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Oceanside car guy finds the Holy Grail – and proves it

Grease’s Hell’s Chariot pops up in Huntington Beach

“Without proof of this being Hell’s Chariot, all you have is a Mercury with the roof cut off. You saying it’s Hell’s Chariot doesn’t increase the value.”
“Without proof of this being Hell’s Chariot, all you have is a Mercury with the roof cut off. You saying it’s Hell’s Chariot doesn’t increase the value.”

These days, many family garages function as little more than halfway houses for discards on their way to the Goodwill. Or maybe home-adjacent storage facilities: a place for keeping holiday decorations between holidays, camping equipment, maybe an extra fridge or freezer. Maybe even a car. Not too long ago, however, the garage was also likely to serve as a workshop, a maker’s sanctuary where surfboards were shaped, tikis were carved, and rusting car bodies were magically transformed into spit-and-polish showroom-quality artworks. Such was the garage in Dan Dorsey’s childhood home; that’s where he learned to build and restore cars from his father, who, like him, is a self-described “car guy.” Dan is 45 now, with a family and a garage of his own; that’s where he shelters his beautifully restored 1970 GMC Suburban.

Dorsey recently took me for a cruise down PCH in that very car. After rolling through Oceanside for a few miles, he opened up the 350 V-8, and it awoke with a roar familiar to anyone born before 1980. Some observers pointed; some smiled; a few offered a thumbs-up. A few others scowled in disgust, apparently contemplating the quantity of fossil fuel being blasted into the atmosphere by the belching orange beast.

Oceanside is a car guy’s kind of place, filled with fully restored vintage vehicles and grand old car bodies trapped behind locked gates like pound puppies waiting for salvation. The distraction of the latter causes Dan to turn his head often as we drive. “I’m always on the prowl for cars,” he says. “I found the one we’re in while on a construction project in Gilroy in 2018. I could only see the top of a truck, but I knew exactly what it was from the crown of the cab. It took me five minutes just to find the driveway to the farm. When I got there, the dogs were going nuts, and the farmer comes out, perturbed that I’m there. I holler out, ‘Hey, I’m a car guy; I see you have a ’70s truck back there; is it for sale?’ He replies, ‘Maybe.’ After he shows me the car, he pulls out a notebook with 10 or 15 names on it, writes down my information, and says he’ll let me know. He ended up selling it to me, and I told him I’d do right by it.

Dan Dorsey’s beautifully restored 1970 GMC Suburban.

After restoring it, I sent him photos, and he called back, shedding grateful tears over the restoration.” That’s the way it is with most car guys I know: they love their cars, and once the aging machines start to break down and the owners can no longer take care of them, they’re as interested in finding good homes for them as they are in the money they might make. When I asked Dorsey how many cars he currently owns, he said, “too many” before naming all eight of his classics, all in various stages of restoration and rebirth. He recently sold one of them to purchase a 1937 La Salle with a miraculous 7000 miles on it.

What is noise to others is poetry to Dorsey. “The deep rumble of a big V-8 is like a heartbeat,” he said, a nostalgic thump-thump of horsepower. “These are not throwaway cars; they were made in Detroit by the Big Three. People fed their families and made careers building them in America through hard work, determination, and grit. These cars were built to last. Some of them are a hundred years old and look like they just rolled off the showroom floor. You’re not going to see any of these new cars being driven 100 years from now.”

Someone hollered, “Nice ride.” Then, as irony would have it, a guy pulled up next to us in his eerily silent Tesla and turned a thumb skyward.

“A lot of cars come from guys who are just getting married,’ continued Dorsey with a grin. “It’s a recurring theme that I know well. I was buying cars and flipping them. Then I got married. When my wife got pregnant, I had to sell all my project cars. The baby was coming, so we took the money, put it into an SUV, and got baby seats.”

