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Originally published: 2013-05-11 18:05:12
Last modified: 2013-05-13 11:33:13

Davis Special returns to High Country

by Steve Behr Sports Editor

The Davis Special is a car that has had stops all over the country. From Boone, to Memphis, Tenn., to Phoenix, Ariz., and finally to Michigan, the car has racked up its share of travel miles.

On Saturday, the car comes home to Boone.

The Davis Special, built in 1951 by the late Robert W. Davis, returns to the High Country Saturday when it will be put on display at Watauga High School at 10 a.m. It's the first time in years that the car will be on North Carolina soil.

It's an event that Joyce Davis, who was married to Bob Davis from 1947 until his death in 1992, has been looking forward to for a long time.

The car was a creation of Bob Davis, who built the machine himself.

"We don't know how many people will be there," Joyce Davis said. "There may not be 10, but I assume there will be more because every time the car raced, the mountain was covered with people."

It was a racecar until it wrecked and was not repaired. It spent about 30 years in a junkyard and in the possession of two other men until it was finally restored during a 17-year period.

It makes its grand return to the High Country on Saturday.

"Every time we go down there, she gives me the guilt trip," said Garrett Van Camp, who restored the car. "She was always asking 'When are you going to get the car done?' I told her I'd bring it back down there once I get it done."

The car is done. It comes home this weekend.


The man behind the car

Robert William "Bob" Davis was born Jan. 12, 1920, in Meat Camp to parents Walter and Emma Davis. Walter Davis, who served in World War I, was a carpenter, farmer and a jack-of-all-trades.

The Davis family consisted of 11 children, including Bob, who attended Todd Elementary School.

Davis graduated from Appalachian High School in three years, and worked odd jobs on Saturday around town.

He was working at the Gulf Service Station in December 1941 during the attack on Pearl Harbor. He enlisted into the Navy, where he was stationed in California during World War II.

It was here, according to Joyce Davis, that he developed his interest in racecars. California was a hot bed for hot rods, and Bob Davis took note.

"He became interested in that when he was in California with the racecars at the time," Joyce Davis said. "We got married in 1947, so he had to spend his money on us and, nine years later, on his child."

But he could not get started on his passion until the war was over. Davis was eventually sent to Pearl Harbor, where he was Chief of Aviation on an aircraft carrier. He honed his skills as a mechanic making sure that airplanes were working well enough to fly into battle.

Upon his return to the United States, Davis met Joyce Sutherland in August 1946 and the couple was married on July 10, 1947. Bob Davis was hired to be the service manager of the local Chevrolet dealership, where he worked for 20 years.

It was also at the start of this time that Davis started working on his racecar. Davis did not study at any school to learn his skills as a mechanic.

Instead, he studied books on his own. He had a love of cars and the dream and desire to build one from scratch.

Finding the right parts to build a racecar would not be easy. It was as if Davis was overly wealthy, but he caught a break when he bought a 1941 Ford for $35.

After an estimated 2,200 hours of work, the car was complete, but it needed more than just what a 1941 Ford could provide.

This automobile provided the frame and the front and rear suspensions for the Davis Special. Davis modified all of it to meet his plans.

But it was not the only car that Davis borrowed parts from to build his roadster.

He took a block from a 1947 Ford truck to provide the basic engine. He polished the engine intake and exhaust parts to allow them to perform more efficiently.

Davis did most of the work on the car, but shipped the camshaft to Ed Iskenderian, who lived in California. At the time, Iskenderian was known as one of the best camshaft grinders in the country.

Davis borrowed even more vehicles for his racecar. He got the crankshaft from a 1951 Mercury. The tail section of the car was taken from a 1947 Plymouth, and the nose section was taken from the top of a 1949 Chevy truck cab.

The front fender extensions were borrowed from a 1947 Buick, and the air scoop was taken from a 1947 Ford.

All were modified from Davis' plan of making a dream racecar.

The result was a racecar that could reach speeds of 140 miles per hour, and get to 60 mph in seven seconds. It could reach 8,000 rpm during an era where most engines didn't go over 3,800.

It was time to take it to the racetrack.


To the track

Davis had a new racecar with plenty of power, but he did not have the desire to get behind the wheel in a race. He much preferred to let others race the car, oftentimes at races such as the Grandfather Mountain Sports Hill Climb. Winston-Salem driver Ed Welch drove the Davis Special to victory in that race one year.

The Davis Special also raced to victories in several other races, including events in Pilot Mountain and Chimney Rock. The cars won races as far as Pennsylvania.

More often than not, somebody other than Davis was driving the car.

"That wasn't his joy," Joyce Davis said. "His joy was building it. There were so many people interested in the car and wanted to drive it."

