After a half-century single ownership, the 1970 Trans-Am was exquisitely reborn in a famed restoration business not far from home
Few things seem further apart than the gleaming restoration of a red-white-and-blue 1970 AMC Javelin Trans-Am and the “plain” people of the Amish religion, with their horse-and-buggy lifestyle. Yet here it is, a renowned example of the rare muscle car in concours condition that is inextricably linked with the Amish of northern Indiana.
The Javelin is a spectacular coupe that has received the full-monty treatment from one of the most-esteemed restoration shops in the Midwest, LaVine Restorations of Nappanee, Indiana, best-known for its award-winning pre-war antique and classic cars, many of them prepared for the lawn of the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance.
Again, a strange juxtaposition of ingredients, but which came together to the delight of everyone involved. And oddly, this exceptional Javelin has never strayed far from home.
Just 100 of the Javelin Trans-Ams were produced by AMC for 1970 in celebration of the Kenosha, Wisconsin, company’s unexpected success in Trans-Am racing competition. This was the year that Penske Racing and Mark Donohue defected from Chevrolet to AMC for the SCCA Trans-Am series, bringing victories and acclaim to the Javelins.
The 1970 Javelin Trans-Ams were not homologation cars but outright muscle cars designed for the street, each of them in the distinctive Matador Red, Frost White and Commodore Blue paint scheme of the factory race-team cars, with spoilers front and rear and equipped with the 390cid performance V8, heavy-duty suspension and brakes, and other unique features.
Many of the 100 Trans-Ams coupes wound up competing on race tracks and drag strips around the country.
“They are the rarest street-legal AMC ever built,” noted Travis LaVine, manager of LaVine Restorations that his parents, Eric and Vivian LaVine, founded more than 40 years ago.
“They were actually an AMC promotion to draw people into dealerships and get excited about AMC as a brand and the factory racing program.”
The special Javelin was something of a departure for the restoration company, which generally specializes in antique and classic cars from Packard, Cadillac, Bugatti, Duesenberg and such, Travis LaVine pointed out, although they also have restored muscle cars, though rarely to this high degree or with this much enthusiastic involvement. Or with so much acclaim when displayed at car shows.
“Honestly, this thing when it debuted at the Muscle Car and Corvette Nationals (in November), to say it drew a crowd would be an understatement,” he said. “Everywhere this thing goes now, young people, old people, it doesn’t matter, it’s just an exciting car, so out there with the red-white-and-blue paint scheme.
“It has a very powerful stance to it. It just exudes the muscle car look.”
The Javelin was brought to the LaVine shop by Fritz Helmuth, who has owned the car since the early 1970s. And that is where the Amish connection comes in.
“I grew up Amish, horse and buggy,” Helmuth said. “My parents were horse and buggy and my brother and sisters still are horse and buggy.”
In Amish tradition, when a young person turns 16, he or she is sent out to experience the “outside” world of modern technology and social mores, and to make acquaintances with the non-Amish, referred to as “English,” and decide whether to go back to being Amish.
So, Helmuth set out to discover whether he wanted to be modern or return to the Amish church and all that entailed.
Meanwhile, a non-Amish fellow named Larry Yoder wandered into a small AMC dealership in nearby Nappanee and purchased the 1970 Javelin Trans-Am brand new.
“He was dating my first cousin, which was how I got to know him,” Helmuth recalled. “And here he comes in this red-white-and-blue Javelin. I liked it.”
This is where the story diverges, with Helmuth deciding he wanted to remain outside and Yoder opting to become Amish – for love, naturally.
“He got serious about my cousin and wanted to join the Amish church,” Helmuth said. “They have to get rid of what they call the worldly stuff. You have to get rid of all your English clothes, your watches, radios and cars, anything that’s worldly.
“Of course, he had to get rid of his car. I told him, I wouldn’t mind buying that.”
Helmuth offered Yoder $2,500 for the AMC, he said, but Yoder was holding out for $3,000. Helmuth decided to wait him out, even though it would take four or five months for him to go through special classes to get baptized.
“I was just waiting, hoping that no one else would know that he was selling it,” he said. “Then lo and behold, before he was going to be baptized, he said, ‘I got to sell this car.’ So I got it for $2,500.”
He bought the car in late 1970, when Yoder had owned it for less than a year. Helmuth was working at his parents’ sheet-metal shop, which he still operates with much success, and after buying the Javelin, he opted for tweaking it for track performance.
