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Body (and Soul) Work : As inmates restore classic cars to top condition, they work on a few of their own flaws too.

July 15, 1993|PAUL DEAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

INDIAN SPRINGS, Nev. — Jerry Johnson the lifer and Dan Law the sex offender and Charlie Clark the tattooed burglar will be spending a weekend at the Lodge at Pebble Beach.

Not in person, exactly. Nevada doesn't allow hard timers to visit Monterey. But the trio will be there in spirit through the perfect gleams of a 1931 Duesenberg they and other state prisoners are restoring from rusted, rotted pieces, and have brassily entered in next month's eminent and very snooty Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance.

European and Asian collectors air freight their automotive beauties to this annual pageant on the Peninsula. On a lawn overlooking the Pacific on any show day will be about $200 million in dowager Delahayes, pristine Packards, mighty Mercedes and those original British royals, Bentley and Rolls-Royce.

Ralph Lauren's Bugatti has won Pebble Beach. So has Jay Leno's Duesenberg. Charlie the second-story man says now it's the turn of two dozen inmates from the Southern Desert Correctional Center, undergraduates in a progressive program to rebuild flawed men by rebuilding broken cars.

"The Duesenberg is going to Pebble because people have confidence in us," says Clark, a primer-powdered gray ghost after dry sanding the car's fire wall. "That somebody believes in us, that's the charge."

Clark, 32, started his prison sentence "five years ago Tuesday" and could be behind bars until 2000. He considers rebuilding a 1931 Duesenberg far less demeaning than stamping out license plates for 1993 Hondas.

"Most of us came in here knowing nothing," he says. "But people running this program care about us, teach us and now we get to repay them."

Part of his repayment goes to Richey Clyne, administrator of a collection of 750 classic cars at the Imperial Palace Hotel and Casino in nearby Las Vegas. He also dreamed up the prison program and two years ago made it his personal crapshoot.

Frankly, Clyne doesn't care if the convicts place first or last at Pebble Beach. Let some ego-driven millionaire collector have the cover of Automobile magazine.

"Just having the car accepted (for entry) is victory enough for my guys," he says. "First, third . . . wherever they finish, they will have done their best and that will be good enough."

*

At this desert penitentiary--a cluster of low, dun buildings within a chain-link and barbed-wire perimeter--the clock is running. Fast.

Inmates have only 50 days to finish the masterpiece and have it trucked to Pebble Beach. Their car must be matchless if it is to stand in the company of a dozen other Duesenbergs, most reborn by professional restorers with bottomless budgets.

Last week, the prison entry was in pieces. A chassis, engine and running gear stood naked in one half of the shop. The gutted, unlined body was on jack stands in another. Outside in the heat, fenders were being sanded.

But, says Dan Law, just wait and see.

Every centimeter of the chassis and its straight-eight engine, from aluminum brake drums to brass fittings, has been hand rubbed to silver and gold. Or meticulously painted and baked, then painted again in dove gray and jade green.

It might take two days with a lamb's wool buffer, fingertips and toothbrush to see a face in the brake drum. Doors are done when they are smooth enough for enamel and lacquer. A week. Ten days. However long it takes to turn a pitted, 62-year-old steel panel into a baby's butt.

Law, big and built like a 1938 Cadillac, is six years into a life sentence. The 31-year-old Air Force veteran and corrosion specialist once worked on supersonic fighters. Now he has helped reduce to bare metal and bits a 1915 Winton Three-Quarter Limousine; a 1955 Talbot-Lago Grand Sport from France; a 1931 Bentley Victoria that was poster car for a Northern California auction--and the Duesenberg.

"It's like working with a piece of history," he believes. "Most people don't even get to see these cars, let alone touch them. I get to take them apart, right down to the frame and rebuild them."

Law is rebuilding something else. Self-esteem. Within that, he is finding a tighter sense of the why and what next of his years spent, and years still to serve, in prison. He says it has much to do with others trusting him with a $1-million artifact.

For when a car is done, when it is on public display, "no matter how many years pass, when someone looks at it they are admiring something I have done.

"It gives you a feeling of accomplishment, which isn't something you get often. Especially in here."

*

In earlier decades--when prison was considered punishment before treatment, and Alcatraz the model penitentiary--inmates fought boredom by the marginally lesser drudgery of laundry details or sewing mail sacks.

The emphasis now is on rehabilitation. Industries funded and administered by the private sector have become part of the American penal system. Plasma centers. Mattress plants. Furniture shops.

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