Here’s The Story ...
By ANDREW MCGINN
The Guy Fieri of hot rods, TV star Richard Rawlings has 2.8 million followers on Facebook — roughly 2 million of which live in Greene County.
Or so it seemed on Feb. 21 when Rawlings posted a photo taken from the seat of a plane of a treeless white moonscape below.
“I’m off to Jefferson Iowa for Fast N’ Loud,” the native Texan wrote, referring to his hit show on Discovery Channel. “WTF do we do for fun in town tonight?”
Less than two hours later, Rawlings posted an update: he was at Wild Rose Casino, “so if you are near by and want to hang out and party, come on by!”
Mike Hill, 31, of Jefferson, was among the many who responded.
The question on every mind was why. Why was Richard Rawlings in Jefferson, of all places, and on a random Thursday night in the dead of winter?
“There’s got to be some badass car around here,” Hill remembers a friend saying as they watched Rawlings pose for pictures with fans of all ages.
Maybe it was a 1930s roadster hidden away in some barn near Cooper? Or an immaculate, 1970 Barracuda in a garage in Jefferson?
Something with suicide doors or a big-block engine.
Whatever it was, it had to be totally and utterly badass for Rawlings to want to drag it back to his famous hot rod shop, Gas Monkey Garage, in Dallas.
The thing is, “badass” is in the eye of the beholder.
Driving six kids — plus a wise-cracking housekeeper — to the Grand Canyon in a station wagon without air-conditioning is pretty darn badass, wouldn’t you agree?
No one would ever have guessed that Rawlings was in Greene County to buy Hill’s vintage, Plymouth Satellite station wagon, a kind of ride that instantly evokes memories of “The Brady Bunch.”
As hard-core “Brady Bunch” fans will tell you, theirs was a ’71 Satellite and brownish in color.
Hill’s was a ’69 and green with a wood grain panel.
“They’re kind of an ugly car, I’ll be honest,” Hill confessed.
But for Rawlings and his crew, Hill’s car was absolutely, perfectly groovy.
“They’re going to make a modern-day ‘Brady Bunch’ car,” he said.
He was told that the car will be remade as part of a new season of “Fast N’ Loud” to coincide with “A Very Brady Renovation,” a new series set to premiere in September on sister network HGTV.
HGTV made news this past August when it bought the iconic, split-level ranch in North Hollywood, Calif., used for exterior shots on “The Brady Bunch” throughout the show’s run from 1969 to 1974. Thanks to endless reruns, you can undoubtedly picture the house right now, regardless of your age.
HGTV bought the house with the intent to restore it to its midcentury glory with the help of all six original Brady kids.
If what Hill was told holds true, it will be a remarkable bit of corporate synergy. (Discovery also owns Animal Planet, so maybe they’ll also conduct a nationwide search for a dog to replace Tiger.)
The 49-year-old Rawlings, who now has two shows on Discovery (“Garage Rehab” debuted in 2017), is his own brand.
He also has a bar and grill in Dallas, a concert venue and more. His personal line of energy drinks boasts “shockingly badass flavor,” or so the website says.
It’s true that Rawlings jumped up on the bar at Wild Rose, Hill said.
“He kept asking, ‘Where’s all the women?’ ” Hill said. “Dude, it’s a farm town and it’s winter.”
The next morning, Rawlings and a TV crew ventured south of Scranton to the home of Mike Winger, Hill’s father-in-law, where the station wagon was kept.
Four and a half hours later, they had everything they needed.
“We couldn’t have written a better script,” Hill said.
Not only did Hill have the right car at the right time, he had a compelling story to go with it.
And like “The Brady Bunch,” family is at the core of Hill’s tale.
Rawlings’ purchase of the station wagon will enable Hill to buy his late uncle-in-law’s cherished ’57 Bel Air hot rod, the building of which had been a labor of love for Jefferson’s Tom Winger before his sudden death one year ago Saturday at age 69.
