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Could you have a rusty classic in your backyard?

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Posted: Tuesday, March 12, 2013 12:00 am

You'd be surprised where rare collectable cars can be found. Sometimes, they're right under your nose.

In 1972, I was cruising Lodi's Cherokee Lane and spotted a worn-out '63 Studebaker Lark on the back of a used car lot. I really wasn't interested in such a beast, but thought I'd take a look anyway.

As I approached, I noticed a discreet badge on the front fender: "Avanti Supercharged" was etched on a 1-by-3-inch plaque. The grill also had a red and blue circular ornament containing a large "S" coupled with the code, "R2."

"This can't be true!" I thought to myself. Only 101 Larks were produced with this $767 factory hot rod option (at least $4,200 in today's money). There's no way a car this rare could have found its way to a small San Joaquin Valley town. Yet opening the hood and checking the serial number on the firewall revealed the find was truly genuine!

But the Lark had a few problems. First of all, the supercharger and its bracket were missing. The bright red paint had faded into a dull rose. The passenger's black vinyl bucket seat was torn and the car smoked on acceleration. But still, it was a mostly intact original automobile.

I couldn't let an opportunity like this pass. The smooth-taking, cigar-smoking salesman and I stuck a deal for $99, and the old Studebaker and I limped away, leaving a belching trail of blue exhaust.

Rebuilding the engine and locating another supercharger was easy. The latter was an option on several Studebaker models. However, the most difficult task was finding the mounting bracket. They were unique to this model and with such few made, a nationwide search would be necessary.

But oddly enough, one was located in Stockton! I still remember finding the home on the east side of town. Half of it was burned down, while the other half was still inhabited by a guy who looked like a character from the popular TV series "Duck Dynasty." The front and backyard were littered with old Studebakers.

I told the homeowner what I wanted. He thought about it and took me inside. The house was full of car parts. Lying on an old bed in a back room was the exact bracket I was looking for!

The front seat of the Lark was repaired, new brakes were installed, and the old faded paint was re-sprayed with an original "Regal Red" color. The car looked and acted roadworthy once again.

I advertised the little compact nationally in the "bible" of the old car business, Hemmings Motor News. Soon, a phone call came from Salt Lake City. It was a federal judge, who offered to buy the car (leaving me with a nice profit) if I would meet him in Reno. I remember the sadness, as I passed the town of Truckee — thinking I would never see my project again. But at the same time, I knew the future would bring other discoveries.

Back in the mid-'70s, a 1958 Packard Hawk also showed up on a Cherokee lot. I remembered earlier it had been parked at a Turner Road home. Foolishly, I passed on the deal, as I had no place it keep it. The car was only one of 588 produced and today has a value somewhere between $40,000 and $80,000, depending on condition.

These were not the only rare vehicles I found in Lodi. Others included a 1960 Imperial convertible, a '78 hand-built Cadillac Seville "Grandeur Opera" coupe, and a '59 Italian-bodied Eldorado Brougham.

So, now I have to ask: What's resting in your backyard? Is it a rusting pile of mass-produced junk, or are you sitting on a rare and historical motoring masterpiece?

On thing is certain in the old car hobby: You just never know what, where or when you will find it.

Steve Hansen is a Lodi writer.

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