My Family’s Automotive Curse

Earlier this week, I received news that my grandfather was in the hospital; apparently he was retaining water in his legs. I’m no doctor (heck, I’m barely a mechanic), but even I know that this is not a good thing.

I decided to give him a call to help keep his spirits up while he was stuck in the hospital. It’s always good to hear Grampy Bill’s voice—warm, crackly, and bright like a campfire—on the other end of the phone. He’s 94 years old now, still sharp as a saber. He was raised in Iowa, survived the Great Depression, and served stateside in World War II after a particularly nasty case of frostbite sidelined him from overseas service. An extra ten pounds of water weight wasn’t going to bring him down.

All he wants to talk about when we’re on the phone is car stuff. I don’t really come from an enthusiast family, but my grandfather has always liked my taste in cars. He still brings up the triple-mint-green 1986 Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme I owned in college, despite the fact that he never saw it in person, only photos (he lives in New Orleans; I’m in Akron, Ohio).

I was telling him about the rotten luck I’d been having with my winter car, the 1990 Volkswagen Jetta. I swapped a set of snow tires on, and things were fine for about a month before the inner sidewall on the left rear tire blew out on my way home from work. I also regaled him with the tale of the entire left rear wheel coming off of my boss’ BMW a few years back, the very same story I told in my first Bimmerlife article to begin my tenure here.

I also told him about the museum exhibit I’ve been working on, as well as the Ford Model T roadster we moved in front of the carousel to allow patrons to sit in and take photos. “Grandpa,” I asked, “didn’t you have a Model T roadster?”

I could practically hear him smiling on the other end of the phone. My grandfather had told me countless times about the Model T he shared with a friend during the Great Depression—they each invested $38 into it for a half-share of ownership—and each time I’d hear another chapter, a new wrinkle to the tale of Grampy Bill’s Model T roadster.

The roadster was rough, from what he tells me. Every body panel was a different color, and it burned more oil than gasoline. When farmers would drain the oil out of their tractors—sometimes directly onto the dirt below—Grandpa and his friend would strain the dirt and rocks out of the oil and put it right into the Model T. “Shows you what we knew then,” he says, laughing. “But,” he adds, as he does every time, “it was a complete car for seventy-five bucks!”

Sometimes we’ll joke: “I think you got hosed, Grandpa!”

Grandpa’s favorite feature of his Model T roadster was the rumble seat. Apparently, he and his buddy would pick up the local schoolteacher and take her for rides around town and through the Iowa countryside, with her sitting in the rumble seat. The new story this time around involved one of those leisure drives: Grandpa was driving down a hill, when something rolled past him. It was the left rear wheel. Suffice to say, that schoolteacher did not end up becoming my grandmother.

If that’s our family curse, so be it. Grampy Bill turns 95 in February; I hope that part of that curse involves living that long. I’ve got some great stories for my grandkids.

Grampy Bill is home safe now. I told him to make sure my uncle checked the torque on the left rear lug nuts before picking him up from the hospital.—Cam VanDerHorst

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