I went to Dallas to talk to John Redding about the 1966 Datsun 1600 Roadster that’s been hidden away in his storage space for years. On my second evening there, we were standing in front of that storage space, and he wasn’t crying, but his voice was quivering. I asked him if he was okay.
“I hate feelings,” he said. “I am a very logical person. And when you start talking about things that don’t have anything to do with logic, just emotions, it’s uncomfortable for me.” Then he looked down and said, “But you need to know this stuff, and if it gets too intense, I will ask for a break.”
I spent two and a half days with John and also his wife talking about the Datsun, John’s father, John’s father’s devastating accident, his father’s death, John’s own health struggles, a project that’s gone off the rails after a cost of $40,000, but that he describes as a “weird automotive monument to my dad.”
Rough stuff, for sure. But John never once asked for that break.
John Redding is 42 years old. He’s a database developer, a self-described “computer nerd.” He doesn’t smile in photos, and only occasionally in real-life. His wife teases him that he looks like “Grumpy Cat,” and that he has a bad case of “RFB” (resting bitch face). He also loves cars, and is a reader of Jalopnik, hence the Jalopnik t-shirt he wore on my second day there. John’s also a big guy, about 6’ 1” and 300 pounds.
His 1966 Datsun 1600 Roadster, however, is not so big. “The Datsun is the size of a Miata, the original” Miata, John observed, and he is right. “It’s 2,080 pounds. So it is a very tiny, lightweight car. And I am not tiny and not lightweight in any way.
“I don’t know that I’d be able to drive it very much with the top on,” he admits.
But John has reasons for wanting such a car, even if it isn’t the perfect physical fit. And they all go back to his father. “The car my dad had when I was born was a ‘72 Datsun 510 two-door. He loved that car, and when a large truck backed into it and totaled it, he was heartbroken,” John explained.
In 2008, John’s first wife left him after four years of marriage. Not long after, he was laid off. “That was a kind of hellacious few weeks,” he said. “So I found a job I hated but [was] making pretty good money.” But that job was a temporary contract, which ended before a year was up. “Then I was out of work for six months,” he said.
Back into the job market he went. Finally by 2010, things had seemingly stabilized for him. He started dating Michelle, whom he later married, and he’d landed steady employment. With some money in the bank and with two extremely difficult years behind him, John decided to treat himself to something.
“It would be nice to have a project car,” he decided. And he did it for his dad, a man he never quite understood, who never quite understood him.
There’s an incongruity about the pair—the tiny and peppy Japanese Fairlady convertible and the big, glowering Texan—that is undeniably amusing. But the more I ask John to tell me about the Datsun, to fill in the details about how and why he got, about what he’s done with it in the five years since, I realize there’s very little to laugh about.
John’s father, John Byron Redding, was born in 1941. He graduated college in 1965 with a degree in chemistry, and afterward worked as a chemist. But then, as John explains, “he was laid off due to a downturn in the economy.”
Unable to find a position as a chemist, he got behind the counter at 7-11, eventually getting promoted to manager. From 7-11, he made the jump to retail, selling guns. Decades of retail work proved difficult.
“He was never fine. He had a retail job for basically my entire existence. It’s not what he went to college for or anything,” John says. “He was overweight and he had circulation problems. He had stasis ulcers on both legs. And so it was basically standing 40 hours a week on concrete and it was killing him. He was in pain all the time.”
But if there was any silver lining, it was that his father was at least selling something he loved. “He had three things he was interested in,” John explains, “guns, cars, and sports.”
Back in 1972, John says, his dad was after “a performance-ish car. In its day, the 510 was not bad… Rear-wheel drive, independent rear suspension in the two-door. Had a four-speed in it.” John thinks that his dad’s 510 “probably had the 2000 engine in it. It was carbureted obviously. The 2000 engine in these things, depending on the carbs you had, either did 135 or 150 horses.
“I remember riding in the car,” he says. In fact, he was riding in the car when it was totaled.
“I seem to remember it being in the summertime,” John says. This was back in 1981, when it wasn’t uncommon to have a six-year old ride shotgun. His father had just picked him up from daycare. They were waiting at a traffic light, a bobtail truck in front of them.
