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Creating Beauty from Rust
Painters, sculptors, chefs, musicians, innovators, Michelangelo, Leonardo Da Vinci, and Mike Bergstresser (a.k.a. Bergie). What’s the commonality? A penchant for seeing the world differently. Bergie has been creating beautiful things from salvaged goods since he was fifteen years old. An artist’s painting finds its home on a wall. Sleek and pleasing to the eye, Bergie’s creations are in their element when he is revving the engine and hitting the road.
According to Mike (370HSSV); building, tinkering, and fixing have been part of his life since his early teenage years.
“When I was a kid, just ten or eleven years old, I began going to the salvage yards and prowling the yards. Most of what I build comes from salvage yard parts. At that age, I couldn’t afford to buy any of the parts I wanted, but I sure did a lot of looking,” says Mike. “I started actually building things when I was about 15 years old. I found a Doodlebug frame on a neighbors iron pile, put a Briggs & Stratton engine on it, and we rode it around with no brakes. That was my first creation.”
Mike left his hometown in Southeastern South Dakota when he went into the service in 1962. When he got out of the military in August of 1966, his MGA Roadster pulled a U-Haul trailer loaded down with a Mustang transmission and engine back to South Dakota. In just a few months’ time, the MGA and the Mustang were one, and the American made engine and transmission purred underneath the hood of the British Roadster. Mike got married in 1968, and his love for the car was bested only by love for his new bride.
“I had to sell that Roadster and buy a real car so I could go on my honeymoon. I bought a 1964 Rambler of all things, and we drove it on our honeymoon to the Black Hills,” says Mike.
In the meantime, Mike bought a Harley Sportster and tinkered with it. Anything was fair game for restoring and customizing. He had a ’64 Corvette during that time too. In 1972, Mike and his wife moved to the Black Hills, where he worked for the Northwestern Bell Telephone Company. His weekends were spent prowling the salvage yards and building projects in his garage. According to Mike, creating custom projects has remained strictly a hobby, albeit a very serious hobby, throughout his life.
“The joy of building these projects has always been finding the next project. I drove the ‘64 Corvette in stock form for almost fourteen years. Then I restored it, and it was too nice to drive! So I sold it to finance the next project and keep the building cycle going,” says Mike (Bergie).
In 1995, Mike’s weekend hobby became his full time focus.
“When I retired in 1995, I didn’t want to be done working,” says Mike. “But an injury made it difficult to continue working at the telephone company. So I went right to the shop and never looked back. I decided to treat my custom work like a job. I go down to the shop at 8am and leave at 4pm. It’s been the best decision I’ve ever made.”
The devoted salvage yard prowler and creator of “beauty from rust” says, “If I wouldn’t have been a telephone man – I would have owned a salvage yard.”
For Mike, it has always been about working on motorcycles and cars. The first bike he built was a Volkswagen trike – and his whole goal was to build one the Harley riders wouldn’t laugh at. He succeeded. The custom creation looks similar to a Harley chopper with a Harley sidecar on each side. According to Mike, oftentimes “seeing is believing” when it comes to folks visualizing his builds.
“The last trike I did, people asked me what I was building. I said, ‘Do you remember Snoopy’s airplane?’ They said, ‘Yes…’ I said, ‘This trike is going to look like Snoopy’s plane with the wings, the tailpiece, and a couple of other things missing.’ Then they would smile because they could kind of picture the end result,” laughs Mike.
The “seeing is believing” philosophy extends even to Mike’s wife.
“She will come down to the shop, see the parts everywhere, and say, ‘That is the biggest pile of junk I’ve ever seen.’ But she ends up loving every single one of my creations. We have a lot of fun riding around the Hills together on those ‘piles of junk,’” says Mike.
Most unique about the array of projects coming out of Mike’s shop is the single set of fingerprints all over them. That’s right; Mike does every piece of every build “in garage.”
“When starting on a project, sometimes I do detailed drawings to have my concept nailed down. Other times I simply draw lines on the floor of my garage [shop] and go from there,” says Mike. “I have to think about a project for almost two years in advance to select my parts, come up with a design, and ultimately build it. I have to align the vision that’s in my head with the skills, equipment, and parts that I actually have on hand because every stage of the build happens in my garage.”
Currently, Mike (Bergie) is about two [ideas] ahead. He’s planning to build a 1941 Plymouth Coupe Convertible. The second project will have a Harley engine, a Volkswagen transmission, and a Farmall International tractor gas tank. Mike grew up working on farms throughout his teen years, and says he has always admired the shape of the tractor parts.
“The next project in the works is a 1941 Plymouth Coupe convertible. The car sat around my lot for more than 20 years. I considered the front grill to be too ugly to look at! Three year ago I got inspired and cut it up and started over. Now it is almost ready for paint. A mild custom driver is what I’m building,” says Mike. “A 1972 Plymouth Sebring donated the 318 engine, automatic transmission, and rear-end. Body modifications include shaved door handles, welded fender seams, front and rear bumper removal, some chrome removal, running boards removed and replaced with lake pipes, and of course a modified front grill. Big and little tires on early Mopar rally wheels, a new dark gray convertible top, and a double yellow paint job by Rick Gaudette at Mirror Finishes will complete the project.”
“Another build I’m collecting parts for will be constructed using a Harley engine mounted crossways to a Volkswagen automatic transmission using M.G. Midget wire wheels, and a few Farmall-H tractor gas tanks. This will be built in a salt flats Lakester style,” says Mike.
The wide varieties of projects rolling out of the garage have one thing in common; they are road warriors. Mike makes a point to ride each of his creations every year. New projects get taken to one local car show, and then they are driven. According to Mike, his car show experiences are oftentimes “outside the box.”
“When I go to a car show or a bike show, they rarely have a category for the vehicles I’m putting in the show. The builds are so unusual that most of the time I just put them in the ‘custom’ category,” laughs Mike.
During our original telephone conversation, I asked Mike who he “hung around with.” Builders, creators, and craftsmen love nothing more than getting around like minded folks and trading ideas. Mike and his crew are no exception, but I imagine their creativity is hard to match!
“I have to mention that a small group of like-minded builders share ideas and we all have what we would call (stuff piles),” says Mike. “These piles seem to be an “if you can use it, you can have it” kind of thing. Very seldom is money exchanged. We all seem to be collecting things for some unpredictable future use. There is nothing more interesting than the other guy’s garage!”
You can see a sampling of Mike’s custom projects at the Fifteenth Annual Counts Car Show, happening March 7th, 8th, and 9th in the LaCroix Hall and the Rushmore Room at the Rushmore Plaza Civic Center, Rapid City. The show opens at 5PM on Friday and closes at 3PM on Sunday. Come see Street Rods, Classics, Rat Rods, Muscle Cars, Antiques, Sports Cars, Pickups, Street Machines and much more! For the ladies there is the Third annual Women’s Expo. The show’s proceeds benefit local charities. For more information on the show, go to countscarclub.com or Facebook/Counts Car Club. TMM