The Elkhart Truth, Tuesday June 21, 2016
Pinball wizard brings old machines back to life
ELKHART — At the end of Homer Avenue, just off the embankment from the U.S. 20 Bypass, a brown metal building holds hundreds of hours worth of entertainment.
The building houses Elkhart Pinball, a repair, restoration and showroom for dozens of machines with flashing lights, kooky sound effects and pinging bells.
The man behind the coin-operated fun is John Freel, who opened the business in 2001 as a retirement hobby-business after he finished his career at AM General in Mishawaka.
Freel bought his first pinball machine in 1988 for $35. He said it was always a dream of his to own a machine, but he couldn’t afford a working one.
“I bought my first one and it wasn’t working,” he said.
When he finally found a place that could repair it, that company said it wouldn’t because he had not bought the machine from them.
Freel, being a resourceful man who did everything from welding to air conditioning repair to painting at AM General, figured out how to get it to work himself.
“The first one I ever bought was a 1953 Marble Queen. I’m glad I bought that because it’s like working on a ’55 Chevy,” Freel said. “You could open up the hood, crawl inside, close the hood and still have plenty of room to work inside.
“The ’53 pinball was pretty much the same way … bare-bones, real simple and easy,” he added. “After I got it running, I found one in the paper for $35 not running (and thought), ‘Well, I’ll try it again.”
Soon he was buying one to three machines a week.
Freel said he is unsure of exactly how many pinball machines he has right now. A loft in his shop has dozens of machines that he will eventually repair, refurbish and sell.
“I do it for enjoyment,” he said. “I like bringing dead games back to life and then making a couple bucks.”
Freel's shop includes thousands of parts and original factory circuit boards testers, as well as tool racks he fashioned himself.
A rotisserie, which he welded himself, and allows him to mount a pinball machine's mechanicals to it for easy swiveling to work on each side.
Only dealing with clients with in 50 miles of his shop, Freel stands by his products and will make in-home service calls for repairs.
“Games should play as if they're brand new,” he said, who noted that a typical machine reconditioning job can take two weeks.
Freel is now engrossed in restoring a Flash Gordon machine, a project he has been working on for a month. The cabinet needed repainting, and the playfield, where the ball bounces and racks up points, needed to be replaced.
“Pinballs are great. You get them all done, you can play them. I play them for an hour, two hours and then it's time move onto the next one,” Freel said, who prefers to set his machines to free play so that customers don't accidently break something when removing the quarters.
Many still insist on inserting quarters on there machines, but Freel says he warns them of impending service calls.
“Odds are you'll see me” he said
Pinball machines range in price, but he said any working machine will start at $500 and go up from there.
To see the machines that Freel is selling, visit his website at www.elkhartpinball.com or call 574-298-9800. He is always looking to buy, sell or trade machines.
Thanks to The Elkhart Truth and Sam Householder for the story and picture