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Car moves something inside ex-racer


"OH, BY THE WAY," Brett Botula heard the man say, "the car doesn't move." Botula didn't know what to make of the statement -- he thought it might have been a little joke -- so he went about his business, scoping out the inside of Gill's Garage in Riderwood, Baltimore County, for a movie location.

Botula does this for a living; he's been doing it in Maryland over the last few months for a Lakeshore/Paramount film called "The Runaway Bride," starring Richard Gere and Julia Roberts. Director Garry Marshall needed a garage for a scene. Gill's, built in 1926 on Joppa Road, was just about perfect. It's a place with a lot of frozen-in-time amenities, including a hot rod that Charlie Gill, son of the garage's original owner, built 50 years ago out of a 1929 Model A Ford. That's the car, Brett Botula came to understand, that didn't move. "The car doesn't move."

He heard the declaration a second time, when he went to Gill's Garage again to look the place over and work out details for a one-day use by the production company.

Charlie Gill and his son-in-law, Russell Brown, were there. When Botula reached the rear of the building, Brown said, "And don't forget what I told you -- the car doesn't move."

At first, Botula thought Gill and his son-in-law were working a little deal toward charging the Hollywood crowd extra for getting the hot rod out of the way.

"What do you mean, 'It doesn't move?' " Botula asked. "You see these wheels? You put them on the car and you wheel it out of here."

"No," Russell Brown said again. "It stays."

The hot rod hadn't moved in more than 40 years, since that day Charlie Gill brought it home from the drag races, put it up on blocks and called quits to a brief racing career. The resistance to moving it now, to make room for movie stars, wasn't about money. It was about something that's hard to get your hands on, but something very real in a man's life. Maybe, for Charlie Gill, moving his old hot rod from the spot where he'd lodged it -- seeing its wheels actually turn again -- stirred too many memories, some of them bad. Maybe he just likes leaving things alone, and where they belong.

Charlie had cobbled the hot rod together in his daddy's garage in 1949 and 1950. It was a beauty, too -- the Model A chassis with a 1941 V-8 motor, a 1940 transmission, hydraulic brakes, "full-floatant hubs," a split windshield from a speedboat. Charlie built a special differential for the car. He installed dual carburetors. His mother stitched the upholstery and the padded dash. The car was bright red (later maroon and "Hawaiian bronze") with white sidewalls and a chromium-plated engine. The hot rod could do 70 miles an hour in low-gear overdrive, twice that in high overdrive. In 1951, the famed photographer, A. Aubrey Bodine, took pictures of it for The Sunday Sun's old "metrogravure" section. Charlie and his hot rod made the cover of the weekly magazine.

A few years later, after he got out of the service, Charlie started drag racing. He'd take his hot rod up to the Frederick Airport, where the Maryland Timing Association sponsored heats. Here was a young man who'd grown up with cars, an ace mechanic with James Dean hair, and his pride, his joy was this hot rod. Racing was the way to go, the end of the rainbow.

But something happened in 1957.

The guys who ran the races at Frederick didn't play fair. They monkeyed with pairings. They had a problem with class distinctions. Here's how Charlie explains it: "There are different classes of cars for racing. Cars that run on gasoline are not supposed to race against cars with special fuels. Cars running on carburetors aren't supposed to race against cars with fuel injection. I was in B class, but others in B class were running with larger engines. I'd beat every one of them off the line, but an extra 50 cubic inches of engine beats you by a wheel -- or no more than half a car length -- every time. So I went up there to Frederick three weekends, then I brought the roadster home, jacked it up and told them they could put their drag races where the sun don't shine."

And he never raced again.

Never took the hot rod out of Gill's Garage.

But then the Hollywood man came and asked if he would. "Would $500 move the car?" Botula asked.

Charlie, a short and trim man with chiseled features and magnificent crow's feet at the eyes, thought about it. "No, no," he said softly.

It wasn't about money. Over the years various people had asked Charlie about taking the hot rod on the road again. But he resisted. "The more you hound somebody about something, the more negative they get about it. I just don't go with changes too quickly."

He operated his daddy's garage for several years with his wife. Maybe he just didn't have time to bother with the car.

Or maybe the car tripped an unpleasant memory and took him back to that time of disappointment. "To this day, I won't watch a drag race," Charlie says.

Finally, Charlie thought, with the anxious Hollywood man standing by, it might be kind of nice to have a movie made in the old garage. After a period of quiet contemplation, in the corner where the hot rod had rested since 1957, Charlie Gill agreed to move it out of the way for Julia Roberts and Richard Gere.

Since then the movie stars have come and gone; their scenes in Gill's Garage were shot last week.

The hot rod is in a shed behind Gill's. Now that he's seen it move again, Charlie thinks he might install a new differential -- he sold the first one to a stock car driver years ago -- and get the hot rod out where everyone can see it. Maybe he'll be on the road again this summer. "I gotta root around for the windshields, though," he says. "I took them off and I put them some place where they'd be safe, and now I can't find them."

Pub Date: 1/11/99

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