It takes a great deal of time and money to build and restore cars, but the investment is rewarding for these PVA members.
Adrenaline will be pumping as fans and drivers gear up for the Indianapolis 500 this month at the iconic Indianapolis Motor Speedway in Speedway, Ind. But there are a few Paralyzed Veterans of America (PVA) members who are just as excited about the set of wheels parked in their own driveway. Whether you call them gearheads, motorheads or simply car enthusiasts, some guys just can’t stay out of the garage. These are the kind of people who have motor oil running in their veins and like to get their hands dirty. They see artistry and history reflected in a shiny door panel — and some just like to go fast. For them, all the blood, sweat, money and time is worth it to get an old piece of machinery running down the road. That sometimes means coming up with some creative ways to make it happen, taking into account the complications of a spinal-cord injury or disease (SCI/D).
A Great Project
One of those people is Michael Stern, a member and former president of the PVA Nevada Chapter. Stern’s love of cars started at age 16 when he began serving in the Army and raced cars in the 1960s and 1970s. He started drag racing in Ford Mustangs and then competed in road races in Austin Healy Sprites that could go up to 160 mph.
“They’re a lot different from the ones you see today,” he says. “And that’s the one that really got me interested in restoring cars.”
While serving during the Vietnam War, Stern injured his spine at L2, but it’s since progressed to T4. He got more heavily into restoring cars after his injury. Stern has restored four cars over the years, but his current project is a 1965 Shelby Cobra 427 that he works on with his 51-year-old son, Michael Jr., and a neighbor who helps with fabrication. He says the Cobra is by far his favorite project, and it’s also his dream car.
“The Cobra we had to rebuild from scratch because it was wrecked by [racecar driver] Ken Miles, who was a Shelby driver,” Stern says. “Shelby gave me the whole history of the car. I’ve completely restored it as far as body and wheels and everything else. Now, I’m working on the engine.”
Stern says he doesn’t want to put hand controls in the car because it’s a four-speed manual transmission. But he’s modified it to use paddle shifters so the car doesn’t require a clutch.
“You ask yourself, ‘I wonder how many ambulatory people could do the same thing?’” Stern says.
Taking after his father, Michael Jr. plans to race the car once it’s completed.
“This is really a great project for all of us,” Stern says. “As our wives say, ‘It keeps them off the street.’”
Physical & Mental Challenge
In contrast with Stern’s community approach, restoring cars is a solo journey for John Springstead, a PVA Southeastern Chapter member who has multiple sclerosis. Working on cars has been his lifelong dream since he was about 16 years old.
“I’ve always worked on my own cars all my life,” he says. “Never been to a gas station or garage or anything.”
The Air Force veteran built a garage a little over a year ago and has been working on a 1972 Chevy C10 pickup ever since.
“I have the time and money now, so I decided to start doing it,” Springstead says.
He hopes to have it on the road sometime this summer and plans to take it to car shows and cruise around once it’s painted. He’s rebuilt the frame and engine and in late January, he was working on the body, all from his mobility scooter.
“Everything I’ve done on that truck, I’ve done off of it [the scooter],” he says. “I haven’t had any outside help whatsoever. You figure out ways to adapt to do it.”
He plans to install hand controls and is even considering leaving the pedals off completely.
“That’ll shock some people,” he says. “A lot of it, I’m learning as I go. This body work, I’m learning to weld while I’m doing it. It’s just a challenge to me, physically and mentally, and then you get it done. I like to get my hands dirty. I like to get my hands on things.”
He says his dream restoration project is the first car he owned, a 1968 Ford Fairlane.
“I grew up with them. I just like that you can work on them,” he says. “You don’t have all the computers and everything like the new cars do. I’m building mine very, what they call old school, old technology. I’m familiar with it. I know how to work on it. I get in a lot of arguments with people over it, but that’s the way I want to do it.”
He says his biggest challenge is figuring out how to do things he doesn’t have the physical capability of doing, such as lifting.
“What can I use? How can I do this?” he says. “The front suspension weighs about 400 pounds, so I gotta figure out how to get underneath it enough to bolt it in place. Just the engineering of that kind of stuff is my biggest challenge.”
He’s even cannibalized an older scooter to make attachments to help him carry items around the garage.
“I can get down on the floor, it’s just trouble getting back up,” he says. “But I have been underneath it, no problem. That’s why I’m doing it the way I’m doing it, building it from the ground up so I don’t have to do that. I’m planning that stuff ahead to make it easier.”
Cool Hot Rods
Planning ahead is also a top priority for hot rod builder Bruce Gibbings, an Army veteran and member of the PVA Palo Alto (Calif.) Chapter.
