By Jennifer Gallus
HOWARD LAKE, MN - Ever since he can remember, Howard Lake Council Member Jan Gilmer has had his mind on Midget race cars.
“When I was 4 years old,” Gilmer explained, “I was standing by Highway 12 on the Fourth of July with my dad, and all these Midget racers were heading west probably to a county fair.”
“I remember this black one coming by,” he added, “and it had the number 45 on the side of it.”
Not only did the race cars make an impact, but so did that number, which he used many times on model race cars, once he started making them.
“I’ve been a motor head since I was 7 years old,” Gilmer said as he explained how he started tinkering with model cars, some of which he still has.
“I always wanted to build a model Midget, and race the real ones too,” Gilmer explained.
That is just what he did after retiring from the monument business 22 years ago.
“I set the goal to get out of the business by the age of 40. I worked hard. I did the work of five people, because I couldn’t find good help, and I achieved that goal,” Gilmer said.
Although he retired from the monument business, Gilmer started working 12 hour days building model 1/4-scale Midget race cars, which are gas powered, radio-controlled cars, as well as 3/4 Midget race cars, which are the kind people sit in and drive.
“I built all my own engines from scratch,” Gilmer said.
Gilmer has made 120 model Midget race cars that have been sold to customers around the world. His work has been written about in many race car magazines throughout the US.
“I had a one-man production line. I’d make 10 at a time,” Gilmer said.
He explained that he is a perfectionist, and would try to make each car better than the last. He also said that he would spend four hours just boxing up the cars for shipment, and that when the customers received the model cars, they would often call or write that they didn’t expect such quality for the price.
“I sold them too cheap at first,” Gilmer laughed. “I always told them that they could send me another check if they thought they got a deal.”
He also said that he knows of only two people that have actually “run” the cars, everyone else has told him the cars are too beautiful to run.
One of Gilmer’s favorite customers is Willie G. Davidson, who is a grandson of the founder of Harley-Davidson Motor Company.
Gilmer explained that every model Midget he made had his custom “Gilmer” decal on the side of it, except the one he made for Davidson.
“He wanted to paint ‘Harley-Davidson’ down the side of it himself,” Gilmer said. “I wasn’t going to let it out of my house without my name on it so I made up this tiny ‘Gilmer’ decal and put it on it. I also engraved underneath, ‘To Willie G. Davidson,’ as well as the date and my signature.”
Davidson made several custom requests while Gilmer was making the car, including giving him the paint-code numbers for the Harley-Davidson orange and black colors.
“It cost me $500 just to have it painted,” Gilmer explained. “We put 10 coats of clear hand rubbed. It was so smooth, you couldn’t feel any of the decals that were under the paint.”
Davidson also sent Gilmer a special mini Harley-Davidson decal to apply to the car before the clear coat paint.
When it was finished, Gilmer hand delivered the model car to Davidson’s mansion.
“I made him give me a grand tour of the house,” Gilmer said. “We walked around for two hours before I even got the model car out. There was even a Harley-Davidson museum in the house.”
“Finally, Willie said, ‘I don’t have anything else to show you Gilmer I’m wild about seeing this car,” he laughed.
“I had it wrapped in linen in the backseat of my Lincoln,” Gilmer said.
When he unwrapped the car, Gilmer said Davidson didn’t say a word for one-half hour. He paced in circles around the table it was sitting on just staring at it.
“Nobody said a word for half an hour,” Gilmer said.
Davidson’s wife finally whispered to Gilmer’s wife, the late Janet Gilmer, “He likes it.”
When Davidson did finally speak, he said, “Absolutely perfect, beautiful, flawless,” Gilmer said.
Gilmer reminded Davidson that he could’ve painted “Harley-Davidson” on the side of it, to which Davidson’s wife replied that her husband wouldn’t be allowed to touch it.
“They put it in a special glass case,” Gilmer said. The following Christmas, he received a Christmas card from the Davidsons.
Besides making model cars, Gilmer has built his own Midget race cars to race, and at one time was in the top three in the US.
He spent 5,000 hours on one of his engines in a car he races.
He started his racing career in 1964, and has earned numerous trophies and titles.
More recently, Gilmer enjoys “old timer events.”
“I’m no longer in hot pursuit, but I can still pull 110 or 115 on straightaways,” Gilmer said.
In 2007, he was the grand champion at the 3/4 Midget race in Wichita, KS.
His grandsons, Dylan, 10, and Cole, 9, race 1/4 Midgets.
“Something must have rubbed off,” Gilmer laughed.
In fact, he, his son, and grandsons are heading to Nashville in September to do some racing together.
Gilmer is currently restoring a 1956 indoor world record holder 3/4 Midget. He’s also going to be featured in an upcoming issue of National Crosley Club magazine because he is one of five people left in the US who know how to build high performance Crosley engines for Midget race cars.
As if Gilmer wasn’t busy enough, he also likes to invent, and one of his inventions was put on the market in 2002.
He invented a thermostat light, as well as a universal thermostat light, in addition to a magnifier that could be placed on the face of a thermostat to magnify the numbers. About 100,000 thermostat lights were sold at stores such as Menards, Home Depot, and CVS Pharmacy.
He’s served on the Howard Lake City Council for the past five years, and says he’s done “just about everything except being thrown in jail, which I haven’t achieved, but life isn’t over yet,” he laughed.