ROAD TRIP to DES MOINES
In 1982 Phil Waters makes the trip from Manchester, England, to the US, to visit the Lead Sled Spectacular in Des Moines Iowa.
By Phil Waters
Driving The Rebel to the KKOA Lead Sled Spectacular, 1982.
Ever since I was a young kid I have been mad about cars. Back in the early 1960s when I was around ten years old I came across a copy of ‘Custom Cars Annual 1959’. It was in a pile of old US magazines for sale in a department store in my home city of Manchester, England. The one with Larry Watson’s panel painted ’58 Thunderbird on the cover. The magazine cost me very little money to buy and I still have it! Inside were photographs of the top custom cars of the day and a major feature on one of the guys that built such cars: Joe Bailon. I was very struck by the design and look of his wonderfully restyled cars even though the black & white photographs obviously did not show the ‘Candy Apple’ colours for which Joe is famous.
Many years later, when I had started to mess around with real cars, I put together a traditionally styled roof chopped custom car based on a 1958 Austin A55 sedan. The influence of that old magazine was still strong! Then I saw a photograph in the British magazine ‘Hot Rod & Custom UK’ that showed an old Bailon built 1950 Mercury that was owned by a guy called Sterling Ashby in Minneapolis/St Paul. I decided to make contact, managed to track down a mailing address, and wrote a letter about my admiration for Bailon built custom cars.
Some time after this Hot Rod & Custom UK magazine decided to organise a visit to the Street Rod Nationals to be held in St Paul, July 1982. I must have mentioned in one of my letters to Kathy that I was considering going on this trip. I received a very quick reply inviting me to come and stay at their home, extending my visit so that we could also attend the Lead Sled Spectacular the following weekend. Not only that, but Joe Bailon was scheduled to be the guest of honour at that event!
And so it was that whilst all the other guys on the magazine trip were taken to their hotel for a week…I was met at the airport by Kathy & Sterling in The Rebel, a 1950 Mercury custom, and taken to their home. I was obviously quite tired and jet-lagged, but we managed to watch ‘American Grafitti’ on the VHS player that evening…a great start to two weeks of hot rod heaven!
Tom Philpot’s ’48 Ford “Artic Gold” cloned after a ClarKaiser custom from the 1950’s and Bob Drake brought his restored Jack Stewart 1941 Ford originally built in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s by the Ayala’s and the Barris Shop.
Our first weekend was spent at the NSRA Street Rod Nationals, which is a whole other story and photograph album. Suffice to say it was fantastic! During the week that followed I was asked what I might like to do and replied that I would really love to go to a drive in-movie. We didn’t have such things back in England…there would be no point as the movies would have to have weather-appropriate titles such as ‘Singin’ in the Rain’ or ‘Rain Man’! But I digress.
So Kathy, Sterling and myself climbed into The Rebel and went to the local drive-in movie theatre, hung the speakers on the window and enjoyed cherry cokes whilst watching the newly released movie ‘E.T.’…fantastic!
We also went to an ’emergency cruise’ one evening with the Crusin’ Customs car club, probably to make arrangements for the convoy of customs to Des Moines. Plus lots of other interesting stuff during my stay which included visits to various folks’ homes to see what they had stashed away in their garages, and an expedition to a junkyard in Fountain City Wisconsin to rummage around the vintage tin and view the yard owner’s collection of classics, muscle cars and even a Model A Ford that lived in his sitting room.
Finally the second weekend arrived and we hit the road at a very early hour, bound for Des Moines, Iowa. Myself and Kathy were in The Rebel and Sterling was in his pickup truck towing the Bailon Merc on a trailer. We met up with other members of the Crusin’ Customs and drove for a couple of hours before a breakfast stop in Albert Lea where the first of my photographs were taken. Mike Key, the British photographer had joined the convoy to cover the event for the UK magazines and at some point on the freeway came past the line of customs to get the driving shots that appear in his ‘Lead Sleds’ book. Kathy had invited me to drive The Rebel for a few freeway miles and so that was how I came to appear in Mike’s book driving the car. She has been constantly quizzed about who the driver was in the photos ever since!
Kathy and Sterling Ashby with Joe Bailon talking about the Sonny Morris Mercury Joe built in 1956. This was the first time Joe saw the car in a long time. Sterling found the car in 1973. Joe Bailon would help with the restoration a couple years later.
We reached Des Moines in the early afternoon and went to the event headquarters hotel to register, although we weren’t staying there. Kathy had arranged for us to stay at a nearby friend’s house for the weekend…I’m not too sure about the name but it may have been Bob Butterley the pinstriper. Somebody correct me if I’m wrong.
Then onward to the State Fairgrounds to help unload the Bailon Merc and begin to take photographs. I even took my turn on the entry gate welcoming attendees and the like. In the evening we went back to the headquarters hotel to hang out, look at the cars in the sunset and generally have a great time. I was introduced to Pat Ganahl, a writer for whom I have a huge amount of respect having enjoyed his many thoughtful and informative hot rodding articles over the years. Another time we went to George the Chilli King’s drive-in restaurant where they had car-hops on roller skates serving food to your car just like in ‘American Grafitti’…wonderful!
I spent a lot of the time at the show wandering around taking photographs, and some of the best ones were taken when Joe Bailon was reunited with the Merc custom he originally built for Sonny Morris back in the 1950s. My pictures show him chatting with Kathy and Sterling, possibly discussing the eventual restoration of the car. There was so much to see and do, copies of old car magazines to be bought and more Mercs to look at than I’ve seen before or since! Another outstanding car was the Sam Barris Buick, and I managed to get a few shots whilst Mike Key had his professional shoot set up! Sorry Mike!
At the close of the event Joe presented trophies to the winning exhibitors, and everyone present had the chance to get a signed print of his iconic Chevy custom ‘Miss Elegance’. Then the long return journey back thru’ the fading evening light in convoy once again, tired but blissfully happy!
Before my flight back home to England I decided to have all my photographs printed to avoid any possible damage en route, some 25 film cassettes in all and over 500 prints. Kathy kindly took them to a local photo store and promptly almost brought the place to a standstill with all the pictures coming through! I hope you all enjoy looking at a selection of them and maybe those of you that were also at the event will have your own great memories and stories to tell.
YELLOW… Ken Fenical’s Posies 40’s styled 1936 Ford, super smooth chopped ’50 Merc, Marv Englert’s chopped ’50 Chevy Coupe, and Donnie Malinkovich interesting looking darker yellow Shoebox with Caddy taillights.
Bright yellow stripes on heavily chopped red ’50 Merc, Jim Musgrave’s candy red ’51 Mercury, The “Green Flame” Mercury in wonderful purple with, what else green flames, Ron Dolson’s unique “Nascar themed” ’50 Merc in red with yellow to orange flames.
Finally I cannot close this article without paying tribute to Kathy and Sterling Ashby, better known to some as ‘Mr. Merc’, for the kind hospitality freely given, their great sense of humour and fun and the enduring friendship I now have with these wonderful people as a result of all this. Special thanks also to Kathy for letting me drive The Rebel, truly a dream come true…
Go to PART TWO of the 1982 Road Trip to Des Moines.
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