“I just remember seeing this bobtail truck back up. He completely did not see us. The bobtail went through the windshield and all the glass breaks.” Though showered with glass, he and his father were unharmed because the windshield was tempered.
The same could not be said for the Datsun. “The main problem,” John explains, “was that the glass got into the transmission tunnel and screwed up the transmission, so [the insurance company] totaled it out.”
But with a young kid, John’s father had to think less about performance and more about practicality. So, John tells me, “He replaces it with an ‘81 Mazda GLC. GLC stood for Good Little Car. But I don’t think it really was all that good. It was the heyday of, you know, all the Japanese cars were coming in and Hondas and Toyotas were, from what he told me, going for way over MSRP. The Mazda wasn’t.”
But as the years went on, his father missed the 510 more and more. “He did love that car,” John says. And as his father got older, “he did talk about it quite a bit. How much he enjoyed driving that car, how much he missed it, things like that.”
But for most of his life, John couldn’t relate.
Cars, guns, and sports. As a young man, John looked at a car as nothing more than a “basic transportation appliance.”
As for guns, John describes himself as a “staunch libertarian” and, consequently, “extremely pro-Second Amendment.” But guns held very little interest for John on a personal level, and he’s still unenthusiastic about them. “I’m not licensed to carry and I don’t want to be licensed to carry,” he explains. He has a few handguns but told me that they are locked away, unloaded, and he hasn’t even looked at them for years.
Sports were also a miss. John was initially not interested in them at all. In college, this changed, and he consumed stats and metrics and data. In an effort to learn as much as he could about baseball and basketball and soccer, he overshot his father’s interest altogether. “He liked watching the games,” he recalled. “But my knowledge and fandom went way past him.”
So for most of John’s life, they had very little to talk about it. Contributing to their lack of a relationship is that neither one of them really liked talking at all.
John’s wife, Michelle Redding, told me that because I’d been interviewing him for two and a half days, “he’s probably been more talkative than normal.” But she clarifies, “John’s a fairly soft-spoken person, and his father was even more so.”
Like father, like son. But in this case, it wasn’t something they bonded over. Instead, it worked against them, and to John’s dismay. “I would have liked to have been closer to him but I don’t do personal relationships well. He didn’t do personal relationships well. So I loved him. I know that he loved me. He would have done anything for me. I would have done anything for him. But as far as like getting together and doing emotional bonding things,” John says it simply never happened.
“He was not...” he began, but struggled to finish the sentence. He paused, and then said forlornly, “He was very subdued.”
Further complicating things was the divorce his parents went through when John was in high school. John explained to me how, growing up, his mother worked at a flower shop, and also, for a short time, at a VA hospital. To help offset some of their rent, and to help individuals in need, the family regularly took in homeless veterans who would sleep on the couch. His dad didn’t complain. Wasn’t the type to argue.
But then, when John was three weeks from graduating high school, his mother pulled him aside. “[She] said, ‘I haven’t been happy in our relationship for a long time, but I wanted to stay married to your dad until you got out of high school.’ I don’t think she understood exactly how fucked up that made me feel,” John explained, “‘cause you know, if she had been unhappy for four or five years, it was—yeah,” he said, not finishing the thought.
His mother was not only unhappy, but she was in love with someone else. “Well, one of [the vets], when he moved in, my mom had back problems. And he had a waterbed. So they slept in the same bed. My dad slept in another room.”
That man became John’s stepfather. “And to this day, the guy who became my stepdad says that they basically did not do anything until after my mom said she was getting a divorce,” John says. “Now whether I believe that or not depends on the day. But that is what I have been told. And when I start thinking about it, how fucked up it sounds,” he pauses, then concludes, “it sounds pretty fucked up.”
His father moved to Waco. His mother and her new husband were together until the day she died of cancer in 2010, right after he’d finally gotten his feet back on the ground after his own divorce and losing two jobs.
That was also when John says “the project-car bug hit.” So he set about finding the right vehicle. He wanted something “unique and not everyone has and not everybody sees everyday.” But, because of his father kept coming back to vintage Datsuns. But he also knew he wanted a convertible. The 510 was never offered as a convertible.
