many Hemmings readers: Summit Racing. They had already sent me acceptable replacements for the inner doors’ hard-to-source pull-straps. As I scrolled through their catalog, I skipped all the aftermarket goodies out of place on a period-correct sleeper. A boy-racer would billet the engine compartment.
My concern was different.
How I Asked the Last Owner Questions
Confronting AJ about shoddy fabrication would just end our communication. He had the money and I had the car, after all. So I e-mailed him with an update on the Buick and asked “did you guys alter the frame or motor mounts at all? I need to order a couple of parts.” AJ replied in detail with the mechanical work they had done, not a bit of it involving fabrication. I believed him, given the records he had sent.
For less than $150, I purchased motor-mounts, engine brackets, and a brace for a Turbo-Hydramatic 400. The manifold would be tougher, but my plan, as of writing this, is to see if Larry and Robert, perfectionists both, could live with the current setup, since the crimp of the pipe from the manifold to the driver-side muffler is slight.
Larry had also suggested shorty headers, but his dad was adamant. “Headers are no account. They leak and crack.” My and Larry’s inner teenagers were saying “Headers, baby. Oh, yeah. Crank Black Sabbath’s ‘Paranoid’ and let’s lay a patch when we peel out.”
I left the Apollo in their lot, to be buried in our January blizzard, but not before I made a bet with Robert on how much snow we’d get. He scribbled my guess in the same book he uses for all customer requests. Losers in the pool would be buying doughnuts from Sugar Shack, a locally owned spot that has been increasing Richmond waistlines for the last few years. Tom and Ray of Car Talk taught me long ago to bring food to your mechanics. It’s almost as good as cash for making the right impression for work properly done.
In my next installment, I’ll cover the return of the Apollo to my garage, as well as what I plan to do to remove flash-rust and dings before the car goes out for painting estimates. Eliminating those red-velour buckets, as well as replacing carpet and headliner, can wait until my Apollo “do run” on the road again.
By the way, I lost the bet. Robert and Larry got their doughnuts.