The Braille Monitor                                                                                       July 2003

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Restored by Touch

by Sal Perlman

A side view of Joe Naulty's completely restored Modal A pickup truck.
A side view of Joe Naulty's completely restored Model A pickup truck.

From the Editor: The following article first appeared in the April 2003 issue of Car and Driver magazine. Joe Naulty was president of the Deaf-Blind Division for a number of years. He is a dedicated restorer of old cars. We reprint this article about Joe and his hobby with permission:

Restoring a car is tough. Imagine doing it blind. Imagine having to work on your car blindfolded--not just changing the oil or upgrading the exhaust system, but restoring it completely. No peeking allowed.

That's what Joseph Naulty, who lost his sight in 1996, was up against in his quest to rebuild a 1928 Model A Ford pickup.

"For me, restoring old cars is what keeps me motivated," says the sixty-eight-year-old retired businessman, who lives in Wellington, Florida. "I could sit here and whine all day about my condition, but that won't help me. I have a life to live, and these cars keep me going."

Naulty's passion for automobiles is even more fascinating considering he has never actually driven one. Following an accident in 1948 near his hometown of Elizabeth, New Jersey, at the age of fourteen, he was diagnosed with so-called tunnel-vision syndrome.

By the age of eighteen he was already legally blind, although he still retained about 25 percent of his field of vision. As a result he could never obtain a driver's license. For nearly forty-five years his wife Arlene has been the family driver.

After attending a technical school, he worked for several years as a draftsman and then started JBN, an electrical parts manufacturing company in New Jersey. He got married and had three sons. During his twenty-two years as the company's owner, Naulty used to take a taxi on Saturdays to the junkyard and return in a wrecker with an old car towed behind, which he would then fix. He bought, restored, and sold nearly 100 American and British cars this way.

As time moved on, though, his peripheral field of vision narrowed gradually until finally he lost his sight completely in '98. But that hasn't deterred him. The 1928 pickup--the fourth car he has restored since turning blind--sits in the center of Naulty's narrow one-car garage. In working on it, Naulty utilizes his senses of touch, hearing, and smell to make up for vision.

He locates the truck by brushing his hand against the front bumper, then passes his fingers over the hood, inspecting the gray primer coat that he applied the day before. "I prime by feeling the edges, masking around them, then going back and forth and up and down with the primer. I let it dry and then feel it to check for missed spots. If you understand the mechanics of paint layers and how they work, it's easier to do. You see the paint; I feel it."

With hood up the entire engine of the rebuilt Model A is visible.

With hood up the entire engine of the rebuilt Model A is visible.

Along the garage wall a metal shelving unit holds what appears to be a jumbled collection of boxes of all shapes and sizes. One realizes there's a method to this apparent madness when Naulty feels around for a particular box and fishes out a rear signal light. "Once the bed comes back from the shop, I'm going to install new signal lights." He feels his way back, finds the mount, and holds the light against it to demonstrate the look.

He bends down and gropes for something under the chassis, then finds it--a white electrical wire attached to the frame, its end hanging off. "This will be the signal's juice line. I rewired all the truck's electrical myself, which was difficult but fun. I know the A's system like the back of my hand. The only thing is, whenever I'm ready to hook up something, I call my son and ask to borrow his eyeballs and tell me which wire is neutral. But I do all the rest." His son William, forty, also resides in Wellington.

Unlike some of us, Naulty can't afford the luxury (or bad habit?) of leaving tools around. "I keep all my tools and parts organized," he says, pointing to his workbench and the two sets of red toolbox drawers under it, and then pulls one of the drawers open. "Here are all my wrenches and Allens. I have to put things back where they belong if I want to find them later."

Buddy Pearce, Naulty's restoration cohort and engine consultant, says whenever they attend an auto show, Joe is always asking owners of unique vehicles if he could check out their cars. "He feels and touches every inch of the car. And when he's done, he's usually quite greasy but knows more about the vehicle than the owner."

Naulty completed the truck in time to participate in the local Christmas parade last December, and he already has an idea for his next project: a Model A woody station wagon. "Restoring old cars is in my blood and in my system. I can't help it. I will do it till the day I die."

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