By Susan Weich
When Jim Hunt saw the Mustang across the parking lot, he only could a collage of colors, but as he moved closer, the design started to take form. He told his wife to grab the camera so she could snap his picture next to it.
Dubbed the American Spirit, the muscle car is covered with 255 pictures depicting the history of American war veterans. The photos are grouped in chronological order, starting with the American Revolution on the back bumper and ending with Operation Iraqi Freedom on the front. The car sports the vanity license plates "LVNFRE," and across the front fender in 14 karat gold are the words "A Tribute To The American Soldier." Owner Scott Lewis said he's spent $80,000 outfitting the car.
The 1971 Mach I Fastback drew a crowd at a Chesterfield car show earlier this month, and Lewis said the car evokes everything from tears to thumbs ups wherever he takes it.
Hunt, 64, of Port Angeles, Wash., served in Vietnam and was in town for a reunion of the Army's 4th Infantry Division.
"This brings back a lot of memories," he said, his voice shaking with emotion. "Not only of when I was there, but when my father and grandfather served."
Lewis, 46, asked Hunt if he wanted a "tour" of the car. When he nodded, Lewis took him around, explaining the stories behind the images.
Another admirer, Edna Thompson of Florissant, said her late father served in Vietnam. "I'm blown away; it's really a special tribute," she said.
She wondered how Lewis was able to get the car's graphics to look almost 3-D.
Lewis, who lives in O'Fallon, Mo., and owns a computer business there, worked with a graphic designer for 18 months to get the look just right. A mold made sure they knew exactly where the chrome trim started so they wouldn't cut off any photos, and they took painstaking care to ensure that images crossing things like a door jamb lined up.
The photos were printed on a vinyl laminate body wrap because Lewis said air brushing them on the car wouldn't have provided sharp enough detail to see things like soldiers standing on the bridge of the USS Missouri. The wrap was heated up with a blow torch before it was applied to make it more pliable so it could be positioned perfectly over the body's contours.
"Anything less than right would have been unacceptable," Lewis said. "The people depicted on the car take it pretty personal."
Lewis said he tried to use some lesser known photographs on the car, and many of them were gathered from family and friends. Some of the pictures are of his grandfathers, one who served in the Pacific, one who served in the European Theater. Also featured is Lewis' wife, Lynette, with her Army unit, which was stationed in Saudi Arabia during Desert Storm.
The car, which made its debut over Memorial Day weekend, has been all over the Midwest this summer. Lewis drove it in the Hot Rod Power Tour, which started in Des Moines, Iowa, and stopped in seven cities, ending in Mobile, Ala.
Lewis said a lot of people ask him why he designed the car, and he tells them it was his way of saying thanks. Lewis was unable to serve in the military because of a medical condition, but he's grateful for the freedom and security he enjoys in America.
He also has been using the car to raise money for the Fisher House Foundation, a nonprofit organization that provides a home for military families who want to be close to a loved one during hospitalization for an illness or injury. So far, Lewis has raised about $5,000 through donations and sales of T-shirts with the car's image.
John Parlow, 67, of Des Peres, told Lewis at the car show that he had succeeded in making a "wonderfully American" statement.
"I get a good feeling when I look at it; it depicts pride," Parlow said.
"Holidays, birthdays & anniversaries have been celebrated with tears and smiles with people who truly understand what the other person is experiencing."
- Kamryn Jaroszewski