Old barns have long proved to be reliable locations for auto enthusiasts looking to find their next project vehicle. Few things are as exciting as walking across a farmyard, swinging open a massive door and discovering a dusty relic that's been shielded from the elements for decades.
Tom Soerens experienced a similar encounter with his 1959 Austin Healey Model 100-6. However, he did not find his British tourer among tractors and hay bales out in the country, but rather stored away near airplanes and jet fuel.
"I stumbled upon the vehicle in a secluded hangar at the Erie Airpark in March 2008," Soerens said, referring to a small airport near Moline and the Iowa border. The St. Charles resident, an FAA airworthiness inspector and a licensed aircraft mechanic, was at the airfield completing a certification for an amateur-built plane.
"It was obvious the car had been sitting for some time and the engine and transmission had been removed," he said. The car's 1979 license plate registration indicated it had not been driven since around 1980.
Making matters worse, the rural hangar floor was packed dirt, allowing ground moisture and rust to attack the floor pans and frame. "I never planned on rebuilding it to be worthy for judging at an event. I felt to attain that measure of perfection, I'd have to jack up the ID plate and insert a new car behind it."
Despite the initial trepidation and not having completed a car restoration, Soerens dragged the jalopy from its 28 years of rest and began a full overhaul. The first order of business was purchasing welding equipment. "I wanted to make as many parts as I could for the car. I took every nut and bolt off and tore it all down. Using new steel, I fabricated anything I could," Soerens said.
The metalwork was intense: much of the frame had to be repaired, outriggers for the floor were needed and floor pans were crafted. "Many would prefer to just buy these pieces, but by crafting them myself I came out ahead, saved a lot of cash and have tools for the next project."
Upon initial discovery, the car wore several layers of paint. A faded yellow covered a red, which hid the original Healy blue and ivory white paint. That factory bestowed color scheme was retained for the new coat.
A total overhaul was completed on the factory inline 161-cubic-inch, six-cylinder engine and the four-speed manual transmission with electric overdrive. With help from the family, the project was completed in May, 2012.
Before clearing it for takeoff, Soerens added one final touch: a HNGR QN license plate.
"In aviation terms, a hangar queen is an aircraft that spends its life in a hangar and never flies, or one that requires a lot of maintenance," he said. "After 28 years in a hangar, this Healey seemed to fit both definitions."
Adding more nods to its winged past, Soerens installed various aircraft hardware and parts on the car, including aircraft-quality seat belts.
"When I was young, everybody messed with their cars. We changed engines and installed four speeds and four barrels," he said, adding that through this Healey project, he happily gave some of that bending metal, welding and painting experience to his kids.
Though it wasn't discovered in a barn, this road-going classic now soars at local events, proving that old iron can be found just about anywhere.