CONQUISTADORS of SHERIDAN
The Conquistadors of Sheridan was an “unorganized” organization. It was just all about the cars. We had no clue we were writing our legacy in lacquer and lead.
By Larry Pointer
The Conquistador Car Club plaques hanging by chains from the rear bumpers of member’s cars really started something in Sheridan, Wyoming. Those crude plaques were COOL! The Conquistadors became the happening scene. The supply of pot metal plaques soon was exhausted as envy brought others with requests to “belong”.
A rear view of Jack and Frenchy’s cars with the Conquistador Car Club plaques.
There were no Robert’s Rules of Order here. This was an unorganized organization. It was just all about the cars. “Hanging out” just followed the cars, from driveways to gas stations to that most coveted Nirvana, an empty bay at a real bodyshop. The big driver was finding a place, any place to work on cars.
Harry Larsen reset the altitude of his Cairo Cream ’48 Buick convertible in the lot behind the school shops. He dragged some timbers beneath the car frame, and rolled the farm shop gas welder alongside. Finding the largest tip in the set, he lit the torch with the flint striker, and crawled under. Each coil spring was heated in turn until it dropped the frame onto the timber. Once the springs cooled he jacked up the car, removed the timbers, and let it down. Guess you’d call that old school.
I can still hear the straight pipes out of that Fireball straight eight making the sound of music. Funny, what goes around, comes around. If you go to a Facebook site called Salt Cat Racing, you can see a Bonneville Salt Flats streamliner, powered by a Buick in-line eight and highly re-engineered by Frank and Robin Morris. It’s set for over 200 mph class record runs this year. Oh, and the driver is a gutsy lady, Gail Tesinsky. Wife of well-known Billings, Montana based customizer and Bonneville 200 Club member, Ron Tesinsky.
Gail Tesinsky behind the wheel of Salt Cat II, with straight 8 Buick engine.
Harry Schwartz and Eddie Schunk, a local doctor’s kid, fell into their Nirvana early. Bodyman Bill Brown, the baker with my dad at the Veterans Hospital, was struggling to get his auto body business going. Family health problems had put him deeply in debt. Dr. Schunk offered Bill a deal, bartering work to write off medical expenses. Eddie, Harry, and Frenchy Holbert, were the real benefactors. Bill Brown let the boys use his shop and equipment. Soon, Bill Brown’s bodyshop was where it was at. Some of us getting work done, some just hanging out.
One afternoon, Harry and Frenchy ditched school and had just pulled up to Bill Brown’s door when the phone rang. Bill picked it up.
“If Frenchy and Harry are there,” came the voice of Principal Kuiper, “tell them they have exactly fifteen minutes to get back to class.”
They made it. Then came the dreaded call to the office. Sitting down across the huge desk from the Principal, they awaited their fate.
“Boys,” Kuiper looked up from his paperwork, “I have a problem. My daughter just wrecked our car. Do you think you can fix it?”
They certainly could, and did.
In his paint booth, Bill Brown kept his German Shepherd guard dog for night protection of the premises. The dog took his responsibilities seriously, 24/7, and during the day was chained to the wall, with a water dish within reach. Everyone pretty much stayed a chain’s length away from the guard dog.
One evening with the place all to himself, Harry Schwartz was welding up the rear fender seams on his ’51 Ford coupe. The way it was, you did with what you had, and for welding rod, we used our mothers’ coat hangers. (Later we would graduate to baling wire that held hay bales together. It didn’t have the impurities that coat hangers had.) With his welder’s goggles on and the acetylene torch sizzling along, Harry was in the moment, pretty much oblivious to all else in the Universe. Until, that is, he smelled something. Something burning. Jerking his goggles off, Harry discovered upholstery inside the car had ignited!
Harry Schwartz telling German Shepherd arm wrestling, from inside Bill’s old shop, where Harry was welding on his ’51 Ford.
Looking around in panic, Harry spied the dog dish. Thinking only of getting water to douse the burning upholstery, he ran into the paint booth. Just as he grabbed the water dish, the German Shepherd leapt up and grabbed Harry by the arm. A desperate tug-of-war ensued. Harry jerked one way, the dog braced himself and pulled back. He had a pretty good bite-hold onto Harry’s leather jacketed arm.
