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The History of the Shifters


Beginning in 1957 a group of young Mendocino County men with a passion for cars and a community minded spirit began to try to organize a car club in Willits.  To understand the difficulties encountered in forming a car club in 1958 one needs to understand the social climate of 1958.  Young men driving in modified loud cars wearing tee shirts and Levi’s, with duck tail hair styles were going to be frowned upon by most members of society and quickly labeled as trouble makers and delinquents.  For any car club to survive, acceptance by society and the support of the “City Fathers” and the local community was a must.  The following story provides insight as to how the Shifters Car Club was born, its strategy for survival and how it has evolved into today’s Shifters.  The story is as follows:


                      The Early Years (1958 - 1968)                                   


Membership in a car club would allow these young men to hang around with peers, and work on and drive supped up customized cars.  Early local efforts produced a club named the Moonlighters.  Not very well organized they struggled and began to falter.  Some of the Moonlighters and some other young men met on a cool night in Nov 1958 at the home of Ed Seaton.  This time the chemistry was right.  The Shifters Car Club was born.  Winter was coming and the meetings were moved to Butch Butcher’s house because it was closer to town and easier to get to.  Initial election of officers and the formulation of By-Laws also began early.  The first President was Ed Seaton, the first Treasurer was Butch Butcher and the first Sergeant at Arms was Kurt Schissle.  Quickly establishing By-Laws was the idea of member Bob Krch.  The lack of a permanent club house required the meetings to move from officer’s house to officer’s house.  Some early meetings were also held at the Union 76 Bulk Plant on E San Francisco St.  Estimates had between 8 and 12 guys attending the first meeting.  The Shifters emblem of the transmission was derived from member Dub Hunters Red 40 Willys Coupe because he said he was always missing shifts.  The club original colors were black and white with the change to red and white coming very early.  Member Bill Temple was instrumental in the effort to get club jackets for the Club.  They cost about $35 to $45.  Early on, the Club started a newsletter.  This newsletter provided to members a sense of belonging and allowed those who had left the club to join the Service or had moved a sense of what was going on with the Club.  The initial membership of the Shifters consisted mostly young men, some still in High School.  They were wise beyond their years.  Most had jobs.  Some were newly married and were just starting families.  Acceptance by the public was necessary for survival.  These young men knew that success of this Club would require them to stand tall and set examples that couldn’t be denied or questioned.  Belonging to this Club had to be an honor.  Dragging a Shifters plate behind one’s car needed to garner respect and confidence.  People would need to respect the Shifters members because they stood for something special.  When you saw a Shifters member fear shouldn’t be your first thought.  How could this happen in the social climate of 1958?  For starters membership was limited, and requirements stringent.  A six month probationary period was put in effect.  Members meeting club expectation stayed on those that didn’t moved on.  Behavior not becoming to the Club couldn’t be tolerated.  The expectations set for members had to be high and performance even higher.  Rigid enforcement of these By-Laws would ensure that the Club had integrity and provided to the community an asset that could not be denied.  Performance of community assistance was high on the list of Shifter priorities.  The city Police quickly became supporters and actually attended meetings.  The City of Willits and the “City Fathers “also became supporters.  Shifter meetings were held weekly and attendance was mandatory.  Being a Shifter Member meant that cars and the club were the top priorities in your life.  Because of the prestige that Shifter membership carried the waiting list was very long.  Hopefuls signed up and waited for someone to leave.  During the early years the Shifters philosophy led the club to be involved in numerous events that were a service to the public.  The Club offered auto safety checks to anyone who would bring their car to the High School parking lot.  This service was free; however a donation was available for the citizen who wished to make a contribution to the club.  These checks included lights, brakes, exhaust, wipers etc.  These Safety checks are believed to have influenced the safety program adopted by the California Highway Patrol and still in use today.  The Shifters had a float in the 4th of July parade every year.  Themes usually centered around gas and alcohol not mixing.  For example one year a Studebaker wrapped around a telephone pole was mounted on a truck and entered in the parade.  The Shifters also volunteered to help in the building the Chamber of Commerce float, establishing a positive working relationship with local business owners.  Several Clubs sponsored Dances were given every year.  A Valentine’s Day dance was sponsored and ran with proceeds donated to the March of Dimes.  These dances were also held in summer months to provide the youth of Willits some wholesome activity.  Local bands were utilized if possible with the dances held in the Park Pavilion.  Each Christmas the Club organized a toy drive, gathering toys, repairing and reconditioning them as necessary to make sure that needy children got something for Christmas.  The Club also organized a food drive and passed out food baskets to the needy folks in the area.  The Club sponsored and ran car shows in Ukiah that drew numerous cars from all over the state.  A beauty contest was even held as a part of the shows.  The Clubs reputation was growing in 1960 they were approached by the owner of the ambulance service about taking it over.  Representatives of the Willits City council concurred.  The City offered the following deal:  They would provide the ambulances and operational funding for gas, maintenance and upkeep.  The Club would establish a duty roster, and assume responsibility for daily operation of the ambulance.  The members were to be provided with basic First Aid training, coordinated through the local Red Cross representative Nellie Corbit.  The instructor was Lloyd Elliot.  Ambulance calls were controlled by the Police in these years therefore the Police would have to know where the Shifter that was on ambulance duty was at all times.  Fees collected in performance of the ambulance service were to be split one half to the Club Treasury, one fourth to the driver and one fourth to the attendant.  Remember that Willits was a small town.  