This year marks the 85th anniversary of the introduction of the Ford Model A. During the week of June 24th, over 800 of them descended on Lexington for the 2013 Model A Restorer’s Club (MARC) national meeting. Despite numerous storms that rolled through Central KY during the week, spirits were high and your humble author, a Chevrolet man through and through, learned a thing or two about the car that replaced the Model T.
MARC was founded in 1952 in response to prejudice. In the early ’50s a Model A was just a used car. The organization’s chief founder, William Hall, started the club after being snubbed at an antique car meet where Model As weren’t allowed to park with the classics.
No one would deny a Model A owner the right to park front and center at a local cruise- in today, but there’s still a little bit of a chip on the shoulders of Model A enthusiasts. I mean that in a good way. The whole vibe of the event was one of blue-collar self-reliance and an overall feeling that if a blue- blooded automobile aficionado (as opposed to a simple “car guy” or “gal”) were to wander into the proceedings with high- falutin notions about 100- point level concours restorations and start bossing people around, that he or she would quickly be invited to commit an anatomically impossible act of sexual congress.
Not that any of the MARC members would put it in terms so blunt or insulting. And not that MARC doesn’t have any standards. There were no hot rods. MARC is for original (or original-ish) Model As. The popularity of the Model A for hot rodding enthusiasts over the decades has decimated the supply of “regular” cars.
There was still judging and inspecting to be had, for those that consider such things an amusement. There were flawless trailer queens that would satisfy the effete sensibilities of any blue- blooded aficionado, but there were as many and more drivers parked next to them in the parking lot across from the Lexington Hyatt.
It was hard to get even a semi- accurate count on the ratio of queens to drivers because even the queens were being driven. Sure, they’d been trailered to Lexington, but once the convention started they were being used to commute all over town. One of the many wonderful things I learned in the short time I spent interviewing MARC members is that getting out and driving your Model A is expected. Touring is part of the appeal and being willing to drive a car eight decades old hundreds of miles is considered normal, not nuts.
Chuck and Harold, two MARC members from Ohio, were typical. Both of them had driven their Model As down. Chuck, who served as my Virgil and was willing to answer a lot of my stupid questions, had a brown 1930 Coupe. He’d owned it for four years and had kept it close to stock, even continuing to make do with the 6- volt electrical system instead of upgrading to 12- volt like many of his fellows. His car, which he’d paid $8,000 for, was in great shape, but not so great that he was afraid to enjoy it.
Harold’s pickup truck, a blue 1931 model, was more worn because it had been much more used. A little battered and beat, with knobby blackwall tires that were half again as wide as the vintage tires on most of the trailer queens and a rubber bed mat the truck had been from Boston to San Diego over the years, but Harold had also used it as a farm truck for years before placing it into semi- retirement.
In order to get that much use out of an antique car a certain amount of leeway when it comes to keeping your Model A “stock” is to be expected. Walking up and down the rows of Model As I observed acknowledgement of reality: If an owner want to keep driving his old car and enjoying it to the fullest, he took full advantage of advances in technology.
It’s the simple things that you notice. A wire framed cup holder accessory that mounted to the dash was one of the most popular. The cars that had been converted to 12- volt electrical systems were easy to spot by the modern GPS units mounted to their windshields and plugged into jerry- rigged outlets.
Concessions to safety, particularly the installation of center high- mounted stop lights in the rear windows, were also in abundance as were more CB radios than could be found in the parking lot at C.W. McCall concert. Most of the cars were still being stopped by drum brakes all around, although there were a few front disc conversions mixed in.
Not that there is really much you can do to improve the safety rating on an eighty year- old car. Some had lap belts installed, but with a fuel tank mounted right on the other side of a wafer thin dash, almost as many had fire extinguishers handy.
The bigger threat that I could see to the Model As on display was time. Not for the damage that time could do to the cars. Anything damaged or destroyed by rust could be replaced, although I suppose at some point the owner would end up driving the automotive equivalent of George Washington’s hatchet. Time was doing a number on the enthusiasts themselves.
It’s been pointed out on this website before that automobile collecting is definitely an older person’s game. You need time and money to fiddle with old cars, neither of which is a luxury that a young person can afford. Attend any car show and the demographics always skew towards AARP membership instead of nursery school.
