By Randy Rundle, owner of Fifth Avenue Antique Auto Parts
Two brothers, Wilfred and Henry Abels grew up in Clay Center, Kansas, during the Depression and quickly learned the value of a dollar.
They grew up farming alongside their father, and went on to become successful farmers themselves after they were married. In those Depression days and the Dust Bowl days that followed, the brothers also learned the value of being self-sufficient.
“We did not go to town and get things repaired, we figured out how to fix things ourselves with the tools we had,” Wilfred told me years ago.
The two brothers gained an appreciation and a passion for collecting all types of antique tractors and farm implements. They would often start with a bare frame and spend two or three winters restoring an obscure tractor that was last in production some 50 years prior.
With few replacement parts available, they made most of the missing parts themselves using pictures and drawings they had found over the years. There were very few things that they could not build or fix.
Now, fast forward a few years to their Thanksgiving dinner of 1959. While most of the dinner table conversation revolved around how the children and grandchildren were doing, Henry and Wilfred had their own private conversation going.
The Kansas State Centennial celebration was coming up in 1961 and they decided they should build something for the occasion.
Henry remembered he had an old 1939 Chevrolet car parked out behind his barn. The brothers decided to use that car, find another one like it and build a car with two front ends welded together that would steer from both ends.
It would take a little more than the usual “farm” engineering, but the brothers were always up for a challenge.
So in their spare time, they got to work. They started by taking the body off of the ’39 Chevrolet car chassis. The next job was to locate a front end that was the same width as the stock Chevrolet car front end that also steered. In 1959 the choices were limited.
After a few Saturdays spent visiting all of the local salvage yards in a 100-mile radius, they determined that a Dodge Power Wagon front end was within a couple inches of being the exact same width. That would be close enough.
Because this was a low-budget “fun” project, the rest of the car was built using what they already had on the farm. That included replacing the bad sections of the original wiring harness with the wiring they had saved from tearing down old houses and barns.
With the Dodge Power Wagon front end installed onto the 1939 Chevrolet car chassis, it was time to build the body. Turns out that 1939 Chevy cars were not an easy find locally in 1960.
They found lots of 1937 models and lots of 1935 models, but no 1939s. After three months of intense searching, they finally located what they needed in a salvage yard in Manhattan, Kansas.
They had to shorten the bodies of both cars quite a bit more than they originally planned in order to get both front ends to fit onto the stock-length frame.
With the bodies mounted and welded together, it was time to build the doors. They ruined two complete sets of doors trying to figure out how to cut and section them to fit the openings.
No matter what they tried, nothing worked. Most people would have scraped the whole project about then — not these two! Finally, after three weeks of working with door number five, they figured it out, then, all they had left to do was build a second door for the other side.
They used the stock outside door hinges and pins on one end of the doors and a large bent gutter nail for the door pin on the opposite end of the doors using the original outside hinges.
They used old movie theater seat cushions mounted on wooden box frames for the seats.
They went to great pains to be sure the interior was the same inside for both ends.
Matching steering columns, steering wheels and three-speed shifters with all of the linkages and pedals on the floor boards are present on both ends.
They decided it would be best to match the Dodge steering linkage to the original 1939 Chevrolet steering box…so they did. That kept the stock appearance inside.
Putting It in Park
They took the “Krazy Kar” to the 1961 Kansas State Fair where it was a big hit. The car then appeared weekly at dozens of county fairs and parades throughout the state for the next dozen years.
By 1973, Henry and Wilfred decided the car had “made its rounds,” so into the barn it went.
In 1973, I was a freshman in high school and Henry’s grandson Benny Gibbs was one of my best friends. Benny and I spent a fair amount of time out at his grandfather’s farm.
Benny’s grandfather and his Uncle Wilfred always had some kind of interesting project going on.
On occasion they would let us get the Krazy Kar out and go for a drive. We always got the same lecture: “Be careful, pay attention to what you are doing…and don’t wreck it!”
Benny and I never did wreck it, but we did have a few close calls and it was a lot of fun to drive. We had literally grown up around the Krazy Kar and didn’t realize how unique it was at the time.
It was just another “Wilfred and Henry” project to us. We would have driven that car every Saturday if they would have let us.
Henry Abels passed away in 1988 and the car was passed on to his oldest son Barry, who lived in Denver, Colorado. Barry put the car in outside storage where it remained until his death in 1994.
Then it was passed on to the oldest grandson Benny, who by now was living in Austin, Texas. It was stored inside a building for the next 11 years.
I started looking for the Krazy Kar around 2003, wondering whatever happened to it. I found out Benny had it, so I called him to see if he still had any interest in it and if he would sell it.
He said it was a family treasure and he had promised not to sell it, but he didn’t have time to “mess” with it. I kept after him to get it running, reminding him of all the fun we had driving it when we were younger.
In 2005, Benny gave the Krazy Kar to his younger brother Kenton who lived in Arkansas City, Kansas, about three hours away from my shop.
At least it was getting closer! Kenton went to Texas and got the Krazy Kar from Ben, and then promptly put it in storage in Arkansas City, Kansas, for another four years!