Like most car guys, Dorsey grew up with a car guy father who could fix most anything, and if he couldn’t fix it, he’d simply make what he needed from spare parts. And as Dad tells it, the boy kept a close watch on his old man: “When he was five years old, I found Dan in the garage, sitting on the lawnmower, hands on the throttle, turning it and going, ‘Vroom, vroom.’ He is a born motorhead.” According to Dorsey, “From the time I was a kid, I was working alongside him, learning. I still use the skills today that I learned from him then. I now try to pass that same knowledge on to my six-year-old son, Hudson. He loves cars and works with me on the weekends, where he spends a lot of energy doing things like busting through walls.”

On June 17th, as Encinitas celebrated its 22nd Classic Cruise Night; an unofficial parade of lowriders bounced down Coast Highway, lowering and raising tons of prettified steel with hydraulic lifts as a crowd numbering in the thousands cheered its approval.

Sorry about your new Mercedes

On June 17, as Encinitas celebrated its 22nd Classic Cruise Night, an unofficial parade of lowriders bounced down Coast Highway, lowering and raising tons of prettified steel with hydraulic lifts as a crowd numbering in the thousands cheered its approval. These low-and-slow time machines, together with other metal masterpieces — like a fleet of ’60s Caddys — finned out in perfect formation. Rat rods, lead sleds, bathtub Porches, and VW vans outnumbered Prii 100 to nothing — and probably will as long as there are Classic Cruise Nights. Fossil fuels were king for the day as that deep rumble of big V-8s shook the ground authoritatively. Traffic was open to all legal vehicles, including stock factory-built cars. But a new $150,000 Mercedes drove by unnoticed, eclipsed by its more dignified elders.

Maybe “dignified” is the wrong word. No matter how old these cars get, they will always be born of the classic American values of big, fast, and powerful. Their glories were on jingoistic display like a two-ton MAGA hardhat. The Prius crowd had gone into hiding for the moment, and would not surface again until the exhaust fumes cleared. It was suffocating. It was loud. It was paradise. The bars and restaurants were packed with both ecstatic car owners and those who came to simply admire the fruits of the owners’ labor. Dorsey’s Suburban was not the flashiest car of the bunch. Still, it was as popular on the street that evening as a first-rate Elvis impersonator in Vegas. Kids and their parents lined up to get photos near the vehicle.

Of course, probably not everyone was happy to see these gross consumers of fossil fuels come roaring back to life. I imagine that many lovely people, acutely conscious of the environment, hoped that the evening’s exhibition would prove to be nothing more than the death rattle of gas-guzzlers. Encinitas is a town rife with surfing, patchouli oil, and wheatgrass, a place that once had a store dedicated strictly to selling Birkenstocks. Such sound and fury was bound to bring an adverse reaction from some residents. I imagine they considered the event regressive, which, to be fair, it kind of was. But “gas hog” accusations are dismissed by car guy (and Good Guy’s Rod & Custom Association rep) Dave Desure. Desure, who is 60, speaks for many in the custom car tribe when he says, “The bodies of these custom cars are mostly all original and have been completely recycled. Many of them now have engines in them capable of 40 miles to the gallon. As for electric cars, there’s no way to recycle those batteries, and they end up in landfills, leaking toxins into the earth for years. Environmentally, which is better?”

Winning the Auto Lotto

Some one-of-a-kind items — The Holy Grail, The Ark of the Covenant, Buddha’s meditation mat — are out of reach for even the world’s top collectors. Then there’s the rest of us, who must chase dreams almost as wild: things like receiving a 1943 Lincoln copperhead penny as change or scoring an original Picasso for ten bucks at a swap meet. And most stories of lost treasure being purchased for chump change wind up being just that: stories. Myths. That was the general thought concerning one of the most famous cars in cinematic history: the hit musical Grease’s Hell’s Chariot, the car driven by Dennis Stewart, who played bad guy “Crater Face,” when he raced against “Greased Lightning,” driven by the film’s good guy, John Travolta’s Danny Zuko. Hell’s Chariot is a 1949 Mercury Eight, a very cool car by any measure. Still, without its pedigree papers, the Chariot wouldn’t have qualified as best in show even in Encinitas on June 17th. And until recently, it was regarded as one of those things like the Ark or the Grail — wondrous artifacts that will just never be found.

