Deep in the jungles of Vietnam, the last thing Rich thought he wanted was some sappy love letter, but it proved to be just what he needed.
His high school sweetheart had just broken things off with him before he was shipped overseas. "I went there with the biggest chip on my shoulder," Rich said. Sensing his pain, a caring cousin had a cute friend write the young army specialist. Though they'd never met, her first note arrived in May of '68 and forever changed Rich's life. "I finished reading it and knew I had to meet this special girl," he said.
The correspondence would continue until Rich safely returned home in October. The day he was discharged from the service, he finally met the flirtatious writer, Kittie. It was love at first sight and soon they were wed.
They were sharing a '68 Dodge Charger in March of 1970 when they decided they could afford to buy a second vehicle. "Kittie wanted me to pick it out as a present for my 25th birthday which was right around the corner." They headed to Elmhurst Dodge and ordered a 1970 Dodge Challenger convertible. "The first car we rode in together was a '63 Chevy convertible. She always loved drop tops."
The Challenger arrived in May. Along with being used as his primary transportation over the next few years, it was also driven for road trips to Florida and once to Minnesota where Rich would show up to surprise a military buddy on his wedding day.
Rich was a hands-on guy and in 1973 decided to strip the vehicle down and repaint it in Steel City Gray. He finished the respray and drove the Challenger for three more years before deciding to store it on a long-term basis. "It had some rust and had accumulated a fair amount of body chips," Rich said. Many more vehicles came and went but "none of them meant as much as this one."
Rich's grand plan to restore the Challenger himself and take his longtime love out cruising again never came to fruition. In 2013, his wife Kittie passed away.
In 2014, his son, Brian, finally convinced him to bring the Dodge out of hibernation and get it ready for the road. They enlisted the help of the crew at Custom Classics in Island Lake who embarked on a 15-month top-to-bottom overhaul of the iconic cruiser. His dad thought the car wouldn't be finished until late spring, but Brian hatched a plan to surprise him. The restoration was accelerated and completed in time for a grand unveiling at last weekend's Muscle Car and Corvette Nationals. Surrounded by friends and family, Rich was speechless as the car cover was pulled off.
"It's simply beautiful. So much of this car is my wife."