Traverse City Record-Eagle

Our Town

September 6, 2010

Restored 1970 Indy 500 pace car revealed

Owner: 'This car needs to be shared with everybody'

TRAVERSE CITY — The lost car has been found and, oh, what a comeback.

Jeff Stolowski unveiled his lovingly restored 1970 Indianapolis 500 pace car Sunday to family and friends, culminating five years of hard work that featured "the highest of highs and the lowest of lows."

Since purchasing the 442 Cutlass — a barn find if there ever was one — the passionate Olds enthusiast has dreamed of the unveiling.

Stolowski was triumphant in the backseat as a friend drove the car out of a garage built just for the meticulous restoration. The 75 attendees cheered, his family choked up. Everyone checked out the car and his garage, which had walls lined with photos of the 442 in action on the Indy track 40 years ago.

Throwing the party is just the beginning for Stolowski. He plans to share the 442 with the world and envisions using it to raise money for charities.

"It's great to see the car out in the public again," he said. "This car needs to be shared with everybody."

The owner of Silver Lakes Auto in Interlochen believes the $600 he paid for the car was the "best money a guy could ever spend." Asked to estimate the one-of-a-kind vehicle's worth now: "It's priceless!"

This description is a long way from the car's status shortly after Indy 500 confirmation, when it became an expensively-insured pile of junk. With that initial insurance purchase, Stolowski had thrown down the gauntlet: this car could — and would — be saved.

Therein lay the vision. Stolowski had faith, he could see the finished product in his mind. Others saw years of neglect, an engine in the trunk, jumbled boxes of miscellaneous parts, animal debris.

Stolowski's friend and the "world's best picker," Mike Edgar, found the rusted heap in a Haslett estate auction. A quick phone call later, Stolowski headed downstate to pick up his acquisition, which, after a tumble off the trailer while being driven home, barely qualified as a project. The car squatted in the rain in front of his business for two days. Friends wondered what Stolowski had gotten himself into now.

Odd accessories known as parade handles hinted at past glory. His restoration partner and Olds buddy, Jack Tokie, had a friend in Lansing run the vehicle identification number. In 30 seconds, they received the stunning news of the muscle car's lineage. Mike Edgar called shortly after to say he had in his hand the plate for Official Pace Car 1.

"All I was hoping for was a 442, not THE 442," said Stolowski, an Olds aficionado whose first car was a '69 Cutlass convertible.

Retired Oldsmobile engineer Don Morrow, of Lansing, attended Stolowski's party; the architect of the custom engine was an honored guest. The company actually built two cars and three engines to prepare for the coveted running of an Indy 500 pace car. Only one car and engine were used, Stolowski's; Morrow does not know where the others wound up.

"It was a 445 engine, and we just started from scratch and used older parts because they were more durable," he recalled of the engine that paced the race at 145 mph. "We put some ingenuity into it, and they gave me free reign."

Peering under the hood Sunday with another retired engineer from the company's experimental auto division, Morrow noted another distinctive feature of his creation.

"The engine was painted black, which was unusual because Oldsmobile (engines) were blue at the time," Morrow said, a detail Stolowski of course replicated.

Stolowski brought the car home Friday from the final step of restoration: a custom paint job by a Pennsylvania vendor. Arriving just under the wire for the planned party, he beamed for hours after the long-anticipated unveiling. The bright sunshine and vibrant blue sky had nothing on his smile.

"I'm glad he found it because nobody else would have taken the time to do it right," said Stolowski's sister, Jeanne Peeples, of Gaylord. "I remember him saying that day, 'This is a gift from God. I've got to do it right.'"

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