Finally, panic out-pulled protect, and Harry jerked away. What water hadn’t spilled was thrown into Harry’s coupe. It was just enough, until Harry could get his wits about him and grab the hose to end the firefight.
That was 1955, the year “Rebel Without A Cause” star James Dean was killed in a violent collision at a rural California highway junction. His “Little Bastard” Porsche 550 Spyder struck a customized ’50 Ford coupe that looked a little like the ’51 that Schatzy was building.
1956 saw rock and roll make it to the really big time, when the Ed Sullivan “Shew” hosted Elvis Presley, singing “Hound Dog”, and “Jailhouse Rock”. By 1956, the boys in Sheridan had fallen into another sweet arrangement. Cecil Wentz was leaving for California to pursue a career on the Sprint Car racing circuit. The garage behind his folks’ place along the creek at the edge of town became available. A deal was cut, and the Conquistadors had their own shop. It all was a pretty informal affair, but generally on week nights guys would show up to make mechanical repairs to keep their rides going. There were brakes to bleed, a shelled-out transmission to replace, an engine to swap out. Unlike the well-equipped shop of Bill Brown, this was just a garage with two bays, one longer, one shorter with a wood-fired stove.
Mostly, it was a place for guys to drop in and make their own entertainment. A happening thing, with wit and humor. Call and response in banter exchange. These were just a bunch of teen-aged, car-crazed kids, but these guys really had it going. Innovative improvisation. Like their adaptations of automotive style. Like Jazz. Dig? Then there was Richard Rumley:
“Fe fe fi fi fo fo fum. I smell smoke in the auditorium.”
“Charlie Brown. Charlie Brown. He’s a clown, that Charlie Brown”
“He’s gonna get caught. Just you wait and see.”
(Why’s everybody always pickin’ on me?)
Richard Rumley was our “Charlie Brown”. How many school assemblies were disrupted by his loud laugh? How many times did the school principal walk him down the aisle and out of the auditorium? The Coasters had to be singing about Richard Rumley. He was his own brass band, Richard Rumley. A young man set for success in retail sales.
I’m not sure Rumley ever was a Conquistador. But he had charisma, style, and always a restyled car, impeccably maintained. The one I remember most was a 1952 Plymouth Belvedere hardtop. New, it had been Sable Brown Poly and tan in a two-tone that divided uniquely off the roof in an S-shaped curve. Bob Noel’s Ideal Body shaved the car for Rumley and repainted it in a coral and cream combo, like that seen on the new ’56 Oldsmobiles. The popular car was twice featured in the high school yearbook, once in this two-tone paint, and again after it was redone in a solid white. Rumley replaced the grille with a striking ’53 Olds bar centered in the grille opening. For an engine he ran a Chrysler Spitfire Six, which necessitated mounting the radiator ahead of the stock brackets to gain length. Dual exhausts gave Rumley’s righteous ride that just right rumble. A mild custom, tastefully done.
I often envisioned the potentials of the full rounded shapes of Belvederes in customizing, and once drew my own version, with a front clip adapted from a Dodge from the same era.
Richard Rumley custom ’52 Belvedere b/w, but in Olds sun coral and shell beigein front of the Spot, a Skelly gas station.
Rumley worked at the Spot, a Skelly gas station. One winter weekend, Rumley, Conquistador Doug Smith and I tackled the filling of an offensive radio aerial hole in the fender. We didn’t have a welding set-up, and instead chose to try a fiberglas patch. “Pointer, how’r we gonna do this,” Rumley asked. “You’re the expert.”
“You brought the magazine. Read what it says how to do this.”
It turned out to be an itchy, messy, exercise. Followed by the unpleasant discovery that fiberglas cures out really, really hard. We smoothed it out, finally, but I don’t think I had fingerprints for at least a week after.
