When Heather Casto Swindells talked with me about the 1923 T-bucket Roadster her dad and granddad built, we didn’t talk about cam specs, or compression ratio, or horsepower. What Heather spoke about was growing up with the car, losing her dad and the car unexpectedly, and then, miraculously, finding it again. Like many hot rod stories, it’s really about family.
In 1972 Heather’s dad and grandfather started building the Roadster, finishing it two years later, the same year Heather was born.
“They built it from the ground up,” Heather said. “They were blue collar guys working in a can plant in a little town, spending nights after work and weekends doing this project together, while my dad was trying to raise me.”
They outfitted the Roadster with a 327 small block Chevy from a Corvette and fitted it with a Jaguar rear end. The fiberglass body was painted and pinstriped by John Lewis – a local painter who did such good work that his paint job is still on the car.
Heather grew up in Riverbank, California, with her dad as a single parent. As you might expect, the T-bucket was a big part of Heather’s life growing up. Riverbank, which is just outside of Modesto, had an active car scene. George Lucas, the director of the movie American Graffiti, went to high school there and based the movie on that area’s car culture. (Lucas went on to do some other movies after Graffiti that were not car based.)
Even when she was little, Heather helped out with the Roadster. “I would help push it into the garage,” she said. “I’d get to polish the wheels, clean the seats, things like that. Most of the time my dad said I’d end up falling asleep in it.”
Her dad belonged to multiple car clubs. “From the time I was tiny,” Heather told me, “we’d go to car shows and cruises on the weekends. It was such a fun way to grow up.”
At those shows, Heather remembers meeting the Hulk, sitting in the original Batmobile, and seeing the A-team van and KITT, the Knight Rider Firebird. She said it was amazing.
Her Dad’s T-bucket won a few awards, and was featured in a few hot rod magazines. Heather has spent a lot of time recently scouring eBay to try to find those magazines the car had been in. So far, she’s only been able to find one. (If you have a magazine the Roadster is featured in, please feel free to contact GHR and I’ll get you in touch with Heather.)
As an adult, Heather moved to Oregon. In 2003, she moved her dad from California to Oregon as well. The first step in that move was to trailer the Roadster up to Heather’s garage, where it stayed for several years. After what she described “as a series of unfortunate events”, Heather had to remodel her house and moved the roadster back to her Dad’s garage.
There was an understanding with her Dad and her grandfather, who was still living at the time, that the Roadster would go to Heather, and then to her son Scottie (who is 19 now).
Her grandfather had passed away in 2005. Sadly, Heather’s dad passed away unexpectedly in April, 2011 from a heart attack. The car was still in his garage, and Heather started to work with his wife to get the Roadster.
Her dad’s wife was reluctant to turn the car over to Heather. Heather even offered to have the car appraised and pay for it. “To me it wasn’t about money,” Heather said. “It was about something my Dad and grandfather built. And now they were both gone.”
The T-bucket hadn’t been operational since 1994, so it was appraised for $7,500. Heather got the money together but her Dad’s wife was still reluctant to sell the car. Heather contacted a lawyer who told her that since the car was built in California and still had a California title, it fell under that state’s law making it 50% Heather’s and 50% the wife’s.
Technically, Heather should have only had to pay half of the appraised value, but she was still willing to pay the full $7,500. Her Dad’s wife still would not sell. Heather wouldn’t find out until seven years later why.
In May, 2011, Heather called the wife again saying she wanted to come over and pay for the Roadster. Her Dad’s wife told her the car was gone. She had sold it the night before to someone else.
Heather was devastated. She asked who bought the car and for how much. She was willing to pay more than that person paid. But the wife refused to tell her anything more.
Determined to find the T-bucket, Heather was on Craig’s List and eBay every day. She posted signs at local car shops. She went to car shows thinking her Dad’s Roadster might show up. But she was not able to track it down.