David Desure has been interested in the custom car movement for about 50 years. Like Dan Dorsey and most tinkerers who came of age in the last century, he learned the craft from his father in the family garage. Desure says he was “mesmerized by the colors, the sounds, the attention to detail and the attention these cars received. The hotrod movement pretty much started when guys returning from WWII bought cars from the ’30s and ’40s and tried to make them faster by removing fenders and making other modifications to reduce weight. Back then, driving a hotrod was comparable to being in a gang.” Films from the 1940s to 1960s like Devil on Wheels and Hotrods to Hell illustrate his point.

“Hotrod culture came and went and was basically dead until Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top brought it roaring back to life with his 1933 Ford Eliminator. Because of the band’s videos, there were more 1933 Fords on the road in 1990 than Henry Ford ever built. Of course, most of them were kit cars, which are made of fiberglass, look good, and are about a third the price.”

All go, no show

Today’s cars are peachy. They go fast, brake quickly, don’t pollute, only make noise when they talk to you, and park themselves. And unlike their forebears, which could pass anything but a gas station, they are economical, with features a ‘57 T-Bird would squirt oil over. But style has suffered. According to Desure, “I’m a lifelong car guy, so I can tell a 1955 Chevy a mile away. However, without seeing the logo, I can’t tell the difference between a BMW and an Audi. Seven or eight years ago, I went looking to buy a ‘49 to ‘51 Mercury. I located one in Orange County. The ad had a photo of the car along with the words, ‘Must sell; need money.’ It was listed for $15,000, which was such a low price that it made me suspicious it might be a fake ad. When I called the number, it went straight to voice mail. I left a message saying I would buy the car that day. I called again and again, but got a phone machine each time. I googled the phone number from the ad and found it was a shop in Huntington Beach called Papke Enterprises. The owner, Bill Papke, specialized in Mercury and Ford parts from ‘49 to ‘51. I had bought parts from him for years. Sadly, Bill had passed away a week prior, and I figured someone who didn’t like him had put out a fake ad to mess with him by blowing up his phone machine. My business partner Scott Byrum said we should drive over and see if there were any cars for sale.”

Desure told Byrum, “‘Papke was a one-man operation, and there won’t be anybody at the shop if we go there.’ I was ready to forget about the car, but Scott insisted. He picked me up at eight that morning. When we got there, the place was locked up tighter than a drum. A couple minutes later, this big guy pulls up and shouts, ‘Who the hell are you guys?’ I told him we were there to look at a car, and he said that all the cars had been sold except for one, and that it was stuck on a hoist and they couldn’t get it down because the hydraulics were broken on the hoist. When Scott asked what the car was, the guy said it was a ‘49 Grease Mercury. I know cars, but I had never heard of a Grease Mercury, and said, ‘That must mean it’s leaking oil everywhere.’ The guy shot back, ‘Oh yeah, smart ass? Ever see the movie Grease?’ Right then, I felt my heart sink into my stomach, and I said, “Are you telling me that the one car everyone has been looking for for 35 years is behind that door; the car that urban legend says was the only one to survive the filming of the movie Grease? Prove it.’ He answered, ‘I can’t prove it, but I know it’s the car.’”

The man took the two treasure hunters into the shop. “The car was stuck on the hoist, under a cover. This was not the car in the photo. The bottom was caked with mud, which I thought might have been there from the race scene in the L.A. River. Scott being Scott, he had the car on the ground in 30 seconds, and we could see it was just a shitbox without paint, and modified with a Chevrolet motor. Whatever it had once been, they had screwed it up. I opened the trunk, and all the pyrotechnics were in there. I was excited, but turned to the guy and said, ‘Without proof of this being Hell’s Chariot, all you have is a Mercury with the roof cut off. You saying it’s Hell’s Chariot doesn’t increase the value.’”