“You have to have a vision and a blueprint for what the whole look of the car is going to be when it’s done so that you keep the styling elements, both colors and interior materials, all in the same artistic vein,” Gibbings says.
Gibbings grew up in Detroit, one block off of Woodward Avenue, which was the drag strip in Detroit. He started drag racing motorcycles at Detroit Dragway at age 17, and that’s where his love for performance vehicles and racing blossomed.
“I’ve been affiliated with the auto industry in one form or another ever since then,” Gibbings says. “I’ve sold everything from Mazdas to Maseratis, including all of the ‘Big Three’ in sales in both Detroit and the San Francisco Bay Area. I’ve also owned my own used car lot and body shop.”
He estimates he’s restored five cars since sustaining a T12 SCI in a motorcycle accident in 1996.
Recent projects are a 1922 Ford T-Bucket Roadster with hand controls, as well as a 1950 Mercury.
“One of the fun parts of being in a hot rod is they first look at the hot rod, and then they see the wheelchair sitting shotgun,” he says. “I love parking that T-Bucket in handicapped parking spots because they first go, ‘Oh cool car ... handicapped?’”
He has a partner who does much of the mechanic work and fabrication, while Gibbings provides working capital.
“But I do bust my knuckles from time to time, when there are jobs that are available that I can reach,” Gibbings says. “It keeps me in the spirit of the build. I’m not the kind of guy that can just go pay somebody to do all the work. I’ve been a hands-on guy all my life and being in a wheelchair didn’t change that at all.”
He says the Mercury is his favorite project to date because it’s so iconic.
“That’s going to be quite a classic,” he says. “That’s the epitome of the hot rod because that’s the car that James Dean drove in Rebel Without a Cause.”
Overall, he says what he likes best about restoring hot rods is the excitement that all his car buddies show in viewing the completed project because they appreciate what went into it. His biggest challenge is impatience.
“A lot of the general public will come to a car show and go, ‘Oh, nice car. That must be fun to build.’ But they don’t know the many hours of sweat and toil and paint and calling everywhere and their brother to find a specific part to make it right,” Gibbings says.
Rally Car Racer
PVA Cal-Diego Chapter member and Navy veteran Corbin Beu is familiar with Gibbings’ frustration. But for someone with a mobility impairment, Beu says it’s important to understand that some things might take a little longer and to never give up.
Often, all it takes is finding or making the right tool for the job and taking time to problem-solve.
“I’ve used stuff that I’ve found to be an accessible tool or something like that, that I’ve made for myself and used it in the pits at a race and somebody else saw it or borrowed it, and it made life easier for them,” Beu says. “And at the next race they had one, because they made a general copy of the piece that I made, just because it made life easier.”
For Beu, who sustained a T12 SCI in 1992 as a passenger in a car accident, working on cars has been a constant.
“I’ve just been around cars my entire life, and then after my accident I just always wanted to drive the cars that I wanted to drive and not be relegated or told that I need to drive a minivan with certain modifications,” the Phoenix resident says. “So I just started modifying the vehicles that I wanted to do and started building race cars because I wanted to race cars.”
Around 1998, Beu built and started racing a Honda CRX in autocross and on road courses. That car was stolen, and he stopped racing. But a couple years ago, he decided he was financially secure enough and had a shop and enough support to start again. This time, he chose rally car racing, which is typically done on forest service or gravel roads.
His current rally car is a 1983 Mazda RX-7 that he bought for $500 as a shell with no motor in it, about 65 days prior to his first race in 2016. The car had a roll cage, but it was designed for road racing. He modified the roll cage to make it legal for the rally racing style, put in a small rotary engine to keep the car light and quick, an automatic transmission with hand controls, seats and seatbelts. His father, Bob Beu, designed the graphics and handpainted the car’s stripes.
To work on his car, Beu uses regular tools and adapts those tools to suit him as needed, such as lowering his drill press, chop saw and welding table to wheelchair height for easier access.
“I’ve been known to wear, like, a rock climbing harness and use my engine hoist to hold me over the engine bay so I can get over the engine bay and do stuff like that,” he says.
He’s also been working for about nine years on a 1974 MG Midget, installing a rotary engine on it as well.
“It’s just gonna be like a little roadster, not even a race car, just to go out to wineries and go out to eat, be a nice little roadster for car shows,” Beu says.
Beu says anyone who’d like to get into restoring or building cars should just go for it.
“You have to count two things: You have to count time and money,” he says. “But if it’s something you want to do and it’s something that you can afford and have space for — I guess that’s a third thing is you need space.”
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