By Jennifer Kotila
HOWARD LAKE, MN They may live on opposite sides of the world, but Jan Gilmer of Howard Lake and Bob Jeffreson of Australia are men who share a deep love for racing, building, and restoring midget cars.
Both men also shared a longing to own a specific car for many years before their dreams became reality.
Gilmer’s dream was to own the 1956 Kurtis Kraft 3/4 Midget that set a world record in time trials at the Minneapolis Armory in 1958.
Jeffreson’s dream was to own the Gilmer 1/4 midget he had seen when a member of a radio control car club in Australia in the early-to-mid-1990s.
The men had their dreams come true when Gilmer was able to purchase his car in 2009, and Jeffreson tracked his car down and purchased it in 2010.
Since then, the men have worked to restore their cars, which is what brought Jeffreson to Howard Lake to visit Gilmer last August.
He needed parts for his Gilmer midget, and made an appointment to visit Gilmer while in the US for the Sprintcar Nationals in Knoxville, IA.
Proud owner of the only Gilmer midget in Australia
Upon his arrival in Howard Lake, Jeffreson introduced himself, telling Gilmer he owned one of his midgets.
“I don’t think so, unless you bought the car of David Bacon. That’s the only one in Australia,” was Gilmer’s reply.
Jeffreson and his traveling mate were amazed at Gilmer’s ability to recall the name of the boy who had bought the Gilmer midget 20 years earlier, Jeffreson said.
The story of coming to Howard Lake to visit Gilmer started for Jeffreson in 1990, when he was racing 1/10 scale radio control sprintcars.
Bacon, a young member of the club, had imported a Gilmer midget body and wheels and built a radio control car with the help of his father.
“It was big, and just beautiful,” Jeffreson said of the car he was only able to see race once before the club folded in 1996.
Jeffreson first saw Gilmer’s midgets in American radio control car magazines in the mid-1980s, when Gilmer began making them.
When Jeffreson began racing 1/4 midgets in 1998, he remembered the Gilmer midget he had seen in the early 1990s and searched Sydney for years trying to track the car down.
Then, in 2010, a name in the register of new members at the Model Society in Sydney caught Jeffreson’s eye. It was Bacon.
Jeffreson called Bacon, who informed him he still owned the Gilmer 1/4 midget.
“After some haggling, I became the new owner 20 years after I had first seen it,” Jeffreson said.
But the problem then arose of restoring the car to something close to Gilmer’s cars, Jeffreson said.
“I had collected every known photo of Gilmer’s cars from the Internet,” Jeffreson said. “It wasn’t much to work from, but they were a start.”
Having made plans to come to Knoxville to watch the Sprintcar Nationals, Jeffreson noticed that Howard Lake was only a five-to-six-hour drive north.
After arriving in Knoxville, Jeffreson called Gilmer, and made an appointment to see him.
“My traveling mate and I took the long drive to Howard Lake on the day before we flew back to Australia,” Jeffreson said.
The men were enthralled with tales from Gilmer’s life, Jeffreson said.
“We were having so much fun, we didn’t want to leave, and invited Gilmer to a late lunch in town,” Jeffreson said.
Jeffreson asked if Gilmer would sell him parts in order to restore his car to something near Gilmer midget quality, and was able to purchase more than he ever dreamed he would get, he said.
However, Jeffreson admits his restored car will never be a true Gilmer, as many of the parts, including the radiator, steering box, dogbox, gauges, levers, and decals were made by Jeffreson himself.
Jeffreson was asked what makes Gilmer midgets stand out from others.
“Gilmer is a perfectionist. His midget cars are works of art,” Jeffreson said. “He has made approximately 120 or so, and they rarely come up for sale and never get run, as their owners don’t want to damage them in any way. His current 3/4 midget is another example of the quality of his workmanship.”
Jeffreson has manufactured jewelry for 44 years, loves traveling with his wife, and is now able to cross Howard Lake off the world atlas as places he has visited.
He attended his first speedway meeting at the Sydney Showground in 1964, and has been “besotted” with the sport ever since, making three trips to the US as a spectator.
Beautiful car restored to “museum quality”
The original owner of Gilmer’s dream car was Skip Carry of Waupaca, WI, who proudly displayed and worked on the car inside his house on a turntable, according to Gilmer.
The car is one of only five 3/4 midgets built by Frank Kurtis, Gilmer said, and was mostly raced on indoor concrete tracks.
Although Gilmer wanted the car when it went up for sale in 1970, he had just bought an updated, good car out of Illinois.
That being the case, Carry called a guy in Brooklyn Center, to offer the car to him.
“He got the damn thing and he butchered it just butchered it,” Gilmer said.
The 3/4 midget that Gilmer was so enamoured with was very much neglected until he finally got his hands on it in 2009, he said.
“I must say, to my surprise, when I purchased it, it was a piece of junk just mostly parts,” Gilmer added.
Gilmer, with the assistance of several trusted professionals, spent 3,500 hours restoring the “beautiful car,” according to Gilmer.
The body of the car is made of aluminum hammered and rolled on an English wheel with the assistance of Richard Kleinschmidt, a professional metal worker from Minneapolis.
“He’s one of the best metal workers around the country,” Gilmer said of Kleinschmidt.
Gilmer learned a lot about forming metal, spending hours taking out any little dents, and then sanding and filing over and over, he said.
While some of the original chrome parts had rusted and needed to be stripped, hand-polished, and re-chromed, about 50 percent of them had to be reproduced, polished, and chromed by Gilmer.
A special primer was used before John Staple of Howard Lake Body Shop painted the car yellow.
After it was painted, Gilmer hand-sanded and polished it before Ray Williams of Your Signs in Cokato applied numbers and lettering in 23-karat-gold leaf by hand.
The 1942 engine is a Gilmer-Crosley, which ran at 1,800 rpms and was rated at 26 horse power before Gilmer re-worked it.
It now runs at 10,000 rpms and is rated at 80 horse power.
“It’s called the ‘Tin Cat’ by my friend in Paducah, KY,” Gilmer said.
August Preusser of Avon refinished the upholstery for the car.
“If my house was 4 feet longer, I’d put it in my living room,” Gilmer said proudly of his restored 3/4 midget.
This fall, the car was shown at a special event in Rushford, IN, which is the hometown of Tony Stewart.
“Tony Stewart started out racing 3/4 midgets in Rushford,” Gilmer said.
Gilmer used to take off for two weeks at a time to run races in Indiana, Ohio, and Kentucky with cars he built.
“Get down there, and I’m a Yankee. They didn’t like me when I came and took all their damn money,” Gilmer said with a chuckle.
Upon seeing his refinished 3/4 midget, people often ask Gilmer, “You’re not going to run that, are you?”
But Gilmer’s son encourages him to run it at least once, Gilmer said.
“The boys from Australia came to see me about models, but when they saw that (the restored 3/4 midget), the two of them drooled,” Gilmer smiled.