Desure and Byrum were ready to buy the car anyway, hoping against hope that they could authenticate it later, “but the guy said we couldn’t have it then, that we had to return the next day to get the title. If this was Hell’s Chariot, I couldn’t let it out of my sight, and I told him so. I offered to sleep in the shop that night, and he repeated that I needed to return the following day at eight. After a sleepless night, I showed up at eight the next morning, and he’s not there. At nine, he’s still not there. I call him repeatedly. No answer. When at 9:30 he’s still not there, I’m screaming. He showed up at 10.”

Desure closed the deal. “Once I had the title in hand, I called Paramount and talked to a woman in the archive department. She said they couldn’t authenticate the car because they didn’t build it. ‘The only person who could authenticate it,’ she said, was ‘the man we hired to build it in 1977, Eddie Paul.’ I got Eddie’s phone number, called him, and told him I thought I had found Hell’s Chariot. ‘Oh, really?’ he replied, and immediately hung up. I called back and told him my story. He said, ‘Look, I get 20 calls a year from people just like you; the car you think you have no longer exists.’ Then I told him about some welding on the rear frame rails. When I did, he told me to send him a picture of what I had described. I sent him a photo, and he called right back and asked where I was. I said ‘Huntington Beach,’ and he said, ‘Stay right where you are; I’ll see you in an hour.’ An hour later, he shows up, looks under the car, stands up, shakes my hand, and says, ‘Congratulations on winning the lottery; this is Hell’s Chariot, the only car left of the ones I built for the movie.’ I asked him if he would go on record saying that, and he said, ‘I’ve waited 35 years to do that; it would be an honor.’ Eddie always accompanied Scott and me when we did TV shows like Good Morning America and countless others to talk about the car. God bless him.”

Like the Ark of the Covenant from Raiders of the Lost Ark, Hell’s Chariot is in a location that few would suspect; under a tarp in a garage in the backcountry of San Diego. I know. I have seen it, sat behind the wheel, and felt the power of… well, not much, really. To me, it’s an Oz flying monkey, the first Cabbage Patch doll, the golden ticket from Willy Wonka. To car guys, however, it’s the stuff dreams are made of.

As to the future of Hell’s Chariot, both Desure and Byrum agree that it belongs somewhere where the public can enjoy seeing it.

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Jimmy’s Santee Stroganoff

“People have been coming in for years. They know what they like.”
“Without proof of this being Hell’s Chariot, all you have is a Mercury with the roof cut off. You saying it’s Hell’s Chariot doesn’t increase the value.”
“Without proof of this being Hell’s Chariot, all you have is a Mercury with the roof cut off. You saying it’s Hell’s Chariot doesn’t increase the value.”

These days, many family garages function as little more than halfway houses for discards on their way to the Goodwill. Or maybe home-adjacent storage facilities: a place for keeping holiday decorations between holidays, camping equipment, maybe an extra fridge or freezer. Maybe even a car. Not too long ago, however, the garage was also likely to serve as a workshop, a maker’s sanctuary where surfboards were shaped, tikis were carved, and rusting car bodies were magically transformed into spit-and-polish showroom-quality artworks. Such was the garage in Dan Dorsey’s childhood home; that’s where he learned to build and restore cars from his father, who, like him, is a self-described “car guy.” Dan is 45 now, with a family and a garage of his own; that’s where he shelters his beautifully restored 1970 GMC Suburban.

Dorsey recently took me for a cruise down PCH in that very car. After rolling through Oceanside for a few miles, he opened up the 350 V-8, and it awoke with a roar familiar to anyone born before 1980. Some observers pointed; some smiled; a few offered a thumbs-up. A few others scowled in disgust, apparently contemplating the quantity of fossil fuel being blasted into the atmosphere by the belching orange beast.

Oceanside is a car guy’s kind of place, filled with fully restored vintage vehicles and grand old car bodies trapped behind locked gates like pound puppies waiting for salvation. The distraction of the latter causes Dan to turn his head often as we drive. “I’m always on the prowl for cars,” he says. “I found the one we’re in while on a construction project in Gilroy in 2018. I could only see the top of a truck, but I knew exactly what it was from the crown of the cab. It took me five minutes just to find the driveway to the farm. When I got there, the dogs were going nuts, and the farmer comes out, perturbed that I’m there. I holler out, ‘Hey, I’m a car guy; I see you have a ’70s truck back there; is it for sale?’ He replies, ‘Maybe.’ After he shows me the car, he pulls out a notebook with 10 or 15 names on it, writes down my information, and says he’ll let me know. He ended up selling it to me, and I told him I’d do right by it.