Duty on the ambulance could mean that the victim you were going to transport to the hospital or morgue might just be a friend or relative.  The emotional impact of this line of work is recognized in today’s environment as devastating.  Counseling sessions and debriefing work, etc. is required for today’s emergency workers, yet these young, undertrained men did an outstanding job.  The City also offered the old Fire House on Wood Street to the Shifters as a $1.00 per year club house if the Club took over the ambulance service.  The Club membership accepted the terms and the ambulance service was born.  The ambulances were quickly repaired.  The Club then went to work modifying the building to accommodate their needs.  A meeting room was built with seating to accommodate 40 people.  Space was made in the Club house for members to work on their cars.  The Club didn’t have any tools so each member brought his own.  Limits were set as to how long you could have your car in the shop.  Early supporters of the Club also included Willits Auto Parts and Swift Auto Parts.  The level of community support for this Club was clear and is represented by the method of acquisition of seating for the Club house.  The seats were actually pews donated by the Baptist Church just down the street.  Along with the pews came the reverend Chuck Woodward, who became the Clubs unofficial spiritual advisor.  The Club also inherited a guardian angel in the person of Ed Pietrzak.  He owned and operated the beauty shop next door to the Club house.  His attendance and oversight was appreciated by the Club.  He could be seen at the Club house just hanging with the guys almost daily.  The fire house had an old jail complete with cells.  These were removed and a room installed to accommodate a pool table.  Members were there all the time, just hanging, playing pool or working on their cars.  Times were good.  The ambulances were an early 50’s Cadillac that was originally assigned to the United States Air Force, which had been acquired as surplus and a late 50’s Chevrolet Panel.  Eventually a third ambulance was added.  An anonymous donor thru the City donated a Buick to the service.  The Club went to LA to pick the thing up.  The trip was uneventful however it turned out the Buick had a bad frame, a bad engine and a bad transmission.  Stories about the adventures of the Club while running this service range from funny to horrifying.  From deadly accidents to the birth of babies.  They saw it all.  When the call came you had to go.  Members, who were still in high school, were on the roster.  The school accommodated, allowing them to leave school to perform ambulance duty.  The Shifters had an unwritten policy that fees were collected from persons that could afford it, however if a person didn’t have resources or insurance to cover the ambulance fee, the bill was prepared but somehow it didn’t get mailed.  The ambulance service remained a Club function until 1965.  The revenue generated by this service purchased a lot of tools for the club, financed the building of a club roadster, pizza parties, drag strip fee’s and other recreational opportunities.  A wood cutting project provided funding for a Shifter Club trip to Pomona Drag Strip.  Junk cars were not allowed in the Club.  Each member had to have an insured car.  Shifter member’s cars were subject to regular inter-club safety inspections.  Infractions were not tolerated.  During the early years modification of cars was mandatory.  Modifications to drive trains to make them faster, modification to the bodies to slick them up i.e. frenching the headlights, removal and leading of chrome and door handles etc. were all encouraged.  Shifters cars were required to have at least five modifications to qualify as Club cars.  Points were awarded for each modification to member cars with a trophy awarded annually to the owner.  Tickets from the police were accompanied by fines from the Club.  Continued problems meant dismissal from the Club.  When a member left the Club, the Shifter emblem was stripped off the jacket, the Shifter drag plate removed from their car and both returned to the Club.  These rules were so strictly enforced that one sitting Club President was ousted from the Club for one year for repeated violations.  The Shifters participated in a bowling league.  During the summers the Club had parties on the coast.  These events as well as the trips to the dray races and dances did involve the families of members.  The Club had a project car spearheaded by member Dub Hunter.  A 1923 bucket “T” with a 283 cubic inch fuel injected Corvette block with a 3-speed stick.  Carburetion varied from month to month from two 4bbls to a Hillibrand Fuel Injection to six 2bbls.  The car would have its fuel delivery system and weight adjusted to move it from A modified class to B modified class depending on where the competition was.  Always fun to take this project car to the drags at the Cotati drag strip.  This strip was a converted airport and was often the scene of 30 Willits car racing.  The Club took home the Club participation trophy on several occasions.  Christmas tree starts were still in the future for this strip, which used a flag start.  The Club also raced at Half Moon Bay Raceway and Somoa Raceway.  Beginning in 1966 insurance problems forced the city to move the Shifters out of the clubhouse they had occupied for five years.  The new clubhouse was located, an abandoned barn on HWY 20 about a mile west of HWY 101.  Rent was now a Club burden.  The ambulance service was assumed by a private company.  Willits was a wood mill town.  In those days the mills were in operation and sawdust covered everything.  Carts, tools, workbenches and every nook and cranny were always covered with a nice layer.  Three years later a fire that was determined to be spontaneous combustion of rags destroyed the clubhouse and most of the Shifters tools and some member’s cars.  Some members speculated that a welding spark into the sawdust behind a workbench might have actually started the fire.  Two jack stands and a floor jack borrowed by Ed Seaton were at his house when the fire happened were the only surviving tools.  The original members were getting older and life’s responsibilities grew greater every year.  Families and their related social pressures, home maintenance and growing job responsibly combined with the lack of desire of the younger members began to take their toll.  The Club disbanded in 1968 with disbursement of the remaining funds among the active members.  During the ten year run, the accomplishments of the Club were significant.  The Club was written up in the November 1960 edition of Hot Rod Magazine.  The article highlighted the Shifters approach to car club activities.  The Club also accomplished a significant feat in that they were a charter member of the Nation Hot Rod Association.  This membership carried a significant amount of prestige for the Club, as these memberships were not handed out to anyone who asked.  Stiff qualifications were required. 