So when he stumbled across the Datsun 1600, it was a revelation for John. “I didn’t know Datsun ever made a convertible like that. And then all of a sudden, the tumblers went like, okay I like the looks of the car, and it’s a Datsun.”
He took his time researching and saving, and by 2012, John was the proud owner of a brilliant blue Datsun 1600 roadster, a convertible. And more than that, a piece of machinery that hopefully would give John and his father something they had never had before: something to bond over.
“I was looking forward to getting it all spiffed up and driving my dad around in it,” John said. “I had had visions of us riding in it together,” he tells me. “I figured we would drive together. I could drive part of the way, he could drive part of the way. This was 2012. He was 70. He was still able to drive and take care of himself.”
But that never happened.
Two weeks after John took delivery of the 1600, his father fell at home. Alone, unable to move, unable to call for help, his father went at least two days, possibly as long as four days without assistance.
Because he’d missed two physical therapy appointments, John’s father’s therapist contacted John. John and Michelle rushed to outside of Waco where his father was living. There they found him, as John recalls, “pinned; basically he fell back and his legs kind of accordioned.”
At the hospital, John says, “They weren’t exactly encouraging.” But he had no idea just how dire the situation was. The next day, he says, “I found out that the doctor had basically given him a 5 or 10 percent chance to live through the night.”
Not only was his father severely dehydrated, his leg was destroyed. “He lost all function and circulation [in it],” John explains. “In order to save him, they had to cut the leg off. Then they had to go back in and cut more off.”
From there, John’s father never made it back home. In fact, “he never made it to living semi-independently at all,” John says. “He was always in a nursing home or rehab or something like that… he was 70 years old and he weighed, even after the surgery, 240 or 250 pounds. He just did not have the upper-body strength to transfer from bed to wheelchair. So he was just never going to be able to live independently.”
He’s telling me all this in the storage space where the Datsun is. There are no lights in there, and the sun is setting. So, I suggest we take the discussion outside. We walk out into the pinkish twilight.
I ask him to tell me about his father’s death. John looks out at the empty retention ditch on the other side of the deserted parking lot. “I did not know he was in any serious danger of dying, but he had been weak for five years,” he starts. Then he shifts gears. “[In] January, 2017 I started running a fever,” he tells me.
John explains how he himself is diabetic, so when he starts running an unexplained fever, he goes to the doctor. And that’s exactly what he did in January. “When I was there, they discovered, they call it cellulitis, right here,” he says, pointing to his leg. “The doctor said, ‘Go to the ER...’ So I went to the ER. They put me on heavy-duty IV antibiotics to get the fever down and tried to take care of what was on my leg. So they admitted me. This was like January 30th or 31st, something like that. I’m in the hospital until February 9th or 10th.”
But almost a week before he got out of the hospital, John got a phone call where the doctor said they were moving his father to the ICU because his “system was shutting down.” John remembers, “I’m in the hospital. I am the only next of kin he has. And I get the call that he’s dying and I can’t go see him at all… They were trying to figure out if there was any way I could get from my hospital to his hospital to see him one last time before he passed away. And it might have been able to work, but we didn’t have enough time. Basically I had an hour and a half or two hours from the time I got the phone call saying, ‘he’s going’ to the point where he went.”
“Yeah, that was a very stressful couple of days,” he tells me, adding that “Fortunately, my wife handled all [the arrangements] and I’m eternally grateful.”
The arrangements included having him cremated. “We still have the ashes,” John says. “I had some of them sent to a place that fuses ashes into art glass. So I have a sculpture with some of his ashes in it. And I have a box with the rest of them.”
This is when John turns back toward the 1600, now shrouded in shadow, and says this car has become “a weird automotive monument to my dad.”
His father never actually saw the car in person. Few people ever have, aside from John, Michelle, and a mechanic who had done some extensive work on the car in 2012 and 2013.
When John opened the storage space and I laid eyes on the vehicle, I was impressed. As I walked around the car, inspecting its finer details, I asked John offhandedly when the last time he’d visited the car was.
