(first posted 12/22/2012) 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.
Great story Doug, there is at least one car person in every family. But can you give a rundown on the cars behind the stripped out bug. What is the make of the red 4 door?
Actually there are 3 Canada specific cars in the photo. L to R:
What’s left of an early ’60’s beetle
1962 Rambler Classic
Isuzu Bellett (Very rare import, I’ve never seen another)
1964 Valiant (Canadian made, so it’s basically a Dart with a Valiant front clip)
1960 Pontiac (Canadian made, narrow track Chevy chassis)
In the carport you can barely make out the bumper blade of another VW.
Most of the photos are generic, except for the one with me, and the one of my Uncle & his house. Attached here is a photo of the actual 51 Woody I took on my trip.
I was wondering about that Bellett – it was the first thing I noticed! Quite popular in Australia in the sixties, and made a name for themselves in motor sport before the all-conquering Datsun 1600/510 came along. From those taillights, it’s not one of the earliest models, nor the last ones; I’d guess around 1967-8.
I’d like to know about the little red sedan. Mazda? Whatever it is, we never got it in the U.S.
I detect a ’63 or newer Dodge Dart and a ’58 Chevy in the background.
My guess is it’s a Peugeot.
Great writeup Doug!
Great story…I loved reading it.
I love the turquoise 55 6-cylinder Ford pickup shown too. I thought that the 53-56 Ford pickups were so good looking, and saw a lot of them with Cadillac, Olds, or Chrysler V8 engines, but as I got older I realized that the reason so many of them had the front ends one-pieced was that the stock hood hinges were gimp, to say nothing of the door handles and latches.
And the 47 or 48 Ford 2-door sedan shown reminds me of the gray-green one I had, the one with the hopped-up flathead. Good times….
The red car is an Isuzu Bellett – a few thousand were sold in Canada from 1965-68. The history is very interesting…http://www.oldcarscanada.com/2010/04/1965-isuzu-bellett.html
I remember Isuzu Belletts at auto shows that my Dad took me to as a kid and at the PNE here in Vancouver. I’m suprised at the low amount of them sold…seemed like they were all over the place back then, of course out here on the west coast pretty well any Japanese car at the time sold quite well.
Interesting is the fact that although the Bellett was not sold in the USA Isuzu started selling cars and trucks there later but didn’t sell in Canada for years after that
I’d never heard of these cars before, but the link that Stumack posted is very interesting. The concern responsible for selling these in Canada apparently had grand plans for them that never really materialized. If I understand correctly, the 1968 models sold in Canada were actually assembled in Canada (probably CKDs, not truly “Canadian made”).
According to Wikipedia, Belletts were built from 1963 to 1973. In Isuzu’s lineup they replaced Hillman Minxes which had been built under license, and were in turn replaced by the Izuzu Gemini. The original RWD Gemini was Izuzu’s version of the GM T-Car concept; Holden also built a similar car called the Holden Gemini.
The Isuzu Bellet was quite a good car in its day unlike most of the Japanese cars from the 60s. Isuzu cut their teeth building Hillmans under licence and some of that Rootes Group toughness must have rubbed off. The Isuzu Gemini was a clone of the little Opel stamped out in Japan and fitted with Holden badges for the Aussie market.
I wish I had had an Uncle Peter!
I am Uncle Peter to quite a few nieces and nephews. Don’t see a whole lot of them though (all interstate), and none have an interest in shed-type things – unlike my son.
Fantastic story. I too wish I’d had a Uncle Peter.
A well-told story. You were very lucky to have both an Uncle Peter and parents understanding enough to let you spend a lot of time there. Had there been an Uncle Peter in my life, I would have been there almost all the time. The closest I came was the father of a friend down the street – he was the guy with all of the Studes. Any time he was wrenching on them, I tried to watch and help. My friend was less interested and often pulled me away to do other things.
The bright green Mercury sort of makes me shudder. I envy your early experience with the insides of a flathead.
Great experiences indeed. There’s something about showing a kid how an engine works – so long as airborne valve springs don’t knock your glasses off…..
Awesome story! 🙂
A great story! You captured that youthful innocence and desire for freedom that you felt would be delivered by driving your own car. I was crazy about cars as a kid (still am!). Luckily my Dad was very indulgent and would stop to let me look at cars for sale in car lots and parked on the street. Unfortunately, I don’t have any nephews or nieces that were interested in cars. My son though, is a total car and motorcycle guy. In fact he’s coming over this evening to show me the used Porsche Boxster he just got. I know he’ll let the Old Man take it for a spin around the block.
Yesterday I was reading through a bio about author Henry Gregor Felsen. He is most remembered for the classic novel “Hot Rod”. My favorite novel though, is “Boy Gets Car.” This story about a young teenager who gets his first car and discovers that working on old cars isn’t what he thought it would be. It captures the hopeful longing and naivete of the budding car enthusiast. The whole series of Felsen car novels were recently reprinted and are available new. I first read them in grade school and they bring back a lot of memories.
That book was also published as “Road Rocket” and is mentioned in my post here:
Isn’t it interesting how certain small things from our childhood leave such a permanent impression?
I will never forget being able to sit behind the wheel of a Triumph Spitfire when I was about this age. Huge memory!
Doug, I’m not sure how I missed this the first time, but this was a great read! It makes me miss the Uncle Peter I never had. The closest I have come is my Uncle “Ron”, my mom’s younger brother, who inadvertently cultivated my love of stacked headlights. He taught me other things, but we shan’t talk of them here. 🙂
Another GREAT STORY ! .
Dang, I got a few new photos and I was just about to update this post. Oh well, here’s a shot of the actual 1946 Ford:
And this is my Uncles’s Land Cruiser. Apparently it was green, but I remember it as being grey.