Soldotna man rolls into high-speed hobby

Posted: Sunday, May 21, 2000

With its flaming fenders and glinting chrome, Bill Banta's immaculate 1936 Chevrolet pickup is certainly a head-turner.

"It's real loud," he said. "It's got straight-through mufflers. You can look in one end and out the other."

He loves people's reactions when Happy Bear thunders by.

"They're putting their thumbs up, waving, turning and looking," he said. "You'll be driving along and see them watching, crossing the center line."

It is no antique, though. Antiques are authentic, Banta said, but Happy Bear is his own creation.

'I've always been a car nut. I grew up in the late '60s dragging home various late '50s to mid-'60s cars. You take two or three cars to make one, drive it, sell it and have enough parts to try again. There were two or three of us. We were playing with junk on Dad's homestead.'

--Bill Banta

The frame came from a 1947 GMC truck, a junker Banta dragged home from Ninilchik. He took the front suspension from a 1972 Nova and the rear end from a 1969 Chevelle. He took bucket seats from a Dodge Colt and a heater from a Datsun pickup. The window handles came from an old Ford Mustang. He nabbed the steering column from a 1971 Chevrolet van.

With a 1936 body, Happy Bear would be street-legal even without seat belts, he said. The law requires just one tail light. He did not skimp, though. Happy Bear has two tail lights, and even the recently introduced rear-window brake light. It has seat belts, a fire extinguisher and a genuine electric windshield wiper.

In fact, Happy Bear is luxurious. Banta installed an AM-FM-cassette stereo, a Sharkskin spray-in bed liner and an automatic transmission. For the technically inclined, that is a turbo-hydro 350 with a high stall-speed converter for drag racing. It does not engage until the engine reaches peak torque at 3,500 revolutions per minute.

"I built a motor," he said. "The first was a 350-cubic-inch Chevy. That was fairly mild. It didn't go fast enough. So I bored a 400 to 415 cubic inches. That was too radical. We put another stock 350 in it."

That still lacked punch, though, so Banta installed the present 406-cubic-inch motor.


Banta filled the open space that held Happy Bear's original instrument panel, and cut holes for new modern gauges and instruments.

Photo by Doug Loshbaugh

Behind the wheel, Banta said, he feels like a kid again.

"It puts a smile on your face," he said. "It gets all your senses going."

He lives just south of Soldotna, where he has worked for 23 years driving city snowplows and street sweepers, maintaining the airport and keeping up city buildings. Before that, he was a mechanic for Hutchings Chevrolet. Before that, he ran an auto repair shop in Ninilchik, where he grew up, and drove a school bus.

His first car was a 1953 Willies Jeep CJ3A, but he was driving a 1957 Buick before he got that to run.

"I've always been a car nut," he said. "I grew up in the late '60s dragging home various late '50s to mid-'60s cars. You take two or three cars to make one, drive it, sell it and have enough parts to try again. There were two or three of us. We were playing with junk on Dad's homestead."

He figures he has owned roughly 500 cars during 49 years on the planet.

"When I was in high school, I got a letter from the state saying that if we bought and sold more than six cars in a year, we had to have a business license," he said. "So we quit registering them in our names."


Banta has built several engines for Happy Bear, which now sports this 406-cubic-inch model with a racing-grade automatic transmission.

Photo by Doug Loshbaugh

He still has some of the old yellowing titles.

"By the early 1970s, I was starting on hot rods," he said. "I couldn't afford to buy the good stuff. When everyone else was playing with Camaros, we were playing with '40s and '50s cars we could hop and make run."

His first hot rod was a 1940 Plymouth.

"We bought it in Anchorage from a car lot. First we put a 283, then a 302 Camaro motor in it for speed," he said.

After high school, Banta moved briefly to Anchorage. He raced his friends on the back roads but never made it to the track in Palmer.

"We used to go out to Jewel Lake Road before they put any houses on it," he said. "They called it the Potato Patch."

