TERRE HAUTE —
Vintage photos of race cars — of the compact “midget” style — hang on the wall inside Joe Preston’s garage.
Few drivers handled midget cars better than the legendary A.J. Foyt, who is best known for his dominance in the Indianapolis 500. A longtime follower of midget racing, Preston admired not only Foyt’s versatility, but also his style.
“I was always a tremendous fan of A.J. Foyt,” said Preston, an 81-year-old retired electrician. “I just liked his attitude. He was, well, ornery, I’d say.”
That explains one of the sayings etched onto a chalkboard, hanging next to those photos: “Lead, follow or get out of the way” — a very Foyt-like expression.
But the other two phrases on the chalkboard reveal more about Preston himself. In the left corner, he’s written, “If it’s not broken, don’t fix it.” Beneath those words, he’s added, “If it’s to be, it’s up to me.”
Combined, the passages sum up the motivation inside Preston — if something is broken, he fixes it. Himself. His lifelong list of repairs and restorations includes nearly a dozen stranded, long-forgotten vehicles, such as the speedster resting in the garage of the eastern Vigo County home, where he and his wife, Alice Ann, live. Preston found that 1928 Model A in a field near Bloomington, stripped to its chassis and frame, rusting away. He bought it for 150 bucks.
“I hate to see anything old just destroyed,” Preston said. “I just can’t live with that.”
Seven years later, that withered metal hulk is a sleek speedster, designed completely from Preston’s own mind, and built by his hands.
That success story is typical, his wife said.
“The more something won’t work, the more determined he is,” Alice Ann said. “He wants it done, and he does it.”
Sitting across the room in, ironically, a lounger, Preston grinned at her and responded, “I think it’s because I’m contrary.”
Rather than rebuild the Model A into its Ford factory form, Preston sketched a different plan on a sheet of paper after he’d hauled its aging remnants to his house. Its white exterior shines under the soft garage lights, highlighted by its distinctive radiator and cap, and the car’s torpedo-shaped rear. Under the hood lurks the sturdy, 4-cylinder engine from one of the nearly 5 million Model A’s produced by Henry Ford’s company from 1928 to ’32.
With the hood up, Preston points to a colorful batch of neatly arrayed wires in the corner of the firewall. It’s a hand-made wiring harness.
“That’s mine,” he said, with a hint of pride.
Preston worked as an electrician for Potter Electrical in Terre Haute, his hometown. That background has helped in his restorations of the Model-A-turned-speedster and other road craft, such as a 1931 Model A pickup truck, a ’31 Model A coupe, a ’35 Graham-Paige, a ’50 Ford pickup, and Chevys from 1936, ’50 and ’52. Auto revivals involve more than electronics, though. Along with gathering used parts from Model A’s and other car makes, Preston had to secure the frame with 1/2-inch square stock steel tubing, and create the speedster’s body from sheets of 18-gauge steel.
He spent nearly four years finishing the project. Being retired helped. “That’s the reason I got it done in four years. Otherwise, it would’ve been 10,” Preston said.
“It turned out pretty much the way I wanted to do it,” he continued, pointing to his original sketch. “Of course, you get ideas along the way.”
On the speedster’s front end, for example, Preston decided to use headlights “from some foreign car.” Perched just above the front axle, well below the peak of the hood, the headlights give it a distinctive look.
Despite its name, the two-seater has a top speed of around 55 mph. “And that’s about it,” Preston said, “but back in those days [the 1920s and ’30s], that was pretty fast.”
Joe and Alice Ann have trekked to lots of car shows and Model A club events in the speedster, as well as the Model A coupe and the two relic pickup trucks. On a rare occasion, they’ve endured a breakdown. Such a predicament cropped up after the Prestons left a show at the Clay City Pottery Festival a few years ago. As Joe put it, a friendly “hippie with a beard” helped push them to the side of the road. “I think that was pretty nice,” so fellow Model A owners at the festival could then help get the car going again.
Usually, Joe turns the wrenches and fixes what’s broken.
That ability was a basic requirement of Model A owners when the vehicles debuted decades ago, selling for $350 apiece. “Back then, if you wanted to drive one, you had to fix them,” Preston said.
He learned car repairs as a teenager. His first car was that 1935 Graham-Paige. “I wish I had it now,” he said. Preston’s grandfather, who lived in Evansville, gave it to him. Joe went there to pick it up, “and drove it home. It needed four quarts of oil [along the way]. And, it needed a little work.”
These days, he spends more time with a wrench than behind the wheel of his refurbished vehicles. Leg pain makes it difficult for him to work a clutch and brake. Besides, as he said, “I’m actually more interested in working on them than driving them.”
His automotive passion suits Alice Ann just fine. “I was all for it,” she said, “because he needed a hobby outside of his work.”
Married 57 years with two daughters, five grandchildren and five great-grandchildren, the Prestons’ story still includes Joe’s cars, trucks and, yes, motorbikes. Their daughters, and now their grandkids, enjoy riding in the rumbleseat of the ’31 Model A coupe. Occasionally, something — like that rusty Model A near Bloomington — will catch Joe’s eye.
“He always got me with, ‘I always wanted one of those when I was a kid,’” she recalled, laughing.
Usually, they bought it. Usually, he fixed it. Himself. Joe likes being busy.
“Every day,” he said, “I feel like I’ve got to do something — now, it doesn’t have to be big — or I feel like I’ve wasted it.”
Mark Bennett can be reached at (812) 231-4377 or email@example.com.