Whether it’s a hotrod, stock classic or a modern machine, Helena’s community of car enthusiasts knows how to make a statement with a set of wheels.
As temperatures warm they appear from winter-long hibernations. Engines spark to life, exhaust bellows and gears engage. With a touch of the accelerator, they emerge from the garage ready to hit the street.
“It’s just the pure love of building something to drive,” said Don Reich, president of Helena Street Rodders. “For a lot of people it brings back memories of a first car, a lot of nostalgia, and it’s pretty cool to say, ‘I built it.’”
Reich was hard at work in his Helena Valley shop recently wiring a friend’s 1931 Ford Model A. The former Air Force aircraft mechanic found some great mentors in the club when he joined more than a decade ago and plenty of local knowledge on all things automobile.
“Everyone finds a niche, so we have great fabricators, engine guys, paint and body specialists,” he said. “I really enjoy wiring these old cars and there are a lot of people who don’t want to do it because there’s a lot of upside down work, and the hard part is really being careful.”
Building a car isn’t like the TV shows that take a tattered body to a jaw-dropping ride in only an hour. It takes Reich from 80 to 150 hours to complete the complex wiring and make a car safe with some modern amenities. Working on a car often happens only on the weekend, with projects started, stopped and restarted for years.
Building and restoring cars is rarely a money-making proposition. As the cost typically far outpaces any sale value, enthusiasts are in the lifestyle for the love of the machine and the feeling of getting behind the wheel, Reich reasoned.
In recent years, Helena Street Rodders expanded its scope to include more modern cars. Also some members do not even own a special car but enjoy the club and participating in putting on its annual show called the Horsepower Roundup. The club also sponsors garage tours and weekly cruises out to local restaurants.
This year’s roundup is scheduled for July 9 at JFK Park in East Helena. More information is available at helenastreetrodders.com. A portion of the proceeds go to the Montana Veterans Foundation Willis Cruse Living Facility.
From June 24-26 nearly 400 cars will roll into Helena for the 11th annual Blast from the Past car show sponsored by the Helena Valley Timing Association. Events include the show, ground shaking drag races and live music with proceeds going to scholarships at Helena College, raising more than $91,000, said Chad Wenger with the association. The association also puts out an annual calendar of local classic cars as a fundraiser, available for purchase at the show, he added.
“I think what makes our show unique is just that we have a lot of variety,” he said. “We have hotrods, different muscle cars, motorcycles – sometimes sprint cars that run on the dirt track, and then we also get a lot of vendors.”
Wenger enjoys the car show circuit, typically participating in 25 events while putting about 7,000 miles each year on his 1968 Chevy truck. While only 30 years old, he has an appreciation for the classics shared by many people in the Helena community.
“I think we have quite a few car enthusiasts, and I think it came from the '60s and '70s and just continued on,” he said. “The big thing with the car scene is it’s a great group of people. It’s cool to go to the shows and meet different people, but the biggest thing is just to get out and drive.”
More information on the Blast from the Past car show is available at helenavalleytiming.org.
The Queen City Car Show may be sponsored by Last Chance Mustangs and Specialty Fords, but the May 28 event is open to all makes and models from stock to heavily modified, said club President Daniel Pocha.
“The show is dedicated to preservation and restoration and Mustangs and specialty Fords, but there’s always been a car presence in the other shows over the years,” he said. “With our show we want all makes and models so motor enthusiasts can bring them out, whether they’re well preserved muscle cars or super modified, we see the joy in all of those.”
Pocha wasn’t always a Ford fan. After restoring a 1964 Mercury Parklane convertible, he restored a Mustang and found that parts were more readily available. Now Pocha’s garage includes seven Mustangs.
“Some of us used to be all General Motors – I thought I’d have to go through a 12-step program if I ever switched,” he joked.
The club organizes the Queen City Car Show to fall on Memorial Day Weekend. Because of a great relationship with the Montana Military Museum at Fort Harrison, the show includes a collection of military vehicles that the crowds always really appreciate, Pocha said.
Putting on the show is time consuming, but it keeps everyone in tune for a major event in 2017. The 38th International Mustang Meet comes to Helena next year, and with it hundreds of the Ford’s most ardent fans.
More information on the Queen City Car show and Last Chance Mustangs and Specialty Fords is available at lcmsf.com.
This story has been edited to reflect the correct year of the Ford Model A.