Owner of rusted-out GTO elated with restoration

By The Associated Press

COLUMBUS — Time-traveling cars are not limited to the “Back to The Future” movies.

After slipping into the driver’s seat of a fully restored, burgundy 1970 Pontiac GTO during a recent car show, Dave Apple’s mind shifted into reverse to a time nearly 50 years earlier when these models were new and the 73-year-old was a young man.

That day at The Suds drive-in restaurant in Greenwood, where the car show was being held, the Columbus man was reminded of the burgundy-colored muscle car he had purchased for $3,800 just days after his late 1969 military discharge from the U.S. Air Force, he said.

But Apple’s GTO had deteriorated into little more than a pile of junk after sitting inside an outbuilding on his rural property for nearly a quarter century, family members said.

While at the show, Apple was given the wooden gearshift knob from his first car — and discovered it fit the restored Pontiac perfectly.

As about 50 well-wishers began to cheer and applaud, Apple finally realized the beautiful restoration he was sitting in actually was his first car.

“It was just fantastic,” Apple said. “I got emotional. In fact, I’m getting emotional right now just thinking about it.”

This extreme example of automotive restoration was the culmination of a year-long effort undertaken by Dan Hickey, one of two sons of Dave and Phyllis Apple.

It was intended as a gift of love, she said.

The setup was inspired by the automotive reality television series “Overhaulin’,” where each episode would end with the surprise reunion of owner and newly made-over car, Hickey said.

While his parents were vacationing in France last September, Hickey removed what remained of the GTO from the outbuilding, he said.

The old Pontiac had sunk so low into the ground that six inches of dirt had to be dug away just to open the doors, Hickey said.

“It was in terrible shape,” Phyllis Apple said. “The frame had completely rusted out, and had to be replaced.”

While the Martinsville-based Riley Customs had agreed to take on the restoration, the build shop had a long waiting list, so Hickey said he had to keep the GTO hidden on his own property for nearly six months.

When build shop owner Phil Riley finally received the GTO last spring, the automotive restoration expert knew the work ahead was going to be extensive.

“It was rusted out from the door handles back,” Riley said. “Raccoons nesting under the hood had left behind a nest so large you couldn’t even see the size of the engine.”

In addition, the floors had completely rotted away, and the interior had been destroyed by mice and other vermin, Riley said. Nevertheless, Riley said he and others proceeded slowly with several stages of restoration over the next four months.

While a few parts were found in stock, several had to be tooled from scratch. But whenever possible, original parts were salvaged, Riley said.

Besides his own employees, Riley was assisted by two other Martinsville area business owners. James Edgerton of Reliant Automotive was in charge of rebuilding the engine, while John Travers of Coveralls Custom Upholstery handled the extensive interior work, he said.

Neither Riley nor his client are willing to publicly reveal the financial investment made into the four-month restoration cost. Phyllis Apple says only that “it was a very expensive undertaking.”

While similar newly restored GTOs are listed for sale for $75,000 or more on the ClassicCars.com website, Hickey admitted he has his own sentimental attachments.

The Pontiac was what he pretended to drive as a preschooler while sitting on Dave Apple’s lap after his mother married him 47 years ago, Hickey said. It was what his family drove on several vacations, as well as what his parents used to teach him how to drive, Hickey said.

“I mean, it was this GTO that really got me to start loving cars,” Hickey said. “We’ll never sell it.”

Although the restoration was completed in early summer, Riley continued his involvement by helping to set up the big reveal.

Since the Martinsville restorer often enters vehicles in the summer car shows at The Suds, both he and Hickey recruited restaurant owner Ron Harris into their scheme, Riley said.

After Harris learned both he and Dave Apple had served in the military during the late 1960s, he considered Apple a brother-in-arms and enthusiastically offered his assistance, Hickey said.

The son was able to lure his parents to the restaurant near the Old City Park in Greenwood by entering his own 1966 Corvette in the car show, he said.

After Hickey said he was asking everyone to show up and vote for his Corvette in a popularity contest, Dave Apple said he wasn’t surprised to find himself part of an entourage.

But in truth, the entire group was in on the scheme, Hickey said.

When Phyllis Apple first saw her husband approach the newly restored car of his youth, she moved away a bit so he wouldn’t see the tears of joy coming down her face, she said. But she did watch as Harris performed his improvisational role as the GTO’s owner, showing Dave Apple photographs of the renovation in progress, she said.

While Harris’ improvisation contained similarities with Apple’s real past, the restaurant owner also spun a convincing tale about how his wife hated the GTO’s original yellow color and vinyl top, Hickey said.

The acting was convincing enough to keep the scheme’s target from becoming suspicious — right up until Dave Apple told Harris his GTO looked just like his old car.

That anticipated statement was what brought the year-long scheme to its intended climax, Hickey said.

When Harris heard Dave Apple make the comparison between cars, that was his cue to invite Apple to get into the driver’s seat.

When his father got in the GTO, the script called for Hickey to come forward and hand over the wooded knob.

And when Apple put the knob on the gearshift, the entourage — as scripted — started cheering and clapping. Harris then dropped the act as he patted his fellow Vietnam era veteran on the back and said “Welcome home, brother,” Dave Apple said.

“My father was in shock,” Hickey said. “His expression was priceless.”

While Dave Apple said he will never forget his figurative journey back in time, his beloved GTO did seem a little alien to his young grandson, Chase.

During the child’s first drive in the restored Pontiac, the boy asked his grandfather to turn on the air conditioning, Phyllis Apple said.

After being informed that most 48-year-old muscle cars did not have air conditioning, Chase began searching for the armrest button to roll down the window, his grandmother said.

That led to an explanation of hand-cranked car windows, a concept Chase found just as perplexing as having no AC, she said.

 




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