Monday, December 21, 2020

1950 Mercury Christmas Present

As a gift, or sometimes more like a curse, my dad passed down his love of classic cars to his children. Each of us has our favorites, and one of mine is a 1950 Mercury. Not just any 1950 Mercury, but a particular highly customized “led sled” hot rod. Chopped, dropped, frenched, chrome out grill, shaved door handles, bagged with black paint and red flames. It’s the kind of car most people will only see in a classic car magazine or more likely a comic book. Such as car is not really supposed to exist in real life. You’re not going to see one on the road. You’re not even going to see one at a car show. In fact, I’d never seen one like it [in person] until last year, and I’ve searched for 20 years. It’s my unicorn. 

One might ask why I just didn’t buy an old broken-down Merc and restore it. It’s a fair question. I have helped my dad restore classic cars since I was a kid. However, a 1950 Mercury project like I described would have been very different, a whole other level of cost and difficulty. Believe me, I considered it for years. The shell of body, IF you can somehow find one somewhere in any condition, will still cost $15-20K due to the rarity. Then I’d somehow have to transport it to Hawaii because they don’t exist anywhere in the state. I looked. Then the customization requires a set of skills that only master body mechanic would be capable of, with heavy fabrication skills, and a machine shop to match. With the facilities at my disposal and of Hawaii in general, it just wasn’t going to be possible. Finding and buying one in relatively close condition was the only option.

Over the last 25 years I’ve travelled a lot. 1 million miles on United Airlines alone, but who’s counting. In every state and city I’ve visited, I’d routinely fire up Craigslist and see if any of my bucket list cars were for sale in the area. The years rolled by, and while I did manage to buy pair of 19 64 Lincoln Continentals, I never ever came across my dream 1950 Mercury – that is until this time last year.

Christmas of 2019 the family travels out from Hawaii to Tennessee to spend the holiday with relatives. I’ve been to Tennessee many times before, mostly Memphis and Nashville. Nice wide-open country, friendly people, and my favorite part are the fireworks stores. Hawaii and California basically outlawed everything except sparklers, but not Tennessee. Tennessee has stores that look like Target that sell everything in all shapes, sizes, and colors. Complete with push button video demonstrations in the store so you can see what you’re buying. On this trip I filled up two grocery carts to the brim and let loose inner child pyromaniac. Let me tell you, my kids and I had a blast lighting up the sky over the river out back. All eyebrows accounted for.

Early one evening, a couple days before the 25th, it was time to check Craigslist. To my utter astonishment, a 1950 Mercury showed up in the results located around a 1.5hr drive away. I couldn’t believe it. I was skeptical, very skeptical. No way this could be real. No way. At first I thought it must be a targeted ad or a scam or something based on my search history. It looked just like everything I’d hoped and dreamed for 20+ years. Again, I’m in a VERY rural area of Tennessee outside of Knoxville with an extremely small population.  I double-checked I was searching in the right area. Yup. Maybe the listing was outdated? Nope. Posted 2 days ago. Obvious signs of a scam? It didn’t look like it. The only way to know for sure is to call the seller. And just like that, Marvin picked up! 

On the phone I asked Marvin every question about the car I could think of. Where’d you get it? Does it really look as good as in the pictures? Who built it? How’s it run? What’s wrong with it? Rust? The price? Well, let’s be honest, I didn’t care about the price. This was literally the opportunity of a lifetime and I wasn’t about to miss even the opportunity to see it – IN REAL LIFE! So, I scheduled a time for first thing the next morning, jumped in the rental car with my son (14) and uncle Jim, and we headed out to the boonies on a classic car adventure!

After a long drive, we pulled up to the address and right there we see it parked in the driveway. A gleaming and perfect 1950 Mercury coupe. My world stopped. The three of us just stared. It looked like a full-size hot wheel. It didn’t look like real. Every detail was exactly how I’ve always imagined it. We lifted the hood, opened the doors, and crawled underneath it. E very detail was perfect right down to the 3-inch chop, push-button trunk and door locks, and electric windows. The damn thing even had pin striping on the frame. THE FRAME! The only thing that was incomplete was the interior, which had late model Acura seats. I didn’t care, I could easily replace that later. Marvin explained that’s he’s a body guy and built the car himself over the last many years. Swapped out all the old Mercury internals and replaced everything with Chevy parts. He did all the body work personally, at home, in his homemade paint booth garage. 