                                                The Later Years (1994 – Present)  


During the last years before the Club disbanded a young man with dreams started hanging around the Shifters clubhouse.  A passion for cars consumed young Dave Bouthillier.  Not yet sixteen, no driver’s license, no car, but the future surely held a membership in the Shifters for him.  He spent as much time as he could, handing the guys wrenches, sweeping the floors or anything else he could do to help.  Then in 1968 the unthinkable happened.  The Car Club he aspired so much to be a part of was no longer in existence.  He was devastated.  However the seed had been planted.  Cars were never far from his life.  During High School he worked part time jobs for local Auto Parts dealers maintaining his connections to cars.  A stint with the Navy took him away from Willits.  He returned and purchased the auto parts store on the south end of town but hot rodding was put on the back burner because of family interests.  Then in the early 90’s he held an event in the Little Lake Auto Parts parking lot.  Was there any local interest in old hot rods?  The local response was terrific.  The idea of restarting a local Car Club was put into action.  A full year of research was done, rewickering the original Club By-Laws to bring them up to current standards and laws while retaining as many of the old laws as possible.  Members of the original club were invited to participate in the planning.  Input from all was accepted.  These new By-Laws were reviewed by lawyers and were finally ready.  What was the Club going to do today? Things had changed a bit since the 50’s.  Community and family values have changed dramatically.  The Club would have to be oriented toward being a Hobby not a life style as it was in 1958.  Remember that early members were kids; today’s members would be a more mature and older population with different values and less time to devote.  Membership criteria had to be modified and made family friendly.  Meetings were to be held monthly instead of weekly.  However some things needed to remain intact.  Member recognition was made an important part, with awards given for community involvement and opportunities for displaying the old cars that are so proudly maintained by them.  Reproduction of original Shifters Drag Plate and Club Jackets were painstakingly made.  The Shifters foundation of Community involment had to be retained.  Finally the groundwork resulting from a year’s worth of hard work and planning was done and the time was right.  The initial meeting of the New Shifters was held in December 1994.  The Shifters Car Club was alive again.  Today’s Club is indeed a new Club with old values mixed in.  The current Shifters Car Club represents approximately 85 members and includes a variety of cars, (pre 1970) and owners.  Monthly events designed to get owners in their cars are planned.  Cruises through the Valley, trips attend local festivals/car shows etc. are just examples of the fun that can be had.  The club works with the local Chamber of Commerce each year in the Production of the Bob Hansen Car show/Annual Willits Car Show & Community Festival held on Memorial Day weekend.  Club Scholarships are awarded annually to deserving students interested in furthering their education in the Technical fields.  Shifters cars can be seen in car shows all through the Redwood Empire.  Joint events are held with other area clubs, i.e. the Early Iron Car Club of Ukiah and the Mendocino Mustangs located in Redwood Valley.  Monthly newsletters keep the membership informed of Club happenings.  A Club website www.willitshifters.com also offers everyone a peek into the activities of the Club.  Pictures of Club events, parades, member’s restoration projects etc. are available for public viewing.  A current club project involves the restoration/conversion of a 1954 Ford into a Police car, identical to the one used by Willits in 195.  This car will represent current law enforcement officials in parades, fundraisers and anti-drug programs.  The mural painted on the Little Lake Auto Parts building is of much interest.  Dave spent a significant amount of time and effort getting approval of the Willits City Council for the project.  Historical proof was required that the events depicted on the mural were a significant part of Willits History.  They were the mural, which took over one year to paint, represents both the old Shifters Car Club, the ambulance car etc. As well as the generation car Club, its cars etc.  The split at the tree represents the new and old Shifters.  That kid, who had dreams of one day being a Shifter, well, he finally made it.  A new generation of kids, looking at the old cars as they drive by now can also have that dream.

Drafted by Bob Hagan

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