Jim Bridgewater: ‘I am Blessed’

For Jim Bridgewater, 1937 was and is a very good year.

Born in downtown Phoenix in 1937, he now lives in uptown Paradise Valley near landmark Camelback and Mummy mountains. In his three garages, Bridgewater, 84, works on and displays his five birth-year Resto-Mods. He also has a 1934 Ford built in Detroit three years before even he was on the drawing boards in Arizona. Each car has a great story –– the ’34 a particularly poignant one.

His birth home was at 14th Street and Sheridan, both dirt roads at the time; young Phoenix had perhaps 50,000 residents who stoically lived in the Southwest desert without air-conditioning. He attended North High School because it was north of McDowell Road. A mile south, students were assigned to Phoenix Union High School. And, nearby, appropriately named Carver High School was designated for nonwhites, wherever they lived.

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His father, Ross, was a mechanic and a trucker; early on, Jim learned the challenges and joys of repairing moving things from him. One of his work benches is anchored by his father’s weighty ’50s-vintage vise, which Jim still uses for repairs. When he was 9, Jim began charging buddies to overhaul their bicycles. Two years later, he yanked a washing machine motor from a Maytag and placed it in a custom go-kart that, after kick starting, would send the operator careering down the road with the open-road joy of Barney Oldfield.

Jim learned about cars and car parts working at his uncle’s warehouse at 7th Avenue and Van Buren Street, formerly a roller rink, he recalls. “Cars were pretty simple in that era: flatheads and stove-bolt-6 engines,” he recalls.

His first car was an “ugly” 1932 Plymouth. His dad, found it at the original Earnhardt Ford in downtown Chandler, owned by “Tex” Earnhardt’s dad. That family dealership is now one of the largest in the country, managed by Tex’s sons.

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“My dad would only let me have a starter car with hydraulic brakes,” he says. “Fords had mechanical brakes, and they were dangerous. This is the car you are going to start with.” Now, Jim has just Fords with state-of-the-art brakes from companies such as Wilwood.

“The car had been sitting a long time in the yard, and we towed it home and parked it in our alley. ‘Now the first thing we are going to do is overhaul the brakes,’ he told me. ‘We will worry about the motor later.’”

The original four-cylinder, 196-cubic inch flat engine outputted 56 horses, and the three-speed synchromesh transmission put that sizzle on the road. The “ugly” came standard, with from oval fish plate-style rear window, which clashed with the body’s angularity. The Encyclopedia of American Cars 1930–1942 says it cost $565 new. Jim paid $50 –– a lot of lawn-mowing,” he recalls.

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While still in high school, he also had a 1940 Ford coupe. He recalls: “It was in a wrecking yard with no motor, but my dad and I took it to a technical high school for the body work, found a motor in a junk yard and put it in.”

A group of friends started the Header Hot Rod Club in 1953. “There was another club, ‘Cluster Busters,’ but they were older guys with nice cars, and they wouldn’t let us join because we were too young, so we started our own,” he says. A cluster was a tranny gear that, if abused, it exploded and trashed the tranny. “We cruised Central Avenue,” he recalls.

Car dabbling stopped when he married at 19, he says: “That’s when you go to work at the gas station.”
High-Powered Challenges

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Jim has always loved all kinds of vehicles, and he has worked for and owned businesses associated with them his working life. His picture wall above his bar, for example, shows him in a white-and red-flame-painted roadster in 1955 at Perryville, Arizona, after posting 88 mph to win his division.

The following year, he helped a landlord sell off the inventory of a defunct motorcycle dealership in town. The business sold Vespas, Nortons, Zundapps and Ducatis.

In 1962, he began working for an engine-remanufacturing company, and two years later he started selling bearings for industry giant Federal Mogul. Four years later, he was in business as an independent factory representative for 13 large auto parts companies.

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After 18 years, the couple divorced in 1974. They had four children, with two of his sons, Joe and Jim Jr., now living in the Valley, and a daughter, Jeanne, in Kansas. Later that year, Jim moved to Kankakee, Illinois, about 50 miles south of Chicago. Two Frank Lloyd Wright Prairie-style homes are in the city’s Riverview section: The B. Harley Bradley House and the Warren Hickox House.

There he married Betty Burch; they stayed married for three days short of 30 years before she died from brain cancer. His well-populated picture wall at his PV home includes images of the cancer radiation centers his foundation built in her memory in Kankakee.

Just getting started in Kankakee, he opened the J/B Sports store; the founding owner had died. Two years later, he started a school bus dealership, Midwest Transit Equipment, which he expanded to seven locations in the U.S., becoming, he says, the country’s largest. About the same time, he also began a J.B. Discount Auto Parts store; he eventually sold that to Carquest.

