For decades, Lance McDonald has loved anything Volkswagen. Going back as far as the 1970s, he owned a VW and VW kit car repair business called Autokraft Werks in Roselle.
In June of 1978, he heard about a shop in Elgin importing a new, unique VW-based ride. After just one visit, the 28-year-old McDonald put them out of business. How? He bought all its inventory.
That inventory was a sports car called the Puma built by Puma Industries, based in Sao Paulo, Brazil. They were crafted from 1966 through the mid-1990s and weren't originally designed to be "kit cars," in which owners were required to assemble them.
Because of importing restrictions in the U.S., the cars left the Puma factory fully assembled and then driven to the docks, where crews would take them apart. They were crated up, sans the drivetrain, and shipped to the U.S. Buyers would get the body, floor pan, wiring, gas tank, windows and upholstery, but they needed to locate a VW ball joint, front end, swing axle, transmission, a VW or Porsche engine, wheels, tires and a battery. The most convenient way to build one was to dissemble a '66, '67 or '68 VW Beetle, to which you could attach all the needed Puma components.
Puma Midwest Sales opened up at 955 Grace St. in Elgin and Lance swung by to check them out. The proprietor dabbled in a lot of interests. Besides the Puma store, he also ran Monet Experimental Aircraft, which offered VW-powered aircraft and gliders. He took Lance for a ride in his Puma demonstrator and Lance was hooked.
"It was way better than any kit car I had run across," Lance said. The dealer had five Pumas in the showroom; two coupes and three convertibles. It was a red coupe Lance had to have.
After the purchase, it took Lance 13 hours to bolt in all the needed VW parts and get his Puma on the road. He enjoyed it for a few weeks and then called the store back, asking if the green coupe was still available. He was told no, but the three drop tops were still for sale. "I said I'll take them all," Lance said.
The two struck up a deal to not only clean house on the vehicles but all things Puma related. "He was more interested in the Monet stuff so it worked out," Lance said. Truth be told, Lance didn't want the cars, or at least that many. "They fit in with my shop so I knew there'd be an outlet," he said.
Sure enough, one by one he sold them, with one going to his brother-in-law, who still has the car today. Lance sold the other two in the next two years but decided to hang onto that first purchase, the coupe painted in 1965 Ford Poppy Red. Lance daily drove it for a few years and used it to impress his girlfriend, and now wife, Barbara.
"We had just started dating and he wanted to show off the new radio he installed," Barbara said. "He went too fast and got his one and only ticket."
Any wounded pride was restored when a puzzled patrolman asked if the car was a Maserati. Another fond family memory was when his three girls offered to wash it.
"We thought the car was the coolest thing," said Tracie Clarke. "And dad was so proud of it."
Lance attempted to add heat (difficult because of the air-cooled VW engine) and after one particular winter jaunt in the late 1980s, pulled it from regular use.
"I took my three girls to a friend's house during a heavy winter snow," Lance recalls. "The car went up the driveway but, coming down, it just plowed all the snow into a big mound and got stuck." After that, Lance stored the car up until last fall when he decided to "resurrect" it.
The Keeneyville resident took off everything he originally installed in 1978 and upgraded all of the components. "I was thrilled to have a second chance to make all the improvements I would have liked to make the first go around," he said.
The rebuilt Puma's grand debut was at Wednesday's June premiere of the 2017 season of Daily Herald Cruise Nights at Stratford Square Mall in Bloomingdale, where I awarded McDonald with my Matt Avery's Pick.
"I've gotten rid of lots of other cars I've owned," Lance said. "But this one was just too special to part with."
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