I was born in 1967, into an immigrant family in Canada. My parents had come over from the Netherlands as teenagers during a wave of immigration in the early 1950s. My immediate family pretty much viewed cars as appliances, but I was different. From the day her three year old stood crying and waving as our 1960 Pontiac was towed off to the wreckers Mom knew her son was an old car guy.
Things were rather stable and conventional in my family when it came to cars, but at an early age I latched onto my Uncle Peter, who is my Dad’s youngest brother and only about 15 years older than me. As a result the early years of my youth were filled with weird and wonderful vehicles I never saw at home.
I’ve posted this photo at the top before, but this shows three year old me at the wheel of the contraption. My Uncle took a rolled VW, stripped off the body, built a rudimentary roll bar, added 1930s headlights and called it done. He actually drove this on the street, briefly.
Several of my Dad’s siblings developed wanderlust, and Peter was the most susceptible. The pink 1962 Rambler shown behind the contraption was his daily driver and he once told me of a road trip to Florida, sleeping on the fold down seat in the Rambler as he went. Apparently it wasn’t that great, as hippies discovered sleeping in old cars were waked and told to move on.
His pattern during those years was to work construction all summer and travel abroad during the off months. The winter of 1971 started out as a bicycle trip across Australia, but after encountering some fellow travelers in a Land Rover he wisely tagged along for some amazing adventures that thrilled the rest of the family when we saw the slide show on his return. He must have enjoyed the 4X4 experience, because once he’d accumulated some money he bought a brand new FJ40 Toyota Land Cruiser.
I remember the grey Land Cruiser vividly, the jouncy ride and the promise of adventure that it symbolized to me. Alas the promise was unfulfilled, within a few months the Land Cruiser was hit by a 55 Chevy and totaled. It may have been just as well, since FJs didn’t last long in our salty winter climate.
Later Peter built a garage-like building behind my Grandparent’s house and began to work on cars in earnest. This would be about 1975. His daily driver and parts chaser was an old Ford stepside pickup painted flat blue with plywood running boards.
It must have been a 1955 model because it had the flatter windshield and I remember him telling me it was a Y block engine. (The reason I remember is because I didn’t understand what that meant but was too embarrassed to ask).
This was the first vehicle I’d been in that didn’t have swing pedals, the big round clutch and brake pads were fascinating. Where did they go when he pushed them and they disappeared under the floor?
The car he was working on in the garage was a 1948 Mercury 4 door sedan. Every Saturday I would beg my parents to drive me over to help my Uncle. I helped him whenever I could, and although I now suspect that I wasn’t much help at all these were very happy times for me. We stripped down the flathead V8 together (I have memories of removing the valves with a crowbar and springs flying across the garage??) and following a basement rebuild I helped him move the engine through the snow back to the garage using a skateboard and a pair of 2X8’s.
The parts car for this adventure was a 1946 Ford Super Deluxe 2 door sedan, and I greatly preferred the looks of the plain black Ford to the fussier Mercury. Whenever I got bored I’d go outside and sit in the Ford, gripping the wheel with my 9 year old hands and imagine fixing the car myself, driving to school or even travelling about the country like my Uncle. I tried to put it back together using found hardware and bits of wire, my efforts didn’t amount to much but it was another learning experience.
Luckily I never got any grief from my Mother for the times I returned home covered with dirt and grease. She just made sure I wore old clothes and bought me some felt lined boots for the winter months.
My Uncle began driving VW beetles that could be had for almost nothing in the 1970’s. The best one was a red 1965 with factory handcrank operated sunroof.
He would let me shift gears while driving, and only once did I make the mistake of downshifting into reverse instead of first, which are in almost the same location on the beetle. Bzzzz!
A white 1967 beetle which was very rust free but didn’t run was around for a few months. As with the Ford I spent endless hours inside, shifting gears and wishing it could be mine.
A Zenith Blue 1968 beetle appeared in the newspaper classifieds for $150, so I went with uncle and grandfather to check it out as a potential engine donor. It turned out to be rust free AND fully functional so he bought the 68 and sold the 67. I was not pleased; not only did I not get to keep the 67 but I didn’t like the 68 as much. It didn’t have towel bar bumpers, and the basketweave seat vinyl felt and smelled funny to me.
Meanwhile, the 1948 Mercury was coming together. Originally a stately maroon, it got painted AMC Big Bad Green,
and the interior was done in brown naugahyde. I have to give my Uncle some slack here, because it was the 1970’s after all, but words cannot describe how luridly awful it looked.
Even my Uncle admitted it was a terrible mistake, lost interest in the project and sold it to someone who immediately painted the car white.
Soon after came the end of this childhood chapter, because my Uncle’s wanderlust had returned. One slushy winter day I went downtown with my Grandparents and we put him on a bus to Calgary. Unlike other years, he didn’t return in the spring.
And that’s the end, except for one week in the summer of 1989: One of my Aunts had terminal cancer, and she wanted to visit her western relatives one last time. She was terribly anxious about flying, and offered to bring me along if I would hold her hand on the plane. I jumped at the chance, and while she made the family rounds I went off to Canmore for a week with my Uncle. He was a maintenance worker for the Alberta Parks Department at the time, so he took his work truck and gave me the keys to his new VW Fox.
Never in my life had I experienced such total freedom of exploration, and spent days driving around in the mountains in the nimble four-speed Fox. It was a revelation to me, I had always appreciated cars for what they were, but the Fox was great because of where it could take me.
Peter had built his own house, which looked suspiciously like his previous garage-like structure with a 2nd level added beneath, and beside the house was his latest project, a 1951 Ford Woody wagon.
It was a dry prairie car with minimal rust, but the wood was shot and unlike now no kits were available. He showed me the wooden pieces he was reproducing by hand, but the work was slow and he confided that the car was deteriorating outdoors and he was going to have to sell it.
One of the best weeks of my life drew quickly to a close, and all too soon we were back at the airport. The tearful final goodbyes of my Aunt and her siblings took center stage, but I correctly suspected that this was the last time I would spend with my former mentor.
My life turned out totally different than my Uncle’s, yet in some ways the same. Through my job I’ve traveled the world including Australia, I have varied interest in old cars, and I have my own Beetle project too.
It’s still not finished either, but that’s one family tradition I’m hoping to break.