When Dale Grimm set out to restore Mr. Stitches, a 1931 Chevy dragster, he knew he had a piece of Frederick history in his hands.
But even after devoting several years of his life to fix the badly burned car, Grimm doesn’t call Mr. Stitches his car. The registration is in his name, but he said he’s just glad Johnnie Gaither is receiving the recognition he deserves around the world.
“The car is his story, not mine. ... I didn’t make the car’s history; I’m just the caretaker of it,” Grimm said. “That’s how I look at it.”
From the outside, Mr. Stitches is an arguably cute-looking car from the ‘30s, catapulting its viewer into the past. Its readiness for the track is heard once its engine, a 406 Dart steel Chevy block that produces 700 horsepower, roars.
Grimm will race the car at the Mason Dixon Nostalgia Drag Race in Boonsboro on June 23.
Gaither bought the original Mr. Stitches in 1941. He raced it throughout the 1950s and 1960s at many strips, including the 75-80 Dragway in Monrovia. After he stopped competing, he still took his beloved car out to local shows.
Patricia Gaither, who was married to Johnnie for 33 years, said her husband was as well-known for his auto-trimming as for his racing. He owned B&G Upholstery in Frederick until it caught fire in 2010.
“He loved that upholstery shop just like he loved his car. “... A lot of people would come to Johnnie and get their car seats fixed. ... Johnnie was good at whatever he did,” Gaither said.
Indeed, Johnnie’s love was strong. When his shop burned down, he ran inside twice in an attempt to save Mr. Stitches, but it was too late.
Andy Sewell is a friend of Johnnie Gaither’s and a fellow member of the original Road Knights, an all-black hot rod club founded in the late 1950s. He was given Mr. Stitches after the fire and was convinced there was no way it could be fixed, Sewell said.
“It was unbelievable, no way it could be back again,” Sewell said. “I heard other people say the same thing, ‘Andy, no way, no way.’ ... [Mr. Grimm] tackled it for eight years, and I just couldn’t believe that it could be done.”
Grimm met Johnnie Gaither in 1976. He worked for a Chrysler dealership that did work with Gaither’s upholstery shop. Grimm, then 16, knew the car behind the name, but never thought he’d own it, he said.
“I walked by the car, I don’t know how many times,” Grimm said. “Just everybody knew who Johnnie Gaither was, I was just some young kid, parts runner. I wasn’t anything at all.”
Grimm, who owns a local auto service and body shop, said he sought help from Steve Proctor to restore the body and paint. Justin and George Reggio of Maryland Performance built the new engine. Wayne Lawson was credited for the internal rollcage and Mark Mead with automatic transmission. Fellow racer Steve Delaughter helped with the car’s mechanical work and Nelson Grimes was responsible for the car’s lettering, Grimm said.
While Grimm set out to make the restored Mr. Stitches as pure and true as possible to the original, he wanted to make it a bit radical to race in 2018, Grimm said.
“I just like big-horsepower motors,” Grimm said. “... We had to do some updates for it if we were gonna race it at the track. ... But everything I did I tried to do it as it was back in the day, as far as the style of the interior, the colors. There’s a lot of nostalgic stuff, the rear bumpers, the old gassers.”
Johnnie died in August 2017 at age 94, after battling Alzheimer’s disease for many years, his wife said. Grimm said that he promised Johnnie that he would get to ride in Mr. Stitches after its restoration, and the two did.
Even though his memory was failing, Johnnie remembered his car, his wife said. She called it the best day her husband had since he entered a nursing home for his dementia.
“The memory that I won’t ever forget ... he smiled and looked around and he realized what that day was,” Sewell said.
Just like he fulfilled his promise last year to take Johnnie out for a ride, Grimm said he intends to race Mr. Stitches back on the Mason-Dixon to honor his old friend.
“It was kinda like a promise that we made to Johnnie that he’d get to take a ride in his car,” Grimm said. “...The tradition of going to race in a car, it’s its heritage. It just means a lot to race the car on the track, not just to me but to a lot of people.”