Sterling mechanic brings new life to old classics

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Photo by Rashah McChesney/Peninsula Clarion Gary Muller, of Sterling, installs a headlight in a friend's 1955 pickup in Soldotna.

At the end of a long, gravel drive in Sterling, Mobster sits quietly, guarded by Oscar Del La Hoya, Bernard Hopkins and Gary Muller — whose persistent obsession brought the 78-year-old classic back to life.


Under Muller’s capable hands, the 1935 Hudson Terraplane sits in a cool garage, impeccably kept but covered in thin layer of dust and waiting for summer and long days of driving to town for dinner and a movie or sitting out at a car show for enthusiasts to admire.

“My wife wanted a mobster car,” he said.

And she got one. The Terraplane is all dramatic curves and immaculate cream and blood-red paisley interior.

The obligatory gangster-style Tommy-Gun mounts are missing, but Muller kept plenty of the antique details including white wall tires, chrome accents, low sweeping curved bumpers, a chipped porcelain emblem on the front of the car’s tall chrome grill and even the original ash trays set into the suicide doors.

Despite its appearance, the car is not a period-restoration.

Under the antique accents, a throaty hot rod engine, power seats and modified lights make the car a generation-straddling hybrid.

“I wanted a comfort ride,” Muller said.

He pointed to the cars seats, which were modified to open up the interior of the car more than the original seats allowed.

“I did have a front seat, but … your head was on the roof,” he said. “I took the front seats out of a Jeep Grand Cherokee and they were tall. I cut them off and redid them and then the back seats were out of a Chrysler minivan. I chopped the plastic off and made the brackets on them to fit.”

The car’s original instrument panel has been rewired to include new gauges and switched from a 6-volt to a 12-volt power source.

“I changed the gearing in the speedometer,” he said. “The car had 74,000 original miles on it and that’s the same speedometer that’s in there and it works.”

The work will be seen all over the country as mechanics open their 2014 Snap-on Tools calendar to November.

“I’ve submitted photos twice and gotten picked both times,” he said.

It’s the second time he has been featured in the calendar. The first time was a picture of a bright yellow and red-flamed 1941 Willys Pro Gasser truck in the company’s 2007 calendar.

The truck won “Best Truck” at a 2005 car show, one of several awards and trophies sitting on a shelf in his house.

Just like his first time in the calendar, Muller’s car is the only one from Alaska to be featured.

The same detail-heavy production of the Willys can be seen in all of the project cars Muller shows off.

He is meticulous.

Little things, like the too-long tail lights on the rear of the Terraplane that he replaced with a smaller “classier” style, or the difficult restoration of the original headlights, keep him awake at night.

“I can see the final product and I want to get there,” Muller said. “The problem is I can’t sleep at night until it’s done. I’ll be laying in bed at two in the morning and I’ll think of something … my wife says, ‘What are you doing?’

I’ll say, ‘Oh, I’ve got an idea I’ve got to go out there and try out.’ She says ‘Lay down and go to sleep’ and I can’t … once I get my mind on something, I can’t stop.”

Sometimes, working week-on, week-off shifts as a mechanic on one of Hilcorp’s offshore platforms in the Cook Inlet means the ideas have to wait.

“When I come home, I have a kind of agenda of what I want done for that week,” he said.

In the dim blue light of a recent winter morning, he laments the fact that one cannot see the hints of rose that pop out of the custom paint job on his Terraplane.

“In the sunlight, this thing here on all the high spots, kind of like stand out in red, like a black rose looks,” he said. “All of the highlights are just red, glittery but only on the high points. The rest would be black and everything else turns red on the edges. This is just a piss-poor time to try to see it.”

He is obsessed with the details, and it’s not just the classic cars that call his attention.

“That’s a nice little rig you’ve got there,” is the first thing out of his mouth after admonishing his two Boxer breed and monikered dogs to stop jumping at the strange car in the driveway.

“Be careful, the ice is slippery,” was the second thing he said.

 Muller’s house is a neat blue construction just at the edge of Longmere Lake. He stood on a recent raining morning, pointed toward the front door and insisted on coffee and small talk before delving into his obsession.

Occasionally he yelled questions to his wife, Karlene Muller, as she moved about the home getting ready for work — she’s an acupuncturist in Soldotna. The two walk in and out of the kitchen, past a life-size painting of Buddha. The home smells of incense and every available space is filled with knick-knacks.

Muller is a multi-tasker and can be impatient; often he moves on to the next subject before his wife can answer the questions he’s lobbing her way.

In high school, Muller said, he drove everything. As he spoke, he paused several times to take a pinch out of a blue and white Silver Dollar snuff can.

“I had a ’69 Mustang. That was cool,” he said. “All kinds of junk from Volkswagens to whatever else. Every car is cool, they all have their own neat detail.”

He spent his first years in Alaska working on people’s cars for them.

Two decades ago, Muller owned a mechanic’s shop in Soldotna, just after he moved to the state in 1974. The 52-year-old has been on the Kenai Peninsula since 1978.

He still works on people’s cars, but stresses that the practice is a hobby.

He’s built an orange, 1931 five-window Ford, and a red and black 1967 Camaro convertible for Soldotna-area enthusiasts.

He’s the first one many people — including his daughter — call when they have a car problem.

In fact, he’s interrupted several times by his daughter Michelle Muller, of Sterling.

“She ran her car off the road this morning,” he said as he put his hand over the speaker of his phone and yelled a few questions to his wife.

Once out in his garage, there is an unmistakable note of pride in his voice and an underlying hint of mischievousness as he shows off the tools of his trade.

The place is packed from floor to ceiling with car parts, manufacturing pieces, half-completed motors and other waiting projects. It smells strongly of motor oil, pipe lubricant and solvent — a mechanic’s garage.

