Get your motor runnin’ (again)

The 1970 Pontiac GTO sat abandoned in a barn. It had been there awhile. A long while, actually: around 24 years. Its once shiny, sporty wheels had sunk six inches into the barn’s muddy dirt floor. Raccoons had established a boarding house that welcomed countless residents over the decades. Cornstalks and straw had found their way inside, too.

“It was,” says Dan Hickey, owner of Natural Stone Creations in Franklin, “very rough.”

The GTO, however, was about to have a Cinderella moment. It belongs to Hickey’s father, Dave Apple. And Hickey was planning a complete restoration of the GTO as a surprise gift for his dad.

Car“That was it,” explains Hickey. “I decided that night that I was going to have (the GTO) restored. It was the least I could do after all he has done for me.”

Apple, now 73, owned the GTO when he married Hickey’s mother. It was the first new car he had ever bought.

“We took many trips in the car,” Hickey says. “Many hot rides in the car that had no air-conditioning. It was the first car that I drove. It was the car I watched my dad work on (and) that got me interested in cars. After a few fender benders, I always dreamed of restoring it back to original. Dave drove the car back and forth to work at Cummins Engine until my mom told him to park the car. It looked horrible.”

His parents’ overseas trip gave Hickey the leeway to jumpstart the long-desired restoration. He freed the GTO from its barn accommodations, parked it inside Natural Stone Creations and began researching shops that specialize in car restoration. On his frequent trips to see a certain client, he always passed Riley Customs in Martinsville. One day, he swung left into the shop’s parking lot.

“I met with Phil (Riley, the shop’s owner), was impressed by his shop and decided he was the man for the job,” Hickey says.

Riley had a waiting list of five months. After that, it took another four months to restore the GTO. But restore it he did, although it was no simple job.

“It sat there in the dirt so long that it just sank into the ground and the back end of the car just got eaten up,” Riley says. “The frame was actually in the ground, and it deteriorated the frame so badly that it was broken in a couple of places and was so rusty that we couldn’t fix it. So we had to buy a new frame. We had to put a lot of new sheet metal in. It was a trunk floor and the whole tail light panel and the corner panels and the wheel wells.”

Everything in the front, however, could be restored. Even the original transmission, rear axle, radiator and engine could be salvaged, despite the large raccoon nest prominently positioned over the latter. The wiring, however, had been chewed through and needed to be replaced.

Jamie Edgerton with Reliant Automotive and Machine restored the engine, while Jon Travers of Coverall Custom Upholstery brought the interior back to life.

“It was really special,” Riley says of the project. “I love doing Pontiacs, period. My car is a Pontiac, a 1963 Tempest. I’ve had it for a number of years. I’ve always had a Pontiac in my garage.”

In late July, after wrapping up 672 hours of manual labor on the GTO, Riley drove the pristine, gleaming, transformed vehicle to Greenwood’s The Suds drive-in restaurant, where crowds gather on summer Saturdays to see classic and muscle cars proudly displayed by owners. There, Hickey revealed his surprise to Apple.

A video made for Riley Customs captures the moment, including Apple sliding into the driver’s seat of his GTO for the first time in 25 years, wiping tears from his eyes as he says, “This is unbelievable. I got a car back that I bought in September of ’69.”

“It was amazing,” Hickey says. “It was well worth the wait.” — Julie Cope Saetre