The car was also street ready. During one road trip, Joyce was driving the car and didn't look at the speedometer.

It was showing 100 mph.

"One Sunday afternoon, we went for a ride," she said. "He asked me if I wanted to drive it. It almost scared me to death."

The building of the car was more important to Davis. Eventually, he sold the car to Phil Styles of Spruce Pine.

But misfortune collided with the Davis Special. In a race in Burnsville, the car was wrecked in 1955. It ended up in a junkyard in Waynesville, where it stayed for years.

"(Bob) was very sad about it," Joyce said about the car being wrecked. "But he didn't have the desire to rebuild it. His desire was just to build it and that satisfied him. We talked about it a lot, but he said no, he had done what he wanted to do."

Davis moved on to other things. He worked at the Chevrolet dealership until he accepted a position at the newly constructed Watauga High School teaching auto mechanics. He taught there for 20 years until his retirement.

Davis also took an interest in competitive shooting, which led him to building custom rifles. He also performed gun repairs, and loaded his own ammunition.

Davis, with two other men, also helped build the Watauga Gun Club.


Slow road to recovery

The car languished in that junkyard in Waynesville, although it's not exactly clear how it go there. Styles had sold the car, but after another wreck, it ended up in Waynesville, where it stayed for about 30 years.

The Davis Special slowly started its road to recovery in 1992. That was when Tennessee resident Jimmy Dobbs spotted it and bought it from the junkyard.

"Jimmy Dobbs found the car in Waynesville and bought the car," said Kathy Davis, Bob's daughter. "He called to ask if dad wanted it."

Bob Davis was in retirement by then, but still working as a teacher.

"Several local mechanics studied under him at Watauga," Kathy Davis said.

Bob Davis died of a heart attack in February 1992.

Dobbs loved to restore cars, but after bringing the Davis Special to Memphis, Tenn., he chose not to take on the project. Part of the problem was what gave the car its original charm. The chassis was modified, which required replacement parts to also be modified.

The cost to repair the car was not worth the effort.

"He was going to restore it and put a lot of money into it," said Garrett Van Camp, who eventually took on the job. "He had quite a few restorers working for him. They were always finding and collecting sports cars, but his restorers told him it probably would not be worth it. It had a '41 chassis and a '41 suspension that was seriously modified."

Dobbs made some calls and found Chuck Rahn, who lived in Phoenix. Rahn bought the car in 1993 and brought it to Arizona.

Rahn also chose not to restore the car, but knew Jim Herlinger, who lived in California.

Herlinger, who made a similar car back in 1949 called "The Baldwin," did not want to restore the car, but thought that Van Camp might be interested.

Van Camp was the lead break engineer for the Ford Motor Company, who also restored cars. He bought the car from Rahn in 1995 and had it shipped to Dearborn, Mich.


Progress made

Van Camp was already used to working on old cars. His first car was a 1939 Ford with a flathead Ford engine.

He was restoring a car when he bought the Davis Special. Right away, he knew he had a big job ahead of him. Years of neglect turned what was once a slick racecar into a pile of junk.

"It was a mess," Van Camp said. "We had to take it all completely apart. It was in a junkyard for 25 years."

The engine had to be completely replaced. The body had sunk into mud while in the junkyard, which rusted the body. It needed all new upholstery and the body had to be replaced.

Photos of the car, provided by the Davis family, helped Van Camp with the restoration.

"The frame, about 50 percent of the nose and 80 percent of the tail was saved," Van Camp said. "The parts in the middle were all changed to new metal. The hood side is also new. We put in a new grill."

The grill was significant, since the original had a grill with the letter "D" in the lower right side. Van Camp made sure to include that in the restored model.

"The new grill is nice," he said.

The restoration took time. Van Camp said it took 17 years to get the Davis Special looking the way it did back in 1952.

"I was working on another car that was raced in the '60s," Van Camp said. "I worked on that car in the summer, and in the winters I was working on the Davis Special."


Saturday's unveiling

Van Camp said Joyce Davis was persistent when asking when the car could be brought back to Boone. Van Camp already had a North Carolina tie, since his daughter, Allison, lives in Mooresville.

He will make the trip to North Carolina on Friday to visit his daughter and then head to Boone on Saturday. The unveiling begins at 10 a.m. at Watauga High School.

"Joyce is a wonderful lady," Van Camp said. "She's a really special person. We went down (to North Carolina) in 1997 with my wife to visit my daughter and we talked to Joyce and to Phil Styles when he was still alive. We came on down and got one of the original seats. We made the trip and we really enjoyed our time with Joyce and her daughter."

He gets another chance to spend time with the Davis family on Saturday.