WHEELS OF THEIR DREAMS

Passionate owners rally around vintage foreign cars

2013-05-19T00:05:00Z 2013-05-21T08:31:08Z Passionate owners rally around vintage foreign carsBy MARY PICKETT mpickett@billingsgazette.com The Billings Gazette

Vince Long, the owner of three Volvos, had such a good time visiting with other fans of older foreign cars at local shows that he started a club last year so vintage gearheads could meet regularly.

Twice a month, the club meets to socialize and trade technical information about their cars.

A 1960s television program that Long watched as a teenager triggered his interest in the Swedish-made cars.

Long saw his first Volvo on “The Saint,” a British import that cashed in on the James Bond craze and starred Roger Moore in his pre-007 days.

Moore’s character, Simon Templar, drives a two-door Volvo P1800 sports car with small fins bracketing the trunk.

Watching Moore chasing or being chased in the sports car, Long decided that was his dream car.

After he got out of the U.S. Army more than a decade later, he stumbled onto a 1959 Volvo PV544, a five-seater sedan that was less expensive and had a less powerful engine than his dream car.

He bought it anyway and drove it a few years, but parked it after his life got busy with family and a job.

When he moved to Billings in 1991, the car came with him.

Long eventually did buy a 1972 Volvo 1800 E as well as a 1983 Volvo station wagon.

Why so many Volvos?

“I wanted something no one else was interested in,” he said, adding that Volvos are not very expensive, parts are easy to get and they are less complicated to work on.

Long said that there is no part of his 1959 Volvo that he couldn’t explain to a 5-year-old.

For the record, the correct pronunciation of the car’s name is “Vole-vo”, which is Latin for “I roll.”

Long and his son, Dan, got the 1959 Volvo running although it still needs work.

After Long enjoyed the company of other car owners at a Euro Car Show at Rocky Montana College, he decided to start the Northern Plains Vintage Foreign Car Club after retiring from teaching at Senior High last year.

Starting with a few car buffs, it now has 25 members — including two women — who own everything from Volkswagens to Jaguars.

Among the original members were two brothers, Joel and Jeff Slavik, of Billings.

Joel has a 1964 MG B and 1969 MG B GT.

He gave a third car, a 1978 MG B, to his wife, Pat, as a birthday present three years ago.

“I got the newest one with heat,” Pat said.

Jeff has a 1964 MG B and a 1967 MG B GT.

“He got me started in this sickness,” Jeff said about his brother’s deep interest in the British sports cars.

It will be a while before Joel Slavik can drive his 1969 MG to gatherings.

Slavik is bringing the two-door back to life after buying “a rolling shell and nine boxes of parts” from its previous owner in Colorado.

He’s not kidding when he calls his purchase a shell. The car he trailered back to Billings had wheels, but little else inside. Its engine and transmission had been disassembled down to small pieces. Because the car lacked a steering wheel, Slavik had to use two Vise-Grips to maneuver the car on and off the trailer.

Undeterred, he has been working on the car in his Heights garage since last fall.

Slavik, a diesel mechanic during the day, comes home and works three or four more hours on his cars.

The MG, brought back to the United States from Great Britain by returning GIs after World War II, started Americans’ interest in sports cars, Slavik said.

He likes MGs because they are fuel efficient, fun to drive, have lots of leg room, handle well and have good brakes.

MGs have only one drawback.

“They don’t have a cup holder,” he said.

Club member John Hailstone, a retired Billings firefighter, said there are a surprising number of older foreign cars tucked away in garages around Billings.

Hailstone has a TRV, MG and Alfa Romeo Spider in his car collection.

With fewer mechanics knowing how to fix older cars, it is even more important to have a group with a collective expertise to help an owner work on his or her car.

Long, who taught technology for 21 years at Senior High, set up the club’s website so members who don’t live in Billings can easily connect with the club.

“The goal is to keep the old stuff on the road,” Joel Slavik said.

The Internet has made it easier to own older, foreign cars in other ways, too.

Not only can Long can get parts online, there is a huge online support group for Volvos, as well as other types of cars.

When Long recently wanted to change the side mirror on his Volvo, he went online to ask how to take the door apart. It didn’t take long to get an answer.

Club members may own a wide variety of makes and models of cars, but they all like vintage foreign cars for some of the same reasons, including that they are small.

“There’s less car to jack up,” Long said.

Club members also share a tradition of self-sufficiency common in a state where ranchers and farmers become mechanics to keep equipment running.

“We are all do-it-yourselfers,” Long said.

When Long was working on his 1959 Volvo, he bought a sewing machine and taught himself how to stitch new upholstery by talking to upholsterers, reading books and watching YouTube videos.

Copyright 2014 The Billings Gazette. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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