LINCOLN, Neb. — It was a bathtub of a car, a shapeless, four-door, post-war Packard.
And this was the late 1960s, when most of his classmates at East High were coveting cool cars, more muscular cars, like Camaros and Mustangs, Chargers and Chevelles.
But Steve Rall knew what he wanted, even before he had his license. The teenager had been hooked on ’49 Packards since seeing Hot Rod magazine’s photos of the Flintstone Flyer, a four-door dragster that could pop wheelies off the line.
“At that time, most of those cars were obsolete, and nobody wanted them,” he told the Lincoln Journal Star (http://bit.ly/2cB96hS). “But I was kind of eccentric. In my 15-year-old head, I thought, ‘God, I want to get one of those, too.'”
Rall put an ad in the Lincoln Journal and, in 1967, found his first real ride for $60.
He drove the De Luxe Eight all through high school, pausing to pose for a photo in his father’s driveway, a shaggy teen in a jean jacket leaning against an 18-year-old tank. That car carried him to his afterschool job at the Skelly station, on dates, to cruise O Street.
Then it drove out of his life in 1970, when his father, Frank, traded it for a Packard limousine.
By then, though, Rall was hooked on obscure autos, and he’s since rescued dozens — Thunderbirds and Kaisers and Frazers and even more Packards — hauling them home, rebuilding them, sometimes selling them to make room for the next one.
So he wasn’t surprised when his phone buzzed earlier this month. His friend Scott Johnson was looking for an old car, and had found a ’49 Packard in a north Lincoln repair shop.
Johnson sent photos, hoping Rall would know something about that model.
“I started looking at it and I said, ‘Huh. That’s a lot like the one I had in high school.'”
“Then I looked closer and I said, ‘That’s exactly like the one I had in high school.'”
In the past 46 years, Rall graduated, grew up, got married and then got divorced.
He lived in California and tried to make it as a musician. He returned to Lincoln, where he co-owned a recording studio for years, produced and voiced radio commercials and jingles, and worked in print advertising.
He sold stereos and then, nearly 20 years ago, he started selling fitness equipment.
He kept opening hoods, getting his hands dirty.
The years stacked up, and then the decades. He’s in his 60s now, though he doesn’t feel much older than the shaggy teen leaning against a fender in his father’s driveway.
But in all of that time, he didn’t give much thought to his first car, and what it was doing since it was last a part of his life.
“For 46 years, that car dropped off the radar. Never saw it again and never expected to.”
The day Johnson sent him the photo, Rall pulled out old pictures of his first Packard. He compared the two. The strange but cool gray paint. The tiny piece of trim missing from the same spot on both — low on the pillar between the doors. The faint scrape in the rear passenger door.
He was getting persuaded.
He dug out the vehicle identification number of his old car — recorded on an index card — and drove to Olston’s Auto Repair, where the Packard sat.
He was certain.
“I opened the hood and looked at the engine and there was my car,” he said. “It was absolutely unchanged.”
It felt like a time machine inside. The interior was so original, so familiar: wood grain on the dash, buttons on the seat.
“It was a weird feeling, 46 years. Man, a lot of water under the bridge since I last saw the car.”
Rall even crawled around, certain he’d find some small piece of garbage he’d dropped as a teenager, another tangible link to his younger self.
Outside, his Packard hadn’t fared as well, weather-bitten by sun, snow and rain. It was rusty but not rusted through; those cars were built to endure, he said, with a thick steel skin.
He learned a little bit about where it had been most of his life, but not much. It was on the road for at least a few more years after they sold it, based on an inspection sticker. It was last owned by an old man whose family was recently cleaning out his storage unit.
This Packard was parked there in the weeds, so they called their mechanic, Toby Malousek, who owns Olston’s.
Yours if you want it, they told Malousek. Otherwise, we’re scrapping it.
“I said, ‘Don’t do that, there might be somebody looking for parts,'” Malousek said.
He had it towed to his shop, put in a new battery and got it running. He listed it on Craigslist but had little interest. He had decided to keep it, maybe tool around in the old car on weekends, when a customer saw it, and that eventually led to Rall reuniting with his first car.
His friend Johnson urged him to buy it: “It’s come back to you. You’ve got to rescue it.”
Rall thought about it, but not for long. He paid $850, more than 10 times what he paid in 1967. He’ll likely put as much as another $10,000 into it, getting it road-worthy, preparing the body, giving it fresh paint, going through the interior, turning back the clock.
“If this would have been just another ’49 Packard, I would have looked at it and thought, ‘That’s cool. I used to have one.’ But I would have kept going.”
“Someone sent this to me, I guess.”
Information from: Lincoln Journal Star, http://www.journalstar.com
This AP Member Exchange was shared by the Lincoln Journal Star.