April 24, 2010 9:56:00 PM
Jan Swoope - [email protected]
It could be the concrete gargoyles protectively flanking the property entrance, or the sign declaring you''re entering Thompsonville, but one gets the feeling Killer Thompson isn''t your average Joe. But then, for a longtime corporate president with a name like Killer, that may be a foregone conclusion.
How did the genial head of Newell Paper Co. in Columbus earn the moniker? Well, he says it''s a long story that goes way back; then laughingly adds, "I think I''ve outlived my reputation."
What is transparent, however, is the Caledonia man''s passion for cars. Not just any cars, but hot rods, street rods, rat rods and an assortment of other intriguing vrooms a motor can be put into.
Blast from the past
Inside the Thompson compound, turning at the intersection of Killer Drive and Faye Street (named for his wife of 53 years), a pine-lined gravel drive leads to the garage. There, time didn''t just stand still ... it rocks.
"Blue Suede Shoes" fills the air as visitors step into a prism of the past. Black and white checked vinyl on the floor ... soda shop booths -- with vintage tabletop juke boxes ... even a pony-tailed mannequin in a poodle skirt. Shades of the ''50s.
And in the center of it all, the current stars. A bright red hammered 1940 Ford coupe and a fierce 1933 Ford Highboy coupe, with 1025 horsepower. The Thompsons show both on the national circuit, as they have numerous cars in the past. The ''40 coupe is featured on the February cover of Street Rodder magazine, and the Highboy just returned from a show in Nashville, where it made the top Fabulous Five.
"I''ve had probably about 50 cars or so," says Killer, "and probably about 10 really nice show cars." In fact, Thompson''s cars have been in about 50 car magazines and earned three covers. Many have been featured in stacks of car calendars, too. Framed photographs, articles and national awards neatly cover the garage walls.
Time of your life
"I''ve got a thing for the ''40s cars," Killer admits, talking about the wheeled wonders as Chuck Berry belts out "Roll Over Beethoven." "I just like the 1940s Fords: I had one in high school and when I first got married."
He and Faye have "done everything together since she was 15 and I was 16," he shares. That''s when the couple wed, in the late ''50s, and sealed a mutual admiration society still in tact today.
The authentic poodle skirt on the mannequin is hers. Another mannequin wears roller skates Faye had as a teenager.
"The ''50s and ''60s, those were the greatest years," Killer says, with a hint of wistfulness.
In those early days, he was already into cars. He''d begun driving at age 12, delivering coal for his father''s coal yard in Meridian.
"As a teenager, I used to bring my dragster up here to Columbus, to try it out at an old airstrip," he recalls. "And then, in ''60, I came up here to race."
In 1963, in Indianapolis, he set the then-record of 173 miles per hour for a quarter-mile with his rail dragster, a machine sitting in his garage today. With new design and technology, he notes, current records are more than 300 miles per hour.
In 1967, the Thompsons moved to Columbus, when Newell opened its business here. They later had one daughter, Shelly (now) Harrison, of Columbus. She caught the car bug, too.
"Cars just never get out of your blood," mused Killer, who returned to his first obsession after about a 10-year side trip into sports fishing and boats. During that time, he acquired Hank Williams Jr.''s boat, "Hanky Panky," changing the name to "Killer Two."
"I should have left it ''Hanky Panky'' -- it would have been worth more when I sold it," he chuckles.
Cranking up the Highboy, Killer grins when the car roars to life. The fenderless hot rod, its frame and motor visible, gleams with a custom flame paint job by Kirby Stafford, who came to Columbus from his home in Danville, Ky., to do it. Thompson also enlisted Stafford''s expertise for the ''40 coupe that made Street Rodder''s cover. That in-depth job took place in Kentucky and involved stripping off about 10 coats of cracked lacquer after Killer acquired the auto in 2008.
The Thompsons previous show cars have included six other ''40 Fords (including a sedan delivery and a convertible). Each one has emerged a unique finished product.
"I just enjoy the challenge of doing what everybody wants -- to build something different than anybody else has done," explains Killer, who makes it a habit to engage "really good builders" for his projects, wherever they may be located. " ... If it''s way beyond the limit, that''s where we want to go."
Most of his cars feature some one-off designs. One-offs are any element that, once custom-made for a car owner, can''t be replicated for another customer for two years.
There are about 142 modifications in the ''40 coupe. "They might be really little things," Killer says, "maybe the slant of a windshield or something, but you''ll sit there and look at it and think, ''There''s something different ...''"
Chunk of coal
Outside the garage, the nostalgia continues. Next to vintage gas pumps that read 23 cents a gallon, sit the rat rods. Unlike their flashy counterparts, these seeming plain Janes are nevertheless a thrill for Thompson.
"A rat rod is almost like if you were building something as cheap as you could, but it still be streetable. ... But it depends on where people put ''cheap,''" he grins. "You can insure them and put them on the road. It''s almost like the worse it looks, the better it is. ... Remaking them is like taking a chunk of coal and sorta making a diamond out of it."
One of his current projects is a chopper trike, harking back to the 1970s. And next on the big drawing board is to build a 1940 Ford truck, a major endeavor.
In the meantime, Killer and Faye hope to get to about 15 shows this year, meeting up with car circuit friends and enjoying the "fantastic work" done on other cars they get to see.
"We used to go more, but now we go where we like to go, where we''ve picked out good eating places, good motels," remarks Killer, who recommends car buffs visit the Southern Cruisers'' Cruisin'' the River annual car show in Columbus, as well as the Tupelo Car Museum.
Faye adds, "With myself, it''s all the wonderful people you mee at shows. You just do not meet people who are more kind and gracious than street rodders."
The fun, Killer says, is also in helping somebody else make what they want.
"Car people are always asking, how did you do that, how did you make that?" he smiles. "Really, to people who care about cars, these are a piece of art ... like a sculpture of a different type."
Pick what you like
"In this life, your first priorities are God, family and business," Killer says of his personal outlook. "And anything past business, you just go out and do something you really like."
There''s no doubt the cars have provided a satisfying balance of challenge and pure enjoyment.
As if shrugging off any accolade for what he''s accomplished throughout the years, Killer shrugs, "Really, you just take an old car and spend money on it, and you get something really pretty."
And if you get to throw in a little nostalgia for the greatest years ever ... well, so much the better.
Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.