I grew up driving a tractor on my family’s 350-acre fruit farm in Connecticut. Eventually, I wanted a cheap car that I could drive around the property. Now, when I say cheap, I mean dirt cheap.
I ended up with three in all. There was a ’51 Chevy, a ’49 “Shoebox” Ford four-door, and a ’46 Chrysler convertible that my dad used as a parts car. The top was gone, the interior was coming unstuffed, and it had the unusual Fluid Drive transmission. What these cars had in common is they all cost me less than $25 each. They weren’t running when I got them, so I took a lot of satisfaction in getting them working again. Once they started and ran, I removed the exhaust systems so they’d make as much noise as possible.
My parents were always worried that I’d roll a car and kill myself, and they insisted I have a friend out there with me. Of course, that friend, Tommy Carone, whom we called “Top Cat” or just “TC,” had to have his own cheap car, too. Boy, did we have fun chasing each other through the orchard roads.
Those days were a distant memory until I met Dick McClure, a California car collector. We quickly became great friends as he helped me rediscover fun with cheap cars. Inflation being what it is, you can’t find $25 cars anymore, but Dick has found cars like MGs, Porsches, Renaults, Morris Minors, Sprites, and a chopped Volkswagen for $500 or less.
He and I did the California Mille vintage rally twice in my 3-Litre Bentley, and on the second attempt, I lost the clutch. The following year, in 2011, Dick told me not to bother bringing a car. “We’ll go in mine,” he said. “I’m building a car specifically for the rally.” I arrived to find a 1957 Renault Dauphine he’d found on Craigslist for $300. All Dick did to it was check the brakes, change the oil, and fit a set of tires. On the way from his home in Stockton to the rally’s start in San Francisco, he noticed the engine had a lot of oil blowby, so he stopped at a convenience store, bought a jar of peanuts, which he emptied, and with a chunk of hose, the jar became a catch tank. Whenever the oil light on the dash started flickering, we’d stop and pour the oil in the peanut jar back into the engine and top it up with some of the fresh oil we carried with us. The whole thing was a great source of laughter for us.
On the rally there were million-dollar Mercedes Gullwings, 8C Alfa Romeos, 12-cylinder Ferraris, and every other type of expensive car. And there we were in this cheap, unremarkable Renault. During our stop at Sonoma Raceway, Dick drove five laps around the track and past the empty grandstands flat out at 57 mph, while I gave full race commentary as if I were covering the Daytona 500. Later, the track operator told us that we had set a new record for a Renault Dauphine, primarily because it was the only one ever to run there. It may have been the best time we ever had at an event.
That summer, Dick showed the Renault at the Quail, a Motorsports Gathering, which perplexed spectators and irritated an entrant or two. He’s always quick to point out that a large percentage of the entries in the great road races like the Mille Miglia were small Fiats, Lancias, Renaults, and even Isettas and Volkswagens. The Dauphine was just as at home at the Quail as the racing Ferraris, Porsches, and Jaguars on display.
What makes the whole experience so much fun is that Dick rarely spends more than the cost of an event’s entry fee on building his cheap cars. In fact, that’s his goal. So if he needs to do a little patchwork on the interior, he’ll run over to JOANN Fabrics for cheap material. If he needs to cobble up something, he heads off to the Home Depot—or the peanut shelf at the convenience store. Dick’s parts suppliers might be atypical, but his cars always come together. The end result? He saves cars that would otherwise be lost, even if the end product might give a Pebble Beach judge a stroke.