It is said it takes a village to raise a child. Looking back, I think the Conquistadors taxed the entire infrastructure of Sheridan, Wyoming. Yet, the older guys in the trades and businesses gave us encouragement. Just on the block of Kenny Hawkins’ Spot station, there was Bob Noel’s Ideal Body, Joe Parker’s Glass Shop, and Chuck Rossi’s Auto Electric, which also was the Dupont automotive paint source. Next door to the Spot, Ace Radiator was run by Gail Hill. Gail, especially, was the older brother I never had.
Annabelle Larsen, “Tank’s” full figured mom, was matriarch to us all. Her home was open to all, but Annabelle suffered no fools. Conquistador or cop, all loved and feared her.
Gary Richards 40 Ford convertible in background, left. He also owned the ’40 Cad LaSalle coupe in foreground, but purchased it in Billings, Montana with the “flames” already cobbled onto it.
One evening, in a ’40 Ford coupe, black with a grey front fender, “Slim” Richards sashayed around a corner and ran a pedestrian back up onto the curb. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw in horror that he had barely missed hitting our stern Algebra teacher! Discretion is the better part of valor, and Slim and Schatzy beat it for the Cecil Wentz garage down by the creek. Safely inside, the pair crouched down beside the tell-tale grey fender. Inside the darkened garage, one held a trouble light, while the other dipped a brush into a can of lacquer and painted the fender black to match the rest of the car. They heard a car coming. Quickly, they doused the light and laid low until it passed. It was a cop car. The police were looking for a black car with a grey fender. But they wouldn’t find one that night.
The Conquistadors attracted attention. Sometimes more than they bargained for. Some of the officers gave the fellows some slack, others were hard-nosed. One even kept a “most likely to wreck or worse” list, headed by Conquistadors. The worst you could call Chief of Police George Miller, though, was “long-suffering”. A better fit might have been “Saint” George.
By 1957, the scene had migrated to Prill Brothers sheetmetal shop. Bob Prill was emerging as a leading, and stabilizing, figure in the Conquistadors. Bob always had nice cars, and he had access to a well-appointed metalworking facility. The first car of Prill’s that I recall was a ’47 Ford two-door, a traditional black custom, nosed and decked, with fenderskirts and that popular tail-down, speedboat stance. But the times, they were a’changin’.
1957 was the year of the Russian satellite Sputnik, the first to orbit Earth in Space. All attention was attracted to the Heavens above, wondering the path of that basketball-sized contraption that emitted a Ping, Ping, Ping radio signal.
Radio! I had a Hallicrafter short-wave radio in my bedroom at home. When the word was out that Sputnik was going to pass directly above us that October, I couldn’t stand the suspense. Brad Jacobson and I ditched school, ran to my house, and tuned the old Hallicrafter to 20 MHz, the designated frequency. Then, there it was: Ping, Ping, Ping. The day the Space Age came to Sheridan, Wyoming.
What happened next, I think I can trace to page 77, of the Motor Trend Custom Cars 1955 Annual: Jay Everett’s “Astra” coupe! Everett was on the cutting edge of automotive styling. Instead of hammer-and-dolly adapting parts from one car onto another, this car was completely hand-formed from tubing and panels rolled and bent into new and exciting shapes. And Jay Everett was not alone. Rod & Custom editor Spence Murray was marshalling a who’s who of craftsmen in creating the Dream Truck. Over at the Barris Shop, the Golden Sahara rose like the proverbial Phoenix bird from the ruins of a ’53 Lincoln.
Bob Prill’s enthusiasm exploded. With Frenchy, Schatzy, and a kibbutzing crew, he would build a winged marvel of magnificence. Soon pieces of his humpty dumpty sedan were strewn all over the shop floor. Conduit rose in struts and arches over the Ford frame. Sheetmetal was curved in wings and things to conform to the arched armature. Soon, the boys were every which way over their heads. The project fizzled. And the car of the future went out the door, to rest in peace somewhere West of Sheridan.
Today, Harry Schwartz cares after a beautifully restored black ’47 Ford two-door sedan. Perhaps in penance for those sins of passions past. Putting humpty dumpty sedan back together again.