“It’s packed, I still get ‘er done though,” he said as he flipped latches on toolboxes and pointed toward two motorcycles from 1975 sitting in the corner — waiting to be restored.

“See how light and limber those bikes are?” he said, pausing to reflect on his own memories of riding them as a child. “It’s a hill-climber. It’s hills and rocks, first gear is like a mile an hour. They go real slow. Top speed is only like 30 miles an hour on them.”

They’ll be fixed and given to his grandkids.

“They’re going to be brand-new looking when I’m done,” he said before turning to lead the way through the shop, stopping at each machine to explain its use.

In between the parts washer, sandblaster, torches, three hot rod engines and an ancient chrome-accented microwave, Muller opened a drawer in a tall grey toolbox in a back corner of the shop.

It was stuffed with photos of cars in the process of restoration, grandkids, dogs and memories Muller shared each time he touched one of them.

“Oh!” he said as he pulls another calendar out of the drawer. His voice dropped an octave. “This is my lady-calendar.”

The photo shows two scantily clad women leaning on one of his restorations at a local car wash.

“It was 20 below zero, they changed clothes in my trailer,” he said, then he grinned. “I don’t know if we want to put that one in the newspaper.”

On the way back inside, his daughter calls again.

That mischievous grin flashes again and he answered, “Here, talk to the reporter.”

Michelle Muller laughed and said she always called her dad first when she was having car trouble.

“That’s what you’re supposed to do,” she said. “You don’t call your husband, you call your dad.”

None of his kids picked up his hobby, Muller said.

“They like to drive them,” he said. “That’s it.”

But the grandkids, all nine of them, enjoy being in the shop with Papa and then taking rides with him into town.

“They know that they don’t stomp their dirty feet in the car. They know all about the cars, they don’t touch them,” he said. “But most of them, they’re riding in them before the car is fully built.”

Michelle Muller agreed that she does not spend a lot of time fixing cars; she’s laid claim to a cherry-red 1966 Cobra her dad restored, however.

“It’s probably the only Cobra that’s had a car seat in the back,” she joked.

Though she doesn’t drive it as often as she used too because “three kids won’t fit in there,” Sterling mom said she can’t wait to get into it again.

She couldn’t really pinpoint why she liked the car so much — it was her father’s dream car as well, he said.

“It’s just mine. It goes fast,” she said.

When asked about her father, her voice takes on the same mischievous tone as his.

Tell her I like Waterloo Whiskey, Gary shouts toward the phone.

“Did he tell you he couldn’t walk until he was six? That he was born with a hole in his heart? Did he tell you that he was pretty much stuck in a wheelchair until he had the operation to fix it?,” she asked.

Hearing her, Gary breaks in “Hey, that’s none of anyone’s business.”

After she giggled through her dad’s admonitions, the conversation continues.

“Did he tell you he used to be a professional boxer? Did he tell you he got the throttle stuck while he was drag racing in Soldotna?” she said.

Gary broke in again before taking the phone back.

“I just spun around a couple of times,” he said of the throttle-incident as he covered the mouthpiece.

Then he lifted his hand, “You can’t just throw all my dirty laundry out there.” The tinny sounds of her laughter fill the room again and Gary is grinning when he hangs up the phone.

Later that day, Gary walked into Jim Spinka’s Soldotna garage, ready to work.

The two have been working on pickup truck that’s more than a half-century old.

Spinka had been restoring the truck on his own, but said a recurring heart problem made it hard for him to continue.

“Having Gary finish it for me is perfect because I can’t do the work myself,” he said.

As soon as he arrived, Muller noticed something was off.

The two were supposed to finish wiring the vehicle, but Muller got stuck on the headlights.

“One thing I noticed last night is we need to get yellow bulbs,” he said.

Spinka glanced down at his full coffee cup. “Yeah, that’s why I opted to use the other bulbs instead this morning,” he said.

“Unless you want to use the white lights,” Muller said, looking steadily at Spinka.

“I prefer the yellow ones,” Spinka said. “I thought about that, but, it was real low on my list to-do today.”

Muller looked at the truck.

“Well, it’d be easier to do them now,” his voiced trailed off.

Spinka sighed and sat his coffee cup down. “Yeah, OK.”

The two decided he would take Muller’s large red pickup and get the bulbs while Muller worked on rewiring the headlights.

“That’s what I’m talking about,” he said after Spinka left, referring to an earlier conversation about being detail-oriented. “I get stuck and then I can’t go any further.”

Moving to a table in Spinka’s garage, Muller clipped a fastener off of a cord running to one of the truck’s headlights and stripped the wires as he spoke.

While most of the paint and upholstery work on his restorations is outsourced to local friends, Muller himself does the bulk of the engine and bodywork.

“A lot of the parts I build myself,” he said.

Parts can be hard to come by, especially on a vehicle like the Hudson.

But, while the parts are scarce, the projects cars themselves are always available.

Muller said he was somewhat of a “finisher.”

“Almost every one of my cars that I’ve bought are from people who had ideas, or they started on them and it was too much for them and they just said they couldn’t do it,” he said. “The Cobra, it was sitting in a guy’s Conex. I bought the Willys and the Cobra from the same guy and for four or five years — since the Cobra was my favorite car of all time — I bugged the guy before he sold it to me ... it had sat there so long that the fiberglass on the body with the heat in the Conex sagged and nothing fit. I had to heat it up and stretch it back into position.”

That story, sent him off on another tangent.

“Then I had to build a special trunk lid and hood because it was so twisted and then I had to order special wheels that are different sizes to keep everything square,” he said. “I want it to look like I want it to look, you know?”
Clarion file material was used in this article.



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