Tracing your own four-wheeled roots

Memories may be mementos of the past, but the past is not necessarily where they must remain. Just ask Bill Sherk. A recently retired high school history teacher, Sherk is breathing life into other peoples’ fondest memories. For Sherk, you see, is the self-appointed king of carchaeology.

“A charchaeologist,” according to Sherk, “writes the autobiography of a car. And I use the term autobiography rather loosely here,” he adds with a laugh. It all started when, on a whim, he decided to try to locate his very first car, a 1940 Mercury (“Merc”) Convertible. Not just a similar model, oh no. The actual car itself.

It seems Sherk has somewhat of an obsession with his first car. He cherished it when he owned it at 17 and still cherishes his memories of it today, more than 35 years after selling it. It was this passion that inspired him to chronicle the car’s past and uncover its current whereabouts.

He points to an old photo in which he’s standing next to the Merc and explains why the wheels are missing hubcaps. “You see, that was the style among teenage hot rodders – when you took the hub caps off everybody knew it was your car and not your father’s.”

He bought the Merc in959 and installed a 1957 Chevrolet 283 V8 engine. The car had its ups, but mostly suffered from downs. He had to sit with his feet resting on the frame because there was no floor; and he drove without exhaust pipes for a year, on one memorable occasion igniting his date’s front lawn trying to look cool by pulling his car close to her front door and revving the engine. At one point the hood even flew off at 60 mph.

Finally, he gave up in face of ever worsening odds and sold the car in 1962.

Beginning his search for the 1940 Mercury in 1988, Sherk finally located it six years later, in January 1994. How’d he do it? He began by offering a reward of $150 (his original 1959 purchase price), placing ads in newspapers and making phone calls as far away as Argentina. Finally, a tip from someone who read a Toronto Sun review of his most recent book, The Way We Drove: Toronto’s Love Affair With the Automobile, led Sherk to the Belleville, Ont. home of Laverne Allair. Allair, it transpired, had stored the Merc – serial number 1D5955 (Sherk still remembered the number) – in his garage for 18 years with the goal of restoring it when he retired.

“I was thrilled to know the car still exists. It looks beat up, but it’s solid, and there’s very little rust on the body,” says Sherk. “I was really excited that after searching for six years, and hearing people tell me I was crazy, that I could finally go visit my first four-wheeled love.”

His ongoing quest took him to the Ford Motor Co. archives in Oakville where he discovered only 324 Mercurys of the same model were built in Canada, and the car he owned is only one of three that has survived.

Research also revealed that in its lifetime the Merc had passed through the hands of 17 owners – eight prior to Sherk, eight after. In addition, he learned that since he sold the car it had only been on the road once, and that was in 1966.

Flushed with success, Sherk donned his carchaeologist title and went in search of new automobile mysteries to solve.

“The process fascinates me because when you look at cars coming down the assembly line, they’re all the same – they’re mass-produced. But once they leave the factory, each one becomes unique. They all go through a different history depending on whoever happened to own them. That’s when it gets exciting.”

So far Sherk has chronicled the histories of 10 cars. But he won’t accept payment for his work because, he asserts, “That would take the fun out of it.” He documents his projects in a regular column in Old Autos, a newspaper for vintage vehicle enthusiasts.

“When I write an article about a car, it’s sort of like running a restoration shop, but instead of rebuilding the car itself, you’re rebuilding the story of the car, putting all the pieces together. Some may be searching for a car they owned years ago, or they might now own an old car but don’t know much about its history.”

It’s often thanks to his remarkable memory that he’s able to trace the histories. He remembers cars he saw for only a fleeting moment decades ago. For example, at a car show several years ago, Sherk recognized a blue 1939 Plymouth four-door convertible as the very one he recalled seeing as a boy – but he remembered it being black. It turned out the car had in fact been black when the current owner pulled it out of the wrecking yard.

Sherk is presently working on recreating the 1959 Autorama, a hot rod and custom car show held in Toronto that featured 59 automobiles. He’s attempting to track down each and every vehicle using only an old show photograph as his guide.

His goal is to hold a show in the same location, featuring the same cars, in October 1999, exactly 40 years after the original event. It’s history that literally – and figuratively – drives him. He’s fascinated by the history of cars, not by the functionality of the automobile. In fact, he dislikes modern cars, and only drives his 1947 Mercury 114 Convertible for half of the year. From November to April he rides the subway or walks.

“I bump into old acquaintances far more often than if I drove. Cars can really isolate people,” he remarks.

But there’s one modern car he’s excited about – the new Volkswagen Beetle.

“The new design is very striking, and it evokes a lot of memories for many former Beetle lovers.”