Twin Cities Raceway opened near Soldotna soon after Banta started work for the city. Peripheral vision problems prevented him from track racing. So, he built the cars, and Dwayne Thompson, another city worker, did the driving.

"We thought the 4-cylinder class would be fun to get into, because it would be cheap," he said. "The Vega fit in that class, and there were lots of Vegas around. They just weren't very competitive"


Banta etched the pattern of roses in Happy Bear's rear window.

Photo by Doug Loshbaugh

The Vegas' aluminum engine blocks did not last, he said, but everyone seemed to want old rusty Vegas hauled away. Banta and Thompson picked up about 25 of them, some for racers and some for parts. By the mid-1980s, though, Banta grew tired of fixing them. He gave up stock-car racing to build a drag racer, which he hoped would require less maintenance.

He was actually looking for a Model A Ford, something he had wanted since high school, when he stumbled into the 1936 Chevy that became Happy Bear. He found it during a 1985 visit to Washington.

"The guy had it stripped to bare metal," he said. "He'd gotten rid of everything but the cab. The original frame was gone."

Banta bought it for $450 and shipped it north that spring. It took a year to put Happy Bear on the road.

"It had a flatbed at first. We used the original steel fenders with about half an inch of body putty to make them look right. We welded up the rust and holes, but it wasn't very successful," he said. "Then, we found a company that built the reproduction bed, and a company that built the reproduction fenders. They're fiberglass."

Banta built the tailgate. He cut aluminum inside panels for the doors and ceiling and had those upholstered. He built the gas tank and a receiver hitch to tow his car trailer.

He added tempered safety glass and etched a pattern of roses into the rear window. He built mounts for the headlights and had them chrome-plated in Anchorage. He bought a stainless steel reproduction grill. He cast the hood ornament -- a Happy Bear pair -- from aluminum.

"If we hadn't called it Happy Bear, I'd probably have called it the Dividend Special, because every year when the (Alaska Permanent Fund) dividend comes out, I'm able to buy some more parts," he said.


Happy Bear roars down Fireweed Avenue in Soldotna with Bill Banta behind the wheel.

Photo by Doug Loshbaugh

People in the magazines boast about who worked on their cars, he said, but Alaskans mostly do the work themselves.

Banta ran quarter-mile drag races in Palmer. Happy Bear never won, though, until last summer's eighth-mile drag races at the airstrip in Nikiski. There, Banta took a first and a second. His daughter, Michelle Ulen, took a first.

Banta said he enjoys the competition and people.

"It's a very open group," he said. "Everyone is helping each other. I like the enthusiasm and that type of attitude."

His yard is filled with parts -- assorted axles and rear ends, the firewall from the 1947 GMC, a 1969 Nova Banta once planned to use for a racing car, a leftover Vega parts car.

He and his son-in-law, John Ulen, are building another hot rod from a 1952 Ford F1 pickup they got from a friend who was leaving town.

"It's parts and pieces of several he had collected," Banta said. "He wasn't able to sell it, so my son-in-law and I got it from him. It took two car-trailer loads and three pickup loads to haul all the parts out of there. All we've done so far is cut off the frame and add a Camaro front end."

He finally found a Model A body last summer in Washington. That sits in his shop, puttied, primed and ready to paint.

"It's either a 1930 or a 1931," he said. "They're virtually identical, and I haven't figured out how to distinguish them."

The serial number was on the frame, he said, and the original frame is missing. He found another one in Palmer. He added the axle from a 1934 Ford and spindles from a 1939. He added a 1957 Ford rear end and the steering box from a Vega.

"This frame has 1963 Buick brakes because they have these cute finned brake drums," he said.

He plans to put another 350-cubic-inch engine in Happy Bear, and put the 406 in the Model A.

"This is going to be a bad boy hot rod," he said. "It's going to be flat black and loud. That's what hot rods are supposed to be -- fast and loud."

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