Taking the Lead

by David Stuursma

I don’t do this often, and maybe I’m making a mistake by telling about it. Oh well, I still recommend it.

Sometimes when I’m traveling away from home, one thing I like to do is to look up the British restoration shops that happen to be around where I’m at and just drop in. I have an easy excuse since I work for Moss, but really, I do it for selfish reasons. It’s fun to see the different shops, and the people are so interesting.

Last year my girlfriend Kim and I were in rural Pennsylvania visiting her family, and of course in the New England area I’m bound to find someone wrenching on old British cars. Sure enough, less than 15 minutes away in the small town of Hanover is Merryman Modifications.

I can hear it now. Some of you reading this are saying, “You work for Moss and you didn’t know Jack Merryman?!!” I know. I need to get out more often.

Jack is a soft-spoken expert. I have a feeling he had more of an edge to him decades ago when he spent a lot more time around racetracks. But now, with 46 years in the business behind him, Jack speaks with a calm, easy-going authority that makes people like me lean in to listen when he talks.

“Now there’s just so many stories to tell about these cars. To me that’s what intriguing,” Jack said right from the start. “I just love knowing these interesting people, and it’s all because of what I do. They have a passion and interest in things, and their life is more than just going to work and coming home, you know?”

We talked about some of his customers and their very unique cars, about how he appreciates an original, correct car but also loves the little nuances people add to make them better or more usable. “If it extends the life of the car into the next decade, it’s probably a good thing,” he said. “I look at it both ways. Like for instance on a race car, it’s correct if it’s good and reliable and fast. If it looks the part, to me that’s correct. It’s not so much that it has to have the original rivets that were in there in 1959. I don’t see that as important. It’s the essence of the car that should be maintained.”

Jack was a very successful racecar builder, including two cars that were AACA Grand National Champions, as well as several other cars winning regional championships. “I felt proud that we were part of that especially given most those cars started out the worst roaches I’ve ever seen in my life,” he said. “What made them winners was the suspension and the handling. I really paid a lot of attention to that. I ran my own car, too, and I won one or two races, but I finished second a ton of times. The thing I found with racing is that people would build a hand grenade car and win once in a while, but they wouldn’t have consistency over the year. I didn’t have a motor failure in something like four seasons of racing.

“Suspension was something that you could do something about without a lot of money, whereas the engine was about how big your wallet was. I spent a lot of time experimenting with spring rates and bump steer, camber angles and stuff like that. There was a bit of a science to it. I read a lot to understand handling, and I put it into practice. Most of our cars were set up softer. Half the tracks we raced were real bumpy, and we had good results. I started studying handling, I guess, when I was a kid. As soon as I got my license I went autocrossing, and I mean literally hundreds of autocrosses. I’d run two or three in a weekend. I had racing slicks that I took with me so I could run in different classes. I just threw them in the back.”

Listening to masters talk of their professions is a treat. Equally interesting is getting to find out about their other interests, and with museum-quality miniature Civil War cannons on display in the shop’s sales area, I didn’t have to pry much to hear about one of Jack’s side hobbies.

“I’ve always been into Civil War history, I guess, because of my proximity to Gettysburg. I met this interesting retired guy, he flew B-26s in Korea as a “bomb-mater” who armed the nuclear weapons. He had a very wild life, and later he got into making Civil War weapon replicas. So I was like, okay well how do you do that? He showed me how to do castings. Okay, well I guess I’ll buy a furnace so I can cast my own aluminum pieces. Now I can make cannons. What else can I make? I made Le-Mans style windshield stanchions for Arnolt Bristols. I made thermostat housings for Elva Couriers. I mean just little things, nothing big, but it’s nice to have a foundry at the house when you think to yourself, ‘Oh, I could use that’ and then just go and make it. Every year I meet some pretty remarkable people, some very talented. They all have their own skill set that’s a little bit different. I think I try to learn a little bit from all of them. Maybe Jack isn’t a bad name from the standpoint that I know I can’t say I’m the best at any of these things, but I can do it.”

Jack, of all the trades you would have been fantastic at, we’re all glad you made your mark in this one. I’m looking forward to seeing you and your crew again next time Kim and I visit her folks. MM

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