Nick Priola loves Jeeps. The off-road enthusiast has owned more than 20 of the rough-and-ready rigs over his driving career.
Each one has been a blast, Priola says, but there's just one that "will always have a special place" in his heart. He purchased that 1976 CJ-5 in early 2014.
The Lake Bluff resident had driven to Columbus, Ohio, on a "Jeep-buying road trip" where he purchased a 1978 Jeep. Like any die-hard enthusiast, he couldn't leave without one last online search for any other Jeeps nearby.
An ad surfaced for a vintage Jeep the seller claimed was "one of two survivors painted by the Toledo Jeep Plant artist."
"It was enough to entice me to drive two hours out of my way. When I saw it, it was simply beautiful," Priola said.
What he had stumbled upon was a piece of four-wheeled American pride with deep ties to a national event.
The Jeep belonged to Paul Clawson, a 36-year veteran of the Toledo Ohio Chrysler Jeep assembly plant, where he retired as a specialty painter. After the Sept. 11 terrorist attack in 2001, Chrysler and the plant's United Auto Workers union rushed to do something special to show their patriotism for a mourning but rallying nation. They commissioned Clawson to paint two special display Jeeps. His canvass was a 2002 Jeep Wrangler and 2002 Jeep Liberty, which he covered in a stars-and-bars inspired red, white and blue color scheme.
"That fall they were parked at the base of the giant Jeep sign outside the plant, in front of a major highway," Priola said. "It was their way of saying 'United we stand.' "
Those two display Jeeps were never sold and later scrapped, but Clawson had painted another 2002 Liberty and his own personal CJ-5, which at the time he was restoring in his home garage, in the same flag-inspired scheme.
"His vintage Jeep was a bicentennial year for our country. That helped fuel his passion for the project," Priola said.
In addition to the paint, Clawson performed a frame-off overhaul. The frame was galvanized and a crate 350-cubic-inch V-8 was installed. After twelve more years of ownership and only 1,200 miles, Clawson was finally ready to part with his beloved four-wheel-drive chariot.
"Once the transaction was complete and the 'passing of the torch,' there was a glossy-eyed look in his eyes. This vehicle meant so much to him."
Priola returned home and furiously began a search for the CJ-5's other lost rolling sibling. He knew the first two display units had been destroyed at the factory but an elusive 2002 Liberty was still out there. Clawson had been asked to paint it by an Ohio Jeep dealership, which planned to use it in a promotion with a national grocery store chain, but the deal fell through.
After buying his CJ-5, Priola checked online everyday for a month looking for evidence of a 2002 Liberty with this unmistakable paint job. Eventually it turned up in an online auction with just hours left to bid.
"What are the odds of finding a needle in the haystack and then finding another? The fact that it surfaced is unbelievable," he said.
The Perrysburg, Ohio, Jeep dealer, after being unable to finalize its deal with the grocery chain, sold the Liberty in 2003 as a 955-mile demo unit to a family in New York. The family used it as a daily driver until the auction.
"They weren't fully aware of the vehicle's history," Priola said. "Having just bought the '76 and talking to the artist himself, I knew there was a good chance if I didn't buy it, the (two Jeeps') story may have never been heard."
Since the Jeeps' reuniting, Priola has wasted no time getting them back out for their original purpose: stirring hearts and emotions. He says he witnesses a great deal of national pride as their story is told.
One such occasion was at the Arlington Heights' Memorial Day Parade in May, where both red, white and blue machines were driven along the route.
"Military vets stood up and saluted as they drove by."