MR. STITCHES RIDES AGAIN
New life for a barrier-breaking Chevy gasser.
Here’s the story of a ’31 Chevy gasser, a true survivor with unlikely origins, a very unlikely driver, and an even less likely restorer.
Johnnie Gaither bought this ’31 Chevy five-window coupe in 1941. He drag raced it in the 1950s and 1960s, running at the 75-80 Drag-a-way in Monrovia, Maryland, at Mason-dixon, and other East Coast strips. Gaither was virtually unbeatable in this car, winning Little Eliminator on occasion. Over time, the mean green Chevy ran in the high 12s and edged 110 mph in the quarter.
Johnnie Gaither was a well-known auto trimmer. His shop was called B&G Upholstery in Frederick, Maryland, and he was a founding member of an African-american hot rod club called the Road Knights.
Naturally, his car was called Mr. Stitches. Grimm’s Automovation, Inc. in Frederick, Maryland, specializes in 24/7 truck towing and large vehicle repair. Dale Grimm, the shop’s owner and a dyed-in-the-wool hot rodder, worked for a local Chrysler dealer as a youngster in 1976. “Johnnie Gaither did warranty work for the dealership,” Dale recalls. “I would take stuff over there. I walked by that car I don’t know how many times. Never had a clue that I’d own it someday.”
It wasn’t easy for black racers back in mid-century. Andy Sewell, a friend of Johnnie Gaither’s and a fellow Road Knight, recalls, “Right next to the dragstrip, near the burn-out boxes, there was a restaurant called Wilcom’s Inn. The Wilcom brothers owned a dragstrip, and they employed black people, but if we wanted anything, we had to go through the back door, or use the back window to order. It was back in that time, you know.”
(There was another local Frederick-area black hot rod club called the Valley Drifters. They’re gone, but the Road Knights, who disbanded for a while, are together again.) Competition was tough, but Mr. Stitches won its share of trophies. In May 1963, drag racing legend Ronnie Sox came to the Drag-a-way with his Friendly Chevrolet-sponsored Super Stock Chevy Impala. A faded news clipping from that period reads: “Tired of fooling around with all the stock boys, Sox took on the powerful B Gasser of Johnnie Gaither.” It was close, but Ronnie Sox beat Mr. Stitches, turning 115 mph with an 11.93 e.t.
“Johnnie was a really good upholsterer,” Andy reflects. “He worked for everyone.” And he was always improving his car. He ran a full-race, small-block Chevy with a three-carb intake. A local machinist named Dave Harshman helped him a lot. When he wasn’t racing, Johnnie kept the Mr. Stitches gasser at his shop. After he stopped competing in the 1960s, he’d still bring the car to local events and shows. In 2007, Johnnie received the “Old Timer’s Award” for his contributions to the racing community.
Tragedy struck in 2010 when Johnnie’s upholstery shop burned to the ground. Bolts of cloth material were stored near a furnace that backfired. The resulting fire was sudden, and the heat from the flames was intense. Johnnie ran into the shop and tried valiantly to save Mr. Stitches. He was beaten back by the flames and nearly lost his life in the process when he went back for a second try. Johnnie’s good friend Andy Sewell was given the charred hulk, but he felt it was beyond repairing.
That’s when Dale Grimm became involved. Dale pulled it out of the wrecked garage after the fire with one of his big wreckers. He had never forgotten Mr. Stitches. When Andy, who’d been given the car as a friend of the family, offered to hand over the badly damaged Gasser, Dale didn’t hesitate to take it. “I saw this car when I was a kid, and I considered it an honor to restore it on my own nickel.”
But did he even have a car? The severely torched coupe was all but destroyed in the fire. Its original steel body, which had hardwood inner framing like all GM cars of that era, was warped, and the chassis frame was twisted.
I asked Dale Grimm, “When a car is that badly damaged, how do you start?”
Dale replied, “I drank a lot of Budweiser.”