Dan Dorsey’s beautifully restored 1970 GMC Suburban.

After restoring it, I sent him photos, and he called back, shedding grateful tears over the restoration.” That’s the way it is with most car guys I know: they love their cars, and once the aging machines start to break down and the owners can no longer take care of them, they’re as interested in finding good homes for them as they are in the money they might make. When I asked Dorsey how many cars he currently owns, he said, “too many” before naming all eight of his classics, all in various stages of restoration and rebirth. He recently sold one of them to purchase a 1937 La Salle with a miraculous 7000 miles on it.

What is noise to others is poetry to Dorsey. “The deep rumble of a big V-8 is like a heartbeat,” he said, a nostalgic thump-thump of horsepower. “These are not throwaway cars; they were made in Detroit by the Big Three. People fed their families and made careers building them in America through hard work, determination, and grit. These cars were built to last. Some of them are a hundred years old and look like they just rolled off the showroom floor. You’re not going to see any of these new cars being driven 100 years from now.”

Someone hollered, “Nice ride.” Then, as irony would have it, a guy pulled up next to us in his eerily silent Tesla and turned a thumb skyward.

“A lot of cars come from guys who are just getting married,’ continued Dorsey with a grin. “It’s a recurring theme that I know well. I was buying cars and flipping them. Then I got married. When my wife got pregnant, I had to sell all my project cars. The baby was coming, so we took the money, put it into an SUV, and got baby seats.”

Like most car guys, Dorsey grew up with a car guy father who could fix most anything, and if he couldn’t fix it, he’d simply make what he needed from spare parts. And as Dad tells it, the boy kept a close watch on his old man: “When he was five years old, I found Dan in the garage, sitting on the lawnmower, hands on the throttle, turning it and going, ‘Vroom, vroom.’ He is a born motorhead.” According to Dorsey, “From the time I was a kid, I was working alongside him, learning. I still use the skills today that I learned from him then. I now try to pass that same knowledge on to my six-year-old son, Hudson. He loves cars and works with me on the weekends, where he spends a lot of energy doing things like busting through walls.”

On June 17th, as Encinitas celebrated its 22nd Classic Cruise Night; an unofficial parade of lowriders bounced down Coast Highway, lowering and raising tons of prettified steel with hydraulic lifts as a crowd numbering in the thousands cheered its approval.

Sorry about your new Mercedes

On June 17, as Encinitas celebrated its 22nd Classic Cruise Night, an unofficial parade of lowriders bounced down Coast Highway, lowering and raising tons of prettified steel with hydraulic lifts as a crowd numbering in the thousands cheered its approval. These low-and-slow time machines, together with other metal masterpieces — like a fleet of ’60s Caddys — finned out in perfect formation. Rat rods, lead sleds, bathtub Porches, and VW vans outnumbered Prii 100 to nothing — and probably will as long as there are Classic Cruise Nights. Fossil fuels were king for the day as that deep rumble of big V-8s shook the ground authoritatively. Traffic was open to all legal vehicles, including stock factory-built cars. But a new $150,000 Mercedes drove by unnoticed, eclipsed by its more dignified elders.

Maybe “dignified” is the wrong word. No matter how old these cars get, they will always be born of the classic American values of big, fast, and powerful. Their glories were on jingoistic display like a two-ton MAGA hardhat. The Prius crowd had gone into hiding for the moment, and would not surface again until the exhaust fumes cleared. It was suffocating. It was loud. It was paradise. The bars and restaurants were packed with both ecstatic car owners and those who came to simply admire the fruits of the owners’ labor. Dorsey’s Suburban was not the flashiest car of the bunch. Still, it was as popular on the street that evening as a first-rate Elvis impersonator in Vegas. Kids and their parents lined up to get photos near the vehicle.

