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Larry Pointer Files

December 12, 2015

Keepers of the Flame

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Written by: Larry Pointer
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KEEPERS OF THE FLAME

 

I looked around me, feeling out of Time, and out of place. Until, down the row I spotted an old friend, a Conquistador survivor.

 
Unique is what we seek. Bizarre is what we are.

Barry Wright about summed it up. It was the Fourth of July, we had come to a car show put on by the KARZ Club in my old hometown, Sheridan, Wyoming. It was a big deal. The city fathers had blocked off the entire Main Street. Block after block were parked beautiful street rods, all tricked out in shiny billet and mile-deep clear-coat paint. Modern powertrains were nestled under the hoods of bodies restored to better than showroom new detail, right down to the chrome sparkle.

Chrome trim. Back in the day, the Conquistadors had stripped these very ornaments, handles and trim pieces from their cars. They melted them down into the pot metal they then poured into molds to create their distinctive car club plaques.
Ahh, nostalgia. Those Conquistadors plaques hung from traditional custom cars that cruised this same Main Street, back 1955. Now, we were looking at 2010.

Barry Wright and I had driven down from Billings, Montana to enter the show. Barry had a chopped one-ton ’49 Chevy panel truck in rustic patina. On its broad side panels, you could just make out some faded, hand-painted lettering: “Jackson’s Cookies”. With the help of Barry and Jack Whittington, customizer Larry Lahren had deftly chopped the panel truck in a single night, tucking the side panels down behind the line of belt molding. Barry hadn’t the heart to obliterate those “Jackson’s Cookies” signs. He even had his daughter faux paint his bodywork to blend into the aged finish.
 

CCC-pointer-keepers-flame-car-show-2010Barry Wright’s with its patina chopped ’49 Chevy panel, I had my Diamond T in multi tone primer parked next to it at the KARZ show in Sheridan 2010.

 


CCC-pointer-keepers-flame-car-show-2010-02Both our cars drew a crowd all day.

 



My ’36 Diamond T truck stood next to Barry’s panel. It, too, had a coat of many colors. Three shades, at least, of primer. Nine-years-and-counting of hand forming each and every body panel. It was my retirement therapy take on Streamline Moderne, built from the ground up out of donor cabs, round rod, tubing, trailer fenders and sheetmetal. Even the wheels were assembled from parts. ’36 Buick artillery wheel centers; ’91 Chevy truck rims (so I could run radial tires). Welded together for me by Johnny Sprocket. Honest, that’s his name. Isn’t that the coolest name for a machinist?
Now, you can buy re-pop artillery style wheels for “the look”. Oh, well.
 

CCC-pointer-keepers-flame-wheelsThe artillery wheels specially made for my ’36Diamond T truck.

 


CCC-pointer-keepers-flame-car-show-2010-00Bob Prill’s old campaigner, the ’31 Chrysler coupe at the 2010 KARZ show. Looking like a Time Capsule from 1962.

 



In present company, these two misfits could have been called “works in progress”. More often, “rat rods” was heard from passers-by. I looked around me, feeling out of Time, and out of place. Until, down the row I spotted an old friend, a Conquistador survivor.
It was Bob Prill’s old campaigner, the ’31 Chrysler coupe. Looking like a Time Capsule, it stood there proudly wearing the same coat of gold it had when it was pictured in the November 1962 Hot Rod magazine. When it had competed at the Winternational drags in 1962. It had survived. Right down to the lettering on its side.
Lettering! On the old veteran’s trunk lid was painted a graphic: Keeper of the Flame.
 

CCC-pointer-keepers-flame-pin-stripeSteve “Shooter” Benth added the graphic, “Keeper of the Flame”. The torch of the graphic was a tribute to the Benth brothers’ military time together in Germany, and the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich.

 



A crowd had gathered around the old coupe. Tommy Manning and his buddy Danny were up from Gillette, taking pictures for Jalopy Journal’s H.A.M. B. I didn’t feel out of place any more. I now saw most clearly all these cars, this car show, was a nod to the past. Here was tribute to the legacy of the Conquistadors. And to all small town history of the traditional custom cars and hot rods.

