Don Garnett recalls first seeing “The Little Jewel” back in 1951, when he was 12 and the car was still under construction.
Little did the Lubbock, Texas, native know that over a half-century later, at 72, he would be driving it in Hot Rod Magazine Drag Week.
Garnett was a teenager when drag racing first began gaining in popularity. He recalls “The Jewel,” which started off as a totaled 1951 Ford Station Wagon, being assembled by two men — Garner Jones and Herman Lawhon — with mechanical and body parts from 27 different automobiles during a two-year stretch (1951-53).
“They had it on the road first in 1953,” Garnett recalled. “They raced it in Great Bend in 1955, and that was the first time the National Hot Rod Association ever had a drag race.
“It got rained out after three days. They had one of the worst rains they had there in 30 years. In fact, they had hay bales that were along the side of the track floating away in the water. They called off the races and finished them in Arizona about three months later.”
Before the rains came, “The Jewel,” running with a ’51 Ford 3-speed manual overdrive transmission and Lawhon behind the wheel, ran the quarter mile in 16.94 seconds at 82.88 mph at the S.R.C.A. Drag Strip during that historic weekend (Sept. 29-Oct. 2, 1955).
Nearly 56 years later, Garnett, who bought the car in five years ago, will be driving it to and racing it on Tuesday in Great Bend. It’s a modern-day shrine on wheels, if you will.
“I’m going to get the opportunity to drive the little car on the same track that Herman drove it on in 1955,” Garnett said.
Not long after that, the engine was pulled from “The Jewel,” and put into another race car “in 1956 or 1957,” according to Garnett. “It had been off the road from 1957 until 2010.”
That brings the story of the deceased and aforementioned Jones, a Lamesa, Texas, homebuilder, and Lawhon, an Odonnell, Texas, Ford service manager, to light.
The two men rebuilt the car over the next couple years, replacing the platform, firewall, front fenders, outer door skins, rear fenders and floor pan, to name just a few. The engine was a 303 Oldsmobile bored .090 with a half-inch stroke, Edelbrock 4-barrel intake and “Isky” ¾ race camshaft.
When Jones and Lawhon built a 1933 Ford Coupe named Tweety-Pie to race in a A-Gas Class, “The Jewel” was stored less engine in the backyard shop where it was built.
Garner retired from his business and racing by 1970, when he and his wife moved to Ruidoso, N.M. “The Jewel” was transported there and stored until the family moved to Clovis, N.M., in 1975, where it was stored in the backyard of Jones’ home until he died in 1980.
In 1981, Mrs. Jones gave the car to Herman, who began restoration, removing the bumpers, grille, headlights, etc., and storing them in the garage. In 1986, Lawhon, who later died, gave the car to his new son-in-law, Steve Payne.
Over the years, Payne stored the car behind his barn.
“I was working on a search project on drag-racing in this area and I knew Herman’s widow had a scrapbook that she had kept and I went to her house and I was thumbing through the scrapbook,” he said. “I saw a picture of the old car (The Little Jewel) and I asked whatever happened to that car. She said, ‘It’s out on a farm about 10 miles from here.’ She gave me her ex-husband’s son-in-laws phone number (Payne’s). His son-in-a-law never did anything with it. It also sat indoors for a long time.”
Garnett, vividly remembering the car from his childhood, bought it from Payne for $500 in 2006.
“Mrs. Lawhon and her daughter, Adena, gave me all the parts that Herman had stored in the rafters of his garage,” Garnett said. “The grill was so nice that it did not require replating.”
Garnett then began a five-year stretch of restoring “The Jewel,” just like Jones and Lawhon had done so many years ago.
“It’s more like a piece of art than it is a car,” Garnett said. “When we sandblasted that car in 2008 or 2007, the lead was in just perfect condition. All we did was sand it and got it ready to paint.
“I just put it on the road last fall for the first time (in 2010). It has an Oldsmobile engine in it again and I pretty much restored it the way it was built.”