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7 and Counting

Some months back, I was asked if I would tell the story of Jim Christensen’s 1951 Studebaker truck. Since I’ve known Jim for many years, and was familiar with the truck, I immediately liked the idea. But then, knowing that Jim had several cool cars, I began wondering just how I would go about writing the story on only the one vehicle. To show you, the reader, all of his cars, and talk a bit about Jim’s love affair with cars seemed like a much better approach.

Jim’s “love affair with cars”, as he puts it, began back in high school. He graduated in 1961, and at the time, “all kinds of muscle cars were plentiful”. The hot cars of the day certainly had Jim’s attention, and his interest blossomed from there. Over a many year period, Jim had a variety of jobs that complimented his interest in all things automotive. Among other things, Jim worked selling cars at Ben-Hur Ford, and later, he owned and operated Missile Muffler from 1982 until 1995. But what really solidified his love of cars were the 14 years that Jim managed Thunder Valley Dragways.
Glenn Rapp, of Rapp Chevrolet, opened Thunder Valley Dragways near Marion, SD, in 1967, and Jim was the manager from day one. During the race season, Jim was a constant presence at the track, managing all aspects of the operation. When Jim wasn’t working on Thunder Valley related matters, he was also a full-time employee of Rapp Chevrolet. At Rapp Chevrolet, his duties involved vehicle ordering and sales. In the off-season he was busy as well; promoting the track and contacting racers to arrange appearances at next season’s races.

Over the years, Jim worked with many of the top drag racers of the day, booking them into Thunder Valley’s races. Some of those racers include: Tom “The Mongoose” McKewen, Don “The Snake” Prudhomme, Bill “Grumpy” Jenkins, Sox and Martin, Gapp and Rousch, “Dyno Don” Nicholson, and dozens of others. In the early ‘70’s, Jim was able to put together a deal with many of the top Pro Stock teams for a Memorial Day weekend event involving Thunder Valley and two other tracks; it was one of Thunder valley’s most successful weekends ever.
Many drag strips in the 1960’s and ‘70’s were pretty shaky operations, but Jim, and track owner Glenn Rapp, worked to establish Thunder Valley as a reputable track. Many big-name racers had been burned by various track managers over the years, and a written contract was standard fare. But, Jim tells me, that “after a year or two, Thunder Valley had a good reputation, and most racers would appear at Thunder Valley on just a verbal agreement.”

With all this in his background, Jim was locked in solidly as a lifelong car guy. His first car project was a 1930 Ford Model A Sedan powered by a small block Chevy and automatic transmission. A Ferrari Red exterior with a tan interior completed the package. Later, Jim sold the Model A and moved onto building a 1955 Chevy 210 2-Door Sedan.

I remember Jim’s ‘55 Chevy well, as it’s one of my favorites. The ‘55 started life as a 6-cylinder 3-speed car, but Jim installed a 350 Chevy crate motor and a 700R (automatic overdrive) transmission. The exterior was “Glacier Blue” with paint and body work done by Byron Dose. Jim eventually sold the car to a fellow in California, who showed up on a -20 degree day, December 31st; he jumped in the car, and drove it back to California with no issues whatsoever. The car was beautiful throughout, and Jim wishes he had that one back!

Jim’s next project was a ‘32 Ford Roadster built by local rod builder, Bob Schmeichel, with assistance from Jim and others. This classic open-wheel roadster was gorgeous, with plenty of custom touches of Schmeichel’s own design, a buff leather interior, and Orange Pearl paint custom mixed by Auto Body Specialties. The powertrain consisted of a Chevy “Ramjet” fuel injected 350, with a 700R transmission, and Ford 9” rear end.

As happens so many times with car guys, Jim’s “fleet” continued to grow over the years, and he eventually found himself with a collection of seven or eight cars, depending on when you checked. In 2014, Jim decided to re-focus on what the collection held, and he sold or traded three of his cars. Gone were the ‘32 Ford Roadster, a resto-modded ‘57 Ford wagon, and a classic Flat Black ‘33 Ford 3-Window Coupe.

So, what does the collection involve now, you ask? There are seven cars in the collection, as I write this, so this story is going to be a two-part edition. We’ll start with the Studebaker truck that got this whole story started, and bring you the rest of Jim’s collection next month.

Jim’s 1951 Studebaker truck is the result of a drive down the Eros Road a few years ago, when Jim and his wife, Mary Jo, spotted a Studebaker truck sitting in a farm yard. Mary Jo commented, “that’s really a cute truck,” and Jim agreed. They weren’t able to buy that particular truck, but the search was on! Jim eventually found his truck in 2012 on Craigslist, in Alexandria, MN. A fellow had started a project on the truck 12 years prior, but had lost interest. The truck was just a shell, when bought, and was in primer. The body work was basically done, and there was a solid Chevy 350 crate motor and transmission installed. Even though much of the body work was already done when purchased, Jim and some good friends took it from there with a variety of modifications and refinements. (It’s what car guys do!) The fuel filler location was moved, the heater, fuse panel, battery, and door controllers were all re-located to a hidden shelf in the engine compartment, and all exterior Studebaker identification was removed. Several body modifications, the finished body work, and application of the “Torch Red” PPG paint was done by Tom Loring at Expert Auto Body in Adrian, MN.

J & S Upholstery, in Inwood, IA, covered the Buick Rendezvous seats in leather while the headliner and door panels are “ultra leather” in a buff color. Auto Meter gauges adorn the clean, buff colored dash.

Jim especially wants to thank Tom Dalasio, Doug Flier, and Gerry Phillips for all their assistance and expertise shared throughout this project. He likes the truck because it’s something different; “Everyone else builds a Ford or a Chevy.” I find there’s a lot to like in this Studebaker truck!

This gets you started, with some history on Jim’s automotive background, some of the hot rods in his past, and coverage on one of the most unique Studebaker trucks you’ll find around. In Jim’s shop, where he builds, maintains, and keeps his cars, I spotted a small sign that Jim’s wife gave him a couple years ago. It carries a quote from humorous writer, Dave Barry, that states: “It’s a fine line between hobby and mental illness!” In next month’s article we’ll explore Jim’s “hobby” further with a look at the six other cars in his collection. See you then! TMM





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