GOLD IN THE HILLS OF CLAIREMONT

By: Douglas S. Le Grand

I had mixed emotions the day I sold my 1953 Aston Martin to a stranger in Sweden. He promised me he would send pictures of the cars as he was restoring it. He was going to have to find an engine for the car as there never was an original since I bought it 35 years ago in a junk yard in La Jolla. The engine that I had with the car 351ci.. Cleveland out of a 1971 Grand Torino GT, and 4 speed Top Loader these were sold years ago for cash to pay off bills.

The car was a Hot Rod project of mine when I was single, had more money that I knew what to do with and it went FAST, hell it didn’t even have a floor board. In 1975 a trained mechanic made good money, as much as any other professional. I had my own auto repair shop which took up most of my time but when I had a moment I would work on my Hot Rod Aston Martin. Now, most people that I hung around with thought a hot rod had to be American made, American powered by a huge engine and 4 speed stick shift, big slicks on the back and skinny tires in the front to keep the weight down. All this for the glory of the ¼ mile top speed and cool looks, we were all seeking the ultimate babe’ magnet.

My goal was different, I wanted something different, something that went fast but could also handle the mountain roads less than 10 miles away. I wanted a sports car hot rod. As luck would have it my brother and his friends were all building hot rods when I got back from Phoenix Arizona Universal Technical Institute (UTI) in 1974. They had the typical hot rod pick up trucks, Camaro’s, Mustang’s, Road Runner’s etc. They were all working in the back yard of a local body shop owned by John Bowen. Now John was a funny man, I mean he told jokes all the time, he came from the hills in Georgia, but he would let anyone work on their cars in his back yard. He was a knowledgeable mechanic, body and paint and hot rodder at heart. He trained anyone that wanted to learn. It was nothing to see cars of all shapes and sizes, torn apart, priming to be painted, restored MG’s, custom built Trucks, engines out of a Corvette being put into a Ford PU truck with tilt steering. In those days if you wanted electric seats in your truck with tilt wheel, you had to strip a Cadillac or Lincoln Continental, then modify it to fit in your vehicle. If you wanted a high powered engine in your 1948 Chevy panel truck, you had to make everything to get it to fit and to work. This meant making your own motor mounts, drive shaft, clutch linkage, exhaust manifolds, wiring harness, everything.

I began working at Bowen’s shop when he was in the back yard before he moved to La Jolla to VJ’s Towing Service. VJ was a successful businessman; he had several tow trucks in his yard to service all of La Jolla and nice size yard to store them in. This was where I found my future hot rod. Up on jacks, engine sitting next to it, old faded out paint, no firewall, no electrical system was a 1953 Aston Martin DB2/4 project car. Now at first I didn’t like the car, but it was made out of aluminum, which was unique, and it had a front end that looked like it came out of VW, trailing link is what it was called. Steel tube frame, mmmmm, looking more and more like a race car with a big Ford Engine to put in it, the wheels in my mind began to turn. This could be it. So I plopped down $900 of my hard earned money for a project car. Here was a car that would run circles around anything anyone that I knew had. When I first started on this search for a hot rod my idea was to put a V8 in a Volvo Sports Coupe, that was my vision, but after looking this car, I could make it work. It took me close to a year to get the car on the road, but it was fast, it would burn rubber shifting into 4 gear at 110 mph. and it could handle, whew, like it was glued to the road, except on wet roads then I discovered it would under steer and almost ended up in the ravine in Mission Valley.

The point of the story is not just about my hot rod days but about Clairemont in the late 60’s and early 70’s. San Diego was highly segregated; you had Rancho Bernardo which was the officers section, Point Loma, Tuna Fisherman, La Jolla was the writers and poets and Clairemont was strictly retired Chiefs and Sergeants in the military with a few blue collar machinist working at one of the local military contractors. Very few people escaped and went on to college. Industrial arts and home economics was the normal curriculum and everyone took drivers education. It was a world where your best friends would be working as mechanics, machinist, welders and electricians and the women would get married and have kids. This was all ripe breeding grounds for hot rods and want-a-be race car drivers. Middle class parents, middle class incomes all led up to people who were willing to build what they wanted out of life. As time went on we all had to deal with reality, work and family came first, and the race cars would have to wait until later.

Today, 2010, 40 years later, many of us have been married more than once, have a few kids, grown up by now with their own families to worry about. Sitting in the garage are the memories of our youth. When the stock market took most of my retirement savings, my second home lost 40% of its appraised value, credit cards are at an all time high of 30% interest and there was no more work to be had, especially when you hit 55 years old. I was planning on retiring, fixing up the old Aston Martin, cruising around once again. What happened?

That hot rod is now highly sought after commodity, a piece of the past our childhood, when times were more innocent and we had visions of grandeur. That old car we worked on is now GOLD. I recently saw a 1968 Mustang Shellby 350GT selling for $115,000, of course if was matching number, original convertible but still. $115,000. This is the kind of money that will pay off all those credit cards, fix up the house and pay for a short vacation. And all you had to do was pull the cover off ole’ Betsy and put an ad in craigslist.

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