VMCCA Member Story

Rethink Your Restoration - Unobtainium, The Story of Finding the Impossible

- by Alex West

I started my old car hobby not the way that most do. I was a naive 16-year-old, bidding on an old truck on eBay. I, self admittedly, knew less about old vehicles than I let on, but I purchased it anyway. The truck that I purchased was a 1929 International Six Speed Special. It was running and driving, but needed some refreshing for my purposes, and my self-edification. I quickly realized that I knew less than nothing about my new (old) truck, so I began doing as much research as I could find about it. This was where I ran into dead end number one: there was nothing to find. Not only was there no printed material in existence, but I struggled to find anyone else that even had a similar vehicle. Many of our club members had seen a truck of this type before, but no one had real first-hand experience working on them. At the time, no brand-specific clubs, groups, or literature existed for them, and an internet search left much to be desired. I was lost. How could something like this have fallen completely off the radar?

Photo of Alex's 1929 International Six Speed Special
My 1929 International Six Speed Special which led to my perpetual search for hard to find parts.

My initial experience with this dilemma was needing simple tune-up parts: points, cap, rotor, and associated odds and ends. Should be easy, I smugly confirmed to myself. I collected my old parts and went to my local parts house. We all know the old parts counter greeting, “Welcome in! What vehicle are you working on?” What a laugh I received from the staff there! Their books didn’t even go past the 50’s for most things, and their computer was even less helpful. Lesson Number 1: Find the oldest person working in the parts store and ask them. Not only did they know how to properly identify the required parts, they were able to cross them over by size, as few parts houses even know what a Hollander Interchange manual is. This was the beginning of my relationship with my parts store, and my reputation as the guy that always asks for unobtanium.

But what about the more challenging parts that are only for that one specific vehicle that you’re working on? Where does one start looking for those? I’ve had the pleasure of wandering around swap meets for days on end, walking countless miles, and being overwhelmed by the parts that “might fit,” but they are always as-is, non-refundable, and without warranty. So far, I have a complete corner of my shop devoted to non-fitting parts, available to the next person for whom they “might also fit.” I’ve searched and placed ads in magazines and various print format sources, with little success and too much expense (present magazine not withstanding). So how do we search now, in a time where most any information that could be needed, should be at our fingertips? We are privileged to have this endless opportunity for friendship and camaraderie in our personal lives through social media, and we often forget how these connections can be used as tools. Our club has done a fabulous job of spreading our love of touring throughout our social media connections, our online newsletter, and our bimonthly magazine! Lesson 2: Allow those same connections to be the tools that are used in sourcing your hard-to-find parts.

Enter Exhibit A: a new fuel gauge for my (different from the previously mentioned truck) 1924 International Truck. My gauge was completely destroyed—a piece of broken glass over a face, with no lettering remaining, and a needle in serious need of attention. A simple electronic replacement is not an option for a century-old car, so how does a rebuilder find what an original gauge looks like, in order to have it replaced? One of the most powerful sources of information is those around us who have done these things before, but with such a niche vehicle, sources may be slim. I used my social media connections, and within an hour I received a photo of one (from Australia) so that I could have it reproduced at my local trophy shop. Without this connection, I might still be wandering through the swap meets.

Photo Caption: The old oil dipstick (left) swollen from oil contact, and the new dipstick (right) with o-ring and logo
Photo Caption: The old oil dipstick (left) swollen from oil contact, and the new dipstick (right) with o-ring and logo. 

Technology has come a long way since the vintage of the vehicles that we’re working on. Things that worked ok when they were first created, are now hatefully corroded and stuck, or are made from pot metal and have absorbed so much oil that they are held together with merely a prayer. Even if a new (used) part were to be found, it would likely have the same problems. My experience with this extends to an oil dipstick in another of my vehicles. The original was made from pot metal and as a part that inevitably came into contact with engine oil during its eighty-year lifespan so far. It had become swollen and brittle and, as such, stuck into the engine block, removable only during the engine overhaul. Once removed, I gathered the crumbs and set off to have it reproduced. Normally, I would go to a machine shop and have one turned on a lathe, but I thought to myself, “there has to be an easier, if not even cheaper way to make this!” I contacted a company that does 3D printing and investment casting, and they said that it could easily be reproduced, and even custom printed with a logo on the top of it – something that a machine shop would struggle with. I sent the file containing my desired logo, and within a few hours the company had a printed polymer copy of my part! The polymer could then be cast in brass, bronze, aluminum, or some other metal of my choosing and I had a permanently sealing, non-oil absorbing, custom-looking and perfect part for a nominal fee! I couldn’t be happier! Technologies that were unavailable to the general public merely 10 short years ago, have revolutionized my search for the unobtainable again.

The best advice I was ever given was to swallow my pride, admit that I didn’t know everything, and ask for help. And help can come with a phone call or the click of a mouse. There ARE resources out there, and people who are willing to assist with something as simple as sourcing a replacement part, or even creating a whole new component. Specialized social media groups have a wealth of knowledge and experience about your specific problem. There are groups for every make or model and no limit to the number of groups that you can belong to, and it costs you absolutely nothing. Share your knowledge, or be the beneficiary of knowledge from someone else. No longer does it require placing an ad, and hoping for the right person to see it. The hunt for unobtanium has been simplified and expedited by the use of technology for those willing to participate, inquire, and learn.