Finally in 2008 with lots of encouragement, Kenton got the Krazy Kar out and started working on it. The long years in storage both inside and outside had not been kind to the old car. The car never had any door glass, just windshield and vent glass, so the elements had taken their toll.
The engine was stuck, the body was rough and faded and the wiring (which was marginal in the first place) was in really bad shape. Kenton decided to restore it like his grandfather and uncle built it originally.
With a little patience and some automatic transmission fluid in the cylinders, the engine freed up. Fresh gasoline and with the fuel system cleaned, along with a tune-up that included new spark plugs and wires, the engine started and ran just as good as it ever did.
Over the next year or so it got a brush repaint in the original colors and the outside was restored to how it looked in 1961.
With the brakes overhauled and the tires replaced, the Krazy Kar was back in parade order. Kenton, who is now in his 40s (about the same age as his grandpa and uncle when they built the car), says, “When my grandpa and my uncle built it, I doubt if they had any idea it would still be around 50-plus years later in running condition.”
Driving the Krazy Kar…Again!
This spring I met up with Kenton and we drove the Krazy Kar in a local parade. A ton of memories came flooding back for me. I had not driven that car in 25 years!
Kenton was too young to drive Krazy Kar when he was growing up, but has since spent many hours behind the wheel. We had about a 30-minute practice session before the parade just to be sure we were both on the same page. Communication between the drivers is very important. If you’re not both working together, you can end up on the sidewalk pretty quickly. You can literally turn your head and talk into the ear of the driver beside you. I wonder if Wilfred and Henry planned it that way or that’s just how it ended up?
We can do circles both forwards and backwards as well as crab walk down the street (both ways) along with various other impromptu maneuvers. With no power steering on either end, a trip through the parade will save you a week’s worth of time spent at the fitness center. Driving is a handful!
At one time there were 11 different horns and whistles on the car, but most have disappeared over the years. All that is left is the original, and an electric bull horn.
The doors of the Krazy Kar open opposite of each other, so each driver has to get in, close the door then reach out the window and put his own nail in. Someone always asks if that is like putting a nail in your own coffin. I didn’t used to think so, but these days I wonder.
The Krazy Kar is now over 70 years old! I’m also convinced the inside has gotten smaller since the 1970s.
The ignition switch consists of a piece of old cotton-wrapped wire hanging from an original style 6-volt ignition coil mounted up under the dash. There is a piece of brass hook soldered to the hanging end of the wire (from who knows what). A pair of very old homemade jumper wires (which are normally stored in the glove box) is used to make the ignition “hot.”
By connecting one end of the jumper wire to the battery sitting behind my seat, and the other end connected to that piece of brass from the hanging ignition wire, you have ignition. The engine is started via the original foot starter on the floor.
The headlight switch is powered by the same wiring system (a wire hanging under the dash) and both sets of headlights work, as do both sets of dash lights. An original 6-volt oscillating fan mounted onto the dash is a lifesaver!
The cross members of the blue end are made from the handles of various plows and cultivators. The gas tank came from an old combine. Flat chain with iron rods that were threaded by hand became the hold-downs for the blue end sheet metal.
The red end is the original 1939 Chevrolet chassis end that has the original 216 cubic inch, 6-cylinder and 3-speed manual transmission.
A homemade driveshaft connects to the Dodge Power wagon front end to the red end. The exhaust goes out the original muffler and tail pipe and exits under the grill of the blue end. That is one of the few ways you can tell which end is which.
When Kenton finally got it restored including the newly brush painted body (in the original colors), I invited him to bring it back home to Clay Center and park it in front of my store during our annual “Piotique” City Festival.
The Krazy Kar had not appeared in public in close to 35 years. We also arranged for someone to drive Kenton’s Uncle Wilfred down from the nursing home to the store so he could see the Krazy Kar one more time.
In his upper 80s, when Wilfred turned the corner and saw that car parked there, the twinkle in his eye and the grin on his face left no doubt he was suddenly a much younger man. He said it was “just like 1961 all over again.”
I asked Wilfred where the ’39 Chevy came from in the first place. It was a part of the story I never knew. Wilfred said, “It belonged to Benny and Kenton’s dad…it was his high school car. We used it because we already had it.”
So now I finally understand why the Krazy Kar has so much sentimental value to the family.
Wilfred sat in my store almost all day (taking advantage of the air conditioning) answering questions from people who came by to look at the car and reminisce seeing it in local parades many years ago. We tried to get him to leave for lunch but he wouldn’t hear of it. “Just bring me something.”
It was clear to me he was having the time of his life and he was not going to miss a minute of it. Wilfred passed on a few years later, but he had talked of that day often.
Sometimes it is the simplest of projects that end up being the most fun, and provide the longest-lasting memories. It took more than a little simple engineering for the Abel brothers to build a vehicle like the Krazy Kar. They did it working together while teaching Benny and I a few lessons about teamwork, perseverance and how to figure out and build things on your own. In the end, they left a legacy that will last for generations.