That night the KARZ Club held a banquet at the old Shrine building. Awards were handed out. I gave my door prize to the young fellow sitting beside me. He had brought his 70’s family pickup down from the Northern Cheyenne Reservation. He’d re-done it all himself. This was his first car show. All of us at the table could see ourselves in this young man. And somehow it didn’t seem all that long ago. Now, it was our turn to pass it on. As I sat there watching the pride on that kid’s face, my mind kept going back to that ’31 Chrysler coupe and that graphic: Keeper of the Flame.

Caretaker of the Prill coupe is Buddy Benth. The graphic was done by his brother Steve “Shooter” Benth, an accomplished pinstriper. As boys they had grown up in the neighborhood of Cecil Wentz’s garage. It turns out they had taken note of all the comings and goings at the shop. They were totally fascinated with the cars. To this day they can recite text and verse the creative changes made to those earlier cars by the Conquistadors. They and their friends literally became the new kids on the block. Little did we know it but we already were passing on the torch.
 

CCC-pointer-keepers-flame-01Bob Prill’s ’31 Chrysler coupe back in the early 1960’s.

 




Prill’s Chrysler coupe, too, was passed forward. As Bob moved into family life, responsibilities at the sheetmetal shop, and increasingly expensive interests in NHRA drag racing, after Winternationals, where he had been Tech Advisor for the B Gas coupes and sedans, he sold the Chrysler to Bruce Sheeley, less the ’50 Olds with its six 2’s, and the B&M Hydro. Sheeley’s older brother Glenn had wrecked a ’63 Catalina; its 421 cu. in. engine and four-speed soon resided in the coupe, a terror to all challengers.

The Benth brothers are a real study. There were four of them, sons of an accomplished musician, local band leader, Bud Benth and a mother up to the challenge of raising four, uh, shall we say precocious boys. Buddy, the oldest, showed his mechanical genius early. At age five, he tore down an ailing family alarm clock and put it back in order. This led to trips to the local clock repair shop, and a steady stream of watches and clocks to challenge him.

Not to be out-done, Steve, two years younger, figured anything Buddy could do, he could do better, and faster. Once Buddy started school, four-year-old Steve crowded beside him for homework and they learned to read together. No wallflowers, their outdoor activities included beaning each other with semi-lethal scimitars, and taking turns launching each other down a steep gravel hill in a cut-down hot rod of a perambulator.
 
CCC-pointer-keepers-flame-model-airplain
 
CCC-pointer-keepers-flame-ala-kart-kit
 
Buddy’s mechanical bent took him into bicycles for all four boys, and then the world of model airplanes. When funds were short, the lack of a motor was compensated for by the brothers fighting for turns swinging a model plane over their heads with a rope in the backyard. And then they graduated to model cars. For Buddy, the Ala Kart kit was his favorite. Steve began to show his artistic talents in paint finishes hand-rubbed with toothpaste.

Buddy recalls he was in seventh grade, when the buzz went around school one day that Bob Prill’s 1931 Chrysler coupe was sitting outside the shop. No matter it was in the opposite direction from home, Buddy could hardly contain himself until the school bell rang. He sprinted all the way to the Prill shop to see that coupe. He just walked around and around the car, trying to absorb every unique feature of it. It set off a craving, a gnawing inside that never left him. An impossible dream? How could he know then, that this very same car would one day become his own? Never give up on your dreams.

Then Buddy entered the military service in 1968, to hone his mechanical skills in keeping the troops in forward motion in Viet Nam. Steve regularly sent letters from home to help cheer him through those dark days. Cartoons and “weirdos” peopled the letters. Strangely, when Buddy returned Stateside and was reassigned to a post in Germany, Steve had entered the service and was assigned to Germany, too. Munich was where they would meet up, for beer fests and tours of the 1972 Summer Olympics grounds.
 

CCC-pointer-keepers-flame-scott-54-buickScott Stalick with his flamed primer gray 1954 Buick mild custom.

 



CCC-pointer-keepers-flame-beau-50-chevyBeau Benth with his 1950 Chevy steak-bed truck.

 



The Benth brothers’ bond goes deep. In 2015, I was privileged to interview the pair at Steve “Shooter” Benth’s shop. Buddy had brought out the Prill and Jacobson Chrysler coupe. Scott Stalick showed up in his 54 Buick custom, and Buddy’s son Beau arrived in a red oxide primered 50 Chevy pickup with that just right stance. As we shared stories, Steve took a box off a shelf in the back of the shop. From it, he pulled out a worn envelope. He handed it to his brother. It was a letter Buddy had written to Steve from Viet Nam. It was a moment I will never forget. Miraculously, I had sense enough to take a picture of that scene.
 