Then he got down to business. “First I had to straighten the frame,” Dale explains. “Then I boxed it, welded all the damaged steel, and used a plasma cutter to re-form the original shape and keep it straight.” Dale says he assembled and disassembled the coupe five times before he was satisfied that it was finally straight again. He knew a bunch of local bodymen, “but no one wanted to touch the car,” he recalls. Then he found Steve Procter, who took a look and declared, “I like a challenge.”
“We started with the body itself,” Dale explains. “We had to jack it and twist it around so the doors would close. There were no floors, so we had to make them. We made internal bracing.” He fabricated the door posts out of new metal and used some of the original wood in the doors. “It’s still charred, he says, “but it’s the
original. I have eight hours just in heat straightening and roughing in the cowl. I’d heat the metal with a torch, straighten it out, throw a cold rag on it, and then go to the next section. I worked it inch by inch.”
Johnnie Gaither came by several times to see the car while Dale was working on it. According to Andy Sewell, “he was very impressed.”
“I was pretty fanatical about the restoration,” Dale says. “I can’t even guess the number of hours where I sat down, with a beer in my hand, building the car in my mind. You’ve got to think 10 steps ahead, because if you do this, it’s going to affect that— there’s a domino effect. When I was finishing the car, I found big holes in the fenders and realized that’s where the fenderwell headers were. I used as much of the original metal as I could, even using metal they used to patch the holes, to redo the holes.
“We considered finding another body, but it wouldn’t have been the same,” Dale admits. “One of the first things I did was the rear fenders. I laid them out an inch and a half wider to clear the new bigger tires, without it looking obvious.” There wasn’t a lot to work with. “The sheetmetal would be so thin sometimes that I’d be grinding it and the wheel would blow right through the metal. I’d have to weld it up and grind it back down. Forget about reproduction body parts. You can get anything you want in terms of parts for an old Ford. Doing an old Chevy is much harder.”
It took true craftsmen to save this car and make it function well again. The actual restoration work took eight long years. Besides Grimm and Procter, who did the body and paint, Justin and George Reggio of Maryland Performance built the new engine. It’s now a 406 Dart steel Chevy block with a big 6-71 blower, Enderle mechanical injectors, and breathers from Ed Pink. The transmission is a reworked and beefed-up TH400 Hydramatic, and the rear is a 9-inch Ford. With that powerful motor, going back in time, Johnnie Gaither probably would have smoked Ronnie Sox.
Dale credits Wayne Lawson with the internal rollcage and Mark Mead from Ken’s Transmission for the TH400. Rusty Klipp did the white vinyl diamond button tuft period-style upholstery, and Nelson Grimes was responsible for the lettering and pinstriping. Steve Delaughter pitched in with a lot of the mechanical work. Bill Wilcom, who owned 75-80 Drag-o-way, provided encouragement and advice along the way. The restoration work took so long, partly because Dale Grimm was building a new facility and he had to take time out to finish it.
“This car originally had a Pontiac rearend with ladder bars,” Dale notes. “I couldn’t tell what it was exactly because it had burned up. We updated it with a 9-inch Ford to handle the power, and we put good suspension under it. This thing is going to be running at over 100 mph, so you want it to be safe.”
Today, Mr. Stitches looks arguably better than it ever did. You’d never know it was so badly damaged. The bright green paint gleams. The big blown Chevy is very intimidating, the car sits aggressively, and it’s a tribute to Dale Grimm and his friends who were determined to resurrect it.
Sadly, toward the end, while Dale and his crew were still restoring the car, Johnnie Gaither developed Alzheimer’s disease and was living in a nursing home. But he still remembered his car, which was nearly finished when he was last brought to see it. He sat behind the wheel and was even able to autograph the dash. “He stood there and he touched the car like it was his old friend,” Dale says. It was a special moment for Grimm and his team.
