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updated: 9/21/2012 8:15 AM

Macon hot rod man preaches motorcycle safety

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  • Don Koehler, of Walker, stands next to the 1927 Ford T-bucket he purchased and fixed up after sustaining injuries in a motorcycle accident that would restrict him from driving his Harley-Davidson.

    Don Koehler, of Walker, stands next to the 1927 Ford T-bucket he purchased and fixed up after sustaining injuries in a motorcycle accident that would restrict him from driving his Harley-Davidson.
    Associated Press

Associated Press

MACON -- Don Koehler's T-bucket hot rod needed almost as many repairs as its driver.

Koehler says that's what you get for believing the silver-tongued promises of the radical street monster's former owner. "When I bought it, they said it had a rebuilt motor, a rebuilt tranny (transmission) and a rebuilt rear end," he explains. "But I found out there ain't nothin' rebuilt."

On the other hand, Koehler, who lives near Macon, has undergone extensive personal reconstruction. Almost dead after a truck wiped out his motorcycle in 2011, he suffered a collapsed lung, "six or seven" broken ribs, a shattered right arm, a crushed left hip and a fractured skull, among other injuries. Doctors sank him into a medically induced coma for 20 days while his internal injuries were repaired, and he emerged with a steel rod holding his right leg together and a brand-new left hip.

But not everything could get fixed. His right arm is perpetually crooked at the elbow, in a boomerang shape, and its limited range of motion meant his days of manipulating motorcycle handlebars were history.

"I was laying in my hospital bed thinking, `What am I going to do for ridin', man? I love being in the wind, I love my bike," recalled Koehler, 53. "I kept thinking, `Just how am I going to get back in the wind?' And that's when I thought of an open car."

Indeed, the T-bucket seemed an obvious choice for recapturing the joys of having bugs impact your grin at 65 mph. A hot-rod style developed in California in the early days of the car craze, it gets its name from the bucket-shaped Ford Model T bodies that were extensively modified to create it. What you end up with is an open roadster with a giant exposed engine, huge rear tires (reflecting a drag strip inheritance) and a road-going experience not unlike screaming down the highway astride a two-wheeled iron stallion.

Well, almost. "Yeah, I'm back in the wind," said Koehler, his blue eyes growing a little distant. "But it ain't the same as riding the bike, 'cause I still feel like I am in a car. But, well, it's as close as I am going to get now."

And it's been no easy road getting this far. Problem No. 1 was the T-bucket, which cost $12,500, was too short to accommodate his 5-foot-10-inch frame. Luckily, Mike Walker of Street Rods Only lives just down the road, and he was able to extend the cab a healthy 6 inches and add a little door (it had none before) on the driver's side. Another trusty mechanic, Michael Heiser of Heiser Speed & Custom of Decatur, reconfigured the front axle and suspension, which was messed up and badly laid out.

Add to that lot a new carburetor to replace the wrong-size one feeding gas to the 400-inch Chrysler motor and a whole bunch of other repairs and tweaks, and Koehler reckons he's sunk another $11,000 into the vehicle, with more to go.

"Mike Heiser is going to freshen up the motor for me this winter," he adds. Koehler also wanted to get the transmission completely rebuilt but had to settle for a less radical upgrade after learning the hot rod was constructed in such a way that the whole body has to come off to allow access to it. "As for the old rear end, I don't know what I'm going to do; just run it until it drops, I guess."

Boomerang right arm notwithstanding, Koehler has still managed to swallow his frustration and handle a fair number of repairs himself and, while frequently proving an acceleration into frustration, the radical wine-red car that has emerged from all this is a stunning head-turner. With giant 20-inch wide, 33-inch tall wheels holding up the rear end at a radical angle, the rumbling beast with the naked power plant stops traffic every time he takes it out to chase the shouting wind along.

And that's really the whole point. Koehler's highway trips do more than just satisfy his need to redecorate his teeth with bug juice, because he drives with a sense of mission, frequently heading to parades and events. He shows off the car, which snags the eyeballs of anyone who glances its way, and then comes the public service message pulled on a trailer: the smashed bike he was riding in the accident. He displays it with a painted sign reminding drivers to look twice and think bike before they pull out into traffic.

"If I can save one life my car is worth every penny I'm spending," he explains. "I think God is working through me to spread the word, `Hey, slow down, look twice."'

His wife, Julie, thinks God has a soft spot for him, too. She's helped with the hot rod any way she can and watched the car take shape under the purpose-driven hands of the man she once feared would never get to drive anything ever again.

"It's fun to see him now in the car," she said. "But there was a time, after the accident, when I didn't know if I was going to get to keep him. I did a lot of talking to the big guy upstairs, I can tell you."

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