We took the car on a short drive around the neighborhood. This thing hadn’t seen the road in a couple of decades. It rolled, it stopped, it ran great. Because I wasn’t prepared, and typically avoid impulse purchases, I tried to find any reasonable excuse to NOT buy this car. I mean I wasn’t in Tennessee to buy a car, and this wasn’t on a work trip. I was there on a family vacation, completely unprepared. Still, I couldn’t say no, I had to have it. This opportunity was never going to come up again. Never. Ever.

Marvin wanted 4 stacks of high society and not a penny less. Not a bank wire. Not a cashier’s check. Not PayPal. Not Bitcoin. Marvin was a good ol’ country boy through and through. He wanted cash in hand. I explained to Marvin that I’m from out of town and didn’t travel prepared to make such a large cash transaction. If he could give me a little time to figure things out, and NOT sell the car to anyone else, I’d appreciate it. He agreed. I’m guessing there wasn’t going to be someone else showing up ready to buy THE car, in THIS part of the country, for THAT much in cash, 2 days out from Christmas anyway.

The next day my son and I visited a local bank branch, let them know we needed to make a large cash withdrawal to buy a car. After some identify check verification, they said the bank manager who can authorize the amount wasn’t in – holiday vacation. Dah! Back in the car and rush off to the next branch. I don’t have much time to get this done because we’ll be flying out in a couple days.

Arrived at bank branch #2, waited through another series of identity checks, manager approved the amount, but they informed me that they don’t have nearly enough cash on hand. The holiday apparently wiped out their cash reserves. They’d have to order it, which would take at least a few days. I explained that I needed it now as I’d be flying out by then and asked what my options where. So, the manager called two other branches in the area. The only one that could help was another hour drive away, and maybe they had enough. Off we go! 

Bank branch #3. By this point I learned to immediately ask to speak to the manager. I explained what I needed, and again went through the identity check procedure. Unfortunately, the bank didn’t have enough hundred-dollar bills to cover the amount, nor enough fifties, so we had to accept the remainder in twenties. Whatever. Cash is cash right!? Success!

Now, how many times does a young kid get to feast their eyes on so much money and be able to physically hold it? So, we just had to take the obligatory photo of the experience. Our next step was to contact the seller and drive back out to buy the car and get it picked up.

Let’s pause for a moment to reflect on the visual of this moment. My son and I are two out of towners from Hawaii, in rural Tennessee, driving a rented mini-van cross country, carrying a large of amount of cash in mixed denominations, and after just having visited 3 banks. You better believe I was following every single traffic law making sure to avoid getting pulled over and caught up in some kind of civil asset forfeiture situation. “No sir, I swear, we’re just trying to buy a classic car.” 

In the meantime, I’m calling around the area trying to find a tow truck driver that’s working and has the equipment to pick up a classic car in a remote region. 5 companies later, I finally found someone whose up for the job. I tell him the time and please. We’re set!

We finally arrive back at the seller’s house, and strangely his entire family is there waiting. His wife, one of his daughters, and her husband. Weird. The invite us in the house, and I get the distinct impress this affair was something far more important than just a car transaction but didn’t know what it was. My son and I sat at the kitchen table making small talk while the family divided up each brick of cash, counted it, and visually inspected each bill for counterfeits. They tell us fake bills have been a problem recently in the local area. They’d hold each bill up to the light, looking for the mag strip and watermark. The painstaking process took 2 hours. It was fine though, the family was very nice, and we got to know them and the car a little bit better.

Here’s where things become truly incredible. Once they’re nearly done counting the money, no issues, Marvin’s wife gets up from the table to make a call on the cordless phone. I hadn’t even seen one of those in years. I make out that the call is to another daughter that lives nearby. She explained that her dad just sold the Merc, and that’d be paying off her mortgage with the money as a Christmas gift. My jaw about hit the floor and my eyes are open double-wide.

They shared that Marvin had been working on the Merc for 3 years, night and day, and it was finally in good enough condition to sell. Then my son and I somehow showed up. Apparently, their daughter had recently lost her husband, leaving children behind and they’d fallen on tough times. The money was to help make sure that she and the kids would be taken care of. Like I said, this might be the ONLY way that someone would very build or part with such a car. 