Of course, probably not everyone was happy to see these gross consumers of fossil fuels come roaring back to life. I imagine that many lovely people, acutely conscious of the environment, hoped that the evening’s exhibition would prove to be nothing more than the death rattle of gas-guzzlers. Encinitas is a town rife with surfing, patchouli oil, and wheatgrass, a place that once had a store dedicated strictly to selling Birkenstocks. Such sound and fury was bound to bring an adverse reaction from some residents. I imagine they considered the event regressive, which, to be fair, it kind of was. But “gas hog” accusations are dismissed by car guy (and Good Guy’s Rod & Custom Association rep) Dave Desure. Desure, who is 60, speaks for many in the custom car tribe when he says, “The bodies of these custom cars are mostly all original and have been completely recycled. Many of them now have engines in them capable of 40 miles to the gallon. As for electric cars, there’s no way to recycle those batteries, and they end up in landfills, leaking toxins into the earth for years. Environmentally, which is better?”

Winning the Auto Lotto

Some one-of-a-kind items — The Holy Grail, The Ark of the Covenant, Buddha’s meditation mat — are out of reach for even the world’s top collectors. Then there’s the rest of us, who must chase dreams almost as wild: things like receiving a 1943 Lincoln copperhead penny as change or scoring an original Picasso for ten bucks at a swap meet. And most stories of lost treasure being purchased for chump change wind up being just that: stories. Myths. That was the general thought concerning one of the most famous cars in cinematic history: the hit musical Grease’s Hell’s Chariot, the car driven by Dennis Stewart, who played bad guy “Crater Face,” when he raced against “Greased Lightning,” driven by the film’s good guy, John Travolta’s Danny Zuko. Hell’s Chariot is a 1949 Mercury Eight, a very cool car by any measure. Still, without its pedigree papers, the Chariot wouldn’t have qualified as best in show even in Encinitas on June 17th. And until recently, it was regarded as one of those things like the Ark or the Grail — wondrous artifacts that will just never be found.

David Desure has been interested in the custom car movement for about 50 years. Like Dan Dorsey and most tinkerers who came of age in the last century, he learned the craft from his father in the family garage. Desure says he was “mesmerized by the colors, the sounds, the attention to detail and the attention these cars received. The hotrod movement pretty much started when guys returning from WWII bought cars from the ’30s and ’40s and tried to make them faster by removing fenders and making other modifications to reduce weight. Back then, driving a hotrod was comparable to being in a gang.” Films from the 1940s to 1960s like Devil on Wheels and Hotrods to Hell illustrate his point.

“Hotrod culture came and went and was basically dead until Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top brought it roaring back to life with his 1933 Ford Eliminator. Because of the band’s videos, there were more 1933 Fords on the road in 1990 than Henry Ford ever built. Of course, most of them were kit cars, which are made of fiberglass, look good, and are about a third the price.”

All go, no show

Today’s cars are peachy. They go fast, brake quickly, don’t pollute, only make noise when they talk to you, and park themselves. And unlike their forebears, which could pass anything but a gas station, they are economical, with features a ‘57 T-Bird would squirt oil over. But style has suffered. According to Desure, “I’m a lifelong car guy, so I can tell a 1955 Chevy a mile away. However, without seeing the logo, I can’t tell the difference between a BMW and an Audi. Seven or eight years ago, I went looking to buy a ‘49 to ‘51 Mercury. I located one in Orange County. The ad had a photo of the car along with the words, ‘Must sell; need money.’ It was listed for $15,000, which was such a low price that it made me suspicious it might be a fake ad. When I called the number, it went straight to voice mail. I left a message saying I would buy the car that day. I called again and again, but got a phone machine each time. I googled the phone number from the ad and found it was a shop in Huntington Beach called Papke Enterprises. The owner, Bill Papke, specialized in Mercury and Ford parts from ‘49 to ‘51. I had bought parts from him for years. Sadly, Bill had passed away a week prior, and I figured someone who didn’t like him had put out a fake ad to mess with him by blowing up his phone machine. My business partner Scott Byrum said we should drive over and see if there were any cars for sale.”

