Jack Wenger started working with car parts when he was seven years old. “We always had 10 or 15 old cars around our house. My dad would sell the car parts for extra money.” Jack quickly learned how to salvage the parts their customers needed. Now, over six decades later, he’s still in the same business.
He built his first race car when he was fifteen. “I was the only kid with roll bars on his race car,” he remembers with a chuckle. But those roll bars didn’t come easily. Although Jack could build a car, he didn’t know how to weld. And so, he sought the help of a local craftsman, wood and metal worker, and teacher, Mr. Carlyle Lynch. Mr. Lynch helped him fuse together the correct pieces to complete the roll bar for coolest race car in the neighborhood.
Jack was eager to race his new set of wheels, but there was one problem. He was too young. One had to be 18 to legally enter into a race. “It was the 60s,” he mused. “My brother gave them a case of beer and they let me race.”
Thirty-eight years ago, Jack bought an old feed mill in Broadway and decided to make a living doing what he does best – restoring cars. He told his wife and business partner that if they could get just a few jobs that year, they could likely make a living with the business. “We got 51 jobs that first year,” he said. “And we’ve been busy ever since.”
Jack’s job has taken him far away from his Broadway locality. Restoring cars has also helped him meet intriguing people and to work on some famous vehicles. For example, he’s worked on Richard Petty’s Pontiac, Kyle Petty’s Jaguar, and he’s even had his hands on the Buick used in the movie Casa Blanca. In fact, that particular vehicle happened to be in his warehouse when the building caught fire. Jack was determined to save the car, and while his valiant attempts landed him in the hospital, a local fireman was able to pull the car out of the smoldering garage to safety.
The Casa Blanca car also brought a distinguished visitor to Broadway. Murray Burnett, one of the co writers of the story Everybody Comes to Ricks – the play that inspired the movie Casa Blanca – heard that the car was at Jacks and came down to see it again.
Another movie car Jack worked on was the 35 Packard driven by Marilyn Monroe in the movie East of Eden. Jack tells the story of the elderly gentleman who later bought the car. “When Marilyn was filming, she’d get bored with the down time. So, she’d sit in the back of the Packard and color. I asked the guy who bought the car what he did with Monroe’s pictures. He said he threw them away because he said they weren’t very good.” We both shook our heads in disbelief. “Said he kept the crayons, though. The man probably threw away a million dollars worth of stuff.”
Jack also once owned the Studebaker used as a rollover car in the movie Tucker. Instead of blowing up a genuine Tucker car for the movie scene, the set crew fixed up a Studebaker to use a “stunt double.” A few years later, Jack saw the wrecked Studebaker for sale in an auto magazine. He bought it for $1500. That Studebaker was one of his most popular cars for a while. He took it to many car shows and folks were always eager to take a look at it. “They wore a path in the grass around that car. I even had people waking me up at 3:00 am just to take a look at the car.” Wenger later sold the Studebaker to a museum for $15,000 – a good return on his investment!
Jack is a wonderful storyteller, and he was in full form when he recalled the tale of the Bentley he rescued from an estate. The car was behind a fence with an exquisite flower bed planted in front. To complicate matters even more, the car also had a tree growing up from the center of it. Now those circumstances alone were challenging, but in order to remove the car, Jack and his helpers had to take the yard apart and put it back together without a hint that they’d been there. And so, they carefully dug out each flower clump, took down the fence, and removed the tree, extracted the Bentley and then returned the yard to its former state. All without a trace of their activity.
Jack’s current project is a French race car that raced at the Mille Miglia. This car is one of six of that type of racecar in the world. “We basically built that car from scratch,” he says, pointing to a small, powder blue car in the shop. “It was held together by a thread when we got it.” Jack went on to explain the history of the Mille Miglia race. It was a thousand-mile open road race that was started in 1927 by two young Italian Counts. The race took place twenty times between 1927 and 1957. The race was briefly stopped in 1938 when an accident killed a number of spectators. The Mille Miglia was officially banned after another fatal crash in 1957. A “safe” version of the race is still held today following a traditional route from Brescia to Rome and back.
In addition to movie stars and race car drivers, Jack has worked for government officials including the CIA, NSA, and the FBI. He worked for NASCAR on the safety crew in Richmond for 17 years, and has collected enough stories to fill several volumes. My head was spinning when I left his office. Who knew all of these sensational stories were happening right here in Broadway?