You’ve heard of muscle shirts, muscle beaches and muscle cars but have you ever heard of a muscle Jeep? That’s what Juan Gonzalez will be driving to Cruise Night on May 25th. Last summer, Juan bought a 1987 Jeep Wrangler and spent many months sooping it up. He replaced the Jeep’s six-cylinder engine with a 650 horsepower Chevy 350. He also put in a new transmission. When Juan turns the key, the engine thunders to life with a deep throaty roar.
Why a Jeep? “I wanted to do something different,” Juan said, “Muscle cars are always Chevys.” Juan has yet to drive the contraption and hasn’t come up with a name for it. But he was sure excited when he saw the banner announcing Cruise Night.
Juan and his family moved to Forest Park 10 years ago and in the time-honored tradition of our town, became an “alley mechanic.” When we first moved here 28 years ago, the neighborhood was dotted with gear heads working in their garages. Guys like Juan were commonplace and a great resource for non-automotive persons like myself.
The day I met Juan, I was sitting in my car, fruitlessly trying to start it up, when Juan’s wife, Gloria, happened to walk by. She said some welcome words, “My husband fixes cars. We live on the next block.” Juan replaced the fuel filter and it was the beginning of a beautiful friendship. Like Juan said, “I like getting my hands dirty. I help stranded motorists anytime I can.”
Juan never had any formal automotive training. He learned how to fix cars from his stepfather when he was growing up in Humboldt Park. Jose Rivera was a patient teacher and Juan learned a lot from watching him.
When Juan was 14, he traded his Schwinn bike for a rusted out Ford Festiva. Working on it for several months helped him to “figure out cars.” He sold it and used the proceeds to buy a Toyota. After Juan got his driver’s license at 16, he started racing Toyotas. He also began specializing in repairing imports.
Rebuilding the Wrangler, though, is the biggest project Juan ever tackled. All winter he labored in his garage. The result is a Frankenstein-like creation, with huge headers rising out of the engine compartment. On May 25th, he’ll rumble up to Constitution Court and be assigned a parking place to show it off.
Cruise Night seems like a natural fit for Forest Park. We have many car enthusiasts in town. Even non-enthusiasts like me; enjoy looking at vintage vehicles, admiring sleek designs and listening to powerful engines. We might even see an example of Juan’s favorite kind of car – the 1970 Chevelle. And if Juan should have any trouble starting his muscle Jeep, I’ll tell him to check the fuel filter.