Vintage car jogs memories

In 1912, Thomas Wilby, a British writer, and Jack Haney, a St. Catherines, Ontario chauffeur-mechanic, made a vain attempt to find a highway route from Halifax to Vancouver.

Several years ago, using an exact replica of their 1912 Reo, my friend Lorne Findlay and I decided to follow in their tire tracks. We would take the same roads, stop in the same towns and even sleep in some of the same hotels — or at least the ones that had not been turned into strip joints.

This mobile connect-the-dots game would create its own myths and mirths, but little did I know we would be making other connections, jogging memories and eliciting smiles.

Stories to tell
Lorne was better prepared for the onslaught of recollections. A 70-year-old Vancouver tour bus driver and auto historian, he had been around old cars, including the 1912 Rio, all his life. He would have been a millionaire if he had a dollar for every story told to him at the front bumper of a vintage car. 

Our Reo cruised along at 50 kilometres an hour like a rolling confessional — too slow for the passing lane but no problem for memory lane. It drew crowds of people who abandoned l discretion to spill automobile tales of life and death, of romance and rites of passage. It was as if the Reo had found the gateway to treasures of the mind, troves that people were only too happy to share.

Nova Scotia start
On the day of our launch, August 27, 1997, we dipped our wheels in the Atlantic and putted down the road to Truro, Nova Scotia, where the Golden Age Auto Club had gathered to greet us.

Among the enthusiasts was Herbert Upshaw, who can’t look at a Model T Ford without thinking about his father’s unwitting betrayal. When he was six years old, his father’s 1927 Model T slid backwards down a hill into a telephone pole. His father stored the wreck in their barn.

“The roof of the car caved in and it was covered in hayseeds,” Upshaw recalled, “but I’d sit in it and pretend I was driving along. I figured when I was big enough, I was going to fix it up. One day I came home and Dad had sold it for junk. He had paid $200 for it and sold it for $4.” The heartbreak eased when Herbert bought his own Ford, a purple 1948 model.

At Economy, Nova Scotia, Burchell Fulmore introduced us to his yellow 1934 Chevy Master cabriolet with its dual side-mounted tires, fender skirts over the back tires, a metal luggage rack behind the rumble seat and chrome trumpet horns. Burt had restored it, including its original beige leatherette upholstery.

Cars and youth
Lorne and I left Burt’s place feeling invigorated by his collection, but there was more than the allure of the cabriolet at play. Lorne had spent his idle moments of youth in Kaleden, British Columbia, just south of Penticton, riding his bike out to the highway to watch cars go by.

As for me, growing up in Niagara Falls, my friends and I would go down to the Falls and examine the tourist cars driving through Victoria Park, looking for exotic license plates from Colorado or Oregon.  But it didn’t dawn on me until this trip that I associated the ’60s convertibles with what I considered the height of romance.

After visiting Burt’s place, I had a repeated recollection of seeing a young couple, perhaps honeymooners, sitting in a convertible at a red light just up the hill from the Falls. Their radio was playing, they were both smiling and as a 12-year-old, I was filled with envy. Burt had had an orange-red 1957 Chevy Bel-Air convertible among his collection, which must have triggered the old memories.

New Brunswick wedding 
At Hartland, New Brunswick, site of the world’s longest covered bridge, the Reo crossed the path of a wedding photo session and became involved in the shoot. The father of the groom was elated that the newlyweds rode the Reo around the parking lot, as if the old auto could bestow a blessing on the marriage.

Why have old cars become so intertwined with weddings, we reflected?  Is the use of an old car to transport the bride to the chapel an attempt to tip the hat to the days when their parents were married? Or do they simply represent beauty and longevity?

Quebec connection
Old cars also celebrate birthdays. At St. André-de-Kamouraska, Quebec, on the St. Lawrence River just west of Rivière-du-Loup, a group of revellers celebrating a 60th birthday stopped the Reo for photos.

For Lorne, who was concerned about how a British Columbian would be received in Quebec, the Reo was an ideal icebreaker. After the group sang “Bonne anniversaire,” mugged for photos and kibitzed for half an hour, Lorne told them: “When I’m in British Columbia, we only hear the bad stuff about Quebec, yet today there is a whole different story we have to tell.”