The MARC participants were still wrecking the curve. Other than a couple of younger guys who had trailered a car down for a friend, I didn’t see a single person under the age of sixty during the first four days I haunted the parking lot where the cars were parked. Okay, maybe I’m taking a little bit of artistic license, but there were definitely no young families with kids that I could see. As I talked to the participants I thought I began to understand why.
I’m never been much of an antique car fan. I can regurgitate obscure facts about postwar classic cars, particularly GM iron from the ’50s and ’60s, all day long, but my knowledge of stuff from the nineteen aughts, ‘teens, and Roaring ’20s is severely lacking. I can pick out the highend stuff, like a Duesenberg, at fifty paces and I can recognize a Model T. But frankly the mid range Fords, Chevrolets, Buicks, Dodges, and other mainline cars all look alike to a member of Generation X. We (and the Millennials) are the ones with kids and we don’t get cars this old.
It’s because we don’t really have any personal connection to them. My grandfather’s first car was a 1929 Model A, a Coupe model with a rumble seat that he purchased new and eventually turned into a pickup truck. I don’t remember that car because it was sold in 1949 and replaced with a dark green Chevrolet pickup before my father was born.
I remember the Chevrolet because it was given to Dad when Grandpa bought another new Chevrolet in ’73. I can remember riding in it and through those memories I have a connection to cars of the ’40s and ’50s. I understand what motoring in that era meant because I experienced it dozens of times as a child.
I also have a direct connection to cars of the ’60s and ’70s as well through my father. His first car was ’67 Mustang, so Dad was always pointing out early Mustangs and teaching me how to quickly identify the different years by looking at the shape (or lack) of the chrome trim behind the door. The Mustang was traded for a ’73 Mercury Capri that I can also remember riding in. Beyond that, in 1989, my father purchased a ’69 Camaro, which he and I restored and which was eventually passed to me for a short while.
I also had it in my head that pre- war cars were fragile, delicate things. Their skinny wheels, thin fenders, and paper-thin bodywork project weakness to me, compared to models from the ’40s and ’50s with their bulbous fenders, long hoods, and trunks big enough to hold two to four dead gangsters depending on how you fold them.
If I had thought about it for half a second I would have known better. Given the comparatively sorry state of roads in the United States in the first third of the 20th century, those old cars were built pretty tough. The number of Model As at the MARC convention that had been driven there under their own power were a testament to that.
The people keeping the Model A flame alive view the cars differently because, by and large, they are old enough to have seen and experienced the cars being used as more than “historic vehicles.” A septuagenarian I met named Duane had trailered his green with yellow trim 1931 pickup down from Illinois and admitted as we talked that he had abandoned FoMoCo for his daily drivers decades earlier after a bad experience with a Mercury. But he had learned to drive on a Model A pickup truck, and the one he was proudly showing around town was his second Model A truck of the same vintage of the one he’d first turned a wheel in as a boy.
It’s that connection with the past that enthusiasts of my generation don’t have with cars as old as the Model A. You can only connect so much with something you don’t have a personal frame of reference to, particularly with a car like the Model A that doesn’t have a clear line of succession to a modern model the way a ’67 Mustang does.
With my story about the Model A about 85% written, I headed over to the parking lot one last time on Friday morning to take a few more pictures as the MARC participants were heading home. I had planned to close this piece on a downbeat with a nod to Brendan’s excellent piece from Tuesday about “Forever Cars.” I was going to make some sort of half- assed argument that the problem wasn’t that aren’t any “Forever Cars;” the problem is that there aren’t any “Forever People.”
There was only one Model A fixed up as a police car in attendance at the convention. I’d taken about a dozen pictures of it over the week, but I’d never run into the owner. As I rolled down the back row one last time, I finally did.
Mike was about my age and was loading up the car with his wife and two kids to drive 800 miles back to Kansas. He and his family had convoyed down with an older couple for the convention and they were headed back the same way. It would take them about three days. He’d owned the car for about a year and was still learning about its eccentricities. He admitted that the older enthusiasts knew a lot more about the cars than he did and could diagnose problems a lot quicker.
As Mike showed off the lights and sirens on his car for me, I realized that I was going to have to change a lot of what I’d written piecemeal over the previous two days. I’m perfectly okay with that. Happy endings are always better. Maybe Mike and his family are the exceptions that prove the rule when it comes to the aging of the Model A enthusiast base, but I choose to believe that they represent hope that there will always be a group of people shepherding Model As along our roads for the next 85 years.