She’d gone to the local DMV to file a complaint, but they couldn’t do anything unless the car was stolen, which it was not. She went to the sheriff’s office, but they couldn’t help either.
Despite the setbacks, Heather never gave up hope of finding the Roadster. “I told my kids that we’ll find it someday,” Heather recalled. “I don’t know how, but we will.”
Her faith was rewarded.
It was July 14, 2018. Heather and her daughter were driving to McMinnville, Oregon to visit Heather’s grandmother – her Dad’s mom – when the Roadster drove by them on the other side of the road.
“We’re on the highway going 55 and this car passes me,” Heather recalled. I said to my daughter ‘Oh my gosh, That’s Papa Richie’s car.’”
Heather made a U-turn and followed the roadster until it pulled into a gas station. She parked her car and walked up to the man driving the roadster.
“This is a really nice roadster you have,” Heather told him. “This is going to sound crazy but my dad and my grandfather actually built this car.”
The driver gave Heather a weird look and then she rattled off everything she knew about the car. The Corvette 327, the Jaguar rear end, and all the other technical aspects of the T-bucket she could remember. She showed him the pictures of the car that she had on her phone. He couldn’t believe it.
“I broke down,” Heather said. “I was crying. I honestly couldn’t believe it was happening. We exchanged info and I told him that if he was ever going to sell it, to please call me.”
A little over a year later, in September, 2019, Heather received a phone call. “Heather, this is Joe. I would like to sell the Roadster and I wanted to talk with you first.”
Of course her answer was yes.
Two days later Joe drove the car to Heather’s house. Joe also brought all the paperwork he had on the car, and Heather found out more about what happened to the car in all those years.
Joe had bought it in 2015 from the person who bought it from Heather’s dad’s wife. That person owned a shop and had gotten it running again. Heather had previously learned from the DMV that if there is a dispute about the title of a car there is a 30 day waiting period before it can be sold. Her dad’s wife sold the car on the 31st day after her dad had passed away.
But now, finally, the Roadster was back in her family.
The Roadster is having a little bit of maintenance done at Noah Norwood’s shop, but when that’s done Heather is planning on taking it to some car shows. But first, she’s got to get used to driving it. As much time as she spent in it as a child, she’s yet to drive it on the road.
“I’ve technically never driven it on the road,” she said. “I’ve backed it in and out of my driveway a few times.” With a healthy 327 engine in the ultra-lightweight car, Heather knows she’ll have to get used to a different kind of driving experience. “Even when it’s idling in Park,” she said, “it just wants to go.”
One drive she’s really looking forward to making is the one where Scottie comes along with her. “He’s currently in the Marines,” Heather said. “I look forward to him coming home and going out in it.”
With cars such a big part of her childhood, it wasn’t surprising to hear that the Roadster isn’t the only specialty vehicle in Heather’s five garage spaces. “The way I grew up,” she said, “I love cars.”
She also owns a 1958 Porsche 356, and a 1989 Land Rover Defender. Her husband has a 1964 Volkswagen Bug that Heather bought for him as a wedding present. “He always wanted one in high school,” she told me, “and his dad wouldn’t let him have one.”
She’s got two additional cars she wants to add to her collection in the near future. She’s on a waiting list for another 356 that will be “outlawed” by famed Porsche builder Rod Emory. (To have it “outlawed” basically means it will be hot rodded.) The second car she wants to get is a 1936 Plymouth coupe. Her grandfather raced one in the 50s on dirt tracks, and Heather plans to fix up a coupe to to look like the one he raced.
In the meantime, Heather is ecstatic about having the T-bucket Roadster back in her family.
“It’s just so cool to walk out into the garage and see it,” she said. “Just to have that piece of them back, and that piece of my childhood. I never lost hope. I just knew that I would find it someday. It’s back where it belongs.”
Yes it is.
Pictures courtesy of Heather Casto Swindells
Click here to see the photos of her T-bucket
You can follow Heather on Instagram via @22hcs74