CCC-pointer-keepers-flame-nam
 

CCC-pointer-keepers-flame-nam-letterBuddy Benth with one of the letters he had written to his brother Steve while serving in Viet Nam in 1970. Needles to say it brought back memories.

 



Both Buddy and Shooter would come to have bodyshops. Buddy was to build a new shop on the footprint of the old Ideal Body that had transformed Richard Rumley’s Plymouth Belvedere. Shooter would first partner with Harry Schwartz’s brother John. The pair came to develop a specialty in Corvette fiberglas work, and for a time Frenchy Holbert returned to work with them.
Roy Schwartz, with family help, resurrected a ’32 Ford panel truck, and toured much of the West Coast in it before passing it on to the well-known rodder, Rick Eccli. John Schwartz built up the family International pickup with the Knox box. Its powertrain is 390 Ford. John picked out a silver blue metallic reminiscent of brother Harry’s ’51 Ford, when he painted the renovated “Cornbinder”.
 

CCC-pointer-keepers-flame-32-panelThe Schwartz boys are with Linda Prill’s parents in the photo (Bob Prill’s wife’s parents) of the ’32 Ford Panel Truck. This was before it was painted silver blue metallic.

 



John Schwartz then struck out on his own. But one of the treasures he holds dear is Frenchy’s custom ’63 split-window Corvette coupe. Today it’s as good a barn find as you could dream of. John has freshened the body and it stands with wide fender flares awaiting a final coat of deep metallic gunmetal grey.
As his reputation as a class pinstriper grew, Shooter next took over the business of Conquistador Ed’rd Lawrence’s father-in-law, Phil Barker. The location? Bill Brown’s old bodyshop where it all began for the Conquistadors in 1955. What goes around, comes around.
 

CCC-pointer-keepers-flame-vette-01Frenchy Holbert ’63 Corvette split-window back in the 1960’s.

 


CCC-pointer-keepers-flame-vette-02Frenchy Corvette is now owned by John Schwartz who has it all ready for a new paint job in deep metallic gunmetal grey.

 




I well recall one snowy day in the early Autumn of 1995. My father was gravely ill. My wife Pat had passed away that Spring. I was making regular trips to Sheridan with my youngest son. That day, in a nostalgic mood, I thought I’d drive my son past the old Conquistadors hangout at Bill Brown’s bodyshop. I’d heard that the pinstriper Shooter still had the old shop going. As I turned the corner, I was stunned with an electric shock.
There, covered in snow alongside the old pea-green building, was another familiar form. No mistaking, it was what was left of my old 1932 Ford sedan. From the street I only could see the rear of the body, but there it was. Chopped. Channeled. Still with full rear fenders. And the unmistakable distinctive rear window I’d grafted from a ’35 Ford pickup.
I don’t recall seeing Shooter that day. My son took a single black-and-white photo. And the next time I came by the shop, the ’32 was gone. It would be some time before I would catch up with Shooter, and fill in the blanks.
 

CCC-pointer-keepers-flame-32-Ford-01This is how my son captured the remains of my channeled and chopped 1932 Ford project in 1995.

 



It all started out with good intentions. Purists would have been proud of us. Gary “Slim” Richards had developed a deepening appreciation for the restoration of older cars. Model A Fords were highly collectible in the ‘60s. Actually, Fords before the Fifties of all sorts of less than four doors. We used to joke that there wasn’t a ’40 Ford around that hadn’t passed through Slim’s fingers at one time or another.

But there were bigger fish to fry, and Slim became partial to Packards. Soon, weekend forays began to extend far afield, looking for those rare barn finds, or the “back Forty” fencerows lined with cars that had seen better days. There were three of us then, Slim, Blaine Murphy and me. I used to call us “The Three Musketeers”. Slim was ever searching for the collectable Packard. Blaine was restoring a ’34 Ford tudor. I liked the early Buicks.
 

CCC-pointer-keepers-flame-found-buickA ‘40 Buick phaeton I rescued from a ditchbank… I never finished it as the padded topped custom I dreamt about though.