He told me that he was here just a couple days ago to “make sure I had the key so I didn’t waste your time.” But before that, “it was basically the day we moved this one in. So it’s been about three years.”
I freeze mid-stride. “You haven’t seen the car in three years?” I ask, stunned.
“Nope,” he answers.
This project is just full of all kinds of surprises. One of those surprises is that there’s a whole other car in that storage space: a 1991 Nissan 240SX. That car is the donor car; it gave up its engine and transmission for the 1600.
Only here’s the twist: John bought the 1600 running and restored. And since the 1600 was never offered as an automatic, John’s came with a manual transmission.
With his father’s leg amputated, John knew his dad “was never going to be able to drive stick with one leg. So if he ever can drive, it’s gonna be an automatic,” he figured.
But also, John said that he himself can barely drive stick. And he doesn’t seem too interested in learning. I can’t believe he would willingly pass up the manual transmission let alone go through all the trouble and expense of changing one out. But he’s known all along exactly what he wants: a convertible vintage Datsun with an automatic transmission, for his dad.
But if he’s going to get what he wants, he first needs to tell his wife the whole truth about the project. Until I got to town, she only knew part of it. For instance, since they have separate bank accounts for their own discretionary spending, she doesn’t know exactly just how much John is into the 1600. “It’s gonna be painful,” John had told me when I asked him how he thought she’d take it.
Michelle Redding manages an analytics team at a bank. She stands in stark contrast to the stone-faced, quiet John. She is a delightful conversationalist, and she laughs easily and often. Not just when she thinks something is funny, but when she’s uncomfortable or surprised.
And there’s plenty of that, as John’s revealing all the specifics about the Datsun project. The rent on the storage space is a big one.
“This is a sore spot,” John says.
Michelle is already laughing as a way of bracing herself. “We need to get it over to our house because we’ve had it in storage since we lived in our apartment,” she says without knowing the damage.
“It’s about $225 per month,” John says.
“Oh my god,” Michelle replies, sounding sincerely pained while she laughs even harder. I tell her how John and I had calculated that about $11,000 had been spent on storage fees.
Michelle is not happy, but she has a solution. “You know what, babe? I was just thinking, you should commit to yourself that before this article comes out, the car is at least moved from storage to our garage,” she says.
Now it’s John who’s laughing uncomfortably.
“Well,” he says, “but then I have to figure out what to do with the other car.”
Michelle thinks he’s referring to his daily commuter, a Toyota Matrix.
John clears his throat.
“I don’t understand,” she says. “What does the other car have to do with it?”
Bravely, John explains, “there’s not one car in storage. There are two cars in storage. The donor car for the engine and transmission,” John says.
Michelle looks down at the table, shakes her head, and starts laughing again. “This is great new information,” she says to him, her face turning a little red.
“The good news is that they don’t charge him twice the storage fee,” I offer.
Michelle takes a breath and collects her thoughts, then she says calmly but definitively, “Okay, so the good car goes in the garage. The other car goes in the driveway. And then you’ll need to park on the street.”
Then she turns to me and says, “thank you for being our therapist.”
But I’m not their therapist. And as it turns out, it doesn’t seem like they need one, even after he’s revealed the truth about this project. Even after he’s told her that, all-in, John’s already spent $40,000 on the Datsun, if not more. Even after John says, “basically at this point, I think it would take 5 to 7 [thousand] to finish it.”
“I’d rather see it fixed up and driving,” Michelle says without hesitation. “If it was gone, then all that money, like I know it’s a sunk cost, but all that money in it would just be like, it was a waste. So I’d much rather see it fixed up and driving. A dream of his is to go and drive a big stretch of [Route 66] in his car and everything… It would be cool to see him live that out.”
The first night I’m in Dallas, I meet John and his buddy, Monte Jennings. Monte is not only a fellow developer at the same company, but he’s a hardcore car enthusiast. This is the night that John first tells me about his plan for swapping the drivetrain.
