The Turbo Phantom Restoration Saga
By Ron Will
Check out the first Dean’s Garage post featuring the Phantom.
This entire restoration was totally unnecessary, until I did something stupid, really stupid. It started when we sold our house in Costa Mesa, California where the Phantom was built, and we were moving to our new home in Laguna Hills. We were in the process of moving all of our stuff in a big U-Haul except for the Phantom 3-wheeler, which was loaded on to a trailer pulled by my El Camino. And here’s the stupid part. I loaded it backwards with the tail into the wind. The nail in the coffin was that I forgot to latch and lock the canopy top down securely. The canopy top is fairly easy to open with strong gas struts that lift it. So, halfway down the 405, on the way to Laguna, we hit a bump in the road, and the giant canopy top slightly bounced just enough to catch wind. It lifted and caught the full force of the wind ripping it completely off the Phantom, sailing in the air like a giant fiberglass and Plexiglas kite. It came down crashing into over a dozen pieces of Plexiglas, fiberglass, aluminum, upholstery and mirrors sliding and tumbling across two lanes of the 405. I saw what happened in the rear view mirror and immediately pulled over.
Luckily our friends with the U-Haul moving van were right behind and stopped traffic. Everyone ran out and grabbed as many pieces as possible and threw them in the back of the truck. In disbelief we traveled on to the new house. My wife Pat was waiting for us to arrive. When she saw me with the trailer and half the phantom gone, she started crying, knowing that something had gone terribly wrong. We unloaded it and put it in a corner of the new garage where it stayed untouched for years.
Matt’s American Icon Restoration—1966 Checker Marathon
At the time I was working as a designer for Subaru in California. Later they moved us to New Jersey for my new job as product planner in their Cherry Hill, US headquarters. The crippled Phantom moved also, staying untouched in our new garage for another 10 years. While in Jersey, my son Matt wanted a car and decided on a 1966 Checker Marathon. We fully restored it outside in the snow and rain converting it into a New York taxicab. It came out great and was featured in the movie “American Gangster,” but that’s another story.
Engine removed for new clutch install
After finally retiring from Subaru, the Phantom moved again, this time to Arizona in 2006 into an oversized three-car garage. It was finally time to get the Phantom back together. I didn’t realize it would take another 16 years.
During the governments mileage and handling testing of the Phantom back in the 1980s at Edwards Air Force Base, the clutch was burned out after several 0 to 60 sprints and other performance tests. So, the first order of business was to get that repaired. The Honda Gold Wing 4-cylinder engine was removed and clutch repaired by a good all-around motorcycle repair man, Stu Oltman, at his home shop.
Marvin analyzing the broken Phantom
But that still left the major problem, a giant canopy top 6.5 feet wide and 6-feet long that was in shattered pieces with some even missing. Another good acquaintance, Marvin Compton was an expert at fiberglass repair and agreed to take on the job.
Somehow Marvin was able to put the giant jig-saw puzzle back together, while I was getting a knee replacement. It was not perfect, but good enough for me—the car that is. The knee came out good, too. The lesson learned here was, never make a giant canopy piece of fiberglass 6 x 6.5 ft. and expect it to close and always fit the body perfectly. Fiberglass often has a mind of its own and tends to shift around, especially in the way I was supporting and opening it. I’m sure people with any fiberglass car or Mercedes 300 SL with gull wing doors knows what I mean.
Phantom ready for Paint
Marvin did a stellar job considering what he had to work with. So as long as we had to paint the top, let’s paint the whole car a new color. I decided on a bright silver blue, Mercedes Alpine Rain Metallic. I considered a pearl red using Photoshop, but it just didn’t look right to me.
Back Home from the Paint Shop
So now, all painted and back in my shop I decided to upgrade or install all the items I never had time to do in the original build. Seat belts seemed like a good idea, long overdue. Also the original tiny VW dune buggy disc brakes proved to be totally inadequate. So, Ken Mitson, a manufacturer of auto specialty equipment, came to the rescue with a professional set of custom disc brakes. Thanks, Ken.