“I started drag racing with it. I put traction bars on, slicks, headers,” he said. “Oh my, I’d just hammer down. I had a lot of fun with it.”
He not only took the car to local tracks but became a hell-raiser on the street, he said, and well-known to the local police.
“It just got to be a hassle because it was so loud and it had air shocks, and I’d get constantly stopped by the cops,” he said. “I knew them by their first names. They’d see me coming. They told me, ‘you can’t hide with that car’.”
In 1984, married and with a family – two boys and two girls – he parked the Javelin in one of the company warehouses, and there it would remain for the next quarter century.
Around 2010, Helmuth happened to read in a muscle-car magazine an article about the Javelin Trans-Ams, where he learned of the rarity and desirability of his car. The article included identification numbers to check for authenticity, which he did to confirm that his Javelin Trans-Am is indeed the real deal.
From there, he got serious about restoring it, he said, although he was initially thwarted by shops that failed to do what they said they’d do. He had heard of the LaVines, Helmuth said, because of their work on Hudsons for the nearby Hostetler museum, and approached them to put his AMC back on the road.
Initially, he was again discouraged.
“They were not really interested because it was a muscle car and they were more used to Duesenbergs and things like that,” he said.
But he prevailed, and once the LaVine people became aware of the rarity of the car and got to know Helmuth, they started work on the Javelin.
“When we started on this project many years ago, Fritz just wanted a driver,” Travis LaVine recounted. “He really came into wanting to do this as a concours-level restoration about two years ago, when he understood how important the car itself was. From what we can tell, there are only 35 or 40 of these still around.”
The AMC project also speaks to one of Travis LaVine’s passions, the next generation of collector car enthusiasts. At 34, he is right on the cusp of the new crop of collectors, and wants the special cars to speak to them.
“They’re all unique and special,” LaVine said of the cars. “But this one does it for me – every car has a story, and that’s really important for getting the next generation involved, is telling stories and having good story tellers to bring life to these cars.
“When you spend time with Fritz and you hear the story of this car, his life with it, it just adds a little bit of soul to the vehicle. And that as much as anything else – the color, the uniqueness, the power, the sound – that part is probably one of the most endearing qualities of the vehicle because, really, seeing his face light up when he comes in or when he started it up for the first time, I mean, it was priceless.
“That’s one of the things that makes this car so special. He’s a great guy. Fritz comes in here and everybody’s just happy to see him.”
The Javelin has been treated to a complete nut-and-bolt restoration to factory original, with intensive research and as much NOS as possible, just as the LaVines might do for a pre-war Packard (their specialty) or other classic. The shop has restored about 400 cars over 40 years, he said, and those have included other muscle cars, ’50s and ’60s cruisers, street rods and trucks.
“But definitely, the center of mass here is the classics,” LaVine said, rolling off a list of cars currently in the shop: a 1903 curved-dash Cadillac, ’31 auburn, ’36 Packard 12-cyinder all-weather cabriolet, ‘52 Nash Healey, ’28 Lincoln town car, ’63 split window Corvette, and a 1931 L29 Cord that was an Auburn-Cord-Duesenberg concours class winner. “So we do handle quite an array of vehicles.”
Lavine told the story of the car that put his parents’ shop on the map: a 1928 Minerva from Belgium that won Best of Show at the Pebble Beach Concours in 1987 (“I was the ripe old age of 3 at that point”), the first time the LaVines had entered the famed Monterey event.
“The first time we were invited to Pebble Beach and we were good to go, we won the whole thing,” he noted. “It was quite an experience for my parents.”
While the Javelin Trans-Am now seems about perfect, winning the top “Gold” prize awarded by the AMC Owners Association, Hemuth wants to go further, LaVine said, pursuing a perfect score.
“Now, he wants to chase a perfect 1,000 points,” he said. “We missed by 47 points on our first outing.”
Helmuth, 67, who lives just 40 minutes from the LaVine shop, says he’s had quite a rich experience researching the details of his Javelin and enjoying its acclaim. But more than anything, he’s living the story of what it is and how it came to be in this tight circle of time, place and tradition.
“I’ve had a lot of fun with it,” he said. “Everybody around here knows Fritz and his red-white-and-blue car. It’s a special car, it really is.
“And it’s not like I just bought it. I’ve always had it.”12 comments