Monte looks at me and smiles and shakes his head a little bit, but not in an insulting or demeaning or dismissive way. Just in a knowing way, he understands what I must be thinking when I hear about the three-pedal-to-two-pedal conversion plan; what most people will think when they read it. Very few people do automatic transmission swaps—generally only drag racers seeking quicker quarter mile times.
John tells me about how much time and money he’s put into trying to complete the project. It started back in 2012, shortly after he bought the 1600. That’s when John got the idea to buy a 2006 Pontiac Solstice in an insurance auction. He assumed the drivetrain would fit since he knew that the Nissan KA24 engine is a 2.4-liter and so is the Solstice’s. He also thought that it would be cool since he hadn’t heard of anyone putting a GM Ecotec engine, which the Solstice sported, into an old Datsun 1600.
But, John recalls, “the guy who I was working with pulled the engine and the transmission and was like, ‘There ain’t no way. There’s no way in hell this is gonna work. It’s not gonna fit in the engine compartment.’ So at that point, I’m like, screw it. Let’s do something that I know has been done before. And so the normal swaps for the Datsun Fairladies are either the KA24 or the SR20. So we bought a whole 240, running, and pulled the engine and transmission out of it.”
The shop he was working with (and who was storing the car) put the transmission and engine in. But, by that time, he was $28,000 into the car. And he’d just bought a house in need of urgent repairs. So, John put both the 1600 and the 240SX into storage.
And that’s where they’ve both been ever since, unseen by anyone including John.
Monte listens to the story about the Solstice and the 240SX with a mixture of amusement and admiration. Car people love a project. I ask him what kind of cars he likes, and he says, “I grew up on American heavy metal. Corvettes, Mustangs, Camaros, that kind of thing. Always been a Ford guy. Back in ‘85, bought an old Firebird and stuffed a 472-inch Oldsmobile in it and did mid-tens. Eventually that got stuffed into a ‘67 Firebird with a fiberglass front end and an IRS and four-wheel discs. That was in ‘90. A full tube frame tucked up under the body.”
I ask him what he drives now, and he says, “A ‘98 Lincoln Mark VIII with a Tremec 6 speed, 14-inch brakes with six-piston calipers, all kinds of strut-tower, cross-bracing frame connectors, that kind of thing. I just ordered coilovers today. It’s pretty much ready to go road racing. For a modern car, it’s really not that heavy. It’s about 3,700 [pounds]. I put a Truetrac 31-spline differential with D’Agastino racing half-shafts. So it’s ready for the horsepower. Had a driveshaft made for it. So with a couple of turbos, we’re hoping for a 1000 but will settle for 800 horsepower.”
The Lincoln Mark VIII never came with a manual transmission—just a four-speed automatic. Meanwhile, the Datsun never came with an automatic transmission—only manuals. These two guys, Monte and John, are made for each other, I’m thinking.
“He’s a gearhead,” John says of Monte.
Before he can say anything else, Monte interrupts him. “He’s a gearhead,” he says referring to John.
“No I’m not,” John says.
“Dude, you’re trying to put a 240SX engine into your Datsun. You’re a gearhead,” Monte says.
“No, no. Trying with a checkbook,” John counters. “That doesn’t exactly qualify as trying.”
Monte won’t have it. “You need to buy a welder,” he says. “That will solve all of your problems.”
Michelle is anything but happy to know that the three years in storage has been so costly, but she also understands why John put the Datsun on hold. For one thing, she says that ever since they moved into their house, “there’s been so many life events.”
Perhaps the biggest of them all have been John’s health issues. This year alone has been especially challenging. John broke his foot, though he has no idea how it happened. In fact, he didn’t feel any pain, either. They went to the doctor after they saw his foot was swelling.
“They called it a stress fracture,” John says. “It was in the mid-foot. One of the complications of diabetes...is that those bones become kind of brittle. And if you break one, you’re very, very likely to break the rest of them. And if you do that, then they either go in and do major reconstructive surgery, or they cut it off.”
The recovery took seven months, but John was able to keep his foot. He spent months in a scooter, then in a boot. He has to be careful because, due to the diabetic neuropathy that has caused him to lose most feeling in his feet, he says “I could drop a bowling ball on my foot...and it wouldn’t hurt all that bad.”
