Henry J

When I was 16 years old my idol was a local automotive mechanic named Gene Willoughby, Gene owned an auto repair garage that was across the road from where I lived.  Gene was a very kind person and I often say he taught me fractions by asking me to hand him wrenches of different sizes while he was under a car. Gene could easily accommodate 4 vehicles in his garage with lots of space for workbenches and tool boxes between the cars.  It also had room to store an automobile chassis in the back of the garage in a perpendicular orientation.  This particular chassis was from a Henry J automobile.  The Henry J is an American automobile built by the Kaiser-Frazer Corporation and named after its chairman, Henry J. Kaiser.  These vehicles  were from the 1950’s.  Many were used for drag racing and that was Gene’s plan for this car.  The body had been removed and was stored behind the garage; only the chassis was in the back of the garage.  

One night I was at the garage, Gene often would go home at 5 for dinner then return later in the evening to finish work on a customer’s car.  It was during this time that I would go across the road and bug Gene.  I am sure he thought I was a bother but he never acted as though I was a nuisance.  We would often talk about modifying my 1962 Plymouth Valiant and installing a Hemi engine and he would then tell me my nickname would be “Hemi Jimmy and the Very Violent Valiant”.   

The conversation on this particular night turned to the Henry J chassis..  Gene told me he wanted to make a Gasser Drag car.  His Gasser would have a huge V8 engine and the body would be hinged to allow access for the driver to enter the vehicle and to work on the motor.  I asked Gene if it ran and he said well heck yes. Ite had a large V8 motor and transmission mounted in the chassis but no body or interior.  He asked do you want to take her out?  I said can we,  what do we need to do?  

We moved several pieces of equipment, tool boxes and workbenches to get access to the chassis.  We carefully rolled it out the back door of the garage and I asked where do we sit?  Gene grabbed a couple of milk crates and said these should work.  He poured some gas in the tank while I watched with anticipation.   We found a battery and hooked it to a starter charger.  Gene said it had been quite some time since it last ran. We were just about ready when I was instructed to spray starter fluid into the carburetor while Gene turned the ignition key and pumped the throttle.  After a couple of minutes the motor came to life with a loud roar.  It has exhaust headers but no mufflers.  It was really really loud and since it was about 10PM at night I figured someone would call the sheriff.  He disconnected the battery charger and yelled let’s go.  I jumped on the chassis and took my seat on my milk crate.  No windshield, no lights, just a post holding the steering wheel and pedals for the gas, brake and clutch.  Off we went down Rt 682 into the darkness.  Oh yes it didn’t have any headlights or tail lights, they were on the body that was behind the shop.  Thankfully Rt 682 at night was not busy and we did not see any traffic while pulling out onto the road.  The air was cool and the force of the air pressing on my chest was amazing.  I have no idea as to how fast we were going, it had no speedometer but the impact of bugs on my face and the speed of the porch lights flashing by told me we were going at quite a fast clip.  

We turned around at the local Sinclair gas station a couple of miles down the road and made the quick trip back to the garage.  We made several return trips up and down the road and The feeling of excitement and freedom I had never felt before.  Gene rolled the chassis back into his parking lot and shut her down.  I couldn’t stop smiling and I probably had bugs in my teeth.  It took us a while to roll the chassis back into its resting place and Gene closed up the shop, said good night Hemi Jimmy and gave me a wave as he headed home.

1 Comment

  1. G Payne

    Everybody needs a Gene. I’m glad you had one. Good stuff. It’s amazing the tracks people leave in our lives for years, even decades later. I’m sure that Gene had no idea the impact he was having on someone’s life long into the future.

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