Bob Prill’s custom ’53 Chev. Bob’s grille shows a lot of similarities with Joe Santiago’s ’54 which was featured in Kustoms Illustrated #41.
After the frontier flight failure, Bob Prill turned to a 1953 Chevy two-door sedan. With Frenchy and the usual Conquistador suspects, he created a really remarkable “period perfect” (Oops, it was that period, wasn’t it) traditional custom car. Or, in looking back, non-traditional in the sense that he made changes that set it separate from others. The car was nosed and decked. The headlights and tail lights were frenched. For primer, Frenchy mixed half and half, red oxide and grey, to create a unique purple primer.
But from there, Prill deviated from the predictable. In his father’s metalworking shop, he constructed a truly unique grille within the ’53 oval housing. With copper tubing, Bob formed a series of concentric oval rings that followed the housing form. It was not until on the cover of the #41 issue of Kustoms Illustrated, in Joe Santiago’s ’54 Chevrolet hardtop that I would see anything that approached Bob Prill’s unique grille.
Only a single photograph of Prill’s ’53 was located. That image also shows Bob’s ingenuity in the body trim he assembled. It was ’56 Olds 98 trim, mounted upside down. His paint choice anticipated the next car he would own: 1958 Chevrolet Snowcrest White, with Sierra Gold in the lower panel set off by the Olds trim.
For a powertrain, Prill and friends installed an Olds mill, hooked up to a floorshift Cad LaSalle transmission, courtesy of Harry Larsen.
I’ve always wondered what became of that distinctive ’53 Chevy. Prill sold it in Thermopolis, Wyoming, and just lost track of it. By this time Bob Prill was settling into his father’s sheetmetal fabrication business. He was headed down the aisle of matrimony, and his cars would evolve back into the mainstream. The ’58 Chevy next in turn would be mildly reworked, but then traded for a new ’60 Corvette. That ’58 was nice. If I ever find photos of it, I’ll pass them along. Prill’s car interests also turned to a ’31 Chrysler coupe, powered by Oldsmobile and backed with a B&M Hydro transmission. This car, sans front brakes, he and “Jake” Jacobson campaigned over NHRA dragstrips regionally.
The Prill coupe from a car show, c 1960. I think the one in Sheridan at the old Studebaker dealership.
Bob Prill was unquestionably the leader of the band. He also was active in promoting sanctioned drag racing at approved dragstrips. In addition to becoming President of a changing membership of Conquistadors, he was appointed Regional Advisor to the National Hot Rod Association (NHRA). The Conquistadors, in turn, became a Charter Club of the NHRA, and were featured in the November, 1962 issue of Hot Rod Magazine.
There was another, most tragic, event that would contribute to the transformation of the Conquistadors Car Club. Sergeant P.C. Carmine of the Wyoming Highway Patrol lost his daughter in a car crash between Sheridan and Buffalo, Wyoming. It was on a treacherous stretch of road that had come to be known as dead man’s curve. At the end of a straight stretch of the old highway (now situated directly under the Interstate 90 interchange in the area), the road took a hard turn against a solid wall of red shale. The car in which Carmine’s daughter was riding…after a country dance only a mile away at the Kearney Dance Hall…was traveling at a high rate of speed, and flipped directly into the rock wall.
As the community shared their grief with this respected Patrolman and his family, none took it more acutely than did the Conquistador Car Club. Richard Carmine, the girl’s older brother, was a Conquistador.
Conquistadors groupd photo from ’61, also shown in Nov. ’62 Hot Rod. Harry Larsen is the peak of the pyramid in the rear row.
P.C. Carmine would make it a personal mission to help shepherd the Conquistadors in new directions. The Club sought funding and support for a sanctioned dragstrip of their own. Bob Prill and Jack Bushmaker, with Carmine’s guidance, reached out to unite in leadership with Larry Rees, President of The Customs of Casper, Wyoming to forge partnerships with the NHRA. I was fortunate to serve as secretary to the Club in those times, and regretted the day I had to let go and return to schooling in Iowa.
A Conquistador parade float with a Model A roadster. This car went to California with Ronnie One year.
