- Associated Press - Sunday, March 9, 2014

SOUTHBURY, Conn. (AP) - Don Antilla still remembers the smell. Penned up in a barn in Indiana for 16 years, the remarkably well conditioned 1966 Ford Fairlane 500 carried its own pungent vapor trail when Antilla had it trucked to Connecticut in 1988.

“The mice had decided that it would be a nice place to live,” said the retired engineer for Sikorsky, who 20 years earlier declared that someday he would purchase a ‘66 Fairlane because he liked its “simplicity.”

A painstakingly detailed cleaning, stripping and restoration followed, and after two years the once stench-ridden muscle machine was ready for its first road test, which of course it passed.

Antilla has never been coy about showing off the white beauty in his garage. A voracious reader of the industry publication Hemmings Muscle Machines, he entered the Fairlane in the magazine’s recent Muscle Machine of the Year contest, and was voted the runaway winner in an online readers’ poll.

He remembers when the editors called to deliver the news.

“They said, ‘We just want to let you know you won by a landslide,’” Antilla said. “I jumped out of the chair.”

It was the first time a Ford has won the contest, which featured a dozen or so machines rebuilt by people, like Antilla, whose passion for restoring old cars runs deep.

Antilla said he was born a car enthusiast. “My mother would tell you I had an unusual interest in cars,” he said. “When I was a couple years old, I could name all the cars on the road.”

He enjoyed tinkering under the hood alongside his father, and reading instruction manuals to learn how things work.

Fords were always his preference, and in the late 1960s at a speed shop in Pelham, N.Y., he saw a ‘66 Fairlane that captivated him.

“I said to myself, ‘I’ve got to have one of these,’” he said of the car, which was built for drag racing. “The car is so simple. You don’t have to worry about the wiring on an AM/FM radio because it has no radio.”

Antilla’s other passions - his wife, Linda, and their children; and his job at Sikorsky - commanded most of his attention for the next two decades, but he never forgot about the Fairlane.

On trips to the Carolinas to visit Linda’s family, he scoured junkyards looking for the elusive car - Ford built only 57 Fairlanes in the 1966 model year - and put the word out to friends that he was in the market.

So fastidious and detailed was his search that he compiled five 140-page memo books of his visits to junkyards and parts shops, and of phone conversations with friends and people in the business.

“This was all before computers,” he said with a wry smile, holding one of the cellphone-sized books in his hand.

Once he drove north to Fair Haven, N.Y., on Lake Ontario after he got a tip that an old ‘66 Fairlane was there, and in good condition.

With great anticipation he got out of his car and took a look at the rotting hulk of metal, its body riddled with holes.

“I didn’t end up buying it,” he said, a hint of disgust lingering in his voice some 25 years later.

Antilla eventually found his car in Fort Wayne, Ind. The owner was doing some home improvements, and needed cash.

The car had a few rust spots, and its original engine had been swapped out because it blew up on the drag strip, but Antilla became smitten, especially after his brother - who does bodywork - flew to Indiana to take a look and pronounced it fit for restoration.

The machine had been sitting in a barn for 16 years, and mice had taken up residence. Antilla laughed recently when he recalled the acrid odor that arrived with the car, and how fortunate he was not to contract a strange virus while cleaning it.

“I was drilling holes in the plates, and out there with no mask,” he said.

Working on nights and weekends, “and any other time I could find,” Antilla slowly brought the Fairlane back to life in his garage and driveway.

He vowed to use only parts that would have been in the car when it came off the assembly line, so he cased junkyards and auto shops to find what he needed.

He rebuilt the suspension, touched up the body, cleaned the bench seats and found the proper glass for the windows - a task made more challenging because the roof had been replaced when the car rolled over early in its life, altering the alignment just slightly.

One of his biggest challenges was locating a new dashboard without a cut-out for a radio, since the ‘66 Fairlane didn’t have one.

Another stroke of luck: While driving near the Virginia border with West Virginia, he and Linda found the dashboard they were looking for in a car parked alongside the road.

For $50, it was all theirs.

Meanwhile, back in Connecticut, with a new engine under the hood just begging to be turned over, Antilla was finally ready to fire the car up for the first time.

“You check, you check, you check, and you say, ‘OK, here we go,’” he said. “You say, ‘What could go wrong?’ And nothing went wrong. It started right up.”

Antilla likes to hear the engine of the old car rumble to life. He takes it out four or five times a year - of course only in good weather - and always marvels at its power.

“It’s just a clean car,” he said. “And a lot of fun to drive.”


Information from: Republican-American, https://www.rep-am.com

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