(COVINGTON, La) — Many traditions surround the vast history of St. Paul’s School. Some legacies are known to all, while others fade away, becoming distant memories of the school’s ancient past. Among this vast heritage ranks the lesser known tradition of the SPS School Car.
“The car was brought to every home football game and every graduation day for about eight years,” Richard Pichon, mathematics teacher, skilled mechanic, and faculty overseer of the SPS School Car project said. “The car is street legal, licensed, and insured.”
In 2003 during their senior year at SPS, school-spirited students Kramer Johnson and Ben Morvant purchased an aging 1964 Dodge 330 4-door sedan for a meager price of $150. Johnson and Morvant pooled their monetary resources together, each contributing $75 of their precious monthly allowance to obtain the old vehicle. Although the vehicle was smelly with a severely faded white paint job, the battered sedan was perfect for the students’ enthusiastic intentions.
“Our knowledge of cars was quite limited,” Johnson said. “The liability of the project certainly created a lot of headaches.”
The Dodge 330 was not yet street legal at the time, so Billy Parks of Keith’s Towing Service provided a free ride for the vehicle straight to Johnson’s front yard. Here, tedious hours were spent squeakily popping the hood, forcefully opening the rusted trunk, adjusting the aging engine, nervously starting the engine, and excitingly sitting in the vinyl driver’s seat as Johnson and Morvant spearheaded their School Car project.
Eventually, after coming to the shocking realization of the daunting enormity of the project, they recruited a handful of their other classmates to contribute to the Dodge 330’s rehabilitation. SPS classmate Tony Gole, wielding a hacksaw and cutting torch, removed the sedan’s tailpipe and muffler, causing a thunderous commotion upon the vehicle’s boisterous ignition. Additionally, classmates Patrick Bragg, Michael Willem, R.J. Marse, Chandler Cleveland, Josh Henley, and Ryan Lee inaccurately aimed spray paint cans at the Dodge 330, messily drowning the vehicle in SPS blue and gold. A 1950s police siren, generously donated by Kramer’s grandfather Roy Johnson, was then positioned atop the vehicle as the “icing on the cake.”
“We planned on using it for football games, pep rallies, Mardi Gras parades, and of course for St. Paul’s graduation,” Pichon said. “We even discussed bringing it to the Covington Block Party.”
A few weeks after its long-awaited completion, the SPS School Car made its anticipated debut at the 2003 senior/faculty homecoming football game. With its blue and gold paint job gleaming, engine revving, siren blasting, and the 2004 senior class running triumphantly behind the vehicle, the previously dilapidated Dodge 330 sedan was immersed in SPS school spirit, brotherhood, and camaraderie, becoming the school’s newest invigorating tradition. Following its well-received premiere, the School Car quickly became an exciting addition to SPS events, including football games, the Homecoming pre-game parade, pep rallies, and several other activities that Johnson and Morvant had hoped for the vehicle to take part in.
As the 2003-2004 school year dwindled down, the class of 2004’s graduation drew near. Leaving their legacy behind, Johnson, Morvant, and all the SPS School Car’s contributors happily handed over the Dodge 330 to Pichon, who had overseen the project since its conception.
“I actually bought the car from Kramer Johnson,” Pichon said. “Kramer bought it to leave behind a legacy for the class of 2004, and he needed someone to take care of it after he graduated.”
In order to officially seal the deal, Pichon bought the SPS School Car for a hefty price of $1. Now, with the Dodge 330 rightfully in his hands, Pichon was endowed with the monumental responsibility of maintaining the tradition of the car. Thus, it was no surprise to Johnson, Morvant, and the Class of 2004 when the blue and gold vehicle made a spirited appearance at their graduation.
Due to Johnson and Morvant’s inexperienced team of mechanics and handymen, however, the SPS School Car was speedily thrown together with little mechanical cooperation. Over the years, after countless appearances at SPS events, the vehicle slowly began to fall apart.
“The car was in very rough condition,” Pichon said. “There was rust, and it needed many mechanical repairs.”
Pichon, who has maintained, serviced, and upgraded several of his own vehicles throughout his lifetime, prided himself in mechanical perfection. So, Pichon towed the car to his Slidell home, which doubles as his workshop, and meticulously began what would be the Dodge 330’s many years of rigorous mechanical maintenance. As time went on, Pichon, like Johnson and Morvant, recruited multiple individuals to help contribute to the project.
“The most difficult part was fixing the clutch,” Pichon said. “It required pulling the transmission out of the car, installing a new clutch, and then putting the same transmission back in the car. Not easy. I would actually like to thank Tim Lay, father of Matt Lay, for helping me fix this difficult problem.”
Pichon, along with SPS students Joseph Elmerick and Sean Strain, worked countless hours completing several adjustments to the SPS School Car, dedicating themselves to the revival of the vehicle as mechanical repairs progressed. Pichon completed most of the mechanical work, replacing the SPS School Car’s entire brake and suspension systems. Additionally, Pichon replaced the gas tank, fuel pump, fuel lines, filter, and sending unit.
“One day I decided the paint job was so bad that I had to paint the car properly,” Pichon said. “Local body shops would charge approximately $10,000 because of how much work it needed, so I had to do the work myself.”
First, Pichon stripped every inch of paint off the car, installing bondo fiberglass to repair the multiple dents, cracks, and crevices in the vehicle’s dilapidated body. To make matters worse, rust plagued the body of the vehicle, compromising the structural integrity of the car. Consequently, Pichon was forced to remove the vehicle’s numerous rusted sections and weld fresh metal sheets in their places. Finally, Pichon was able to paint sections of the car with a thick coat of grey primer, and apply coats of blue and gold to the remaining sections.
“I have all the intentions of bringing the School Car back,” Pichon said. “Hopefully it will be received well and people will appreciate the years of hard work that I have put into it. But the big comeback will not be any time soon. There is such a long way to go.”
In addition the vehicle’s extensive history at SPS, 1964 Dodge 330 4-door sedans were commonly used as police cars and taxi cabs. Also, they possessed an extensive history in drag racing due to their enormous, powerful engines that were available in the more expensive models. A team of daredevils, known as the “Hell Drivers,” noticed the sedan’s potential and utilized them to entertain large crowds. At circus shows, this stunt group would use ramps to jump Dodge 330s, and would even drive the vehicles on two wheels.
The SPS School Car, in a similar way, molded its own individuality while residing on campus.
“There are a lot of stories to tell about the school car,” Pichon said. “I hope many more will come in the future.”