{February 24, 2013}   Salvage Yard Shopping

My husband celebrated a milestone birthday recently and I wanted to present him a gift worthy of the momentous occasion. But where do you shop for a person who is celebrating 50 laps around the sun?

Most people’s first thought wouldn’t be the junkyard…ahem…I mean, salvage yard. And it wasn’t my first thought either. But that’s where I ended up finding his gift. (Birthday shopping at a junkyard is just one of the new things I’ve done this year.)

Doug is a truck mechanic by trade, but loves all kinds of vehicles from trucks to cars to tractors to boats to snowmobiles. So I was leaning toward something “automotive” related. I looked into flying him to Las Vegas to tour the Shelby Museum, but time and money were limited.

Our home has an extra “mechanic’s garage” with a vaulted ceiling, hydraulic lift and plenty of space for Doug to work on projects. (He restored a 1967 Minneapolis-Moline Jetstar 3 tractor a few years ago and recently started to tinker on a 1967 M-M U302.) What little free time he has is spent in his “man cave,” so finding something to spruce up the space seemed like a good way to go.

I headed to Google for inspiration. There, I came across an idea that intrigued me: have a photo of your auto enthusiast painted on the door, fender or other part of a classic car he admires. Hmm…I could work with that.

I called his mom, emailed his brother and contacted his best friend for information. What was his first car?  What’s his favorite car? What kind of car would he love to own?

Armed with details, I called my dad. Now this guy knows a lot about cars. When I was a kid, I watched him do auto body repair on vehicles in our family’s small garage. He “Bondo-ed” and sanded and primed and painted many cars over the years. In college, I remember impressing a guy with my knowledge of “fish eye repellent”—something you add to auto paint to prevent little craters in the finish.

When I mentioned the “car part as canvas” idea to Dad, he jumped on board. In fact, before I could confirm the year and make of Doug’s first car, my dad had tracked down a place to “shop.”

A few days later, he and I went on a field trip to Jack’s Auto Ranch in Watertown, Wisconsin. We walked into the office on a wintry day to find a handful of employees working at a computer, talking on the phone or warming themselves at the wood stove as cats walked through like they owned the place.

One of the men, who I assumed was Jack the owner but later learned was not, recalled the phone conversation with my dad and said he had just what we wanted. He told a younger man to drive us to a certain aisle where we were sure to find the perfect canvas for a painting: the hood of a 1968 Mercury Cougar.

Dad and I took a short ride in a car that had seen better days and were dropped in the “Ford” section of the yard to search for a needle in a haystack. Neither of us was so familiar with Mercury Cougars that we’d recognize a 1968 on sight. And the cars in the salvage yard were parked three-deep, piled atop one another and tucked into inaccessible places that made identification difficult.

We made a valiant effort, even learning to decipher the markings scribbled on a bumper or quarter panel. After a half-hour of exploring in the cold, we admitted defeat and walked back to the office. Not-Jack asked if we’d found what we wanted. “We found a lot of things,” I said. “I’m just not sure what we found.”

He grumbled a little, but kindly offered to drive us to the spot where the Cougar hood could be found. I was convinced he had an encyclopedic memory of every vehicle and part in the yard. So we returned to the beater car and enjoyed a few stories from Not-Jack along the way.

We got out of the car a few times as Not-Jack pointed out headlights, stripped-down vehicles and miscellaneous parts for 1967 and ’68 Mercury Cougars (there’s just a minor body difference between the two years). It seems he didn’t recall exactly where he had last seen the hood, but he recognized it immediately when he came across it. It wasn’t labeled, so Dad and I probably wouldn’t have found it on our own.  It was blue, dented and rusty; we could work with that. Not-Jack lifted it onto the roof of the beater and drove us back to the office. We paid, loaded it into the minivan and were on our way.

The devil’s in the details, and Dad was a great help with them. On the way home, we stopped to look into sand-blasting the hood (a no-go) and tracked down the codes for the original “Augusta Green” paint color at an auto paint shop.

Since I couldn’t keep the hood at our house without Doug noticing it, Dad offered to hold on to it and do “a little” work on it. Four days of sanding and filling and priming later, he called to say it was time I take a look at it.

Wow! What an amazing transformation. He’d gotten rid of the rust, filled the holes and dents, sanded it smooth and primed it. I thought it looked great, yet he wasn’t entirely happy with the feathering here or a small ridge there. He wanted it to look perfect and insisted on keeping it.

When it was ready, we once again loaded it into the minivan and hauled it to an auto body shop where Doug’s best friend, Mark, had arranged to have it painted. The next time I saw it, it was gorgeous—a deep metallic green and very shiny.

I had wanted to commission an artist to paint a picture of Doug with his first car on the hood, but I couldn’t track down a photo of him with the car, and time was running out. I returned to Google and found a decal of a voluptuous brunette with a ’68 Cougar for sale on eBay.

Mark’s connections streamlined the next step for me, too. His good friend Tom enlarged the image, added some wording and created an awesome decal to grace the hood.

When Doug unveiled his gift at a small gathering of friends and family, he was amazed. We asked party-goers to sign the hood that night, and several jotted personal notes, too. His one-of-a-kind Cougar hood will be hung on the wall in his garage as a reminder of his 50th birthday. Not a bad ending for a junkyard find.

Now it’s your turn. What’s the most unusual gift you’ve ever given or received?


tina says:

I kept expecting Christine to emerge from those long rows of junk cars. And why didn’t I think of storing firewood in an old car? Geez-needle in a haystack is right! I can’t imagine looking out on all of those nondescript clunkers and trying to find a certain make, model and year. So glad Mr. Crusty helped you out! What a great gift idea, experience, and awesome dad!

Thanks, Tina! I definitely couldn’t have done it without my dad! He turns 80 on Saturday and has plenty of energy to share his years of experience with me. I agree–he’s awesome!

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