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A visit to Ellie’s Garage: Teen, father restore car

Ellie Dufilho uses an air compressor to remove moisture from an engine part of a 1965 Ford Falcon she is rebuilding at her family's Spotsylvania County home, Va., home, Wednesday, Sept. 2, 2020. (Peter Cihelka/The Free Lance-Star via AP)

FREDERICKSBURG, Va. — When Ellie Dufilho, 15, starts driving next year, it will be behind the wheel of her own custom-built vehicle.

Not only that, it will be a complete rebuild of a classic model–the 1965 Ford Falcon–that she and her dad, Matt, did themselves at their Spotsylvania County home.

The pair created a YouTube channel–Ellie’s Garage–to document their endeavor and it has led to opportunities for Ellie, a home-schooled sophomore, to write articles for vintage car magazines and national auto-parts dealers, and an invitation to be the special guest at the next national meeting of the Falcon Club of America.

“As an adult woman in the world, she’s going to be able to not only listen to a mechanic and know what they’re talking about, but be able to not have to take her car to a mechanic at all,” said Ellie’s mom, Robin Dufilho. “I love that she’s being empowered and emboldened.”

Ellie has always been a maker. She loves drawing and baking–figuring out what goes into a cake to make it rise–and she and her dad built a fort in their backyard.

Ellie Dufilho cleans out the carburetor of a 1965 Ford Falcon she is rebuilding with her dad Matt at the family's Spotsylvania County home, Va., home, Wednesday, Sept. 2, 2020. (Peter Cihelka/The Free Lance-Star via AP)

“I’ve loved teaching myself how to do something on my own since I was real little,” Ellie said.

She’s also always loved old cars from the ’50s and ’60s, with their giant chrome fenders and circular tail lights.

When Ellie was about 10 years old and riding in the car with her dad, she noticed a 1960s Ford Falcon parked in a driveway.

“She said, ‘Oh dad, look at that,’ and we pulled over to stare at it,” Matt Dufilho said.

As Ellie examined the Falcon that day, she thought, “Wouldn’t it be fun to build one of these?”

“It became sort of a dream conversation,” Dufilho said. “Just fun talks. When we saw old cars, we’d stop and talk about them.”

But as Ellie got closer to being old enough to drive, Matt and Robin presented her with an option. They would buy her a vintage car to restore, and she would pay for all the work and new parts that would need to go into it.

Ellie accepted the deal. The family researched vintage cars and settled on the Falcon.

“It’s about as good a starter car as you can get,” Matt Dufilho said. It was just a happy coincidence that the car that caught Ellie’s eye as a ten-year-old was also a Falcon.

They bought their Falcon on Ebay, sight unseen, for about $2,000 and flew to Skokie, Ill., in November to pick it up.

The car was in good enough shape that Matt and Ellie could drive it the 750 miles home.

During that drive, Ellie learned about all the things that have changed in vehicle design in the past 55 years. She had never used a hand crank to open and close a window, or seen lap belts in the front seat instead of three-point seat belts.

“Ellie had all these realizations about things, like she looked at the odometer and said, ‘Oh, it’s actually rolling,'” Matt Dufilho said.

Once home, Matt and Ellie started rebuilding the car from the ground up.

“We are basically going through the car step by step and redoing everything,” Ellie said. “The first thing we started with was the engine. We have completely overhauled the engine and the transmission. We have cleaned out the engine bay and put in all new wiring. We are just basically making it a brand new car.”

While Ellie and her dad are focused on the drive-ability of the car, Robin is safety monitor.

“This is our infant that we’re letting drive around in a 55-year-old car,” Robin Dufilho said. “I’m the one going, ‘Three-point seat belts would be a great addition. And how about a third brake light? Wouldn’t that be a fun project to install?'”

Matt Dufilho said adding safety to a vintage look has been “a challenge, but a fun challenge.”

The one thing they won’t be able to do that Robin keeps asking about is install air bags.

Matt Dufilho said he always wanted to restore a car.

“When we were first married and dirt poor, Robin’s dad taught me how to change oil. I like learning that kind of stuff,” he said. “I started changing our own oil and over the years, I started doing all the car maintenance as well.”

While he said he is the one who does the research and brings the knowledge to the restoration process, it is a true team effort.

“I’m much more of a creative person and Ellie is much more like her mom, very logical, very smart,” he said. “If you watch the videos, it’s not dad doing the work while Ellie’s holding something. She actually makes really great observations and comes up with ideas of how to do things.”

Ellie estimates that she’s put about $2,500 into the car so far–money that she’s saved from birthdays and Christmases and earned by dog-sitting and other odd jobs.

Companies learning about Ellie’s project have come on board to help. Hughes, an Arizona-based company, offered to overhaul the Falcon’s transmission for her.

The family also started a Patreon fundraising account for the project.

Having taken care of the Falcon’s engine and wiring, Ellie and her dad have moved on to the body of the car. Most recently, they fashioned a new toeboard out of 16 gauge steel and took apart and repainted the dashboard.

Last, they’ll turn their attention to the interior. They plan to install bucket seats with head rests in place of the original low-backed bench seats.

Finally, they’ll paint the custom Falcon in a “dream color” that Ellie is keeping secret until they reveal it on the YouTube channel.

Ellie said she and her dad are already talking about what car project they’ll take on next.

“Mom always wanted an old Mustang,” she said.

“I want it to be electric,” Robin Dufilho said. “I figure they can figure that out!”

Ellie doesn’t plan to become a mechanic. She wants to go to college to study either English or engineering. But she’s glad to have all this automotive knowledge.

“I didn’t know anything about cars,” she said. “It’s not like I came into this having all this knowledge. I’ve learned so many things about how the car works and what the components are. And how to weld!”

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