The original interior (upper), as a matter of expedience, was covered front to back, side to side and top to bottom with this over plush carpeting that looked like a sheep ready for sheering. It covered a lot of unfinished areas, and in fact was nailed to the raw underneath foam in places. That was all removed and tossed out in trade for a more sophisticated smooth gray auto carpet that was cut and glued to the intricate interior shapes. My patient wife Pat helped with patterns and installation of the new carpet. The exposed body foam was now all sealed with fiberglass for extra body stiffness. To help noise reduction, I added Dynamat sound proofing to the firewall. I had some left over pieces of scrap black leather from my days at Subaru Design and used it to cover new fiberglass armrests and the instrument panel.
Luckily, with some sort of future premonition, I originally made two sets of Plexiglas windows for the Phantom and was able to replace the ones damaged on the 405.
How NOT to wire a car
Originally, I knew I would need a larger fuse box than the one on the motorcycle, so I bought a car fuse box and ran all the Honda and new electronics thru the larger fuse box. Here’s where I got stupid again. I paid no attention to all the different colors of wires coming out of the car fuse box. I would attach a new green wire to a fuse box red wire and then run it up to the front and attach it to a blue wire coming from the accessory or light. I made a tunnel under the car to hold all the wires going from the engine compartment in back to the passenger compartment in front. So a wire going into the tunnel may be one color and come out of the tunnel another color. After 40 years, with no wiring diagram and no memory of what I had done, I was at a total loss and about to lose my mind. Luckily an old Detroit GM friend, Les Talcott with electrical savvy was in the area to help me out. He cleared up most of the major electrical issues, showed me what to do and kept me from going crazy. Bob Ross from Jersey also contributed by sending me new wiring diagrams and moral support.
All of this new corrected wiring would go into the nose of the car for servo controlled headlight lids, headlights, turn signals, and speakers. Yes, I forgot to tell you that I added a 1980s Panasonic Cockpit Stereo to the underside of the canopy top.
If I ever would write a manual to repair the Phantom, it would include strange items like: To replace front speakers first remove the headlights. To replace tail light bulbs, first remove the rear tire. Obviously, I did not think all of this through when I designed the car.
First showing in 40 years at the Hot Wheels Legends Tour, Mesa, AZ.
What really prompted me to get up off my easy chair and finish the Phantom now was the upcoming Hot Wheels Legend Tour and contest in Phoenix. The national winner gets their car made into a Hot Wheels model. My son Matt helped me do all the heavy lifting during the last six months. We worked up to the night before the show to get the car all together. One small body part is still lost in my garage, but we made it to the show. I did not win, but the real prize for me was finally getting the Phantom all together once again after 40 years since the Orange County 405 disaster.
I want to wish a hearty thank you to all that helped me put the Phantom back together. I couldn’t have done it without you. Others that helped build the Phantom included Earl Cook, Rich Straman, Mark Kidd, and sorry, a few more names that I can’t remember.
P.S. If you have a project car sitting in your garage, get to it. It doesn’t get any easier the longer you wait.
Now if I could only finish my Kellison J-5 kit car.
What a story.
I know the feeling, it has to sit awhile because the emotional damage has to heal before you can even consider fixing the dumb mistake that you made, to yourself.
Congratulations Ron, I am sure it is better than ever and more fun because you can share it now with a whole new set of people.
While reading Ron’s saga of repairing his beloved Phantom wiring diagram reminded me of a time at GM styling before the name was changed to design.
The 1966 Cadillac rear design was my design and we at that time did not want screws showing and Fisher Body refused to provide access thru the trunk , resulting in the need to drop the bumper to replace the bulbs .
Congratulations Ron for restoring your PHANTOM, It’s still great looking, glad it’s restored.
