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Restorer of Classic Autos Mounts Drive for First-Place Finish : Cars: Gary Wales has brought his one-of-a-kind Bentley back to prize-winning form, with help from 1,300 frogs.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A decade ago, Gary Wales’ 1947 Franay-bodied Bentley was a “dilapidated pile of dog breath.” In pieces, parts of the body rusted through, the original chrome long gone, it was a major comedown from 1948, when the car with the sexy French curves swept two major auto shows in a week.

Now, after 10 years of delicate restoration work, the Gargantuan luxury car with a frog-skin interior has a finish of liquid depths. Wales hopes that it can revive its standing of 43 years ago by winning this weekend’s Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance, the most prestigious vintage auto show in the United States.

Wales, who restores Bentleys and Rolls-Royces in his Canoga Park shop, will be an automotive David at the annual show, competing against such Goliaths as last year’s winner, fashion designer Ralph Lauren, and casinos that spend millions of dollars on their entries.

“I’m just a poor punk playing in the back garage,” said Wales, 52.

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Well, not really.

For 20 years, Wales has worked full time restoring cars, after quitting his job as a stockbroker to devote more energy to his hobby. In his shop, which employs three full-time workers and three part-timers, a handful of cars sit in various stages of reconstruction. All belong to Wales, who said, “I won’t work on a car I don’t own.”

But as soon as the cars are finished, Wales sells them and uses the proceeds to buy more cars for restoration. “The important part is saving them,” he said. “They will always be my cars, no matter who owns them.”

He regards the Franay Bentley as his ultimate performance. Heavily influenced by prewar design, it is the only one of its kind ever built, a French-made body mounted on a British chassis and engine for a wealthy Frenchman.

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In the 1950s, the car began its slide into obscurity. It passed from owner to owner, eventually crossing the Atlantic to the United States, and fell into disrepair.

Even so, Wales said he knew that the car was a winner.

“This is the rarest Bentley in the world,” he said, monitoring the application of a specially formulated wax to the car’s fender. “There is nothing like this anywhere.”

Indeed, auto experts expect the car to be popular at Pebble Beach. Most agreed that it would take some award, but whether it is named Best of Show, as Wales hopes, remains to be seen.

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A confection of sexy curves on a solid foundation, it stretches 19 feet from bumper to bumper and seven between fenders. Wales said he has turned down offers of $3 million for the vehicle, but some appraisers say its value is more likely about $1.5 million to $2 million.

He describes cars in terms that may offend some who do not hang out in garages, likening the lines of his projects to those of the bare-breasted women whose calendar pictures hang on the walls of the garage. “It’s a sexual thing,” he said. “The same curves are on a woman’s inner thigh.”

When he traces curves in the air with his hands, it is impossible to be certain if he is describing the attributes of some buxom young looker or the fins and fenders of an auto in the works.

Behind the front seat is a small bar--with a place for the butler, of course--stocked with decanters of wine and flasks of Armagnac and cognac.

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The glove box contains a silver cigar holder. Instruments include a compass and altimeter. The original 1947 radio works. And tucked away in a compartment is a $2 bill wrapped around a crystal, a good-luck gift.

“I don’t think there is a trick we missed,” Wales said proudly.

He even added a few.

In honor--that’s the way he said he meant it--of the body’s French designer, Wales upholstered the interior with frog skins. About 1,300 tiny frog hides tanned in the Philippines cover the seats and instrument panel.

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“It’s my little French froggie car with my little French interior,” he said.

Another nod--or prod--to the French is the hood ornament. If Lord Mountbatten could adorn his car with a miniature cannon, then, Wales said, no one should fault him for his objet d’art : a whistling frog named Zip-A-Dee Doo-Dah skipping between two of the Bentley’s trademark winged Bs.


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