STERLING – A half century ago, in a garage in rural Rock Falls, Terry Powell worked meticulously, night after night, restoring classic cars.
“It used to be great therapy for me,” said Powell, 78, a retired Rock Falls High School teacher.
“After teaching all day, I’d come home and spend time with my family, and then I’d be out in the garage banging on cars until 11 p.m. I could do detail work, I could throw things, I could tinker ... it was a great way to deal with the stress of the day, and when it was all done I had something beautiful to show for it.”
About 45 years ago, “a very old and very rare” Fiat 1000 Abarth racing car found its way to Powell’s workshop.
He wasn’t sure how old the car was, but it had, at one point, been raced by one of Franklin Roosevelt’s sons, Powell said.
He restored it, sold it, then lost track of its whereabouts – until July.
Automotive engineer Kazuhiko Oki of Hiroshima, Japan, had obtained an Abarth, and also was restoring it.
Oki bought the car in 2004. One day he removed the hood emblem, and painted on the back was “Oct 67, T. Powell, R.R. #2, Rock Falls IL.”
Hoping to learn more about his car, Oki sent a letter to that address, but Powell lives in Sterling now, and so it was returned.
Recently, Oki got in touch with a friend, fellow car enthusiast Richard Ranch in Tacoma, Wash., and asked him to help track down Powell.
Ranch googled Powell, and a November 2011 Sauk Valley Media story about the retired teacher’s model plane collection popped up. Ranch called Powell and put the two owners in touch. They’ve been emailing since.
“Although I was giving up, I began to think that ... this mystery may be solved,” Oki wrote. “I am wishing this car used to have you and want to let you know it is alive in far east country.
“Recently, I can drive sometime. Very fun.”
The Abarth is a rare car, built in limited quantities, and parts were hard to find 5 decades ago, when he was doing the restoration. Getting parts now, in Hiroshima, could be next to impossible, Powell said.
By all appearances, though, “Oki has done an outstanding job.”
“Back when the car was first made, Fiat’s were junk, but the Abarth was built in a different shop by a different crew. Every Abarth was handmade,” he said.
“It had an aluminum frame, and these old guys over there would make a piece or part and clamp it to the frame, and it would all eventually be fiberglassed together.
“They were all so delicate as cars, but with the engines they put under the hood, they would really scream. You’d die instantly if you crashed, because the car would just disintegrate.”
Powell heard from Oki several times over the last 6 months, as his Hiroshima counterpart asked for photos of the car and other details to make his own restoration more accurate.
“I heard ... many of Abarth … to export to US, twin cam engine was not stacked because it was easy to break and supply of parts was also insufficient,” one email read. “I don’t know if your car is so … do you remember what colors of your Abarth when you buy it?”
Powell finds the whole ordeal fascinating and exciting.
“It was always so fulfilling, putting so much of myself into each car that I restored, and seeing the finished product once it was done. Then, when I would sell one, I never knew where it might be 10 or 20 years down the road.
“Just to know that this car ended up in Hiroshima, where the U.S. dropped the first atomic bomb, is fascinating, and now the new owner and I are corresponding back and forth about it,” Powell said.
“It would be an interesting next step to see where the car has been since I sold it and to find out how it made it’s way all the way over there.”