My son Jaye and I are witnessing this. A pure and special moment in a family taking place right in front of us in the most impossible of circumstances. Talk about an experience. I got my dream car, they paid off their house. Merry Christmas.


A 1951 Ford for Dad

I wanted to get my dad a gift, but not just any gift. The perfect gift. For a diehard hot-rodder like my dad, there can only be one thing -- a car. Of course, not just any ol' thing with four wheels. He quite literally has 50 mostly junkers and clunkers already. Only THE DREAM CAR would do. What kind of car that was I really didn't know. I had to find out exactly, EXACTLY what that kind of car without letting my dad know and spoil the surprise. For this I asked my brother Zach for help. Discreetly, while both of them were watching a hotrod show on TV, Zach found out that dad's all-time favorite car is a 1951 Ford 2 door with the original flathead v8 engine. Score!

As the story goes, this is the very same car his dad, my grandfather, had bought for him at age 16 for $50. Cars have a way of making a lasting impression on people like this. True to the stereotypical ethnicity of our namesake, grandpa Hyman was worried that he might have overpaid. For reasons I still don’t know, my dad had never owned another like it since. We’re talking 50 years! This is extremely odd because over the years he’s owned essentially every other kind of car, having always been somehow connected to the car business. It probably had to do with their rarity, especially on Maui, as I came to find out to the hard way.

For months, and months, and months, Zach and I scoured Craigslist national wide and the whole rest of the Internet. We found only the trailer queen show cars selling for many tens of thousands, or on the other end of the spectrum, a pile of rusty incomplete junk. Neither option could be considered for our perfect gift. We wanted something in between. Something decent, or at least restorable, but the make and model had to be exactly right. Zach and I weren’t about to give up.

Finally, on Dec 30, 2013, a Craigslist listing came up in a place called Yantis, TX. Ever heard of it? We hadn’t either. It’s 2.5 hours East... yes... East of Dallas, TX. And remember, all of us live 4,000 miles away on the Hawaiian island of Maui. We had no idea how to get the car back to paradise. We’ll solve that problem later. Undeterred, I immediately called the seller asking if the car was available. It was! W00T! From the description, if the car was anything close to what was advertised, this was exactly what we were looking for. The price was right, perhaps even a deal. Zach and I were seriously excited!

Next, Zach calls the seller to ask a bunch of questions to make 100% certain this was everything we wanted. It was. Our search was over. Well, sort of. 24 hours later, I call the seller prepared to pay the asking price, sight unseen. I said I'd fly out immediately to get if necessary. This was more than a little shocking to the seller. “Long drive,” he says to me after revealing where I live. The seller said he was a little uncomfortable allowing me to purchase the car sight unseen, especially since he doesn't know me and I'm so far away. He didn’t want me to be disappointed upon arrival and not buy it. Obviously, a really nice guy. He did say another interested party is coming to look at the car the following day, on New Year’s Day! 

Uh, oh. At this point in the conversation, I'm extremely worried. This person might buy the car that was in my mind already MY DAD’s CAR! Who knows when I might get another chance like this?! I tried everything I could to lock in the deal over the phone, but to no avail. The seller assured me it’s more likely the other guy is just looking and won't buy it, and if they don't, it's mine. I'm asked to phone the next day to get my answer. Talk about a stressful waiting period. All I can do now is hope for the best and prepare for an immediate flight out to Dallas in case things go well.

Now, I there are two problems to sort out and less than a day to do it. 1) I have to convince my dad to take a short notice trip with me to Texas without letting him know the exact reason why. 2) The seller requires either cash in hand or a cashier’s check from a local Texas bank. 

Fortunately, my dad is always up for an adventure. So, I said asked if he'd like to take a business trip with me to visit WhiteHat in both Santa Clara and Houston. He'd never really visited the company before to see what I built. It was a fortunate coincidence the car and a WhiteHat office was in Texas. He agreed.

Next, getting a sizable amount of cash over New Year’s Day, 4,000 miles away, when I bank at a local Hawaii bank that has no out of state branches, proved to be a far more significant challenge. Western Union and Money Orders would were of no use even if the locations were open at the time. Darn holidays! Their daily limits were too small for my current needs. FYI: The dollar amount here is less than an average new car off a lot, but still something you’d not want to carry around, let alone on a plane flight.

