EAU CLAIRE, Wis. -- At age 26, Jim Bush ordered the muscle car of his dreams.
When the bright purple, straight-from-the-factory 1970 Plymouth Hemi 'Cuda arrived in fall 1969, it was such a local sensation that an Eau Claire newspaper published a photo of Jim and the auto dealer beaming next to the sporty coupe.
Jim loved his 425-horsepower 'Cuda and attracted envious gawkers wherever he went in the rare hot rod. He even raced it a few times at the Amber Green drag strip (now Rock Falls Raceway) southwest of Eau Claire.
But the newly married Eau Claire man soon found himself in need of cash to buy his first house for a growing family. So after just eight months, Jim put the brakes on his joy ride and sold the vehicle to a dealer in Whitehall.
That could have been the story's finish line, but Jim couldn't put that car out of his mind. His seller's remorse got only worse when he kept hearing the Hemi 'Cuda was going to be one of the most valuable muscle cars of all time.
After asking around, he learned it had been purchased by a farmer from the Eleva area.
The farmer, Peter Bautch, drove it for just 2,000 miles or so until something went wrong with the engine. Bautch always intended to fix it, but never quite got around to it. And so that once-proud icon of greased lightning sat idle, first in a field and later in a ramshackle barn, gradually deteriorating.
Jim and other car collectors tried to persuade Bautch to sell the rare vehicle, but to no avail.
"All those years I had my heart set on getting that car back, but he would never let it go," Jim told the Eau Claire Leader-Telegram (http://bit.ly/1u73LWN) in a telephone interview from his winter home in Lakeland, Fla. "I even kept the original window sticker and stuff at home in hopes he'd sell it to me again some day."
That day finally arrived in September 2013, when Bautch decided it was time to part ways with the vehicle. "I wish I could have afforded to bring it back to life, but I couldn't," Bautch said. "So I figured there was no sense in keeping it anymore."
Jim and his son, Chris, could barely resist burning rubber when they finally went to retrieve the car from Bautch, who after years of car courtship had become one of Jim's closest friends. The Bushes had the prized vehicle hauled via tow truck to their Bush Motor Sports shop in Eau Claire.
"It was the time of our life when we drove down to Eleva and knew we were bringing that car back," said Jim, 71.
A report from Galen Govier of Galen's Tag Service, a Prairie du Chien company that operates a national database about classic Chrysler, Plymouth and Dodge cars and parts, indicates Jim's Hemi 'Cuda was among the first 50 of its kind made by Plymouth and one of just eight "plum crazy" colored models with white interior ever produced.
Word of the sale spread quickly in the car world.
In the first two days after the car's return to its original owner, about 200 people came to check it out, although it wasn't a pretty sight and certainly didn't appear to merit its appraised value of $118,225. The frame, though still solid, was covered in rust, and mice had eaten much of the white upholstery.
But the condition didn't deter the Bushes from their plan to restore the vehicle to its original glory. They knew the beauty hidden beneath that rusty exterior.
It was a dream father-son project, especially for two self-proclaimed "car guys" who happened to make their living in the furniture business - Chris at the former Bush Warehouse Furniture in Eau Claire and Jim at his father's Bush Furniture in Eau Claire and at Menomonie Home Furnishings.
They began by stripping the body down to its frame and having it dipped in an advanced, permanent rust-proofing solution. Then Chris tackled the exhaustive process of restoring all the salvageable parts and tracking down and ordering all the authentic, properly date-coded parts that needed to be replaced.
"That's pretty much what I did for the past year is get all the parts ready for it. I worked on it pretty much every day," said Chris, 42. Clearly, though, it was a labor of love, as evidenced by the reverence in his voice when he exclaimed, "This hemi motor is so big it barely fits."
Indeed, the shaker hood mounted on top of the engine juts out of a hole in the middle of the hood, as if daring any challengers to a race.
The Bushes hired an Eau Claire firm, Autokraft Race Cars & Restoration, to do most of the actual body restoration. The process took about 2,000 hours and more money than Jim cares to reveal.
But 16 months after Jim reacquired the vehicle, the project finally is complete, with Chris applying the finishing touches in the past week.
Randy Bauer of Eau Claire recently enjoyed his first glimpse of the car in 45 years.
Bauer, a collector who used to work at an area car restoration shop, recalled swooning over the car when Jim, a stranger at the time, owned it the first time. And now he's wowed all over again at the high-quality restoration job.
"They were special even back when they were new," he said. "It looks great now. It's quite a car."
The automatic transmission, dual-exhaust vehicle, with just 11,286 miles, gleams as it sits on display at Bush Motor Sports. From the wood grain dashboard and steering wheel to the word 'Cuda incorporated into the black racing stripes on the side, the car is as impressive as when it first emerged from the Chrysler factory in Hamtramck, Mich.
"I'm just glad my son got to see this car too," Jim said. "We've had so much fun. I let Chris take care of the whole restoration project, and I'm just helping him a little bit where I can."
Chris agreed, describing the project as "really cool."
"Nothing really gets my dad very excited anymore, but this got him enthused," Chris said. "It was a blast, and it could be the last big project we do together."
The lone disappointment for Chris is that his dad thinks of the Hemi 'Cuda as a show piece and plans to leave the transmission in park. Though they hope to take it to some auto shows, they won't be driving it.
A copy of the window sticker, reapplied to a passenger side window, shows the original price was $4,940.60, including a hemi motor upgrade charge of $800.
While that figure is dwarfed by the cost of both reacquiring and restoring the car, its rarity and condition could make the Hemi 'Cuda extremely valuable.
For instance, news reports last year indicated an even rarer model, a 1971 Hemi 'Cuda convertible, sold for $3.5 million at an auction.
But Chris assured that Jim's motivation is not about the money.
"This is more about him getting something back he's been chasing his whole life," Chris said.
Information from: Leader-Telegram, http://www.leadertelegram.com/