Thousands of old car buffs across Canada are tinkering in workshops or longingly eyeing familiar shapes under car covers in cold garages in anticipation of the arrival of spring, but none with more anticipation than Andrew Gretzinger.
That first warm-enough spring day will see Gretzinger behind the wheel of the freshly restored 1929 Graham-Paige 612 Cabriolet his father purchased more than half a century ago and making the drive over the familiar road from Niagara Falls to Niagara-On-The-Lake.
Gretzinger lives in Mississauga and works as a fixed-income portfolio manager at Manulife Asset Management in Toronto, but grew up in Niagara-On-The-Lake where he spent more than an hour or two in the handsome two-door Graham-Paige’s rear rumble seat, and later learned to drive in it.
His father had purchased the car in the early 1950s from the Niagara-on-the-Lake estate of a retired Toronto judge, who used to ferry it over on weekends on the steamship Cayuga. Al Gretzinger, then in his early 20s, had been cutting the grass for the old boy and ran into the lawyer clearing the estate.
Gretzinger says his dad always had an eye for a deal and asked what was going to happen to the old car hidden under a tarp in a corner of the barn. A week later, he got a call asking if he was interested in buying it and if so, for how much. “He replied 50 bucks,” says Gretzinger. “And the lawyer replied, ‘Get it out by Friday and it’s yours.’”
What he’d purchased was a car created by three Indiana farm boys who went from glass bottle manufacturing to becoming the largest truck makers in the world by the mid-1920s and then car manufacturers.
An engine deal with Dodge led to Joseph, Robert and Ray Graham becoming senior execs of that firm, to which they then sold their truck business, and then shortly afterwards resigned. But the brothers three had apparently always wanted to build cars and acquired Paige-Detroit Motors, turning it into Graham-Paige Motors Corp. in 1927.
The first new cars created under the brothers’ stewardship appeared in 1928 and G-P would remain in the business until being sold to Kaiser-Frazer in 1947. It then got into real estate and acquired and ran Madison Square Garden in New York.
In 1929, Graham-Paige was offering “refined and improved” cars built on five chassis with a wide variety of body styles, a choice of six- and eight-cylinder engines, and prices from $885 (U.S.) to $2,495. Uncommon for the time, they were fitted with four-speed gearboxes, in which first was locked-out (it was to be used only in “emergency” situations) and starts were normally made in second.
The 612 Cabriolet model was built on a 112-inch wheelbase chassis with solid axles front and back and powered by a 62-hp, 190-cubic-inch, L-head inline-six. Its cloth convertible top, roll-up windows and golf bag compartment accessed by a small side hatch make it a rare body style, of which less than five are thought to exist.
Shortly after Al Gretzinger acquired his then-30-year-old-plus G-P, it was given a tidy-up-fix-it-up and a paintjob in the red and black color scheme replicated in its current restoration and has been in the family ever since. Over the year, it saw continued use and had some bodywork performed, new upholstery installed and a new top, but never underwent a major renovation.
Andrew Gretzinger likely had his first rides in it shortly after arriving himself in 1969. Among the family photos is one of him as a little guy sitting on his father’s knees with his hands on the car’s wheel and a big grin on his face. “And I think I was saying mine, mine,” he says.
And it eventually did become his following his father’s death in 2008, by which time it was showing signs it was long overdue for some work. But Gretzinger continued to drive it on weekends, often to make Tim Horton runs – “It’s a pain in the drive-through, there’s no power steering, or cup holders” – and generally enjoying maintaining a link to his father, until one day while washing it the door handle fell off and shattered.
This prompted a more critical evaluation that revealed the rear-mounted “rumble seat” failing to line up properly and door panels bulging. “And it had a sad look on its face. They look at you and you can tell. I said to it, ‘You need to be painted.’”
“But I didn’t expect we’d go this route,” he says of the ground-up restoration that was recently completed in the Niagara Falls workshops of auto specialists The Autodream Group. “I thought it would be just a case of strip-it-down and clean-it-up, as on the surface it looked great.”
Gretzinger drove the Graham-Paige to Autodream on a cold December day in 2009 with the driver’s side window frozen half open and, even with the radiator icing up, it made the climb up notorious St. David’s hill. “I had to crank the spark advance to full out, open the choke and put the pedal to the floor, but it didn’t miss a beat.”
An Autodream evaluation revealed its frame was solid but its ash wood “skeleton” was badly rotted along with various other ills, and also one of those odd coincidental links that old cars can sometimes reconnect. Autodream team member Matt Kopp was familiar with the car. His father had driven his pal Al Gretzinger to the estate to pick up the Graham-Paige all those years ago.
The Graham-Paige now sparkles once again after Autodream’s efforts and will remain a common sight on Niagara Region roads with a Gretzinger at the wheel, but its big outing this year will likely be to the 40th anniversary celebration meet of the Graham Owners Club International, which will be held July 3-8 in Cobourg, Ont.
Back in 1929
Canadian fisheries biologist Archibald Gowanlock Huntsman invents the fast-frozen fish fillet, winning a race with Clarence Birdseye. Called “Ice Fillets,” they were intended to serve the Toronto market.
“Rocket Fritz” von Opel, grandson of the founder of auto maker Opel, becomes the first to fly a rocket propelled airplane, the Opel RAK.1. Powered by 16 solid-fuelled rockets, it travels 1.5 km in 75 seconds and then crashes.
Radio fans tune in to hear the NBC debuts of the Fleischmann’s Yeast Hour featuring crooner Rudy Vallée and the Amos ’n Andy sitcom.
Moviemakers film the first all-outdoors full-length “talkie” In Old Arizona, the first Technicolor sound film On With the Show, and Hallelujah, the first Hollywood film with an all-black cast.