 

I was trying to walk the straight and narrow. Blaine’s ’34 really was “cute” as factory sorts go, but… In the back of my fevered brain an image kept calling out to me. Among my magazines was the November, 1960 issue of Car Craft. On the cover in full profile was Dave Stukey’s 1932 Ford tudor, the first (and best to me) version of Lil Coffin! The radical channeling. Full fendered. And the top not only was Not chopped, but in a sheer stroke of genius, Stukey had given it a wide rear window! To me this hot rod spoke Custom.
 

CCC-pointer-keepers-flame-lill-coffin-01Dave Stukey’s 1932 Ford tudor first version… huge inspiration for when I did my own 32 Ford.

 



I did say I had an addiction to custom cars, didn’t I? I located a burned-out tudor body. Then Slim stumbled across a better one, at an abandoned homestead back in the hills near Devil’s Tower. A road trip with a trailer brought that find home, too. All I needed now was a chassis. Schoolmate Cathy McDowell’s dad had an old beater he drove daily to work at the railroad. It wasn’t much to look at. Once it had been a sedan, but during the War it had been cut down to sport a box in back. Much of it was in tatters, but that little four-banger Model B had never let him down to the day he retired. And on that day, he reluctantly passed the title on to me.

The next day it was disassembled, down to the bare frame. Which had damaged frame horns. Not to worry, I picked up a ’34 frame from Blaine and grafted and boxed together a solid frame. For a front crossmember I used heavy channel iron. That eliminated the curved original and dropped the front considerably. I then split the wishbone, and added ’52 Ford truck steering. I mounted a ’50 Merc rearend with custom brackets to drop the ’32 spring an equal amount.
 

CCC-pointer-keepers-flame-mcmullen-02Tom McMullen famous flamed ’32 HiBoy roadster.

 


That last came on the advice of none other than Tom McMullen. I had seen where he had experimented with quarter elliptical springs to mount the rear end in his famous flamed ’32 HiBoy roadster. So, I wrote him. He kindly answered and, with accompanying photos, explained why he abandoned the radical suspension. Best to stick with the tried and true. Boy, do I wish I had that letter and photos today!

With a set of Hurst mounts I installed the ‘54 Buick engine out of my ’53 Ford Victoria custom, backed with a floorshift Cad LaSalle transmission Dick Holcombe had squirreled away. Then I commenced to build my own custom ’32 sedan.
I chopped the top about 2 1/2”, using parts from all the bodies I’d collected. A ’35 Ford pickup cab was located in a brush patch and I grafted that rear window into the back of the sedan, much as I’d seen done in the early Lil Coffin version. I channeled the body over the depth of the frame, leaving just enough clearance for running boards. I then cut away the rear fender wells and raised them up to compensate for the body channel, so I could run full fenders. I spent countless hours learning the hammer welding techniques that Valley Custom had demonstrated. I forever owe a debt of gratitude to my father-in-law Carl Church, for the tanks of acetylene and oxygen I ran through. He had a bottling franchise for RC Cola, Squirt and Nesbitt’s Orange soda, and a bottled gas business on the side.
 

CCC-pointer-keepers-flame-lill-coffin-02Two of the sketches I made of my dream 32 Ford, channeled, chopped…

 



Decent front fenders, grille shell and hood were hard to come by. Some pieces were from a ’32 Ford pickup. Finally, I had my mildly chopped, radically channeled, and full fendered ’32 sedan assembled, ready for finish bodywork. I gave it a protective coat of primer.
And then my “Forrest Gump” life changed forever. For many car guys it is a familiar story of career moves, family upheavals, re-treading to seek new futures. In the scheme of things, a car to play with just doesn’t wind up very high on the old priority list. It would not be until 30 years later until I would get that last glimpse of my 1932 custom at Bill Brown’s old shop.

And another 20 years before Shooter could fill me in on the ‘32’s sad story. I had stored the car with Harry Schwartz in ’66 when I moved to Oregon. It then was sold to Chuck Lloyd, another of the Benth boys’ generation filling the void as the Conquistadors exited, stage left. It was passed on through a series of dreamers, and then to Shooter Benth. Each time it was sold, parts would disappear. The Buick engine, it was rumored, had gone to a dirt track race car. Front fenders took a separate route. What was left in 1995 was, well, pretty pathetic. It turns out that it was only a matter of days later, that Shooter sold the 32 to “someone from South Dakota, maybe Rapid City.”
“That’s one,” Harry Schwartz quietly commented, “I wish we hadn’t let get away.”
 
