Coach tackles car restoration

of his father's 1926 sprint race car, which he helped to rebuild.
of his father's 1926 sprint race car, which he helped to rebuild.

Dick Vermeil, a mechanic's son, took it on as a tribute to his father, who loved racing.

Posted: September 09, 2010

Dick Vermeil, the former Eagles coach who won a Super Bowl with the St. Louis Rams, is justly famous for his football skills. What few people know is that he's also a journeyman auto mechanic.

He was trained by the best - his father, Louis Vermeil, who operated a backyard garage in the Napa Valley town of Calistoga, where Dick Vermeil grew up. There, the younger Vermeil began working in the garage in his early teens, dismantling things and cleaning parts. He graduated to tune-ups and brake jobs, then rebuilding engines and transmissions. When he was a high school football coach, he was a mechanic during the summer. In graduate school, he worked nights and weekends at a service station.

Those skills were essential to his recent labor of love - restoring his father's race car.

"I did it out of respect for my dad," says Vermeil, 73, who lives in East Fallowfield, Chester County, "because I know how much he loved it."

Louis Vermeil had a prodigious work ethic. He offered 24-hour towing and labored late into the night so regularly that neighbors nicknamed his shop the Owl Garage.

By day, Louis Vermeil repaired the cars of customers. At night, he turned to his passion: perfecting race cars.

The race cars he fancied were sprint cars, typically backyard-built and designed to be raced on dirt tracks, such as the half-mile Calistoga Speedway.

Louis Vermeil owned several race cars, but his first serious one, and favorite, was old No. 7, a.k.a. "Black Beauty," a non-wing, open-cockpit sprint race car built in 1926.

Louis Vermeil acquired the car in 1937 and began racing it in earnest after World War II. Too burly to fit into the cockpit, he delegated the driving to Jack Pacheteau.

By the late '40s and early '50s, the car was considered an antique, puny and obsolete compared with its competition. Powered by a Model A Ford four-banger with an overhead valve conversion, it could achieve a top speed of 90 m.p.h. - "going downhill," Vermeil quips.

What it lacked in speed, it supplied in stamina.

"There were several cars that were much faster, but lots of times they didn't finish," said Dick Vermeil's brother, Stan, 72, who rebuilds vintage engines in California. "You could always count on No. 7 chugging along and being there at the end."

During the racing season, Black Beauty rarely won outright but often finished second or third in races of 25, 50 or 100 laps. In 1950, by placing high many times, the car won the American Racing Association championship.

Overmatched by cars with big six-cylinder engines and V8s, No. 7 retired in 1954. In its last race, a 500-miler, it finished eighth, winning $875 - the biggest check Louis Vermeil ever earned on the racetrack.

For decades, the car was sheltered in a lean-to next to the Owl Garage. After Louis Vermeil died in 1985, it was stored by Dick Vermeil's sister and, later, a nephew. In February 2007, Vermeil transported it from California to his 114-acre ranch.

He converted a woodshed into a garage and mounted his dad's original "Owl Garage" sign over the door. He began taking the car apart, stripping it down completely. He used his John Deere tractor (a housewarming gift from the late Eagles owner Leonard Tose) to remove the engine.

He collaborated with Dave George of D.L. George Coachworks of Cochranville. ("They work on a car like it's a Rolex watch," Vermeil says.) Eventually, George gave him a spot in the shop.

There, the crew tackled the body, straightening and painting the sheet metal, as well as jobs that required a fine machinist's touch. Vermeil undertook such tasks as replacing bearings and shock absorbers. He rebuilt the engine and reassembled the car.

For nearly two years, the project absorbed much of Vermeil's free time (and about $225,000). The result? A gorgeous souvenir and family heirloom.

"I know how pleased he would be if he could see it," Vermeil says. "I know he would also tease me because he would not be so pleased by all the shiny nickel-plated metal."

Indeed, Black Beauty is now a show car and trailer queen. In March 2009, No. 7 won first place in its class at the prestigious Amelia Island Concours d'Elegance. Vermeil also has shown the car at the Louie Vermeil Classic, a sprint-car racing extravaganza at the Calistoga Speedway.

In late July, Vermeil shipped the car to the National Sprint Car Hall of Fame & Museum in Knoxville, Iowa, where Louis Vermeil's name is enshrined and where the car will be displayed for the next 10 months.

"Every day was an emotional experience," Vermeil says of the restoration process. "I would touch something and remember watching my dad make it, the nights working with him in the garage and regrooving tires during race season. It was almost like talking to him." I

Contact staff writer Art Carey at 215-854-5606 or

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