Lincolns in limbo
Where do old Lincolns go to die? Lincoln Land, of course, for an appointment with either the Lincoln maker or the Lincoln breaker.
By JOHN BARRY
Published July 21, 2006
[Times photos: Carrie Pratt]
Installing a rebuilt engine, Erik Dalemans gives new life to a 1948 Lincoln Continental convertible. A vintage car specialist, Dalemans came from Belgium to work at Lincoln Land in Clearwater.
In one of Lincoln Land's warehouses, mechanic Daniel Bridges takes apart a 1976 Lincoln Mark IV. There are two warehouses. This one houses the parts and cars they take apart, while the other houses the cars that they're in the process of restoring.
Let's say that back in the day, you were hell on wheels. But you've been around the block a time too many. You've picked up some rust. Let's say they drag you to Lincoln Land at the end of a tow hook.
The preserver has a look at you. If you're lucky, he sees something he likes. He's European, freshly shaven, wears a spotless blue uniform. He could make you good as new, or better than new. He could make you immortal.
But if you're very unlucky, the destroyer calls your number. He's a Jersey guy, wears a gray Fu Manchu and blue bandanna and waves a big, greasy adjustable wrench. If he gets his blackened hands on you, he'll slit your carotid artery and watch impassively as your green antifreeze drains all over his boots.
There are but two ways to go at Lincoln Land.
Resurrection. Or death.
* * *
Lincoln Land was born behind Chris Dunn's parents' house in 1978. He was a pump jockey on U.S. 19 in Clearwater. He bought a white 1963 Lincoln Continental. It needed work, so two months later he acquired two more Lincolns for spare parts.
There were plenty of Lincolns around. Retirees drove their prairie schooners down from the North and kept them pristine in garages between short hops to Publix. Dunn gathered up Lincolns and parked them in his parents' backy ard. When they insisted he take them elsewhere, he got a garage compound and showroom and created Lincoln Land.
If you ask Dunn why Lincolns, he says, "I just like 'em." They were luxury cars. JFK also drove Lincolns. He just liked 'em.
Twenty-eight years later, Dunn runs a global business. Lincoln lovers call from Japan, South Africa, Australia, Korea. The phone rings from every time zone. Dunn's Lincoln Land showroom/museum on Gulf-to-Bay is full of vintage Lincolns, long, chrome-laden Conestogas, including one recently restored to glory for $90,000.
But down the road, in the middle of a row of warehouses, is where the actual soul of Lincoln Land resides, in a compound of dying Lincolns, where the preserver and destroyer vie.
* * *
Seven years ago, Dunn flew to Belgium to talk Erik Dalemans into coming to Lincoln Land. He'd heard about a great mechanic in Brussels whose specialty was vintage cars. Dalemans was easy to spot. He drove a '66 Lincoln.
When Dalemans agreed to come home with Dunn, he left the Lincoln behind, but brought along a 1949 Mercury because (all gearheads will understand this) "where are you going to find a '49 Mercury with a speedometer in kilometers?"
Dalemans is Lincoln Land's preserver. Among his many projects, he has been in the off-and-on process of restoring an elegant 1948 Lincoln Continental convertible. It is painted forest green and has a cream top. It has big white sidewall tires and headlights as big as planets.
Five years ago, its owner told Dalemans to fix it up, "but don't do too much." They always say that. Dalemans did a little work, the car looked better and better, and before long the owner had authorized a full, blank-check restoration. "Whatever the car needs, just do it," the preserver was told.
On this day, Dalemans is about to reinstall the engine.
* * *
Fu-Manchued Daniel Bridges is Dalemans' opposite. If the two mechanics were the Hindu gods of death and life, Bridges would be Shiva to Dalemans' Vishnu.
Bridges presides over the far end of the compound in a kind of car hell, where the air is ripe with mold, where Lincolns carry fire ants and spiders for passengers.
He came to Lincoln Land after spending 25 years in "a cold distant land to the north," meaning Connecticut. He used to do what Dalemans does. He owned a rare, beautifully restored 1932 Oakland, a gangster car with running boards. "You could picture Eliot Ness hanging out the window." He also had a 1926 Paige. It had drapes and mohair upholstery. It had inlaid mother-of-pearl door handles.
"But then we had kids."
Now Bridges is the destroyer. There are 60 dying Lincolns outside his end of the compound waiting to be plundered for spare parts. He attacks them with insecticide before dragging them in.
He doesn't meet many deep-pockets collectors, like the owner of the '48 Lincoln. One of Bridges' regular customers, an amateur mechanic, calls himself the Mechanicalizer. He drives Bridges a little crazy. "He claims he can mechanicalize anything," Bridges says. "He comes in and gets a bunch of parts and then he comes back three weeks later and says 'That didn't work.' Then he buys some more."
As Dalemans breathes new life into the classic '48, Bridges preps a woebegone '76 for execution. One front tire is missing, the driver's side perched precariously on a crooked stack of wheel rims, its grille ripped off.
Gearheads will appreciate the serendipitous selection of this woeful beast for dissection. Its engine, a 460-cubic-inch behemoth, was the subject of a recent Hot Rod magazine story. The article explained how to convert it to a highly desirable 426 racing stock car engine. With its cast-iron block, the 460 is more durable than the standard 426 aluminum block. Hence, the 460, if posted on e-Bay, would be eagerly sought by oval track aficionados.
As soon as Bridges rips it out.
* * *
At virtually the same time, each mechanic stands poised with his wrenches. In Dalemans' shop, OutKast's Ms. Jackson pours from a stereo speaker. In Bridges' shop, the Eagles' Hotel California blares from a cheap radio. The life and death struggle begins.
The 12-cylinder engine on Dalemans' hoist is painted forest green, like the '48. Its wiring harness is encased in chrome. It has just returned from a specialty shop in New England where a notoriously slow craftsman had kept it for three years, replacing every piston and rod. It has odd, charming details, like a bobber on top that shows the oil level. Its 12 cylinders turn so smoothly that many drivers never shift out of second gear.
About 50 yards away, the eight-cylinder engine that Bridges attaches to his hoist must be some color, but grease has obliterated the motif. It looks squat and fat, all brute business. It has one salient feature besides a gas-gobbling four-barrel carburetor: an absence of computerized components. The simple electronics make it even more desirable among stock car racers.
Dalemans cranks down his hoist and gently lowers the 12-cylinder into the engine cavity, lining it up with the spline of the transmission. With a couple of soft shoves it is lined up. It rests peacefully in the Lincoln like a baby in a crib.
Bridges cranks up his hoist, and the 460 tumbles out with a groan. It dangles on a hook. The Lincoln carcass sadly teeters on its crooked perch of wheel rims. Bridges takes clippers and slices the coolant hoses. Antifreeze spills over his boots.
Dalemans' '48 has achieved virtual immortality. It will live forever in a millionaire's garage. Its broad, white sidewall tires will touch asphalt only en route to antique auto shows.
Bridges' '76 won't exactly disappear from the face of the Earth. It soon will be crushed and blasted into molten steel.
"Then it will come back," Bridges says, "as a refrigerator."
John Barry can be reached at (727) 892-2258 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
[Last modified July 20, 2006, 10:50:31]
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