SOUTHFIELD — When it comes to cars, 68-year-old Southfield resident Marcus Simmons remembers it all; his first drag race vehicle designs, taking delivery on each of his custom-ordered cars (including his first high-performance Mustang convertible he bought for his 21st birthday), to the feeling of reaching speeds of 120 mph on an empty stretch of highway.
These are the kinds of memories hot-rodders usually don’t forget, but for Simmons, they are crucial to keeping his custom-car building from bottoming out.
Simmons has retinitis pigmentosa, a degenerative eye disease that has left him blind.
“It’s hereditary. Sometimes it comes on slowly and sometimes it comes on real fast,” Simmons said, adding that thankfully, his onset was a slower one. That gave him the time to soak up all he needed to know about cars.
This weekend at the 61st Autorama in Detroit at Cobo Center, Simmons, a regular at the show, will display his candy blue 1970 Ford Mustang — a car he continues to modify to this day, despite his vision loss.
“I first noticed when I was in Boy Scouts, coming home one night from a camp fire,” he remembers. “I straggled off and realized I was in the middle of the woods by myself and couldn’t see.”
Simmons followed a light out of the woods that day and soon found out he had troubles with night vision, which would worsen. That was just about four years after finding out that he had a hearing defect.
After graduating from the Detroit Day School for the Deaf in eighth grade, Simmons wanted to attend Cass Technical High School. He said this was among the first times he realized he had a few things to prove as a person with vision and hearing impairments.
“The administration at Cass Tech wouldn’t let me in; they said I would fail, that other kids had not made that kind of transition,” Simmons said. “They soon realized I wasn’t going to change my mind about wanting to be admitted and, eventually, they helped me get in.”
It took some getting used to, drastic grade improvements and a lot of determination, but he graduated from the automotive curriculum in 1963 and pursued a career in the auto industry, working several jobs and earning a mechanical engineering degree from Wayne State University before simply living out each day as a hot-rodder from the garage at his Southfield home.
Simmons has been attending the Autorama since 1972 and has displayed a car most years. The Mustang he’ll have at this year’s show is one he bought in the fall of 1969 as his primary mode of transportation and favorite hobby.
Over the years, his upgrades have included new and more comfortable seating, 18.5-inch wide and 31-inch tall rear wheels, extensive fine tuning to the engine, a new center console and exhaust system and sports slats. Currently, the car has a 460-cubic inch, 560 horse power Ford Crate Engine and among his next projects is to put in a more suitable gas tank so the car can keep up with him.
“With my fuel-hungry engine I’ve got in it, the tank doesn’t give me enough range before I have to fill it up again. I’ll be putting a bigger gas tank, upgrading from the 11-gallon,” he said.
The first modification was a Boss 302 Engine: one he tested out on Route 66 and remembers like it was yesterday.
“The first thing I did was rebuild the motor back in ’72. I broke it in on Route 66 from Chicago to Los Angeles,” he explained. “With my eye sight, I could only drive during the day, … I left Los Angeles on a Saturday and, when I knew I wouldn’t make it back for work Monday, I had to call my boss.”
Simmons chuckles remembering the story, telling his boss that he had a “stiff neck” and needed the day off from his duties as a research technician at Ford.
“Then the operator cuts in and says I need to enter more money. He asks, ‘Where are you?’ and I just said, ‘Omaha.’ I don’t think he liked that too well,” he said.
Learning to make do with increasingly limited eyesight only strengthened Simmons’ determination and skill with cars, he explained.
“As my vision got worse, I would compensate by using alternative methods that sighted people would. For me to drive at night, for example, I couldn’t use regular 55-watt headlights. So, I put in a set of European driving lights with 100-watts and lit up the street so it looked like day light.”
Eventually, Simmons’ vision was lost and, in the early ’80s, he voluntarily stopped driving, but never stopped building.
“I have slight light perception now. That’s putting it mildly,” he explained. “How do I build still? I do that by feel. With my fingers, I can pick up enough information so I can put together an image in my mind of exactly what it is. I go back to when I did have eyesight and remember what things looked like.”
Simmons added that the images are all black and white in his mind now, but with his experience, engineering degree and dedication, it’s enough to keep him making top-notch modifications.
“It is difficult, but I don’t shy away from a challenge. I’m still working on vehicles with electronic fuel injections. There was no such thing when I had eyesight,” he said. “But, from my mechanical engineering degree, I know the principals of it and just imagine in my mind what it looks like.”
With that kind of hot rod-loving spirit, organizers say Simmons epitomizes what Autorama is about — a car to show and a cause behind it.
“Marcus Simmons has an amazing passion for all things cars and racing. Despite his disability, he has demonstrated incredible dedication to continuing to create and build Autorama-worthy vehicles,” Steve Novosel, chairman of the Detroit Autorama, said. “There is nothing he wouldn’t do to help his fellow hot rod (and) custom-car lovers with a car project. He is an example of everything that is great about the car culture community.”
As for putting his Mustang and the 427 Cobra he built from scratch to the test, Simmons said he’s able to feel it firsthand a few times each year — including during Autorama season — when someone else takes the wheel.
“I have the official position of what people call ‘Shotgun,’” he said.
• The 61st Annual Detroit Autorama will be open noon to 10 p.m. Friday, March 8; from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. Saturday, March 9; and from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Sunday, March 10 at Cobo Center.
• Admission at the gate is $18 for adults, $5 for children ages 6-12, and free for children ages 5 and under.
• Discount tickets are available at O’Reilly Auto Parts.
• For more information about Autorama, call (248) 373-1700.