Functional Transportation

‘Frankenstein car’ attracts
lots of attention

Austin, Ind.’s Lewis enjoys building cars ‘from scratch’

AUSTIN, Ind. (April 2016) – It’s alive! Frankenstein is alive and roaming the streets of southern Indiana.
Well, not really. Frankenstein is the brainchild of Donnie Lewis. It is a 100 percent homebuilt 1931 Ford Model A rat rod roadster that he named Frankenstein because it was made from a wide variety of parts he pulled together from flea markets and surplus stores.
“It looks like something built by high school kids,” said Lewis, 44.

Photo by John Sheckler

Austin, Ind.’s Donnie Lewis display his “Frankenstein car,” a rat rod homebuilt vehicle made from all sorts of scrap pieces.

Frankenstein has a Ford V-8 logo above the front grill that is the only original part from a 1931 Ford. He bought it at a swap meet for $5. He built the frame himself, and the rest is from various types of cars, even Saab. Frankenstein’s heart is a 360 small block Chevy engine. Lewis describes himself as a child of the ’70s, so the car also has an eight track player and fuzzy dice.
“Rat rods are mostly put together with whatever anyone had available,” said Lewis. “They became popular after World War I. The focus is on function rather than on being pretty.”
Lewis is a big supporter of the military and used a lot of military surplus items when he built Frankenstein from the ground up. The battery cover is an old World War II bag with metals on it. The military salvage doesn’t stop there.
“There is a World War II canteen that I used as the overflow tank for the radiator,” he said. “A World War II ammo bag is part of the ignition coil belt, and the gear shift knob is an old hand grenade.”
Thankfully, the hand grenade is defused and empty. But it isn’t the only part of the car that occasionally draws the attention of local law enforcement.

Photo by John Sheckler

Donnie Lewis’ rat rod features all sorts of scrap pieces, including road signs as door linings.

“The door panels and fenders are old road signs,” Lewis added. “Men working, speed limit signs – anything I can get. The back fenders are Bogardus Road and Wonder Valley Road in Salem.”
All the signs and other parts have been obtained legally, but he has been pulled over by police four times because of the street signs.
“When a road sign is damaged, it is sold for scrap aluminum,” said Lewis. “I keep the receipts in the car in case I get stopped. There are friends who let me know when street signs I can use are headed to the salvage yard.”
Much of the rust red metal is preserved, including pitting, because Lewis wants it to look old. He always wanted to build a car from scratch but waited until his son, Donnie Jr., was 12 and started showing an interest in some of the parts in the garage.
“He enjoyed it so much that now he is studying aerospace welding in Vincennes College,” Lewis said with pride. “He hopes to make a career of welding and start his own business.”
Donnie Jr. remembers how it started.
“He just had a front grill hanging on the wall and said, ‘Do you want to build a car?’ ” said Donnie Jr. “Now I love welding and everything you can do with it. There are jobs where you can inspect buildings, be an engineer, underwater welding. There are so many things you can do.”
Building Frankenstein has led Lewis to other projects. He is working hard to preserve local history and other Americana. He makes videos for a YouTube channel called “Rat Rods Two Lanes and Neon”
that detail the trips he takes with wife, Tammy, to find abandoned antique gas stations, theaters or other memorabilia along historic highways like U.S. 31.
“I don’t want this stuff lost to memory,” he said. “I want to document it and preserve as much local history as I can. Our YouTube subscribers worldwide love Americana.”
For Lewis, U.S. 31 and Americana starts less than a mile from his home.
“U.S. 31 opened in 1926, the same year as Route 66,” Lewis said. “Last year, Tammy and I couldn’t do it, but this summer we are headed for Route 66 in the rat rod.”
Lewis has also has written a book about his travels, and he and his wife and daughter, Kaitlyn, are planning their vacation along historic highways. Lewis will need to do all the driving in the rat rod.
“I am a short person. I can’t reach the petals,” Tammy said. “The seat is from a minivan that he cut and welded to make fit, but it doesn’t fit my short legs.”
She is very proud of her husband’s accomplishments on the car and for the family.
“On the wall in our living room he has just about every place we have been,” she said. “Our son loved every minute he could go out there to work on the car. That is why he is going to college. It inspired him You don’t hear of too many fathers doing that. That is what a lot of families are missing.”
Frankenstein is legal for driving on streets and highways but also legal to drive at higher speeds than Lewis travels in his daily job as a school bus driver.
“I am into high performance,” he said. “Frankenstein is certified legal for drag racing, and I often race at Ohio Valley Drag Way south of Louisville and other drag strips. My last run was 77 mph in 1/8 mile. My friends say they would not drive a car built from junk and definitely not race it.”
His wife also has concerns about the racing but loves the road trips.
“I always think he is crazy, but that is just me,” she said. “My husband is a very smart guy. He can do a lot. I just like going on the road. I’m more afraid when he goes drag racing.”
Lewis now has a new project started – a truck that matches Frankenstein but with the steering wheel on the right side.
“I don’t want this to be typical. I want it to be like a total jalopy that a kid would put together,” he laughs. “I am a bit different if you can’t tell.”

Lewis seldom stops the car without someone coming and asking to take a photo, but the easiest way to get a closer look at his work is to visit the YouTube channel: “Rat Rods Two Lanes and Neon.”

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