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In the arduous process of building the bus company, he developed a heart problem and, to notch down a bit, he sold it. “The new owners had no credit, so I cosigned for them; they walked out a year and a half later. I now owed International Harvester $7 million at 24-percent interest: $185,000 a month just in interest.”

He recalls his lawyer, looking out at Lake Michigan from his office, recommending bankruptcy. “I replied, ‘As long as I’m breathing, I will never do that.’ It took me three years to the day to pay back every nickel. I’d work 48-hours straight repairing used buses and selling them to reduce the debt, and employees would bring food to my office.”

International Harvester was appreciative and told him they’d be happy doing busy with him in the future. And they did. After Blue Bird filed bankruptcy, International Harvester went on to manufacture buses for the company, bringing success to all three parties. Anticipating retirement, he sold that business to a management company, including one of his sons, Jim Bridgewater Jr.

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“I’ve been blessed,” he says, pointing upward. “Now, let’s look at the cars.”
Henry Would be Happy

All of his Fords are built to be driven. With his gracious partner for the last 10 years, Nancy, he has cruised cross country and Canada. They are museum quality but not museum pieces.

1937 Cabriolet –– The top comes down on this completely rebuilt car, finished in Zodiak Brown. He bought it at the Pavilions near Scottsdale four years ago during one of its famous car shows. “I understand that the body was in Tijuana and badly rusted; the former owner built it up but didn’t finish it,” he explains.

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Jim did, with a GM LS-1 motor, electronic overdrive, new paint, new leather by Ron Mangus Interiors, power seats, air-conditioning and custom gauges. Thumbs up for this fabulous top-down, Jim.

1937 Two-Door Slant Back –– “It’s a great car but needed much work,” he says. He purchased it with a 383-fuel-injected Chevy putting out 450 horses, built by Street & Performance in Mena, Arkansas. The award-winning car has power steering and a Ron Mangus leather interior, and the two-tone champagne and wine finish required two years to complete.

1937 Four-Door Slant Back –– Featuring metallic brown with black fenders, this rare sedan hot rod has a fuel-injected 5.0 Ford crate motor with custom cover and polished aluminum and a Ford overdrive AOD transmission. For contemporary comfort, Jim installed Vintage Air, power brakes, steering and windows and cruise control. In the trunk is a picnic basket for warmer days and in the back seat a lap blanket for colder ones.

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1937 Coupe –– The turquoise-on-tan classic has a GM LT-1 with an R400 tranny, a push-button shifter and Billet Specialties Legacy wheels. “I used it as a driver while the 1934 was being restored,” he says.

1937 ‘Kyote’ Coupe –– The multi-award-winning Kyote ’37 features a modified racing Coyote Ford 5.0-liter engine on a TCI chassis; crate transmission; custom intake 4-speed overdrive; pin-drive 16-inch wheels that impressed even Chip Foose; Vintage air-conditioning; and a neat Hideaway push-button automatic shifter that docks into the seat. He purchased it about eight years ago at the SO-CAL Speed Shop in Phoenix.

The best in the business were involved in this Quicksand-liveried custom rod: Always Hot Rods and Lucky Luciano Paint, Phoenix; Jimmy Smith Hot Rod Design, Glendale, Arizona; Armando’s Custom Upholstery, San Jacinto, California; and EVOD Industries, Escondido, California.

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The engine bay is designed to look similar to a Ferrari’s, with its textured red finish on the heads, recalling those vintage 1950s Testa Rossas. “No other Ford anywhere looks like this,” Jim says.

Many have agreed with this high praise: At Good Guy’s at Pleasanton, California, it was Runner-Up for Hot Rod of the Year; then it won awards at Autorama in Milwaukee and at the Ridler in Detroit. “That’s 18 awards in three shows,” he says. “It’s a piece of art.”

1934 Five Window Coupe –– Jim shipped this project car to Illinois where he worked on it during Betty’s illness. After she died, he sold it to a museum while he suffered through a depression.

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“A few years later, I missed the ’34, so I called to repurchase it three times and three times I was told it was not for sale. They told Augie Busch, of Budweiser Beer, the same thing. I gave up trying.

“Later that year at the holiday season, my son Jim wanted to take me to dinner at the Camelback Inn. After dinner, we walked out, and there was the ’34 sitting in valet parking for me.”

Equipped with a rumble seat, the black car now has a new French flat-head V-8, bored and stroked, Tattersfield Baron heads, dual carburetors, an Iskie cam and a C-4 automatic transmission. The original steering wheel remains and the original clutch pedal, which is no longer operative. He’s added air-conditioning for summer comfort and a three-point belt for year-round safety.

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How did his son convince the museum to give it up? Jim: “I didn’t ask.”

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