The red and black hot rod, which Tom Winger affectionately dubbed Dirty Red, was at risk of being sold following a tough year for the family’s hail-repair business.
“This gets to stay in the family now,” Hill said of Dirty Red. “It’s going to stay in the family forever.”
Dirty Red’s future was very much uncertain after Tom Winger’s passing, according to Nikki Uebel, his daughter.
“It gave our family so much joy knowing how much joy it gave my dad,” Uebel explained.
“It was such an important part of him,” she said.
From beginning to end, the process of building a hot rod from the ground up had brought Winger and his brothers and nephews closer than they’d been in years, Uebel said.
A Vietnam veteran who received the Bronze Star and kept his four younger brothers from having to go by extending his own service — an act that remained unknown until after his death last March — Winger was “an all-American dude,” Hill said.
Never content to just park and buff Dirty Red at car shows, Winger loved to do burnouts whenever he got the chance, flexing his machine’s muscle like the car gods rightfully intended.
But over time, man and machine became so intertwined that the possibility of one without the other didn’t seem right.
“Nancy (Tom’s wife) didn’t want it in her garage,” Hill said, “and I don’t blame her.”
Enter the first potential buyer.
A used car dealer from another county, he looked it over and nitpicked Tom Winger’s handiwork, detailing everything he’d change about it.
“That pissed me off,” Hill said.
That’s when it hit Hill to buy Dirty Red himself. But with what?
Luckily, that first offer was so low that it gave Hill some extra time.
In the meantime, Rawlings’ Gas Monkey Garage on Jan. 31 posted on Facebook that it was on the hunt for a Plymouth Satellite or Belvedere wagon from model years 1968, 1969 or 1970.
Hill owned just such a car, having bought it in 2017 from a seller in Wisconsin after four years of looking.
“It was the dream body style,” he said.
He would have preferred a blue one, but settled for green.
“I wanted to take my wife and boys on road trips,” Hill said. “Keep it old-school. Some things just aren’t supposed to change.”
He envisioned them loading up the wagon some summer and, in their own Brady-esque way, rolling out to Mount Rushmore.
He had big plans for the classic “grocery getter” — above all, he wanted to swap out its engine for a 707-hp Hellcat V8 engine from a Dodge Challenger.
There were also plans to install satellite radio and a backing camera.
Unfortunately, summer is the busiest time of year for Dentbusters of Iowa, the family car repair business.
Hill could also never bring himself to tear into the wagon.
“It was perfect,” he said, “except for one thing. It was too nice.”
With only 16,000 miles on it, the car was practically a museum piece. Sheltered from the elements for nearly all of its 50 years, it still looked as good as the day it drove off the lot.
A sticker touting a dealership that no longer exists was still affixed to the bumper.
“I was afraid to do anything to it,” Hill confessed. “It was like a time capsule. That’s what Richard said when he saw it.”
No one could have predicted that Rawlings’ search for the perfect Carol Brady car would lead him to rural Greene County.
Even though Gas Monkey Garage already had wired payment to Hill by the time the crew arrived, he and Rawlings nevertheless negotiate the car’s price on camera for the sake of “reality TV.”
Hill’s opening price was $25,000.
“It’s one of those things,” Uebel said. “You just have to sit back and chuckle at the way things work out. It’s such a bizarre circumstance that Richard Rawlings ended up in Jefferson to buy the station wagon. It completed the puzzle for us.
“We’re so thankful it came together the way it did.”
Tom Winger was a fan of Rawlings’ show, and if all goes as planned, the segment will serve as a tribute to Winger as well.
Winger also will be honored Memorial Day weekend at a car show to be held at Wild Rose Casino to raise money for veterans and the fire department. He had been working with the casino on organizing a car show right up until the day he died.
But more than anything, Dirty Red will stay right where it belongs, at home in Greene County.
“There’s still a little part of it that makes us miss Tom,” Hill said. “There’s something about the relationship between a car and a man.”