GREEN — Dick Thornley has been behind the wheel of a car since he was 12 years old. He’s had his head under the hoods of car working on engines for about as long.
“It’s just a matter of keeping them going,” he said of his interest in cars. “I’ve tinkered on cars since I was a teenager.”
Thornley grew up in Boulder Creek, a sawmill town in the Santa Cruz Mountains of California. At age 12, with an application signed by neighboring parents, he got a special driver’s license that allowed him to drive a carload of kids to the nearest school bus stop. A couple of years later, he was given his first car, a 1927 Model T Ford. It was a gift because it barely ran. But under the guidance of his stepfather, caterpillar mechanic Claude Nutcher, the teen got the car running smoothly.
Thornley is now 84 years old. He figures he has worked on and customized 300 to 400 classic cars through his lifetime. Two of those cars sit in the driveway of his Green-area home. One is a 1936 Ford DeLuxe 4-door Humpback Sedan. The other is a 1969 Chevelle Malibu Yenko Clone. The ’36 Ford earned the People’s Choice award at the 2013 Function 4 Junction Show ’N Shine in Junction City, an event that drew about 400 vehicles. The plaque came home and was added to a 40-foot-long shop wall that already featured well over 100 awards and trophies that Thornley’s classic cars have won over the years.
Thornley purchased the ’36 Ford at a swap meet in Grants Pass about 10 years ago. Thornley had to put it on a trailer to get it to his home shop. It took four or five years to complete the car’s renovation and get it rolling on the road. There have been a couple of offers to buy the Ford, but Thornley has turned them down.
He bought the Chevelle in Roseburg. The car ran, but needed a new transmission. Thornley did that work.
“I don’t want to part with these two cars,” he said. “I don’t want any more projects.”
Although he’s easing back on shop work on cars, he still likes to consult with others on car projects. He also likes to drive his autos.
He’ll have the Ford and the Chevelle back on the road this week, participating in several Graffiti Weekend events.
“Graffiti is fantastic,” said Thornley, a member of the Stray Angels Car Club of Roseburg. “I wouldn’t miss it.”
He hasn’t, having driven a vintage car in all of the prior Graffiti cruises. He’ll also lead a group of cars Thursday on a visit of the Roseburg Veterans Affairs Medical Center campus and a couple of retirement homes. An Army veteran, Thornley enjoys sharing his passion with other vets.
Pino Tafolla, the owner of Pino’s Paint and Metal Work of Roseburg, described Thornley’s expertise in working on old cars as “phenomenal.”
“I’ve never seen anybody so involved in automobiles as much as Dick Thornley,” Tafolla said. “He just loves the automobile world. His knowledge is supreme, absolutely supreme. It’s phenomenal to see somebody with that much enthusiasm put that much energy into those cars.”
Thornley, got into the mechanic business full time as a young adult, eventually opening up five transmission shops in and around San Jose, California. But then he and his wife, Joyce, began looking to move from California. When they saw a newspaper ad from someone ready to trade a house in Sutherlin for a house in San Jose, they were quick to look into the possibility. They had been to Douglas County once previously during a vacation.
The couple researched the trade, liked what they found and made the deal. They sold the transmission shops, making the move north in 1967.
Thornley quickly started A-1 Transmissions in Sutherlin, then moved the business to Roseburg five months later. He also opened A-1 Auto Sales. In 1980, he sold the transmission business. He retired from everyday employment in 1999, when he sold the auto sales business. That left him more time to restore and/or customize old cars.
Don Robertson, the owner of Don’s Powder Coating of Roseburg, has worked with Thornley on numerous cars over the past 30 years.
“He loves the old cars,” Robertson said. “He’s good at what he does.”
Thornley said he enjoys the challenge of analyzing an old car and then visualizing what he wants it to look like.
“Then you go to work on it to make it real,” he said.
Thornley said he’s done the mechanics, body work and painting over the year. Upholstery is the only work he’s consistently contracted out.
Thornley’s son, Jerry, has assisted with painting and detailing.
“Dad excites others to work on cars,” Jerry Thornley said. “He’ll meet somebody and get them enthused about working on a car. He’s really modest about the work he’s done.”
In addition to Graffiti, Thornley and his 1936 Ford and 1969 Chevelle participate in another dozen or so classic car shows each year. He drives his cars to shows around Oregon and Washington rather than towing them in trailers.
“The cars are meant to be driven and enjoyed so I drive them there,” he said. “If you can’t drive them on the highway, what good are they? They just sit around for show?
“I drive mine year-round, even on rainy days,” he added.
• News-Review Features Editor Craig Reed can be reached by calling 541-957-4210 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.