“Johnnie wouldn’t get out of the car,” Dale recalls. “He put the helmet on, and it was 100 degrees, so we had the fans from our race car trailer blowing on him. And he just wouldn’t take that helmet off. Honestly, I had tears in my eyes. It was just so emotional for me. I said, ‘He can sit there all day if he wants.’”
The bright green Chevy gasser rekindles a lot of memories for people in the greater Frederick area. “Everybody remembers this car,” Dale says proudly. “I was at a dragstrip with my Firebird, and I was pitted next to a guy who admired the Pontiac. I said, ‘If you like this car, you should see my ’31 Chevy.’ He said, ‘You don’t have Johnnie Gaither’s car, do you?’ I said, ‘You’ve got to be kidding. You’ve heard of that car?’ He said, ‘You’ve got Mr. Stitches. I’d heard it burned to the ground.’
“That’s how popular that car was,” Dale says with a smile. Now that the car’s restoration is complete, Dale says he might do some nostalgia drag racing with Mr. Stitches. The coupe has a rollcage, a fuel shut-off switch, the proper seat belt, and so on. Meanwhile, he likes to show the car off. “I took it to Jalopyrama last year, at the Carroll Country Agricultural Center in Westminster, Maryland, and when I started it up, everybody in the building took notice, it was so loud. It attracted a lot of attention at the show. And when the event was over and it was time to leave, they made me push it out of the building. It’s that loud.”
Sadly, Johnnie Gaither died last year at the age of 94. Dale Grimm brought his rollback and proudly transported the restored Mr. Stitches gasser in the funeral procession, followed by a caravan of the Road Knights and their cars. It was a great sendoff, captured by the local Frederick paper. Johnnie was fondly remembered by many friends and racing fans. In his lifetime, Johnnie broke speed records and racial barriers. Dale and his friends have ensured that Johnnie and Mr. Stitches will never be forgotten.
Racers compete hard against one another, but they can be pretty sentimental, too.
> You can’t miss a classic gasser. Up in front, straight axle, down in back with big meats, loud, aggressive, and wicked quick. The ex-johnnie Gaither ’31 Chevy coupe, better known as Mr. Stitches, ticks all the boxes. Recently restored after it was virtually burned to a crisp, the blown green draggin’ machine is ready to attack the vintage drag racing world and snatch a few trophies.
> The 406 Dart Chevy cast-iron block packs a big 6-71 blower, Enderle mechanical injectors, and Ed Pink breathers. The tranny is a reworked and beefed-up TH400 Hydramatic, hooked to a 9-inch Ford rear. Going back in time, with this puppy, Johnnie Gaither would have smoked Ronnie Sox. > Wide RCD Gilmer-style belt ensures the GMC 6-71 huffer gets every bit of boost into the Dart 406.
> 6. Hefty P325/50R15 M&H Racemaster slicks on E-T wheels with Wilwood disc brakes anchor the rear.
> 7. “Johnnie’s office” is restored very near the way it was in the early 1960s, except for updated instruments. That strong internal rollcage helps stiffen the overall car. Neat fuel pressure pump is a blast from the past.
> 8. Hurst shifter incorporates a red button for the LineLock. Dale says Mr. Stitches hooks up, squats, rises, and goes like a rocket. 8 7 6
> Right: Johnnie Gaither autographed Mr. Stitches’ dash before the restoration was completely finished. The car is a wonderful tribute to Johnnie and restorer Dale Grimm, one that levels racial barriers and celebrates a great driver and his wonderful ’60s-era drag car. > Johnnie’s original helmet is gone, but Nelson Grimes painted this almost new, 1970-vintage Bell helmet to match the car. White diamond-pattern bucket seats are period correct. The steering wheel looks like an old Grant, painted with green metalflake to match the interior.
> Below: “When the flag drops, the BS stops.” Restored to a farethee-well, now with a blown big-block replacing its former 327 three-carb small-block, Mr. Stitches is back, ready to attack the quarter-mile.