FAIRBANKS, Alaska — Anyone who attends local auctions or visits auto parts stores on a regular basis may be familiar with a lanky, gray stubbled man in glasses and a buffalo-fur vest accompanied by his constant companion — an airedale lab named Willy — and driving one of any number head-turning classic cars.

John Dee McDonald, 69, was born and raised in downtown Fairbanks. He spent part of his adolescence and early adulthood in California before moving back to Fairbanks for good in 1976 to work as a mechanic for Operating Engineers 302.

Today, McDonald spends much of his time buying, repairing and selling automobiles. A truly eclectic Alaskan, two model train sets circle old hood ornaments and coonskin and skunk-fur caps hang from the ceiling of his small 1940s cabin. Old photographs of his grandfather mining at 47 Below Bonanza Creek in Canada’s Yukon Territory share wall space with cylinder heads. Outside, hundreds of license plates decorate his shop, cars stashed seemingly everywhere.

“Everyone that has old cars usually has one. Well, I can’t get enough,” he said.

When it comes to his fleet, McDonald considers himself a “hot-rodder” or “retro-rodder,” as opposed to a restorer. “The guy that can restore them can afford it, and have big mansions to live in. I can’t afford it,” he said. Even if he could afford it, it’s doubtful McDonald would want to pristinely restore cars anyway. He likes to drive his cars, swap parts out and “shift through the gears real fast.”

McDonald’s most recent acquisition is a rare 1948 Diamond-T cab-over-engine car hauler he towed up from Kenai with his son. The bulbous maroon truck is in remarkable condition, he said, but will still require a new water pump and probably an alternator before he can drive it much — a difficult task since there’s only a few access ports to the engine bay.

“I do this every year. Here it is, fall, starting to snow and I get a new car I want to go play with,” McDonald said.

Even though working on his fleet reminds him of polishing up cars in his youth to attract girls, McDonald didn’t start twisting wrenches seriously until he joined the union. At the time he would often ask “What the hell is that thing?” to which he might be warned, “You’ll blow off that big spring and kill yourself.”

On the back of the Diamond-T sits a 1956 Chevy two-door post, “the only one in the yard not for sale.” McDonald said people rarely want to pay what the vehicles are worth.

As he ages, McDonald hopes to continue slowly drawing down his collection. “I sold three cars and one motorcycle (this summer), and I bought two. So I’m one ahead,” he said with a small smirk.


Information from: Fairbanks (Alaska) Daily News-Miner, http://www.newsminer.com

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ROBIN WOOD
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