Driving Force: One Man's passion for auto restoration

By+Kathe Brunton

It started as a hobby but now, some 30 years later, is a driving force in Gregg Wegenke’s life. Most evenings and weekends, this South Bend resident can be found in, under or around an old car, restoring its interior, modifying its carriage, and transforming it into a work of art.

But his “art” isn’t meant simply for gazing. While he does take his creations to auto shows, you’ll also find his babies on the road and at the race tracks, where they garner attention, admiration and not a little envy.

He remembers a time at a gas station when he was filling up his modified ’66 Dodge Polara, which he bought locally in 1995 for $500. That car, he laughingly recalls, “was street legal, but loud and obnoxious!”

Across the pump from him and checking out the Dodge was an “older lady,” who probably remembered that model from her youth.

“Boy, is that pretty!” he recalls her saying. “I guess that’s why I do it,” he adds. “It makes people smile.”

Gregg’s passion for auto restoration was first ignited around the age of 6 when his stepdad brought home a hot rod—in pieces—and let him and his brother help put it together.

“I got all my knowledge from my stepdad,” he says. Gregg began building on his own at 16, and over the span of several decades, he’s learned by just doing.

Easily rattling off his most memorable ventures, Gregg recalls the ’77 Chevy pickup that he bought in ‘84 and modified to become “almost a monster truck.”

“It was really pretty. It was burgundy with a matching interior and big tires,” he says. “But it was almost a chore to own it. I couldn’t park it in a regular space. It got impractical to own.”

Then there’s the ’65 black-and-silver Plymouth Belvedere A/FX (which stands for “altered, factory experimental”) that was featured on the cover of the January issue of Mopar Collector’s Guide. The accompanying article praised the car as “one of the best retro Mopar racers we’ve seen in a long time.” The writer added, “Hearing this thing run, and feeling the ground tremble underneath as it rumbles past, we can’t wait to see this one at speed—this is gonna be a blast!”

Although he’d like to make a career of it, Gregg’s hot rod hobby has to take a back seat to his day job at Klink Trucking, where he runs the heavy-truck garage. But even there, his years of being able to figure out tips and tricks and how to do things efficiently has earned him a reputation as the “go to” guy.

He shakes his head as he says, “Probably the two most commonly used words at Klink are ‘Hey, Gregg!’ And yes, I generally do know the answer. I just figure out the best way to do things. For example, I figured out how to replace a windshield in just 10 minutes. There’re tricks to everything.”

On the street and in the community, Gregg is constantly being asked questions or people request his skills in modifying or restoring a car. He’s built street rods and custom cars for dozens of customers since he was 16. Even Mopar Collector’s Guide calls him a “one-man fabrication and all-around car builder…there isn’t anything about building an old car that he can’t do."

Gregg’s most extensive project was a ’37 Chevy that he finished just last year. The owner saw it rusting away in a field in Iowa and spent the next 15 years trying to find someone to take the project on. This bright blue hot rod won an award in March at an auto show at the Century Center South Bend and another award at a show in Watervliet, Mich. Gregg did a true bumper-to-bumper rebuild of the Chevy, including his first attempt at sewing the interior pieces, and adding many modern touches, such as power windows and seats and an improved suspension. 

But having spent three to four hours a night, two to three times a week, over the course of four years on the Chevy, Gregg now says, “I’m not sure I’d want to do something that involved again in my spare time.” But he’s proud of it, as well he should be.

Speaking of spare time, when he has it, Gregg enjoys another hobby he’s had since childhood—rebuilding and racing dirt bikes. A few years ago, he bought and restored to original a vintage bike. In his first run in a race held just for vintage cycles, Gregg flew across the finish line in front of his opponents.

In actuality, cars have touched Gregg’s life from nearly the day he was born. At three weeks old, he lost his father in a single-car accident. It was Thanksgiving, 1965, 5:00 a.m. His dad was alone driving a beloved brand new Corvette with a speedometer that went to 160 mph.

“My mom actually remembers going that fast in the car,” he says, “so it’s likely my dad was pushing it.” Unfortunately, for some reason, his dad blew through the stop sign at Auten and Portage and crashed into the woods. Gregg recently found himself thinking about that event and started checking around looking for information and photos, if any exist. But the police department’s records don’t go back to 1965 and he’s been unsuccessful in finding anyone still alive who remembers the accident.

Driving down Auten earlier this year, Gregg got an urge to stop the car at the intersection where his dad lost his life. He walked about 300 feet into the woods and was “kicking the leaves” when, much to his surprise, he came across two pieces of dark green fiberglass—the same color as his dad’s car.

“Fiberglass doesn’t rust and it’s not heavy enough to sink into the ground,” he says. “I have no doubt that these are pieces from my dad’s accident.”

His dad’s love of fast cars was obviously passed on to Gregg, with influence from his stepdad, too, of course. It’s a passion that burns in his veins as brightly as high-performance fuel when it ignites. He’ll never lose that drive to tinker with, modify or restore an old car.

For himself, he simply explains, “I’m keeping something alive…the American spirit.”

 

Photography: Steve Toepp / Midwest Photographics