The Silver Dollar in the Barn

silver-dollar-as-found

Here’s our second installment from Tom Cotter’s In the Barn series. This story is from The Corvette in the Barn and it’s a good one. Make sure to signup for email updates so you will be entered in our weekly book giveaway. Also, send in your own find stories because the best one submitted this year will make it into Tom’s next book. Now back to The Silver Dollar in the Barn, enjoy!

For many enthusiasts, the seed for acquiring an old car is planted early in life. A permanent image of a certain car is burned into the hard drive of the brain, and age does not dilute that image. Such was the case with Chris Unger, a car-crazy youth who was exposed to drag racing early in life. “I was thirteen years old when we moved to Orange, California, and my older brother would let me tag along with him on weekends to Lyons Drag Strip in Escondido,” said Unger. “Early on, I heard there was an old A-Gas Willys sitting in a barn somewhere in Escondido. It apparently belonged to an electrician who lived in the area.”

Unger grew up in the heart of drag racing country during the golden era of the 1960s. Like scores of young guys during that time, he was attracted to the pure horsepower and muscle of the A- and B-Gas cars, especially the Willys gassers that were once common. Unger had never actually seen the Willys gasser, but he had heard the rumors that it was put into storage before he moved to Orange. In his mind’s eye, he knew just what it looked like. He knew it was a 1940 Willys pickup truck called the Silver Dollar, so he imagined it was silver in color. And like all proper gassers of the day, it probably had a straight tubular front axle and magnesium wheels.

“So eventually I found the electrician, Mike, and we became friends over the years. At one point as a young fellow, I was even an apprentice electrician for him.” Even though they had become friends, though, Mike never offered to show Unger the Silver Dollar.

Mike had built the Willys from a stock steel truck in 1960 and originally painted it red. According to Unger, it was featured in some early-1960s rodding magazines before some of the steel parts were substituted for fiberglass and it was painted silver. The hood came from Cal Automotive, but Mike manufactured the fiberglass fenders and pickup bed himself and actually made a fiberglass floor panel to cut the weight. Eventually he had it down to about 1,800 pounds.

silver-dollar-at-bakersfield

“Mike actually blew the engine up at Long Beach in 1965 and brought the car back to his shop,” he said. “Because he had been running a small-block Chevy, and losing against Stone, Woods & Cook and the other Chryslers, he had plans to put a Chrysler in it. Within just a couple of weeks of bringing the Silver Dollar to his shop for the engine conversion, a lady driving by lost control of her Nash and drove through his garage, hitting the Hemi engine and knocking it into the Willys. It dented the bodywork, and Mike got an insurance settlement. “Mike was sick over the episode, so he patched up the wall of his garage and just put the Silver Dollar away in a barn behind his mother’s house. I mean, Mike wouldn’t even drive his cars in the rain, so he just felt terrible.”

Even when Unger had known Mike for a couple of years, he still had never seen the Willys. That changed on one fateful day in 2008. “I traded this 1940 Ford in 1966 or 1967 after I blew it up on the way home from a Doors concert, believe it or not” said Unger. “I traded it for an altered 1940 Ford pickup. It had a big engine in it, but it only had a 1939 Ford gearbox, so I’d scatter those transmissions after just two runs at the drag strip. Once I broke off the back of the bell housing.

“So I asked Mike if he knew how to weld cast iron. He said yes, but that we had to go out to his mother’s house to get the special I-Rod for cast-iron welding. I knew this was where the Silver Dollar was stored.” Mike opened the garage door for the first time since the lady drove through the wall of his shop, at least two years earlier. Chris caught a glimpse of the Silver Dollar. He loved it and offered to buy the car on the spot. Mike declined.

But 42 years later, Mike finally relented and made the phone call Unger had been waiting so long to hear. “He called me and asked if I was still interested in buying the Silver Dollar,” Unger said. “He wanted to build a Dearborn Deuce roadster and wanted to sell all his stuff and invest it into his new hot rod.

“It had been down in the dirt, having been knocked off the stands a long time ago.” Unger bought the car and finally installed an engine to replace the one that had blown up in 1965. Interestingly, the only item that was missing was the unique aluminum air scoop that had protruded from the Willys hood. Unger had one fabricated to duplicate the original.

“The scoop went with the engine when the insurance company paid Mike off for the lady driving through his shop,” said Unger. “The crazy thing is, I owned that scoop on my ’40 Ford when I was seventeen! I must have gotten it from someone who got it from the insurance company.”

silver-dollar-preserved

Unger has owned the Willys for a couple of years, but only got serious about getting it running again six months before the 2009 Bakersfield Hot Rod Reunion event. “I’m not sure it’s such a good idea [to make it race ready], because it’s such a bitchin’ relic and a survivor,” he said. “You put all that power in this old truck and it could flip over and ruin it.”

In the meantime, the Silver Dollar will be seen at certain nostalgic car shows, but will only drive around at idle speed. And its proud owner, Chris Unger, will feel like that 13-year-old kid every time he fires it up.

To Unger, it was worth the 42-year wait.

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Comments

  1. Steve

    Great story,and what an awesome turn out. I hope to one day find my dream car as well,do enjoy

  2. Mel Stark

    Cool Beans!

    I had a silver ’41 but even in the garage theirs looks better!

  3. jim

    another great story. interesting how the front of this truck is nose high in comparison to the red car in the other lane. i remember that back in the day some ran nose high,some ran level and some ran tail high.

    • Dolphin Member

      jim:
      I remember that too.
      I guess you would have to say that it’s all in the driver’s ‘attitude’ towards his car.

      Saw lots of that kind of variety in car attitude at the Sanford, Maine strip a long time ago. That was about as far away from the So Cal rod culture as you could get, yet that culture was pretty much the same wherever you went. Well, maybe things in the L.A. area were a bit ahead of the rest of the country.

      Anyway, another great story. Thanks!

  4. geomechs geomechs Member

    Very good story. There are some old hotrods out there that should warrant a classic status of their own. This would fit into that group. The story counts for half the points.

    Interesting how so many racers from the 60s had the front ends high. Funny cars also moved the rear axle forward to aid in weight transfer. It worked well until the cars started hitting the 180 mark. Then they simply launched themselves into the air, and as I remember one writer (I can’t remember who) wording it: ‘What goes up must come down.’ They tended to build them nose-down after that.

  5. scot

    ~ Chris Unger is a patient and fortunate man, who now gets to experience that rush of a 13 year old kid just becoming aware of their love of cars.

  6. Your Name

    Great Story. I have a 64 Ford Drag Car and it makes me smile every day.

  7. Jim B

    Didn’t I see this beauty for sale recently at Barrett/Jackson Auction on TV?

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