Alan and Jen Mortlock’s love for American cars and Americana may have started off by reading Classic American in the Eighties and Nineties, but they were lucky enough to make that a reality by moving Stateside a quarter of a century ago…
My wife and I were avid readers of Classic American magazine way back when it first started and the inspiration it gave us to pursue a life in America is remarkable. We have now lived in the States for 24 years and a family member who came out for a visit this past Christmas brought with them a copy of Classic American for us to see – and the memories of the magazine and our classic American car life we had in England before we moved over here came flooding back to us as we read through it.
My interest in American cars started in 1975 when I was seven years old growing up in Brackley, Northamptonshire, which was near to the Upper Heyford US air base. Our next door neighbours (who were American) were based at Heyford and had what could only be described by any seven-year-old boy as a ‘gargantuan’ car in the form of a blue 1972 Oldsmobile Delta 88. I was in absolute awe of that car and would be thrilled when I would occasionally be picked up from school by our American friends in the Olds.
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By the time I was 18 I was living on the Isle of Wight and my now wife and I were able to buy our first American car, a ‘75 Camaro, and we were cruising all around the narrow roads of the island with my best mate Chris, who also had a passion for American iron and by that time had owned many, and who also introduced me to the necessary skills required to restore them.
I can remember buying what I think may have been the first issue of Classic American magazine. I will always remember it had a steel blue ‘49 Cadillac on the front cover and the articles and pictures inside filled me and my wife with a desire to seek a life in America, and that is exactly what we did in March 1995, when we stepped off a Greyhound bus in the middle of the night in Caruthersville, Missouri, with nothing more than a couple of rucksacks and a few hundred bucks in our pockets. I had stayed in touch with my American friends from my childhood and Caruthersville, which was a typical small mid-west American town, was where they had retired to and which seemed liked a good place to start.
It rather felt as if we had stepped through our TV set into an episode of In The Heat Of The Night or The Dukes of Hazzard – dirt roads and cotton fields as far as the eye could see, but also an abundance of seemingly abandoned Forties and Fifties iron behind every barn.
We started out restoring and painting cars for a very likeable (although somewhat JR Ewing type) character named John Lee and were also buying up what was back then very cheap (in most cases just a few hundred bucks) classic cars and selling them.
Sometimes we would keep them and cruise around in them and attend local car shows and cruise-ins; we had a particular liking at that time for ’56 and ’57 Cadillacs. After struggling and at times barely making it, we began to pick up steam and moved to a town 70 miles north of Caruthersville where we bought a house and were able to open a small restoration shop at the back of our house and began assembling a collection of cars of our own.
The Man in Black
One of the most interesting things we became involved with in 2004 was the Johnny Cash movie Walk The Line. We had at that time (and still have) a ‘57 Mercury Voyager twodoor station wagon, and while at a car show in Arkansas we were approached by a representive from 20th Century Fox who told us about this movie being made and thought that the wagon would be perfect for several scenes in the movie.
So the following week we drove the Voyager down to Memphis, where they were shooting the movie, and spent three days on the set with all expenses paid by 20th Century Fox. It was truly fascinating to watch and we were delighted when the movie was released the following year to see that the old Mercury had made it into one of the scenes (church scene towards the end) and the movie won an Oscar that year.
Over the years our interest in American cars evolved from the more traditional big finned cruisers to the more obscure and off the wall independent manufacturers. We stumbled across a Muntz Jet back in 1998 and absolutely fell in love with Muntz and the remarkable story behind them. We were pretty broke back then and had to let that one go, but in 2005 we were able to acquire another one and fully restore it and we still have that car and another Muntz Jet in our current collection. Both cars are 1951 models out of a total of 198 Muntzs built between 1950-54.
They both have 337cu in flathead Lincoln V8s and both are equipped with factory speed equipment consisting of Edmunds or Edelbrock aluminium heads and two double-barrel intakes (two of about five equipped that way). Both of the Muntzs have factory-fitted simulated alligator skin upholstery and both cars have appeared in Hemmings Motor News in the States (the articles can be found online by Googling ‘Makeover Madness/Hemmings’).
Another unusual car we have in our collection is a 1953 Glasspar G2, a vintage fibreglass sports car, one of a hundred built by the Glasspar Company in Santa Anna, California.Glasspar was a boat manufacturing company that briefly built sports car bodies and marketed them to custom car enthusiasts as a way of offering a European-style sports car similar to England’s Jaguar X120, but which were affordable to the budget of the average man. The purchaser would then custom-fit the body to a chassis and drivetrain of their own choice. Ours is on a 100-inch wheelbase Henry J chassis and has a ’54 Ford 239 Y-block with Fenton intake and three Deuces.
On the road
Our tastes have also extended to vintage-style hot rods and rat rods and we have also been lucky enough to attend Speed Week at the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah several times. In 2010 we drove cross-country from Missouri in a ’36 Plymouth rat rod and again in 2012 we did it in a ’47 Dodge that my wife and I bought, after chopping the top four inches, spraying it flat black and heading West.
It had a 350 small block from a ’69 Impala in it and after Bonneville we drove it all the way out to Los Angeles and up the Pacific Coast highway to San Francisco, managing to stop in at the Pebble Beach Concours in Monterey and sneaking on to the concours lawns without a ticket while the security guards weren’t looking. We drove back to Missouri on Highway 50, also known as ‘The Loneliest Road in America’. The old Dodge was nicknamed ‘Monty’ and never missed a beat on the 5200 miles that we covered in two weeks. We’ve also been lucky enough to make it several times to the mecca of car shows and swap meets, the annual Hershey swap meet in Pennsylvania.
On the right of this page are a couple of pictures of a 1955 Studebaker truck that we just finished. Note the ’92 Cadillac tail-lights we added. Sadly, it is not one that will be returning to the UK with us next year as we just sold it recently; however, we’ve also just this week started on the ‘57 Mercury colony park station wagon project and hopefully that will be coming to the UK with us. As you can see it is well under way, although we have changed course with our original plans somewhat; we decided not to use a 460 from a Mark III Lincoln as we had intended, in part because it was way too nice a car to use as a donor and I was afraid of going to old car hell if I destroyed it!
Also I got to thinking about the seven-quida-gallon gas back home and the 460’s 10 mpg, instead have decided to use a throttle body fuel injected 350 and 700R4 transmission from a low mileage ’92 Buick Roadmaster sedan. We’ve driven Roadmaster wagons as our everyday drivers for 20 years and their power dependability and fuel economy is hard to beat. I may even use the whole front stub with the disc brakes and correct cross member and everything.
The 57 Colony Park wagon is coming along nicely so far: I have the motor and transmission fully installed and all the fuel injection and electronics finished and got it fired up the other day. So another two or three weeks and it should be ready to hit the highways of Missouri! (and soon after that the motorways of England!).
What’s written here barely begins to scratch the surface in terms of the cars that we have been lucky enough to own and the adventures we have had in the now 23 years we have lived in the States. The one thing that really sticks in our minds even more than the terrific cars that we have both seen and enjoyed is the amazing people we have met along the way in this wonderful hobby that everyone reading this enjoys. The classic American car hobby would not exist without the people who drive these amazing art exhibitions on wheels to every show and cruise night. Sadly our life in America appears to be coming to a close as, for a variety of reasons, my wife and I are considering a move back to the UK, so it is possible you will soon spot one or two of the cars I have written about here on the streets of our homeland in the not-too-distant future!