A woman replied: “We only hear the bad stuff, too [about the rest of Canada]. You tell everyone when you get back home about us.” When he cranked the car back to life, the crowd sent him on his way singing “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow” — in English.

The Smilemaker
Only five days out of Halifax, the beguiling hulk had turned heads, raised thumbs and slackened jaws. It was nicknamed the Pathfinder in 1912, but ours should have been called “The Smilemaker.”

In Quebec City, we learned that cars are important to moviemaking because they evoke the feel of the era. At the home of Jacques Boutin, we saw a ’29 Chrysler roadster and a blue ’29 Ford with parking lights that might have rolled right off the set of an Al Capone movie.

Car design
The missiles on the front bumpers of a ’56 Cadillac Coupe de Ville recalled the Cold War era, just as a yellow ’69 Caddy evoked an age when those cars could also be bought in pink and baby blue. The attention to detail in the design of the old cars-some included decorative ashtrays, flower holders, wooden luggage rack holders or running boards-make today’s cars look completely boring.

Modern designers have bypassed panache in the pursuit of aerodynamic cars to reduce fuel consumption. The design emphasis is on the interior, which have become rolling living rooms. Then again, Lorne said, as we cruised through northern Ontario, cars have always had many functions.

A ’39 Buick Opera Coupe, he said, had a small back seat where a woman could sit and use the folded-down front seat as a vanity. The two clips on the door of a ’26 Auburn Wanderer allowed you to fold down the front and back seats into a little bed-with matching pillows.

Freedom symbols
In Winnipeg, we were invited to the Manitoba Classic and Vintage Auto Club annual awards dinner. From Winnipeg through the Prairies, it became clear cars were synonymous with freedom, especially for farmers.

Many of the reminiscences had to do with the impact of the family’s first car: taking goods to market and ending their isolation. It was no wonder that Manitoba and Saskatchewan were among the early leaders in car purchases per capita.

Car collection
At Fort Macleod, Alberta, we had lunch with the Alberta Reo Owners Club. Club member Harry Urwin has a stable of cars included two film stars: his 1947 Dodge truck starred in In Cold Blood and a 1960 Cadillac hearse was in Finders Keepers.

The lunch ended at a Reo collector’s paradise at the Asuchak farm outside of town.
Lynn Asuchak watched her husband, Joe, accumulate a barn full of Reo Flying Clouds and Royales, and then make a pitch for a 1930 Packard.

“It was used as a rum-runner, with the booze hidden under the floorboards,” she told us. “It could outrun any cop car.” She opened the door to reveal a huge back seat.

“Show a woman over the age of 60 this and she’ll giggle,” Lynn declared. “A lot of courting went on in these cars.”

Life saver
No story was more fascinating than the one we heard in Castlegar, British Columbia, one of the most beautiful stops on the trip. Ken Schmidt, a member of the local Vintage Car Club, drove a 1955 green and white Olds ’88, a car that saved his life in 1963 when he was hit head-on at 155 kilometres an hour by a ’55 Pontiac.

Schmidt, now a retired millwright, suffered a caved-in chest, a broken ankle and 38 pieces of glass in his eye, but he didn’t lose his sight.

“It if had been a different car, I wouldn’t be around,” said the 70-year-old. “They had a frame in them a foot deep-that saved me that day. I had just dropped my kids off at swimming, so it could have been a triple tragedy.”

Journey’s end
On our last day, we led an entourage of cars, including a midnight blue ’38 Olds, a green ’31 Chevy Deluxe coupe and a silver ’35 Packard along the southern tip of Vancouver Island to Cattle Point for the dipping of our wheels into the Pacific.

Unlike the original Pathfinders Wilby and Haney, we made it 8,244 kilometres across the country without the aid of trains, ferries, horses or diversions into the United States. (The original Reo was forced to follow the Columbia River into Washington State near Rossland, B.C.).

Delving into the history of the original trip was my anticipated joy, but I had become addicted to the routine of having my elbow tugged so I could listen to stories-nuggets of Canadian history. As much as I wanted to get back to my family, I didn’t want to leave the world of cars behind. It was a dream world driving an antique car, made for daydreamers like me. But, like Jack Haney, I jumped on the train to return to St. Catharines, Ontario.

Trains-now  there’s a place to evoke the past….