When Riverdale’s Randy Gallop first laid his eyes on the charred and twisted metal of the burned out 2010 Chevy Camaro, he didn’t know what to do with it.
“It was so bad I didn’t think I’d be able to bring it back,” Gallop said recalling the moment he saw the car three summers ago.
Inspired by a documentary about the famed Tuskegee Airmen, the 52-year-old car builder forked over $500 for the heap and decided to build a rolling tribute to history.
Three years of late nights and weekend work - and about $70,000 later, Gallop finished the project just in time for Veteran’s Day. The once burned-out pile of junk has been transformed into an 800 horsepower beast that is a four-wheeled replica of the P-40 Warhawk flown into combat during World War II by the famed black flying squadron.
“I don’t fly so the closest thing I could build that would fly is a fast car,” Gallop said.
Complete with the Tuskegee Airmen’s signature red tail and shark’s teeth grill, the car will travel the country, he said, collecting at least 5,000 signatures of active and retired military personnel. So far he has just over 60 signatures, including a half dozen from surviving Tuskegee Airmen and their crew.
“I did this for my friends and family members who served in the military,” said Gallop, who did not serve in the military.
The tribute car will be on display today in Jasper at the Piedmont Mountainside Hospital. The hospital is hosting a big celebration for veterans.
“That aircraft always had a special place in my heart,” said Gallop, who owns an Atlanta firm that services medical equipment for hospitals. “I always liked the shark teeth they’d draw on the aircraft. It was just one of those aircraft that if I was a pilot, I would have loved to learn how to fly.”
The Tuskegee Airmen were a select group of black pilots who helped break the military color barrier. Their service and exemplary performance during World War II helped persuade President Harry S. Truman to integrate the armed forces after the war.
On Tuesday morning, Milton Crenchaw stopped by to see the car and sign it. At 96, he is one of only two original Tuskegee Airmen flight instructors still alive.
“I like it. It’s fantastic,” said Crenchaw, who lives with his daughter Dolores Crenchaw Singleton on the Henry County side of Lake Spivey.
The car features WWII airplane-style rivets, simulated airplane gauges on its dashboard, and actual bullet holes in the driver’s seat. Military dog tags cover the holes where the car’s side mirrors were mounted.
The Camaro also bears a large 78 - the number on the airplane flown by retired Col. Charles McGee, a Tuskegee Airman and a career Air Force officer. McGee holds an U.S. Air Force record of 409 fighter combat missions flown in World War II, Korea and Vietnam. Gallop is planning to get the 95-year-old McGee’s signature as well. McGee, who flew a total of 6,308 hours, lives in Maryland.
“This is important right now. Our country needs this,” said Fayetteville resident Ennis Laney, who stopped by to see the car. “We have differences of opinion but we’re American.”
Laney said the car caused him to remember a high school friend, Johnny Bryson, who was killed in Vietnam during the 1968 Tet Offensive.
“This means a lot,” said businessman Ronald Hampton who served in the army from 1966-1971. “This is a great tribute.”
Hampton also signed the car.