Running Down a Dream

Kirk McCauley in his 1955 Chevrolet at Beltsville Speedway in 1966. McCauley would become track champion the following year.

Restoration of a 1971 Pontiac GTO that takes St. Mary’s man back to high school

Writer: Casey Martin | Photos Courtesy of: Patrick Scott Milburn | Summer 2021
 
Most people of driving age are able to fondly point to a personal favorite car or truck that they have owned in their past that stir the strongest feelings of nostalgia.
For Scott Milburn, when asked about his favorite of the 35 cars he has owned, he always had the same answer: a 1970 Pontiac GTO that he drove through his junior year of high school.
The body was a blazing gold with a hood tachometer, sported a 4-speed Muncie transmission and the interior was spray-painted black.
Between the bucket seats sat a chrome fire extinguisher, cocked and ready for disaster. Paying $1,300 for it, but not yet comfortable with the clutch, Milburn recalled the GTO bucked like a bronco as Billy Joel and “You May Be Right” played on the Pioneer stereo as he drove away hippity-hopping through the apartment parking lot.
And although the car was never perfect — none are really as nice as we remember — it was the best a teenage boy with little means and experience could muster at the time.
Most importantly, it was his.
Milburn eventually traded it in for a 1977 Ford Mustang II Cobra (what would now be considered a cardinal sin among car enthusiasts). Years later, he finally got the opportunity to rectify what he refers to as one of his biggest blunders.
When Milburn first laid his eyes on a 1971 GTO on a property in Hampstead, Maryland, flashbacks of his childhood enveloped him. He saw the gold of the car from his youth streak by him like the DeLorean from “Back to the Future.” Although he owned a ’70 GTO as a kid, the differences between the two models were only minor.
 

The GTO in October 2016.

SEEING POTENTIAL
He knew almost immediately that this was the car that he wanted to restore from beginning to end, an undertaking he realized was beyond him in some respects.
The rear driver quarter panel was accordioned from an accident many years prior; the body was in primer; and the front clip loosely bolted together – just hanging on. However, the entire car was rust-free and still had the original 400-cubic-inch motor.
Ironically, the accident that crunched the quarter panel served as the catalyst for the car’s rust-free condition.
The previous owner, John Kresta, had been rear-ended 26 years prior as a teenager and did not have the money to make the necessary repairs. He left the ’71 in his parent’s garage in Texas, shielded for decades from mother nature’s wrath.
Thus, when Milburn saw it, the car was essentially in the same condition as when it was wrecked in the late 1980s. To create the car from his childhood dreams, Milburn knew he was going to need help.
“If you want something done right, you should never be afraid to ask for help,” he said.
 

Ray Nelka fits a new quarter panel to the GTO in June 2017.

AND HE’S OFF
The first step he took in rebuilding the GTO was to take the car to Ray Alvey’s Laurel Grove Garage and Restoration shop. There, they worked in the driveway to remove the old transmission and motor in preparation for bodywork. Alvey sliced off the busted quarter panel while Milburn drilled out all of the spot welds from the dated sheet metal.
After Alvey’s, the GTO was hauled off to Ray Nelka, owner of Nelka’s Body Shop in Loveville. There, Nelka continued with the bodywork, replacing the quarter panel that was sheared off and the tail panel in the trunk. At the same time, Milburn sanded every inch of the body down to bare metal with an arsenal of tools, removing the outside layer of primer and original paint.
In the midst of this, he recalls a moment that he would not forget.
Nelka asked, “What’s your plan?”
By plan, he meant the vision for the final product, the overall goal. Milburn admits that up to that moment, he had yet to consider this.
They had simply been working on what was in front of them. However, having a plan was essential because it dictated the correct steps, time and, more importantly, budget, moving forward. Coincidentally, Milburn found two original paper build sheets in the car (hidden by factory workers on the assembly line) outlining all of the car’s original options and specifications, which made the restoration that much easier.
 

The body of the GTO lowered back onto the finished chassis in June 2018.

A MAN WITH A PLAN 
After the plan was decided, Nelka blasted the car’s undercarriage and frame while Milburn cleaned it up with a wire wheel. For the next 18 months, Milburn worked tirelessly on evenings, weekends and holidays in every season and weather (and even in a lean-to during a snowstorm).
Next, the frame and body were trailered back to Milburn’s house. The frame, looking factory new after a fresh coat of POR-15, was placed on a lift in neighbor Kirk McCauley’s garage while the newly primed body was placed onto a home-made dolly in Milburn’s garage. With the motor already out of the car, they completely disassembled it and took it to Johnny Heard, owner of Heard Precision Machine in Callaway. There, Heard machined the entire motor including the block, cylinders, heads, valves, pistons, you name it. After this, McCauley walked Milburn through the reassembly of the motor.
 

Scott Milburn torques the heads on factory original GTO 400-cubic-inch motor in January 2019.

McCauley was the Beltsville Speedway Late Model Sportsman track champion in 1967 and a member of the Maryland Stock Car Racing Hall of Fame. He was also an Automotive Service Excellence certified mechanic and garage owner for 31 years, and therefore able to lead Milburn through the process of installing new brake lines, fuel lines, gas tank and suspension. The body was placed back onto the frame in McCauley’s garage in early 2018.
The transmission was then sent off to Steve Powell at Thoroughbred Transmissions in Laurel to be rebuilt and have a shift kit installed. In primer and ready to go, the next stop was childhood friend Billy Smith’s shop in Hollywood, where the body was painted its original factory Code 26, Lucerne Blue.
Back from paint, McCauley and Milburn reassembled the front clip of the car and reattached the hood, bumpers and fenders. A used GTO driver fender had been acquired in Texas that had survived a television episode of “Misfit Garage,” where the rest of that GTO was run over by a tank.
Next, the car was taken to Kenneth Thompson at Upholstery by Tattoo in Upper Marlboro for hush mat and a new interior. Kevin Murphy of Murphy’s Custom Exhaust in Welcome installed the new Flowmaster exhaust system all the way from the manifolds to the dual exhaust tips jutting out from both sides of the rear end.
Finally, good friend Rick Hayes at Rick’s Auto Body in Sandgates oversaw the final cut and buff, gap adjustment and installation of chrome accents on the car, polishing off a dream almost five years in the making.
 
MISSION ACCOMPLISHED
Milburn laughs today, thinking back. As a teen, he tormented his mom by bringing home derelict muscle cars which ended up as lawn ornaments. Although well-intended, he lacked the know-how or money to get them on the road again.
Now in his late 50s, Milburn has taken almost five years, with a tremendous amount of help from his friends, to rebuild a derelict 1971 GTO. He is very thankful to all of his friends for their assistance and is particularly thankful to neighbor Kirk McCauley who mentored, directed and worked with him on the lift in McCauley’s garage for the better part of three years.
Milburn is also especially thankful to his wife Vickie for her patience, understanding and support allowing her over-the-hill husband to now re-live his youth. After these many years, he finally finished a car restoration.
In the end, humility, expertise, determination and nostalgia have culminated into a final, special product. And when asked about his favorite car now, Scott Milburn may just have a new answer – the one that takes him back to 17 again. •