I call the seller the following day, he green lights the deal, and I’m overjoyed. I quickly buy some plane tickets, ouch on the short notice price, and let my dad know we're leaving in 5 hours. He was a little stunned I moved so quickly, and didn't think I was serious at first, but again... he's normally game for whatever. This time proved no different. 

Note: I didn’t have a way to solve the cash problem, so was I no choice but to figure it out upon arrival in Dallas. And, we're gone, just like that.

A 7-hour red-eye flight later and we're in Dallas at 6am on Jan 2. Oh, did I mention it was friggin’ cold — like 35F. I can tolerate frigid temperature OK, but Dad's lived for 30 years in Maui and will wear sweaters when it dips below 70F. While he’s always up for an adventure, life and death circumstance and all that not being a problem, it just better not be cold. I can tell he's having second thoughts about this trip right when we step outside of the terminal. He quickly puts on every piece of clothing he packed.

We grab a rental car, check-in to a hotel, get a bite to eat, and head to the bank -- "to open a new bank account just in case”… of a zombie apocalypse is my cover story. Turns out the best way to get cash in a hurry, given my constraints, is calling your source bank, asking them to raise the daily limit on your debit account to whatever you need, and having the destination bank perform a cash advance. This essentially looks a typical debit card transaction, but instead of a 50in TV, you get cash. The process took some doing and some waiting, but I got it done. Whew!

I call the seller, tell him I'm in town and ready to go. He's quite surprised because in the same 12-hour period I'm in Maui and then in Texas. Hey, I move quick. I ask for directions. By now it's about 2pm and time to head out for a 2.5 hour drive to get the car. My dad still has no idea what I’m up to. 

We start getting noticeably WAY out in the boonies, and we have no cell phone reception for miles. That’s when dad finally asks me, “Are we meeting someone out here for business?” I reply, “yes, we're meeting someone." 

Then it happened, not 60 seconds later, I see the car, sitting perfectly out in an open driveway. It's red, shiny, gorgeously chromey, and at 1/4 mile away, completely unmistakable. 

I slyly point the car out to dad, who doesn’t see it yet, and say inquisitively, "Hey, what's that car over there?" He squints and instantly says in a more than surprised, curious, and somehow measured tone, "That's... that's a 1951 Ford!" 

“Dad,” I say, "That's why we're here.” 

“What!?” He exclaims, even more confused now than before. 

“See that man coming out of the house over there, he’s expecting us. He's selling us that car today.

We're in the driveway now and dad gets out without a word, surveys the car at 10 feet, barely acknowledging the seller. Like a little boy again, he can’t take his eyes off the car. Clearly, it’s like it's a dream, and he can't believe he's actually seeing this car, his dream car, with his own eyes. Again, you never see these cars anywhere. He mutters, “Oh my God,” obviously overwhelmed. I introduce myself to the seller then stand back quietly to take photos of the moment while the seller introduces his gem. He tells us all about the car, it's history, and on and on like only true car aficionados can appreciate.

At long last, I ask the most important question. “Dad, do you want this car?” He's not quite sure how to answer, but clearly, it's a “yes.” I pay the man and then let dad know we have to either drive or trailer his ‘new’ car back to California for shipping. He opts for the former. Obvious to anyone sane, driving an untested 60 year old car 2,000 miles cross country, is ill advised. But whatever, this car was getting back to Maui. Nothing was going to stop that from happening now. My dad tells me he would have bought this car even if the engine was missing. 😉

We return the rental car and set out for a LONG drive back to the California’s SF Bay area to ship out the car to Maui. I don't think I drove the car for the first 1,000 miles of the journey. Hah! We had a handful of various close calls along the way, but overall nothing major. Hundreds of people waved at us along the way. Everyone from the motorcycle gangs to others in high-end BMW's. The car performed amazingly well by any standard. We've dropped it off for shipping and it took a few weeks to get to its new home in Maui, Hawaii. 

Remember, we’re all here on earth for just a tiny moment in time. Make it count. Take the time, MAKE the opportunity, and be open to spontaneous adventure with the people you love. No matter what happens, you’ll be happy that you did.