LANSING, Mich. — Sometimes the best ideas and most perfectly laid plans come together over a cheap pitcher of beer. That's what happened for a group of engineering students at Michigan State University in 1969, earning them an Oldsmobile Cutlass that they souped-up and turned into a competitive dragster.
Fifty years and several leads later, many of the guys who were involved in the program find themselves deeply entrenched in a mission to see if the car still exists.
It all started in the late fall of 1969. The student chapter of the Michigan State University Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) would gather at a bar in Okemos, Mich., called Monty's to unwind, talk about cars and drink some beers.
"The club would meet once a month," said Paul Aurand, who is one of the chapter's founding members along with Rick Dolan, Bob Sedlak and Jim Minneker. "It was a time when the muscle car era was in its prime."
The club members were infatuated with cars, and wanted nothing more than to get their hands on one so they could build a competitive race car.
"We didn't know how to make it happen, said Aurand. "We were college kids and had no budget."
During one of the club gatherings at Monty's, in walked Jim Miller, who was an engineer at Oldsmobile, which was a brand of American automobiles produced for most of its existence by General Motors and headquartered in Lansing.
Miller also served as the technical advisor to MSU's SAE chapter.
He joined the students at Monty's and the conversation quickly steered to cars.
"[Miller] challenged us to find a project, something we could do as a group," said Aurand. "Since he worked at Oldsmobile, we asked him if he could get us a car."
Miller's response surprised the group of guys: "If you guys find a place to work on it, I will find you a car."
Inside of a week after that discussion took place, the student engineers managed to secure a garage on MSU's campus.
A few weeks later, around 9 o'clock at night, Aurand received a phone call in his dorm room at MSU.
It was Jim Miller.
"He said, 'Paul, be down in front of Wonders Hall in 15 minutes and don't bring anybody with you,'" said Aurand. "Jim pulled up in front of the dorm, I got in, and we drove through the streets of Lansing to Oldsmobile Engineering. He stopped the car. Got out, unlocked the padlock on the gate, and we drove into the parking lot then pulled next to this red Oldsmobile Cutlass.
"He handed me the keys and said, 'Paul, this vehicle's title has been sent to Lansing; they've been notified that this vehicle has been scrapped; it has no [vehicle identification] number; it has no registration; it has no title, and it has no insurance; don't get caught.'"
Since the car didn't have a license plate on it, Aurand says he drove it back to MSU using all back roads.
The college project known as "SAE Project W-31" began.
Working on and enjoying W-31
The students started working on the car while at the same time securing sponsors.
"We'd get many parts donated to us," said Aurand. "We had to pull this off on a shoestring budget."
The students got the car ready and started racing it competitively in the the spring of 1970. They would take it to several drag strips around Michigan.
"We wanted to race heads-up with other racers that had prepared race cars to National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) standards," said Minneker. "Beating bonafide racers was a goal of ours."
Over the next five years, as engineering students graduated, new ones would rotate in and use Project W-31 as a true hands-on learning experience.
Dennis Kline joined the team in 1971.
"I was shocked to learn that I could get college credit for racing a car," said Kline, who graduated from Michigan State in 1973. "Different members of the group got to race the car and that made it fun."
Interest in Project W-31 faded in 1974 and it dissolved at the end of that school year.
"That was the last time anybody saw the dragster," said Kline. "Nobody knew what happened to it after that."
Decades would pass. The college students who were involved in the program became men, entered their respective career fields, and went on to live their lives.
But none of them forgot the experience they had with that Cutlass.
The car and the experience remained just a memory for the guys until January 2018 when the group gathered for a reunion.
"We were brought together by an author that was writing a book about selling muscle cars," said Kline. "What started as simple interviews ended as a turning point for all of us."
Kline, Minneker and Aurand were among the former members of the Project W-31 program who attended.
Also in attendance was another former member by the name of Doug Arden who graduated from MSU in 1974.
"None of us thought there was any potential that the car might still exist," said Kline. "It was 45 years ago."
At the reunion, Kline said Arden started talking about aspects of Project W-31 that most of the guys had forgotten about. Arden remembered the trailer that Oldsmobile had given the group.
"Then he said he knew where the trailer was," said Kline. "Then [Arden] said, 'You know that the car still exists; I saw it in 2009 in a parking lot off East Grand River Ave. near the Lansing Airport.'"
"Everybody just looked and said, 'What did he just say?,'" said Kline. "I then asked [Arden], 'how did you know it was our car? And he said, 'because it said it on the side - Michigan State Project W-31.'"
It was at that moment that the purpose of their reunion changed.