Newspaper photo. The Conquistador Car club of Sheridan voted to join the National Hot Rod Association, an organization dedicated to safety, at a meeting sunday (no date). Pictured left to right: Front row – John A. Bushmaker, president of the Conquistadors; Larry Rees, president of The Customs of Casper; Bob Prill, Sheridan NHRA board member who was instrumental in organizing the meeting; Back row – Sgt. P. C. Carmine of the Wyoming highway patrol; Don Keeney, Bob Wildman and George Jarvis, all of Casper. Jarvis is NHRA area advisor.
The last traditional custom ride that Harry Larsen would mount would be a trick ’36 Ford pickup, powered by a souped-up later 59A flathead, with an engine compartment appointed like a show truck. What is funny is that Harry Larsen and his brothers were color blind. Red and green couldn’t be distinguished. But that ’36 wound up painted in a brilliant red. Ed’rd Lawrence and Dan Davidson at Andy Grotz’ Central Garage did the bodywork; Larsen did all the mechanicals. ’57 Ford car bumpers were added, the front on the rear of the truck, the rear car bumper on the truck’s front. Small motorcycle tail lights were mounted to the rear bumper.
Like Prill’s ’31 Chrysler coupe, Larsen’s ’36 pickup is a survivor. Conquistador Jimmy David has been its caretaker for some decades now, has a fresh 59A running, and is planning a full restoration.
Another familiar car was a jet black ’39 Chevy coupe, named “Snow White”. It had few changes to note, but it seemed to have that “something”, and constantly was changing hands from one Conquistador to another. The veteran stayed in the stable of John Shassetz as one of those “one day” project cars, then vanished from the Sheridan scene.
“Snow White” Conquistador black ’39 Chevy coupe.
The last significant custom car of the band was built in the very same shop of Bill Brown, where it all began in 1955. Ed’rd Lawrence and his father-in-law, bodyman Phil Barker had rented Brown’s building and were doing collision repair work there. Just across the street lived John Schonberg, a young member of the Conquistadors. He had a cherry ’53 Ford Victoria hardtop, and negotiated with Ed’rd to perform some custom bodywork on the car.
Perhaps the front aspect of the car would not be considered especially remarkable, when it comes to mild custom ’52-’54 Fords and Mercurys. Ed’rd frenched the stock headlights and, when he filled in the hood holes, he capped the hood with a small sculpted peak. Schonberg’s funds were tight, and the grille remained unchanged.
The sides of the car also were pretty much the standard for a custom of the period. Door handles and trim were removed, holes filled, and the body panels carefully sanded ripple-free with a “long board”.
Bud Clarke did the upholstery, and it did catch the eye. The rolled pure white naugahyde was set off with gold piping. The dash was painted gold to match the piping.
What made this custom Ford most noticeable was the treatment Ed’rd gave the rear of the car. The round barrels of the stock tail light locations were capped off into bullet form. Ed’rd carefully sliced the backs from a pair of ‘30s headlight buckets to retrieve a set of cone-shaped bullets that he skillfully molded onto the ends of the fender projections. Then for tail lights, he frenched some slimline ’60 Cadillac tail lights, upside down, in the reverse curve of the fender, tucked beneath the new fender “Dagmar” bullet caps. They looked like miniature ’56 Packard lights. It was absolutely brilliant!
My drawing of how Ed’rd Lawrence restyled the ’53 rear fender with bullet caps and ’60 Cad tail lights.
The car was finished in a jewel-like crystal blue mixed by Ed’rd Lawrence. Schonberg soon sold the car to Dennis Johnson who in turn sold it to our Ace Radiator benefactor, Gail Hill. Gail had a younger brother George, a Conquistador once described by his buddy Floyd Legerski as “a scary person with his jet black hair, side burns, taps on his shoes and general menacing look…but he had a big heart and was not a threat to anyone.” Well, George totaled it. I’m still searching for photos of that last beautiful Conquistadors custom car.
Like General MacArthur’s old soldier, the story of the Conquistadors of Sheridan, Wyoming didn’t die. It just faded away. The moving finger having writ moves on. We had no clue we were writing our legacy in lacquer and lead.
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