In May, I reported a story about a blackjack dealer who died in 1997 from an apparent explosives accident in an Arizona desert. His car, a 1980 Datsun, was left out there for 21 years, until recently, when total strangers from a Facebook group united the car with the man’s son, who got straight to wrenching. What he discovered was a vehicle in remarkable shape.
The photo above shows Michael Blackburn and his sister Lalani sitting in their late father’s car, a 1980 Datsun B310 (technically called a B210 in the U.S.). It’s a vehicle that means a lot to the two siblings, with Lalani telling me in May that it’s the “last piece of [her] dad” and Michael saying over the phone that recovering and fixing up the car would allow him to “have something of [his father] left.” So it’s no surprise that Michael has spent little time getting this Datsun up and running.
But before he could do that, he had to get the car back to his home in Wisconsin. Luckily, David Nehrbass—a man who works at the National Park Service and owns an off-road fire, rescue, medical and recovery service called Motorsports Safety Solutions—towed the Datsun out of the Arizona desert to Las Vegas (that’s him and his team above), where the car waited in a mechanic’s shop for Michael and Lalani.
After Lalani drove from Pennsylvania to Michael’s house in Wisconsin in mid June, the siblings drove together to Las Vegas, and Nehrbass took the two to the spot where their father had died 21 years prior. The photo below shows Michael and Lalani standing next to a plaque that Nehrbass had made to honor Mark Blackburn, Michael and Lalani’s father.
“Motorsports Safety Solutions put this memorial on the site where he died,” Michael told me over the phone. “And my sister and I put our hands in the dirt, put handprints on it, and signed it with our names, our spouses names, the names of our kids.”
While he was out there, Michael picked up everything he found that might have been associated with his dad.
“I gathered every piece of human anything you could find. A pipe in the ground, a stake for a 4x4 to put a post in, all parts of the car that I could find—little bits of reverse lights,” he told me. “My sister found a shotgun shell, and a whole bunch of other stuff...I brought everything I could find back.”
Then he and Lalani went to the mechanic’s shop to look at the Datsun, where the owner hosted a barbecue for The Wrenching Network members, and also towed the Datsun on its first leg.
“The relay started Saturday, June 16th,” David Nehrbass told me in an email, “with Michael and Lalani following behind.” After the shop owner’s Durango broke down, and Nehrbass came to the rescue, another member of The Wrenching Network took over the job of towing the Datsun on its next leg toward Wisconsin. After a few hundred miles, the next member took over. Then the next.
In total, six cars (including—amazingly—the Cadillac El Dorado shown above) owned by members of The Wrenching Network towed Michael and Lalani’s late father’s car about 1,800 miles over just a couple of days from Arizona to Michael’s home in Hartford, Wisconsin.
Amazingly, after draining the car’s oil (which was “half oil, half water”), fixing some chewed-up wiring in the ignition system with some guidance from fellow The Wrenching Network members, installing an ignition coil, hooking up a jump pack, and spraying brake cleaner down the carburetor, Michael—who admits that he “doesn’t know dick about carbs”—got the engine to fire.
Amazingly, the original starter worked, as did the fuel pump, the brake master cylinder, the spark plugs that were in the car, and three of the four spark plug wires. Michael even ran a compression test, and got decent readings, indicating that this engine still has some life in it.
“Mechanically, it’s in damn near pristine condition,” Michael told me, “with the exception of the wiring that’s chewed up and missing.” So far, the only major mechanical components Michael’s had to replace are the clutch master cylinder and slave cylinder.
Now that Michael’s got a running engine (he still needs to rebuild the carb to get the thing to idle properly), a clutch that works, and brakes that slow the car down, his plan of storing the car and waiting until he had enough money to work on it has changed. “Theoretically,” he said, “I’m hoping maybe within a week or so, I might be able to drive it to the end of the block and back very carefully.”
“At this point, so much as gone right on this car, I’m not even surprised anymore.”
Michael hopes to get the car “mechanically sound” by the end of the summer, though he is going to tear into it over the winter, regardless.
“This thing will never ever ever ever ever see winter.” he told me. “I am not going to undo 21 years of god’s handiwork of not rusting that car just to have Wisconsin quickly undo it.” In October, Michael will put the car into storage, and start rebuilding things. He’ll take the head to a shop to have it worked on, fix the dashboard, rebuild the transmission linkage, and clean and paint everything he touches to make it look pretty.
The fact that he got this long-neglected car running after so many years is incredible, but he’s still got a long road ahead of him. The good thing is, he has a great network of mechanics keeping him motivated, helping him financially through a GoFundMe page, and dropping him decades worth of wrenching knowhow.
This should be a fun build to follow.