The Amazing Orbitron

When Michael Lightbourn got a call from “one of the guys that finds cars for me” in Mexico, he had no idea his contact had stumbled across Ed Roth’s long lost “Orbitron. Big Daddy’s cars are highly sought after today.

Only two were unaccounted for, Orbitron and Mysterion, the latter destroyed years ago. The Beatnik Bandit is the most famous of his creations, valued in the millions of dollars. Another Roth custom, Tweetie Pie (built using a Model T, not a full ground-up Roth creation) sold recently for $1.2 million. So, when Orbitron came out of hiding, albeit in sad shape, the Internet went wild with stories of lost treasure found. Hyping the find even further were those pictures of the spot where Orbitron was found, in front of an adult sex shop in Juarez.

Mike did know the futuristic looking custom, which Roth built in ’64, had been last accounted for in El Paso. His good friends Tony and Sergio Aguilar remembered the show car, which featured three headlights offset to the passenger side, parked on Montana street at “Abraham Engineering” in the 1972 – 1975 time frame. In the windshield was a for sale sign.

Orbitron was not a fast mover. An attorney named Sid Abraham owned the car in partnership with local bail bondsman Victor Apodaca. Vic does not remember when he bought the car or from whom. All he could tell us was he might have obtained it in a criminal case.

Sid’s brother Eddie Abraham and his nephew, John Attel, a young man still in school but of driving age, got interested in Orbitron. They all knew the bubble-top car was a Roth custom. Excited to drive the famous machine, It wasn’t long before they became disenchanted with the car’s reliability. Today, John is the Service Manager at Shamaley Pontiac, Buick, GMC in El Paso. He told us the car would hardly go a block and a half before it quit. In an effort to straighten out the carburetors, he recalls cutting off the fuel flow to the outer pair of Stromberg two barrels, which did not use a progressive linkage. Then, one day he got caught in the bubble for over an hour and became completely disenfranchised with the wild custom. The muscle car era had just ended and what was really hot, for both John and Eddie, were big block Camaros and Corvettes. John bought a Baldwin-Motion Camaro in Mexico and brought it back home.

The pair put Orbitron up for sale. El Paso is isolated from the country. The closest city is Juarez, Mexico, just across the border. There were no buyers. The car remained unsold for several years. John remembers one man from Oklahoma measuring the passenger compartment to see if it would work as a salad bar dispenser in his restaurant.

Finally, two men from Mexico bought Orbirton for $1500. From time to time, collectors showed up in El Paso in search of leads. John recalls a group from California quizzing him and Sid and other people in the area about 5-6 years ago. All they could tell the hunters was that they sold the car to two men in Mexico who planned to use it in a carnival. John believed the car was in Juarez. The city is smaller in area than El Paso, but has over one million population. Thirty-two years passed. Maybe Orbitron had been destroyed or turned into something besides a car.

The find lay waiting just across the border for a 43 year old car enthusiast named Michael Lightbourn of El Paso, Texas. People call him “The West Texas Scout” for his ability to find rare and valuable cars.

Born with hemophilia, Mike walks with a limp. Sometimes, he uses one crutch. Lightbourn is no amateur at tracking vintage collector cars and his soft-spoken manner belies his tenacity. Despite his youth, he has decades of experience. His first purchase was a ’34 Ford three-window coupe for the sum of $25. He still owns the first car his Dad bought for him, a ’65 Mustang GT convertible. He’s tracked down Boss Mustangs, Shelbys, and just about any muscle car one can imagine- Olds 4-4-2s, GTO’s, ‘Cudas, Baldwin-Motion Corvettes, Hemi Chargers, and on and on. Pre-war iron is not out of his realm, either. He has located 1932-33-34 Ford three-window coupes, roadsters, and Vicky’s, woodies, and much more.

From time to time, Lightbourn asked around town and on his frequent forays into Mexico if anybody knew where the Orbitron was.

“They’d tell me the same thing. They hadn’t seen that car in years.”

Tracking cars in Mexico is fraught with obstacles for Americans. Kidnapping is becoming more and more of a problem. Thieves can snatch a nice car off a trailer in broad daylight. Michael admits, “The hardest part is getting them out. Buying them, you are running a risk you can get the car into the States.”

In May or June of 2007, Mike isn’t quite sure when, he got this lead. At the time, he didn’t realize a fiberglass body with a Corvette engine would turn into the biggest find of his career. Mike said he “blew it off” until a few months later when the same person called up with another lead, this time for a ’59 Plymouth Fury with dual carbs. Mike bit on this one. Finned Mopars are hot today.

“I told him, okay, bring me pictures. I always give him a disposable camera.”

Mike processed the images to see the Fury. On this same throwaway film camera, Mike’s contact, hoping for a generous finder’s fee, added pictures of what he called an “ugly” fiberglass car with the so-called “Corvette engine.” Mike recognized “immediately” the disheveled hot rod was the Ed Roth Orbitron.

“I called him up and said let’s go see the Fury. And let’s go see the fiberglass car after.”

Of course, Mike’s main interest was Orbitron, but he didn’t want to stir up any hoopla. If word spread, there’s no telling who might show up. For now Michael had to hide his enthusiasm and keep the identity of the car to himself.

Mike’s secret Mexican contact took him to Orbitron. His friends were along to help. They looked, but they didn’t see the car, despite the public place. It was hard to detect. The nose was missing, as was the bubble, and the dark primer blended into the dark walls. Orbitron was resting on a sidewalk in front of an adult sex shop a quarter to a half of a mile from the bridge separating the United States from Mexico. People dropped trash into the passenger compartment as they walked.

