By Bill Moore
Both vehicles were "state-of-the-art" in their day, but despite their ages these two veterans still can draw a crowd.
Dale Standley's Bradley GT II is a rare "bird." He's been told only fifty electric versions of this now vintage "do-it-yourself" sports car were ever built. A short time later, the company went into receivership.
By contrast, far more North American P-51's were built; 15,575 to be precise, of which some 283 are still known to be in existence.
I learned about Dale's electric car from a reader in Lincoln, Nebraska who saw it advertised on the Internet. I decided to contact Standley and see if he'd be interested in talking about the car. We arranged to meet Saturday afternoon. His directions said that his home was across the road from an apple orchard, and if I passed the Council Bluffs airport, I'd gone about 100 feet too far.
So, armed with my note pad and Canon G2 digital camera, I headed off across the river into Iowa and wound my way through the rolling countryside east of the city. Little did I know that I'd get to see two pieces of history, the disco-age Bradley GT and the swing-age P-51. It was a good day to be in the Heartland, despite a brisk northerly wind and the bone-chilling cold.
The GT was siting in Standley's driveway when I drove up in my Honda Insight. He invited me in and we sat down in his spacious living room to talk about the car, which he'd bought from the widow of the builder in 1998. With the sounds of a college football game playing in the background in another room, Dale wove a meandering tale that included how he'd come by the car, his background as a professional auctioneer and the notorious Franklin Credit Union scandal. In his largest deal ever, Standley's firm auctioned off the possessions of the failed credit union, its president and other officers, including a $55,000 diamond ring local lore says Larry King -- then a notable Republican fund-raiser during the Reagan and Bush I years -- bought to impress people during the nominating convention in 1988. It went for $25,000, Dale recalled.
The Bradley GT II had originally belonged to Bill Messer, a local businessman who owned a small chain of auto body repair shops in the region. He had bought the car to tow behind his recreational vehicle. The plan was to use the car to run errands while the RV was parked. According to Dale, it took Messer nine years to complete the project, having bought the kit car in 1980. He finally licensed it in late 1989 as a 1974 Volkswagen.
Yes, that's right, Volkswagen, because the chassis is based on the 1974 VW Beetle. The gasoline version of the GT also used the VW engine, but a handful of electric versions sported a GE electric motor in a dual 48/96 volt system. A toggle switch on the dash, allowed the car to operate in either mode. Standley estimates that his friend had invested between $14- $16,000 on the car, including a plush, but now dated red velour interior.
After Messer's death, the car sat inside a chicken shed for at least a year, slowly deteriorating. Eventually a mutual acquaintance put Messer's widow and Standley together. A deal was made that benefited both, and the in-operable GT passed into Dale's hands.
A professional auctioneer for the last 29 years, Standley admitted he knew nothing about electric vehicles, so in order to get the car running again, he decided to have a friend who owned a golf car business work on the car, opting to install Exide batteries in it. In doing so, he only compounded his problems.
The person who worked on the car was not the individual Dale had anticipated would do the project. Instructions were ignored and the job was only half-heartedly done. On top of this, the Exides turned out to be a bad choice. Within a few months, Standley would have to replace a third of the sixteen, 6 volt batteries that powered the car. He has since replaced several more. On top of that, the performance of the car has been disappointing, as our brief jaunt across the road to the airport, would amply demonstrate. It would be a local community college instructor who'd worked on the battery system of US Navy submarines who finally got the GT running again.
Standley is an inveterate car collector who is reluctant to part with the car, though he's threatened to sell every year for the last three years. He confided to me that if he doesn't sell it -- he's very firm on his price of $5950 -- he may pull the Exides next summer and replace them with Trojans, as EV enthusiasts have recommended.
As we wrapped up the background brief on the car, he offer to take me for ride. We slipped on our winter jackets and headed outside to photograph the car. It was then he noticed that the "Gunfighter" P-51 Mustang was siting out on the ramp across the road. He suggested we drive over and have a look since he knew the owner, retired Air Force Brig. General Regis "Reggie" Urschler. I slipped open the gull wing door and twisted myself into the velour-lined interior. The seat was an uncomfortable supine position and I could barely see outside the narrow windscreen. Bradley had designed this car more for looks than for comfort or safety.
Standley wasn't far wrong when he said the car was under whelming in its performance. Supposedly you could drive this car on the Interstate, but I was just happy to get it across the quiet country road. Clearly, this is a car with unfulfilled potential that would benefit from a new set of properly balanced batteries and a new, modern controller. The current controller looks like something Thomas Edison might have invested. The Lester Electric charger looked equally antiquated, but it could recharge the car in either 115 or 220 volt modes.
We drove up the road to the airport as a maroon minivan pulled into the ramp area ahead of us. It was Reggie Urschler, the P-51 owner who had shown up to see another pilot take the sixty-year old, restored relic out for a flight. We pulled up behind the plane and I got out to take photos, enthralled by the opportunity to capture these two very rare "birds" together. While Dale walked over to talk to his friend, the general, I snapped a dozen pictures from various angles as the warbird coughed to life. Soon it was taxing out for its take-off with its pilot and a passenger stuffed into the one-time single-seat fighter. What a rush it must be to ride this "bronco."
I climbed back into the GT where Dale had already retreated to get out of the biting winds. We sat there a few minutes and watched the Mustang take-off. Harley motorcycles enthusiasts love the sound of their engines, but there's nothing like the throaty bellow of a 12-cylinder Packard Merlin engine as it roars past.
The P-51 lifted off near where we sat, neatly tucked up its land gear and at the end of the mile-long runway soared up in a graceful climbing turn to the left. Like me, Standley is a private pilot longing to fly again, which is part of the reason he wants to sell the Bradley. He'd like to get enough money together to buy a Cessna 140, a plane almost as old as the Mustang we both were admiring.
Dale heaved the power steering-less GT around on the ramp and we headed back toward his house. We concluded our visit with a ride in my Insight. While Standley might not have appreciated the difference twenty years has made in EV development, I did. For its time, the GT was state-of-the-art technology, but as I inspected the jumble of transformers, contacts and capacitors that are make up the controller, I thought about the advanced system that managed my car and the 2004 Toyota Prius I had just driven the day before. How far we've come, especially in the last five years.
As I drove back down the road, I heard a roar go over my head and I caught a glimpse of the P-51 as it made a low "strafing" run over the road. Yes, it had been quite a day. I had just proverbially 'killed' two birds with one stone.
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