CCC-pointer-keepers-flame-shop-2015Bill Brown’s shop how it looks in 2015, and the inset shows it it it heydays, 1959

 



Bill Brown’s shop where Conquistadors took their apprenticeship almost got away, too. Neighbors rose up to shut down Shooter’s operation, citing residential zoning violations. A long wrangle through the system came down to a decision from the city council. Several Conquistadors provided input, I testified as eye-witness to Bill Brown’s 1946 construction and early operation. Finally, a compromise was cut to allow Shooter a variance, but only for “as long as he should live”.
Dick Holcombe and Slim Richards, our sages of the Conquistador guild, might wryly note, “Guess that’s all the variance Life gives anyway. What’s fair’s fair.”
 

CCC-pointer-keepers-flame-shop-signOld Barkers Auto Body sign hangs above the doors.

 



When I visited the Benth brothers in 2015 following a Wyoming March snowstorm, as I mentioned, Buddy arrived at his brother’s shop in that venerable campaigner, the 31 Chrysler coupe. It now moved to the tune of a merry Oldsmobile, but not your grandfather’s 303. Buddy was able to fill in the gaps for us, since seeing the coupe in the high school parking lot in the early 60s. Marion Fisher had purchased the Chrysler shortly after his return from Viet Nam. It was not, but in a sense was, his first car back Stateside. Seems he had bought a new Olds Cutlass, but almost immediately had totaled it. He salvaged the running gear and, you guessed it, shoe-horned it into the empty engine bay of the old dragstrip star. With the help of the Benth brothers and friend Jim Barker.

Buddy Benth still coveted that car he had admired since grade school. But Marion Fisher never would consider letting it go. Then one day in 1989, Buddy picked up the local newspaper and there in the want ads was a photo of the Chrysler coupe. “The coupe’s for sale” was the lead line. Luckily, Buddy had just sold a Corvette he had built. No time was wasted getting over to Fisher’s, cutting a deal, and becoming the new caretaker of this car of Conquistador pedigree.
 

CCC-pointer-keepers-flame-2015Buddy Benth with the 31 Chrysler coupe. The inset photo shows how he bought it in the lat 1980’s sans lettering. I took these photos in March 2015, so many memories.

 



Buddy always was aware of the history that had become his to care for. In appearance, the car remains much the same as he remembered it from 1962. The car had been repainted in its Ford Autumn Gold paint, without lettering. But through the new coat of paint could be seen the marks of the razorblade used in cutting out the dragstrip racer’s distinctive lettering. Shooter Benth then meticulously re-lettered the sides. Today, it still has all the sassy attitude of the “Jacobson & Prill Special” that ran B/G class at Winternationals as number “111”. Buddy Benth did update some safety features. It now has disc front brakes, and a Ford 9” rearend, but still runs Marion Fisher’s Olds Cutlass powertrain. As a final touch, it seemed only natural for brother Shooter to add that graphic, “Keeper of the Flame”. The torch of the graphic was a tribute to the Benth brothers’ military time together in Germany, and the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich.

Don’t even ask Buddy Benth if he ever would part with the “Jacobson and Prill Special”.
As to the body of work of Buddy’s pinstriper brother, Steve “Shooter” Benth, therein lies yet another story in the Conquistador saga. Oh, and he still has the dashboard out of my old 32 Ford!

CCC-pointer-keepers-flame-32-Ford-dashSteve “Shooter” Benth always kept the dash of my old ’32 Ford Sedan… great! 

 



 
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About the Author

Profile photo of Larry Pointer
Larry Pointer
Larry Pointer is a fan of Rik Hoving and the Custom Car Chronicle. He was a member of the Conquistadors Car Club of Sheridan, Wyoming in the 1950s. As he looks back over a lifetime of passion for the styling of the traditional custom car, he writes in tribute to those who influenced him, and for those who carry on the torch of passion. He is retired from the National Park Service, a former college instructor and rodeo advisor, author of western history, and now realizing his dream in building "Neferteri", a streamline moderne custom, based on a 1936 Diamond T truck.




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One Comment


  1. Profile photo of Scott Stalick

    Love it! These articles keep getting better and better. I’m thinking that ’32 might be one to keep trying to hunt down.

    Thanks Larry for always doing so research and sharing these stories.

    Thanks Rik for hosting such a great and valuable forum for this stuff. It so unbelievably important to use in the younger generation!



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