Drag racing icon Bill “Grumpy” Jenkins touched virtually every corner of the high performance hobby at some point during his long and illustrious life and career, and despite his passing nearly two years ago, his legend only continues to grow as a name and a figure that will never be forgotten by those in the industry and the racing community. “Fittingly, “The Grump” remains one of the most popular figures in the sport, and everywhere you turn, there’s demand for and interest in his memorabilia and historical personal items, and as we saw here at the PRI Show, in his former race cars, as well.
Three years ago, car collector and nostalgia Pro Stock aficionado Mark Pappas set out to restore the renowned Grumpy’s Toy X 1972 Chevy Vega Pro Stocker campaigned by Jenkins, which was one of the early cars to take advantage of NHRA rule changes in ’72 that allowed for lighter cars fitted with small block Chevy V-8 engines. Already the owner of a spot-on recreation of one of Lee Shephard’s Camaro’s and Jenkins’ 1968 Grumpy’s Toy IV Camaro, Pappas began his research to track down the remaining cars of the 17 that Jenkins had raced in his career.
Said Pappas, “I took Bill to dinner after his last public appearance with us at the MACN Show in Illinois and asked him about this particular car, because I’d heard rumors over the years that it had never been more than 10 miles from his shop. He confirmed that, but wasn’t sure if it was capable of being restored.”
A week after their conversation, Pappas received a call from Jake Barbato at Jenkins’ shop with information on the whereabouts of the former No. 10 Vega and who had possession of it.
“I called them up, and Bill got a little involved in it, and we settled on an acquisition price and made a deal. We got the car as roller and proceeded to get right to work on it.”
Bill saved so many things throughout his career, and he had so many original parts and pieces that he was just instrumental in making this project happen.
According to Pappas, the car had traded hands several times since Jenkins sold it in 1974, and the family that had owned and raced it in Super Gas and bracket events in the Northeast since the late 80’s had been longtime friends of Jenkins and knew of its past, and had intentionally kept the original components with the understanding that they had a piece of history on their hands and that a collector may eventually come looking for it. Jenkins, likewise, was a packrat if there ever was one, having saved much of the parts from each of his race cars right there in his shop over the decades. Jenkins supplied Pappas with many of the original parts off the car for the project, including the ignition, brakes, and much of the engine and driveline, while other components like the wheels, axles, dash, and more, were all sourced from the previous owner.
“Bill saved so many things throughout his career, and he had so many original parts and pieces that he was just instrumental in making this project happen.”
The Vega had been repainted and its drivetrain re-done from front to back, but the owner had gone out of their way to preserve it, going so far as to mark with tape the original bars in the chassis so that their newly-added bars could later be removed and the chassis return to original, if need be.
Pappas took the car to Windy City Rods & Restorations in Illinois, and with guidance from Jenkins on many of the historical aspects of the car, from the original paint codes, the chassis color, and how the engine was painted to the unique method he’d devised for starting the car, the restoration began.
“Bill helped us get almost ever detail correct. Many of the original decals you see on the car even came from his shop
Jenkins had an original 331 cubic inch small block powerplant that would’ve been campaigned in the early 1970’s in one of his Vega’s in his shop, complete with nearly everything but a set of cylinder heads. Pappas estimates 80-90 percent of the engine itself is original. Using a set of period-correct 292 heads, Jenkins was able to set off to construct a motor for the car, but unfortunately, passed away last March before seeing it to completion.
Pappas took the car to Jenkins’ shop after his passing and dropped it down into the framerails, which he described as a ceremonious, “almost magical” event.
“The joke between us and the guys at his shop was that they told us ‘well bring us an engine cradle.’ and I said ‘well, I’m going to send you the perfect engine cradle.’”
“I was amazed as were dissecting the car all the little secrets that Bill had built into it. For example, he had built weight bars for different series, and even had a stack of weights he put in the rear bumper for match racing. Bill’s own words were “wheelies sell tee-shirts,’ so he’d stack about 40 pounds of weight on the back of the car so it would stand up. on the bumper.”
From much of the parts under the hood, to the drivetrain and back to the rear end and axles, a significant portion of the restored Grumpy’s Toy X is original to the car, with the majority of the remaining re-manufactured or sourced as period-correct to bring the car back as close to original as possible.
Pappas cited both finding and fitting many of the original parts back into the car as the most difficult of tasks in restoring the car to the condition that you see it in now. “He had different door panels and a different dash in it, and the challenge was getting these original peices that had been sitting ina garagte foer 35 years to fit back in the car and not crack or break and makr the car as original as possible. In a way though, it was like putting a model or a puzzle together. When we got to piecing it back together, everything just fit, because it had all been there at one time.”
As Pappas shared with us, it was the help of one of his racing heroes, a legend of whom he never could’ve imagine owning the car of or working hand-in-hand with on a such a project, that helped make his endeavor a reality.
“Bill was a lot more receptive to this project than I ever would’ve imagined. He was very into it, and without his help, I never would’ve gotten it to this stage.”