Cars that have survived in original condition for six decades acquire a patina, touches of wear, dulled chrome and sun-faded paint that many feel add to their visual charm, and their interiors acquire a unique odour some might find musty and mildly noxious but that other, more discerning noses, will interpret as a tincture of time itself.
In the description of a painstakingly restored VW microbus auctioned for more than $200,000 recently, it was noted that even the ashtray had been meticulously refinished. Matthew Rodgers, on the other hand, delights in pointing out that the one in the 1951 Pontiac he purchased last year for $5,000 still contains a cigar butt very probably puffed on by its original owner.
This isn’t as unlikely as it sounds even though 60 years have passed since cigar-loving Harry Fierheller of Maple, Ont., paid about $2,200 to acquire his Fleetleader DeLuxe new from the Morton Brothers dealership in Newmarket.
It had only 22,400 miles on its odometer – the first few acquired taking relatives for rides on newly opened Highway 400 – a sticker indicates Fierheller had its oil changed at a Woodbridge area Esso station in 1958. Shortly afterward, he laid it up in his barn from which it didn’t emerge until the mid-1980s.
After passing through a couple of owners, the odometer still read just 22,700 miles when Rodgers became its very happy new owner.
Rodgers, 36, who lives in Kaladar, Ont., is an accidental old auto enthusiast. He had no more than a passing interest in vintage vehicles until identical twin brother Mark (they make up two thirds of triplets with sister Rebekah) needed to sell his rare but unrestored, rough and still running on its original mechanicals, 1938 International Harvester one-ton truck a few years ago.
Rodgers stepped in to keep it in the family and, despite having to learn to double-clutch to work the gearbox, “totally fell in love with it.”
And also with the reaction it drew when he drove it.
“It wasn’t just a case of, ‘Oh look at what I have,’ but when I drove down the street that children would point and people would wave. And come up to me when I was in the Tim Hortons parking lot, or putting gas in it, and tell me their stories about learning to drive on a truck like it, or driving one on their first job. Driving a classic vehicle was completely different to anything I had experienced. It was amazing.”
Rodgers also found he enjoyed attending old vehicle gatherings, but that the International Harvester wasn’t exactly ideal for going places – it was slow, hard riding and with headlights that aren’t reliable. “You hit a bump and they might go out. And you hope the next bump will turn them back on, which isn’t always the case. The wipers also don’t work and it’s missing the passenger window.”
Rodgers, who works in a real estate office and is establishing himself as a photographer, enlisted his more mechanically minder brother’s aid in seeking something more modern and driveable. And it was he who discovered the 1951 Pontiac Fleetleader DeLuxe in Brockville, the for-sale ad posted on the bulletin board at the local Goodwill store.
After Googling 1951 Pontiacs and viewing images of shiny restored examples, Rodgers went to see the car. It was mechanically sound but its original paintwork had been crudely touched up. “It wasn’t as beautiful as I was hoping. But it had class and style and a story to tell because it was 100 per cent original.”
It was actually still riding on the tires fitted on the assembly line at the GM plant in Oshawa on May 18, 1951, which Rodgers finds pretty neat, as May 18 also happens to be his birthday.
In 1951, Canadian Pontiacs were to all intents Chevrolets with little more to differentiate the brand than the hood ornament – the rear-view mirror on Rodger’s car actually has a Chevy bowtie on the back – and were examples of GM’s first post-war redesign introduced in 1949.
This low end of the range Fleetleader DeLuxe is powered by a 93-hp, 239-cubic-inch flathead six with three-speed column shift transmission and no power steering or brakes. It came with a clock and heater but no radio and is one of 37,370 Pontiacs built in Oshawa in 1951.
Rodgers learned the Pontiac’s elderly owner, who had a connection to its original purchaser through his wife’s family, had turned down some offers, concerned it would be hot-rodded. But after hearing Rodgers intended to keep it the way it was, he knocked $3,500 off the asking price. “I actually drove it home that night. It was pretty exciting,” he says.
Rodgers obviously has an empathy with old things – he collects antiques and enjoys photographing derelict houses and speculating on the lives that were once part of them, and this carries over to his new-found love of old cars.
“Who owned them, where did they go? Family vacations, maybe a bride sat in the back seat? And when I go to car shows I love hearing stories about other people’s cars. It’s really cool. And a lot of fun.”
And he’s not alone. At a car show earlier this year, the Pontiac – parked amidst rows of expensively restored showpieces – won the President’s Choice award. “There aren’t many completely original cars around any more and people obviously enjoy seeing it,” says Rodgers.
Back in 1951
It’s a good year for sci-fi movie fans who line up to watch Flight to Mars, The Man from Planet X, The Day the Earth Stood Still, When Worlds Collide and The Thing from Another World.
Rapidly expanding numbers of TV watchers switch on to Search for Tomorrow, which begins a run that lasts until 1986, and can twist the dial to catch the first episodes of I Love Lucy.
Remington Rand delivers the first commercially produced computer, a UNIVAC 1, to the U.S. Census Bureau.
The “shot heard ’round the world” cracks off the bat of New York Giant Bobby Thomson and into the stands as the Giants – trailing first place by almost 14 games in mid-August – win the National League pennant.
At the 23rd Academy Awards, the movie All About Eve, starring Bette Davis and Anne Baxter is nominated for 14 awards – a record that won’t be matched until Titanic in 1997 – and wins six, including Best Picture.