Tim Willis stops traffic in Cleveland's Fairfax neighborhood with monster truck collection, robot

Cleveland high school dropout called 'genius'

CLEVELAND - You can count on it. Almost like clockwork. Every minute or so, someone will turn the corner at East 83rd Street and Central Avenue in Cleveland's Fairfax neighborhood and the car will slow to a crawl, if it does not stop outright. The eyes of the driver and anyone else inside will gawk at what they see at that corner.

For a residential neighborhood, the corner is one of the busiest.  Near the intersection lives a man who is labeled by his neighbors as a "mechanical genius."

"Hey, howya doin'?," is the usual response from Tim Willis. It is not the man himself who receives all the intention, but his circus of monster trucks, each painted in a garish yellow and red. 

Usually, when Willis talks to the drivers starring out their car windows, he is busy at work updating his fleet of monster trucks and mud racers. There are five monster vehicles used in mud racing competitions parked in the empty lot next door to Willis' East 83rd Street house. 

It's the only house in which Willis, 54, has lived. Thirty-six years ago when he was set to graduate from Cleveland's East Tech High School, he became so bored, he bolted the high school and walked to a nearby junk yard where he talked the owner into letting him volunteer. Willis had only three weeks to go to graduation, but his heart and his passions lay elsewhere -- in junk.

The junk yard owner told Willis, 18 at the time, if he could take a part off of any car, he could have the gig 

"I took the best parts off Chevrolets, Dodges, and Fords and I made them work together," said Willis, his eyes gleaming at the very thought of talking about junk. 

He said he actually made a car from discarded parts. Did it work? 

"Well, I drove the car to North Carolina," boasted Willis.

From that day, he found his passion.  He has been building vehicle or taking car bodies and refitting them to truck frames. As far as he is concerned, there is no limit to what he can do. 

In the garage behind the house, from the floor to the ceiling, there is stuff.  There is even an old machine doctors once used in surgery to keep a patient's blood flowing through the body while the patient's heart was stopped in an operation. 

"Mt. Sinai Hospital closed and they had this heart pump machine up for auction, so I bid on it and got it," said Willis, noting he paid about $2,000 for the medical machine.

"I wanted it so I could take it apart to learn how it worked," he said.  Once apart, he understood how its gears worked the blood which would pump from the machine.  He actually used a red dye to watch the progression of the fluid. "It taught me how you can take a little gear and put it with a bigger gear and get more torque."

Willis said that lesson helped him build better monster cars and trucks, the cabs of which may tilt up from the chassis.  He said he gets offers from around the country to participate in mud races or simply to park his cavalcade of cars and trucks at festivals. Willis won't say how much he charges to transport his group of vehicles to places as far away as California, but he said this is his only job.

The neighbors watch out for his vehicles that are parked next to his house. However, each monster truck has a special way of starting, so thieves would have trouble getting one off his property. Anyway, the vehicles would be easily seen. They are eye-catchers.

The newest is a robot, or transformer, as Willis calls his contraption.  At 18 feet tall, it is a mechanical man with a weight of 4,000 pounds.  Willis built his machine that can walk down the street. He has had it walking along Golden Avenue, a small street that intersects with East 83rd Street. 

"Golden doesn't get as much traffic, so I thought the transformer ought to walk that street first," said Willis, eyeing his mechanical invention as if he were a Dr. Frankenstein breathing life into a new being.

"He can actually walk," boasted Willis.  "It can stop, and then it can stand up, sit down, and standup to walk again."

Willis admits he is single-focused on his trucks and contraptions.  He was married twice, but each wife told him she felt she was playing second-fiddle to his real passion -- his trucks. 

"Each wife told me to make a choice -- either my machines or them," said Willis.  "So I chose my machines."

Among his trucks is a mobile fix-it shop he built.  It is filled with whatever he might need on the road to make repairs.  Willis puts its value at $250,000. In it are tools, electrical components, computers, drills and enough power to handle any repair. 

In the passenger seat is a mannequin.

"He is really the driver of the truck," joked Willis. It stays riding shotgun while they go to shows across the county.  Although Willis said he could have bought a discarded mannequin from a department store, he chose to build his own.  For a guy who builds so much, that makes sense.

To show what some of his vehicles can do, he drove one of his mud racers for a few yards along East 83rd Street.  He was able to gun the engine and lift up the front the truck doing a wheelie. He giggled when the brightly-painted truck lifted with its engine roaring.

"That's how we do it," he shouted as he parked the truck and leaped out onto its huge back tire. Willis is as much showman as he is mechanical genius.

"Yeah, they keep comin' by to see what I'm workin' on," said Willis.  He is working toward getting his fleet ready for the next big show that has asked him to rev his engines.  He is getting his circus ready for the road.  If you see him on the highway, give him a wave, but let him have the road.  It's his.

"My neighbors say I'm crazy," giggled Willis. "I guess I am," he admitted knowing the term is one of affection. 

Another driver drove by and took photographs of Willis climbing over his fleet of mud trucks and bringing his robot-transformer to its full height.

"Hey, howyadoin?" asked Willis to the passersby. He didn't wait for an answer. Willis was busy tightening down a bolt on an engine.

"Yeah, the people must like what I'm doin' because they keep on drivin' by."


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