"His sighting was credible," added Aurand. "It got us all excited and started all of down a new path."
It got Kline to thinking, "Maybe the car is out there and maybe we should go look for it."
Kline immediately assumed the role of "lead detective" and started the group's investigation by checking into the lead offered by Arden.
"I went looking for the parking lot near the Lansing airport," said Kline. "The lot Doug was referring to is near a Demmer Engineering facility.
"Demmer had some involvement [with the SAE Project W-31], so we thought there might be a connection. We tried to find out who owned that parking lot [back in 2009] so Paul Aurand wrote some emails and made some phone calls to the Demmer family, and it turned out that the business had been sold to another company and they weren't forwarding information to the former owners."
The Demmer lead went quickly went cold, so Kline decided to find ways to broaden his search. He created a flyer that said "Wanted" on it, along with a photo and some information about the car. He canvassed the flyer around the Lansing area to establishments and businesses who agreed to post it.
"The story started to grow," said Kline.
Kline says he started categorizing the types of people he wanted to talk to about the car.
"We wanted to talk to former Oldsmobile engineers and employees; We wanted to talk to racers who raced Oldsmobiles back in the early 1970s or even racers who might still be racing today; we wanted to talk to enthusiasts who were online or travelling in the Oldsmobile circles; we wanted to talk to tradespeople who worked on or restored race cars," Kline said.
Kline also decided to post an ad about the missing car on Craigslist.
"That's when things really started to get interesting," said Kline. "Within a day, I started getting contacted by people who thought they knew something about the car and wanted to provide information."
Kline had to gauge which calls seemed like false leads and which ones felt credible and warranted some follow-up.
"One night, I got a call from a General Motors engineer," said Kline. And he said, 'I know that car. In fact, I took pictures of it in 1977.
"I said, 'Tell me why you know this car,' and he said, 'I was in high school in Haslett, Michigan working at a grocery store when I was 17, and it was at the Marathon gas station next door.'"
The caller said his name was Chuck Wilkins. He told Kline that he took pictures of the car in Haslett in 1977 and happened to still have them.
"He sent me the pictures and it was our car," said Kline. "Some of the decals were different and the sponsors were gone.
"The photo proved that the car was being raced by somebody in 1977."
Kline started researching to find out who owned that gas station in 1977.
"I found the owner's family, but the owner was deceased," said Kline. "[The owner's] wife was very helpful, but she didn't remember the car."
Kline got more calls that led to what he thought at the time were hot leads.
"I then got a call from a guy who says, 'Yes, I know that car, and I think I know where it was, at least in 2013. It's in a building on East Grand River Avenue.'"
Kline and Aurand went back to the road where their investigation began and started searching there again.
"We found out that several of the businesses who sponsored the car back in the day are located on East Grand River Avenue, and that they were still in business today," said Kline. "We went to Denny's Auto Diagnosis and Johnson's Speed Warehouse to find out what they remember about the car.
"Unfortunately, they didn't know where the car was, but they did remember some small, tidbits about what they had done to the car."
As Kline's investigation got into the summer and fall months of 2018, every potential lead seemed develop into a dead end.
"We tried our best to extend our search broader and broader but we found ourselves being led down several rabbit holes," said Kline.
Kline started to think that maybe the car got scrapped so he began contacting all the salvage yards in and around the mid-Michigan area.
"I quickly learned that it's illegal for an automotive recycler to to accept a car without a title, and ours didn't have a title, so maybe it does still exist," added Kline. "It could be that somebody has the car and doesn't know they have the car because it's been repainted or its been around and been raced for years.
"Or, somebody has the car and they don't want to tell anybody they have the car."
Kline says he wants to make one point abundantly clear: "We don't want the car back. We just want to find out what happened to the car, because finding out will fill in the rest of the story for us."
They still have a piece of the car in their possession after all these years.
"I kept the keys, and if we ever find the car, we can start it and drive it home," Aurand joked.
The calendar page has turned to 2019. That means their investigation has reached one full year.
Time matters not to this band of former gear-heads from MSU. They won't be giving up their search for Project W-31.
"I can't stop," said Kline. "This is a mission from God so we're going to keep searching.
"After a year of detective work, we still don't know what happened to the car, but dozens have joined the search for a car most young people have never heard of, so I guess you might say that, 'This IS your father's Oldsmobile!"
Kline says he plans to broaden his search even more to include the entire state of Michigan. If you have any knowledge about the car, and think you can help these guys, Dennis Kline asks that you send him a detailed email:
If you know of a story that would make for a good feature on "Our Michigan Life," send a detailed email to 13 On Your Side's Brent Ashcroft: life@13onYourSide.com.