Mike was surprised the fragile cycle fenders were still attached. The four wheels were the Astro brand chrome slotted 15 x 7 inch mags that originally came on the car. Only one had its original Cal Custom spinner, however.

Mike was impressed the engine had not been stripped. The Corvette valve covers, the intake, even the Stromberg 97 carburetors, very popular with hot rodders, were in plain view because the hood was missing. Orbitron’s original small block V8 was still there. The 265 actually came out of Roth’s ’55 Chevy, not a Corvette.

Inside the cab, Mike noticed Roth’s Cragar steering wheel, Moon gas pedal, shifter, and the original plywood and fiberglass over plaster of Paris construction. Small patches of the original shag carpet here and there remained glued to the floorboard. Overall, the interior suffered the most.

These many original features convinced Mike the fiberglass wonder sitting on the streets of Juarez definitely had to be the long lost Orbitron. Best of all, the body (minus the nose section) and frame were intact.

Mike had to wait until 3:30 pm, when the owner showed up for his work shift. He got to the point, “Do you want to sell the car? Or, sell the motor out of it?"

Mike posed this last question to investigate if the owner knew what he had. Through the ensuing conversation he found out the current owner believed his uncle made the car. The bad news was his resolute answer, in Spanish, “No se vende.” Not for sale.

The man had a sentimental attachment to the old custom. Apparently, the car had passed down to him in his family. He remembered the odd custom from the time he was a kid.

Mike wasn’t about to give up. “I kept bugging and bugging and bugging him.” The West Texas Scout visited or called the shop every single day for almost three weeks.

“Toward the end, before I bought the car, he said I was a pain in the ass.”

Mike got a dialogue started on pricing when he asked; “You must have a figure in your head.”

The owner remained steadfast, explaining even if Mike offered the ridiculous sum of [x dollars], he wouldn’t sell the car. And he knew it wasn’t worth that.

“I told him, just kidding around, laughing with him, I’ll give you [x dollars] for the car. And then everybody’s heads just popped up cause he was with his friends. I told him, “The car is just a trashcan outside. You’re never going to fix it.’ I could tell his eyes just opened up. But, he still said he did not want to sell it.”

‘No se vende.”

The following day, Mike called him up again at 3:30 pm. They started talking.

“You’re persistent, aren’t you?”

“Well, what do you think?’

“If you’re serious, come down here and let’s talk a little bit more.’”

The seller almost slipped out of the deal again, He told Mike they would have to wait another day to deal because he was leaving work early.

Mike brought cash for the amount of his offer in one pocket and more cash in another pocket in case the price went up. The man agreed to sell the car if Mike had the money. Otherwise, he said, “Don‘t bug me anymore.”

Mike plopped the cash, bundled in a manila envelope, onto the desk. He asked the man to count it. The deal was done when Mike got his receipt. The Orbitron was his.

Mike called the wrecker. While waiting, he took pictures of the Orbitron as he found it in the spot he found it. Mike learned from this author over 15 years ago to document his Rare Finds with pictures before the car was moved. This goes back to 1991 and the author’s original “Rare Finds” column in Hot Rod’s Mustang magazine. People still talk about one of those early Rare Finds columns titled the “Doghouse Boss 429.” This Rare Find was a real Boss 429 Mustang that was being used as a doghouse in Mexico. Mike and I drove to Juarez and I took pictures of the dog in the Boss-9.

The truck arrived at 5:30 pm. Mexican Customs was already closed. Mike didn’t want to spend the night in Mexico with this car. A veteran of finds south of the border, he had an idea.

Mike paid the driver the regular $180 fee plus $100 to take the car to the border this late in the day. The lines were long. It was a Friday afternoon in August, The temperature in the desert hovered around 100 degrees. Mike stationed a friend in the passenger seat of the wrecker with the driver.

The crossing proved uneventful, just like Mike wanted. “We came to Mexican Customs. They were closed. So, the guy there, just to let us cross, we had to give him $150.”

In Mexico, they call this payoff money “La Mordida,” translated as “The Bite.” Lightbourn was delighted to feed the official’s impunity to the law with a bite of what he described on the paperwork as a “dune buggy.” The old fiberglass body didn’t look worth the value of a six-pack of Tecate, or at the most a fifth of Tequila. It could certainly pass for a dune buggy, and in very poor condition, and virtually worthless.

Safely in his 20,000 square foot shop with Orbitron, Mike wasn’t all that certain the value of what he had. For starters, he went to the website and e-mailed “Moldy Marvin.” Moldy Marvin e-mailed back that the car was indeed the Orbitron. Soon, the photos were all over the Internet and people were discussing the find. Moldy Marvin kept Mike’s identity secret. People recognized his shop in some of the photos and began calling. Later, Moldy Marvin asked Mike if it was okay to give out his phone numbers to several interested buyers. Mike agreed.

Had Mike not rescued Orbitron, the car might not ever have been seen again. The owner had plans to transform the hot rod into a hot tub, for promotional purposes in his adult sex shop. Four years earlier, when the owner needed money, he got close to a sale. The buyers wanted the car for the front axle, the intake and carburetors. They just wouldn’t meet the owner’s price. It was his sentimental attachment to the car that kept Obitron from being parted out for so many years.

We shudder to think such an important part of hot rod history sat for so long on a sidewalk in Juarez in plain view of the public. In the hands of Mike Lightbourn, a true collector, car lover and historian, Orbitron is safe. Mike plans to consign the car to the R &M Auction in Scottsdale, Arizona in January of 2007. It will be restored and we’ll all be able to enjoy this hot rod again.