He says all this evenly, matter-of-factly. Health problems are not new to him. “I was diagnosed [with diabetes] in 1996. I was 20. And I’ve been on medication pretty much ever since except for a four or five year period after I had gastric bypass.”
He tells me he had that procedure done in 2007. “I was extremely overweight,” he says. “I’m overweight now. No joke about that. But at my peak, I was about 410 [pounds], and I was in the hospital for a week early in 2007 with an infection. Basically necrotizing fasciitis is the term they kept throwing out. Whenever you put “necrotizing” in front of something, you know it’s fun.”
“Flesh-eating bacteria is the layman’s term,” Michelle says.
“My highest was 410. When I had the surgery, I was 360. And I got down as low as 237. Just to give you some idea,” he says, “I hadn’t seen 237 since I was like 12. So, you know, it was a pretty big deal.”
In the ten years since the procedure, John has gained about half the weight back. He says, “I am much healthier at 300 than I was at 360. And I know what it takes to get down to 250. But I just don’t have the discipline to do it. If I got down to 250, I could definitely get off the insulin.”
I ask him about what kind of discipline it would require. Like telling me how he’s simply not good at driving stick, John answers with that same level of matter-of-fact self-awareness: “The ability to stay on a diet, the ability to go make myself exercise repeatedly, make a habit of doing that. Everyone likes to say they don’t have time to exercise or whatever. I could find the time to exercise if it was important to me.”
I remember that he said his father also weighed 300 pounds, so I wonder how he felt about John’s gastric bypass. “He never considered it for himself,” John says. “But he was really glad that I had done it.”
And that’s when John and Michelle point out the delicate glass sculpture on their mantle. The light flecks that are his father’s ashes are dispersed throughout the arms of a dark spiral. Stars in some tiny galaxy.
I ask them for a photo of his father. Few exist, they explain. But Michelle finds one. It’s her favorite, taken on Christmas day, 2013. John’s wearing a Santa hat and, of course, he’s frowning. Only this frown kind of looks like a smile. He’s not exactly skinny, but he appears much smaller than he does now. John is standing next to his father’s bed, where his father is lying. His dad looks like the real Santa with his long white beard and plump, ruddy face. He’s not looking at the camera. He’s looking up at his son with some kind of mixture of pride, and relief to have his company.
And splayed across his belly, an automotive magazine.
Despite all the very valid and real practical reasons—money, a new house, major health problems—it’s still difficult for me to understand why the project isn’t complete. And I wonder if maybe John is afraid to finish it. That, by finishing it, he’ll somehow be finished with his father, too. I decide to ask him that directly over dinner with him and Michelle.
But before I can get through the question, Michelle finishes it for me. She’s been wondering the same thing.
“No,” he tells us both. “I know what the next step is,” John says, and he sounds almost defensive. “The next step is I need to get the gas tank pulled, boiled out, and put a fuel pump inside the gas tank. And then I don’t know if it’s going to run from there, if it’ll fire off.”
My theory is wrong. He’s not afraid of finishing it. Quite the opposite; he’s afraid it might not ever be done. After five years and over $40,000, John fears there’s no end in sight. “Is that the last step? Or are there ten more steps beyond that?” he asks no one in particular.
John is usually so even-keeled, so matter-of-fact. But like when he was telling me about his parents’ “fucked up” divorce, and when he was describing what it was like to get the call about his father’s impending death while he himself was in the hospital, he sounds shaken right now.
Michelle doesn’t laugh like she normally does. Instead, she scoots even closer to him, and looks up into his face. She puts his hand on his. “Well,” she says tenderly, “baby steps, baby.” And with that, John sits back, takes a deep breath, and squeezes her hand. And then he smiles.
David Obuchowski’s reporting and essays have appeared in Jalopnik, The Awl, SYFY, and other publications. His latest short fiction story “Field Guide For Roadside Memorials” was recently published by the Kaaterskill Basin Literary Journal. David is also a musician with bands on Relapse Records, Old Flame Records, and Greenway Records.
Correction: This article has been updated to correct the name of the Nissan engine involved in the swap.