Desure told Byrum, “‘Papke was a one-man operation, and there won’t be anybody at the shop if we go there.’ I was ready to forget about the car, but Scott insisted. He picked me up at eight that morning. When we got there, the place was locked up tighter than a drum. A couple minutes later, this big guy pulls up and shouts, ‘Who the hell are you guys?’ I told him we were there to look at a car, and he said that all the cars had been sold except for one, and that it was stuck on a hoist and they couldn’t get it down because the hydraulics were broken on the hoist. When Scott asked what the car was, the guy said it was a ‘49 Grease Mercury. I know cars, but I had never heard of a Grease Mercury, and said, ‘That must mean it’s leaking oil everywhere.’ The guy shot back, ‘Oh yeah, smart ass? Ever see the movie Grease?’ Right then, I felt my heart sink into my stomach, and I said, “Are you telling me that the one car everyone has been looking for for 35 years is behind that door; the car that urban legend says was the only one to survive the filming of the movie Grease? Prove it.’ He answered, ‘I can’t prove it, but I know it’s the car.’”

The man took the two treasure hunters into the shop. “The car was stuck on the hoist, under a cover. This was not the car in the photo. The bottom was caked with mud, which I thought might have been there from the race scene in the L.A. River. Scott being Scott, he had the car on the ground in 30 seconds, and we could see it was just a shitbox without paint, and modified with a Chevrolet motor. Whatever it had once been, they had screwed it up. I opened the trunk, and all the pyrotechnics were in there. I was excited, but turned to the guy and said, ‘Without proof of this being Hell’s Chariot, all you have is a Mercury with the roof cut off. You saying it’s Hell’s Chariot doesn’t increase the value.’”

Desure and Byrum were ready to buy the car anyway, hoping against hope that they could authenticate it later, “but the guy said we couldn’t have it then, that we had to return the next day to get the title. If this was Hell’s Chariot, I couldn’t let it out of my sight, and I told him so. I offered to sleep in the shop that night, and he repeated that I needed to return the following day at eight. After a sleepless night, I showed up at eight the next morning, and he’s not there. At nine, he’s still not there. I call him repeatedly. No answer. When at 9:30 he’s still not there, I’m screaming. He showed up at 10.”

Desure closed the deal. “Once I had the title in hand, I called Paramount and talked to a woman in the archive department. She said they couldn’t authenticate the car because they didn’t build it. ‘The only person who could authenticate it,’ she said, was ‘the man we hired to build it in 1977, Eddie Paul.’ I got Eddie’s phone number, called him, and told him I thought I had found Hell’s Chariot. ‘Oh, really?’ he replied, and immediately hung up. I called back and told him my story. He said, ‘Look, I get 20 calls a year from people just like you; the car you think you have no longer exists.’ Then I told him about some welding on the rear frame rails. When I did, he told me to send him a picture of what I had described. I sent him a photo, and he called right back and asked where I was. I said ‘Huntington Beach,’ and he said, ‘Stay right where you are; I’ll see you in an hour.’ An hour later, he shows up, looks under the car, stands up, shakes my hand, and says, ‘Congratulations on winning the lottery; this is Hell’s Chariot, the only car left of the ones I built for the movie.’ I asked him if he would go on record saying that, and he said, ‘I’ve waited 35 years to do that; it would be an honor.’ Eddie always accompanied Scott and me when we did TV shows like Good Morning America and countless others to talk about the car. God bless him.”

Like the Ark of the Covenant from Raiders of the Lost Ark, Hell’s Chariot is in a location that few would suspect; under a tarp in a garage in the backcountry of San Diego. I know. I have seen it, sat behind the wheel, and felt the power of… well, not much, really. To me, it’s an Oz flying monkey, the first Cabbage Patch doll, the golden ticket from Willy Wonka. To car guys, however, it’s the stuff dreams are made of.

As to the future of Hell’s Chariot, both Desure and Byrum agree that it belongs somewhere where the public can enjoy seeing it.

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