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Model 15 White fuel tanker truck (Bob English for The Globe and Mail)
Model 15 White fuel tanker truck (Bob English for The Globe and Mail)

Classic Cars

Granddad keeps on trucking Add to ...

When Hank Doornekamp's Model 15 White fuel tanker truck was built in 1919, the number of vehicles on the still mainly dirt roads of North America had grown from less than 5,000 at the turn of the century to more than nine million, virtually all of them powered by gasoline.

In the motoring age's early days, the affluent few who could afford cars purchased gasoline from fuel company depots and then in cans or from hand-operated pumps installed by entrepreneurial general store owners.

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Dedicated "gas stations" began to appear by about 1910 as oil companies started to create distinct brand identities for their products. Tankers like the White, with its capacity of about 600 or so gallons (2,300 litres) and side compartments to hold motor oil and other products, would have spent their days making deliveries to these newfangled city stations, with their increasingly imaginative, Greek temple, Chinese Pagoda and Swiss chalet themed eye-catching architecture. Or perhaps running rural routes to those mom and pop operations, their limited capacity and speed easily meeting the public consumption needs of the day.

The modern tankers we share highway space with today have the capacity to haul 30,000 litres or more to meet the volume demands of the 20 million vehicles now on Canada's highways and approximately 250 million on U.S. roads, which now consume some 400 million U.S. gallons (1.514-billion litres) of fuel a day - more than a gallon (four litres) for each and every one of us.

While growing up in Oshawa, Doornekamp lived near a White Rose gas station, which obviously struck a chord, as he not only collects White Rose service station memorabilia but his tanker is dressed in the livery of Canadian Oil Companies Ltd. The firm was the Canadian subsidiary of U.S.-based ENARCO (the National Refining Company of Cleveland) whose newly created automotive brands included Black Beauty axle grease and White Rose gasoline.

Born in Holland, Doornekamp came to Canada in the early 1950s with family. His father was a stonemason/bricklayer and Doornekamp also learned the masonry trade, which paid for his civil engineering degree at Queens. After working for a couple of Toronto construction companies, he launched his own general contracting company, H.R. Doornekamp Construction Ltd., in Odessa, Ont., near Kingston.

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His interest in cars and particularly trucks "began in the sandbox" and he graduated to a 1929 Chevrolet - rather than the Honda motorcycle he wanted but his father didn't think was such a good idea - at 14, tinkering with it and later driving it to high school. He still owns it today.

His first old truck was a 1951 GMC single-axle long-nose highway tractor purchased in the late 1970s but then sold to finance another vehicle for his expanding company. He reacquired it a decade later but the project languished until a visit to a fellow construction firm owner's extensive collection of trucks "motivated me to get going."

The GMC was fully restored and since then he's says he's "never looked back" - now owning some 30 trucks, cars, tractors and pieces of equipment in original condition, restored or in the works.

He's also acquired an extensive collection of paraphernalia - pumps, signs, etc. - related to the automobile from the 1920s to the 1960s, much of it related to the White Rose brand. And he has plans to turn his home-based workshop into a replica of an early White Rose gas station.

The 1919 three-quarter-ton Model 15 White was purchased 15 years ago in the U.S., an older restoration he has since taken completely apart and rebuilt to a much higher state of detail, including the addition of the side boxes.

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White was a sewing machine manufacturer, whose founder Thomas White purchased a steam-powered Locomobile in 1898. Its drawbacks resulted in his sons developing a better steam power system which was employed in a series of successful White automobiles and later trucks and buses. But steam car sales had vaporized by the early 1920s and White stuck to trucks in the decades ahead. The company eventually ran out of steam again in 1980, and Volvo stepped in to buy its U.S. assets, later dropping the White name, while two Canadian companies acquired its Western Star brand operations here, which later merged with Freightliner.

The 1919 is powered by a big flathead four, mated to a four-speed transmission both built by White, which made virtually all its own parts. It's started with a hefty yank on a starting handle crank, followed by a dash back to the open-sided cab to twiddle the choke, throttle and spark levers.

It usually fires up easily and, after it's warmed up, "idles smoothly and quietly at what seems like about 10 revs per minute. You almost have to lean against it to know that it's going." Two oil sight glasses on the dash let the driver make sure oil is being delivered to the working parts.

And Doornekamp says it's surprising how fast it is for a working vehicle of its vintage. "I can get this baby up to 40 mph. But you're doing a whole lot of wiggling and wobbling when you do." Solid axles and leaf springs front and back are fitted with artillery wheels and beefy tires, with brakes only at the back.

"It's turned into a bad habit," laughs Doornekamp of his collection. But that's just fine with him. He had realized in his 40s, after working hard for many years, that he needed to enjoy life a little more. And now, he says, his life after working hours revolves around his trucks, reading about them, working on them in his shop, polishing them up on a Sunday afternoon, attending events or just driving them.

"I don't like competing. I'm not in it for trophies or prizes," he says, but shows give him an excuse to exercise his fleet. "And every weekend I use one of the trucks to drive into the village to go to the hardware store. Or to visit the grandchildren. They love it."

And why shouldn't they? What kind of kid wouldn't think it neat to have a grandfather who turns up in a yellow vintage tank truck, or a bright-red highway tractor and flatbed trailer?


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