MR. STITCHES RIDES AGAIN

RES­UR­REC­TION.

Hot Rod Deluxe - - Con­tents -

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

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.”

True Crafts­men

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.

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