Given the stresses of the profession, it’s understandable that many orthopaedic surgeons have hobbies that are far removed from the operating room, but others have it in their nature to continue tinkering.
When B. Sonny Bal, MD, heads home from his day job, he looks forward to wrenches, grease, and vacuum hoses. His pastime is restoring old cars, especially Ford muscle cars from the 1960s.
“Fixing things, from a broken toaster to an old radio or a clock, was just something I did when I was growing up,” Dr. Bal explains. “When I could afford it, I bought an old car, and I kept it running through college and almost up to medical school. In medical school and residency, life was so busy, there was no time. But once I became an attending, I got back into it as best I could, given time constraints.”
A rusty truck in a barn
Dr. Bal’s first elective automotive project was a 1950 Chevy half-ton pickup that had been owned by a farmer and stored in his barn. “I would say I restored that truck in the sense that nothing on it actually ran when I got it,” he says. “I had to fix the engine, the wiring, the power train all the way through to the rear axle.”
After repairing or replacing virtually every part on the truck, Dr. Bal and a friend reinstalled the engine, hooked it up, and were excited to discover that it fired right away. “It’s been running ever since,” laughs Dr. Bal, “but I never took on a project that extensive again.”
The pickup truck is painted purple—a color some people think is an odd choice given Dr. Bal’s efforts to return vehicles to their original condition. “We looked at the firewall and found traces of the original paint. There actually was a Chevy purple in those days,” he explains. “We had a paint shop do a computer match. So the truck went back to its original color.”
It’s hard to miss Dr. Bal’s passion as he explains his attraction to these classic vehicles, not merely as projects, but as remnants of a bygone era.
“In the 1960s, you’d have a bunch of guys like [automobile designer Carroll] Shelby who would put a 500-horsepower engine in a go-kart and slap a badge on it,” he laughs. “There was nothing right about those cars. They were wrong from the point of emissions, they were politically incorrect cars. They were dangerous, loud, fast—Ralph Nader would have a heart attack. And they represented a part of the society in this country—that ‘going-to-the-moon’ attitude. It’s a different mentality now.”
A growing collection
The Chevy truck was just the first in a growing collection of vehicles, which he talks about with the enthusiasm a teacher might use discussing a group of star pupils.
His 1967 Mustang drives as though it was brand new, which it practically is. “I got lucky,” he says. “An older lady owned it and I was the second owner. We still have the original dealership receipt. The car only has 51,000 miles on it. Did I restore it? To some extent, but there really wasn’t a whole lot to restore.”
The 1968 Mustang remains a work in progress. “I’ve been working on it for the last three years. It’s got a deluxe interior and it’s being slightly modified for performance.”
His “family car” is a 1971 Ford Torino GT convertible. “It’s got six seats, and I’ve got six people in the family. We all pile in, and I step on the gas, and that car can keep up with the best of ’em. It’s something else.”
The 1972 4x4 Chevrolet Suburban presented him with another challenge. “It was the last Suburban model that had three doors. Next to the 1950 Chevy, the Suburban probably took the most work.”
Perhaps Dr. Bal’s most surprising choice is a 1977 Ford Grenada. “It’s not a collector’s car,” he admits. “A very square-looking, typical 1977 car, with 36,000 original miles. It’s got the original factory invoice and receipts. The beauty lies in the eye of the beholder, obviously. My very first car was a Ford Grenada. I’ve got a special spot in my heart for it.”
Having a family and an active practice keeps Dr. Bal from spending as much time as he might like working on his hobby, but he’s always keeping his eyes open for new projects. “Most recently, I bought a 1969 Mercury Cougar convertible with a 428 Cobra Jet engine,” he enthuses. “The heavy stuff on the engine, I’m outsourcing. When it comes back, some of the vacuum lines and the under-dash stuff I’ll do myself, because I can manage that in the garage. The painting I’ll have done. This is a smaller scale effort.”
Because they are true labors of love, Dr. Bal has never sold any of his restored cars. “I’ve thought about it, but I enjoy them,” he says. “My kids seem to enjoy them, and they make for some family adventures. The day we stop enjoying them, we’ll sell them, but right now they’re just too much fun.”
When asked if there are any crossover skills that apply to both orthopaedics and car restoration, Dr. Bal turns serious. “I’m a joint replacement specialist, and in dealing with particularly tough problems, you have to have a goal,” he says. “You can’t just start operating on a knee and say, ‘We’ll see how it turns out.’ You have to visualize a knee that is straight, that bends fine, then put the parts in your mind and say, ‘This is the rough road map. This is how I’m going to get there.’
“A car is the same way. The only things that keep you going are planning, anticipation, and vision. You have to know where you want to go. That little quality, I think I use it in my profession just as much as in my restoration. Both of them teach you patience and discipline. My hobby very much complements my profession; I hope that my colleagues can find similar gratification in whatever hobbies they have.”