Hi, Bill Mitchell, GM Design chief, had a secret studio under the design staff building where his office was on the second floor. I worked for a short time in that studio on a clay full size model of a three wheel model. He would come in and check every day. One day Check Jordan who was second design staff leader came into the secret studio. He wasn’t supposed to be in the small room. Bill came in and saw him and immediately screamed at him to get out and never step into the room again. There was another two sculptors, if memory serves, Chester Angelonie was chief, but the other fellow I forget. I was only their for about three weeks at most.
Ron, thanks for sharing your Phantom restoration story. Great job, lots of hard work, beautiful results! Truly a team effort! Another ‘bucket list’ item checked off. You should feel very proud. John
What a great saga!
Congratulations Ron. A terrific design. More importantly, you made it work into a real functional car. To me, that is the mark of a very good designer.
Ron….what a great story and fantastic looking car! I especially loved the part about your wiring “imperfections”… I’m still laughing. So wonderful you got it all back together….Now, how about a road-test story? Peter Brock
Wow, what a great story! About the only stupid towing thing I did was forgetting to tighten the lug bolts on a Fiat 850 Spider that we were using a tow dolly for resulting in a tire flying off.
@Wayne Kady: I was going to mention the ’66 rear bumper. A friend picked up a ’66 Sedan de Ville years ago and we were wondering why there were two trailer lights mounted on the rear panel but then realized the factory taillight bulbs were burnt out. I removed the bumper myself and must say it is a heavy piece of steel!
I congratulate you on not only the design, but the reconstruction of the Phantom. I can remember reading about the development of it. It paralleled the development of my own vehicle, the Talon GT 2+2. My own car was accidentally destroyed while in storage. And I did not find another till about 6 years ago. It too has been under going a complete update and restoration. I can relate to your electrical wiring dilemma. My self being 81 years old now. We just tore every thing out and started all over. It almost completed now. I never met you, but some day hopefully someday we can meet and compare notes.
Tell your wife her shedding tears shows that she truly shares your vision. To me, that was the best part of the story!
Now it can last another 50 years!
Great story Ron, I remember you relating the trials and tribulations of this car back when we were at the Salt Lake City GSL Fisher Body Craftsman Guild display. I believe at that point in time you had someone interested in rebuilding the engine, although I don’t remember the canopy catastrophe’-wow!
I’m thrilled to see it completed and back to it’s former self with the new electrical/interior improvements! From the photos it turned out as good as new. BTW: I still haven’t found the Texaco TV commercial it was used in on YouTube. Thanks for posting!
Hey guys, if you go to YouTube and search for the Arizona Hot Wheels Legends tour, you will find 2 different videos showing the phantom!
One guy even says “what is that?”
The nerve of some people!
It’s just a “LEGEND” that’s all.
Congratulations Ron!! Long time coming but it looks better than new! Now on to your other project after a long well deserved rest! I was there from the beginning so I know how happy and satisfied you must be!
Great job Ron! The tenacity to re-do this car; the energy, time and knowledge is astounding! Plus the design is good looking and holds up even today – maybe especially today! It still turns head, I bet!
Congratulations Ron. I am always impressed when a designer designs his own car and builds it. Yours has been a bit of a legend at GM. It’s is an interesting concept and great looking design. Glad you got it back together. You should have won the Hit Wheels contest.
Fantastic! I greatly admire your tenacity and achievements. They are inspirational to me and my son. Thank you so much for sharing this.
Thanks for a well written story-a great read. the car is terrific looking and ageless; it will always look new. Well worth the time and effort. Congratulations!!!
Incredible story. Love to see that this is a family affair. I too am still searching the web for the Texaco TV commercial!
It’s not on YouTube or anywhere else. Ron has a copy on VHS. Hopefully we can locate and digitize it.—Gary
Ron , you may have made a lot of mistakes , but the one you did not make was the styling,” SPOT ON” Still looks Great today!
Hi Ron – can’t believe its been ~30 years since we met and I first saw the Phantom in your garage. So glad its now up and running and getting all the attention it and you deserve.
Wish I could have helped you more on its electrical restoration, but glad I could at least do it remotely from NJ.
Looking forward to getting out your way and finally sitting in it and hopefully taking it for a spin 🙂