Thursday, July 29, 2004

A clutching commitment

When I was talking to Harold Musolf out in Seattle for a story about the International Case Exposition coming to the Albert City Threshermen's Show Aug. 13-15, I couldn't help but think about my own adventure (or should I say misadventure) into auto collecting. While the classic I acquired may not have been as rare as Howard's 1912 Case car, I still fondly remember my 1950 Studebaker pickup.

It was June 1995, about the time the film The Bridges of Madison County came out. I was single then, and I thought it would be nice to drive around the Iowa countryside in a battered old pickup and bring along my Nikon to take pictures of the bridges, and, uh, people.

After I saw an ad in a 1948 magazine for a Studebaker farm pickup, I wanted one. I looked throughout northwestern Iowa and settled on one I located near Yetter in Calhoun County.

"I parked it just a couple years ago," the owner told me. I looked askance at the faded-green 1950 Studebaker pickup with faded-tan grill. It really was a unique truck. It came with a chain on the grill, and even though it was older than I was, it still had the Lake City dealer plate on it.

Now, if I'd put two and two together, I would have checked to see just how long it had been since Iowa law apparently did not require that pickups intended primarily for farm use did not require highway licensing. That would have told me just how long it had been since the truck had actually been DRIVEN, at least LEGALLY, off the farmer's property, and not just illegally without being caught. That would have told this South Dakota native that, in Iowa, a couple years is a very relative term.

"It was sort of funny how I found it," the farmer said. "I bought this farm, see, and I started to finish tearing down this shed that had collapsed and I found this pickup inside. The key was in it, so I just turned it and it started right up."

The Studey now sat forlornly in an oats field. Except for the slightly flattened fender where the farmer said the building had collapsed against it, the body was pretty straight. I lifted the hood.

There was no wiring but a lot of rust and a distinctive, pungent, mousey smell.

"It might need a battery," the farmer said.

"Hmmm... I see that."

About $650 later ($500 for the truck and $150 for towing) my spanking old Studebaker pickup was parked beside my apartment building in Spencer where I lived at the time.

"So does it run?" my landlord asked.


"So how long do you intend to let it sit there?"

"Well, uh..."

"I'll give you a week to move it."

It just so happened that I had signed a year lease the previous Aug. 1 and it was July 26. I had six days to find a different place to live.

Five days later I bought a mobile home in Everly to give my Studey a home. The truck sat there a little over a year until it caught the attention of the city fathers.

"License it or get rid of it," the letter from the council said.

Now, licensing was a little complicated. The original owner of the pickup, the man who had sold the farm to the farmer who had sold me the truck, was deceased and had not conveyed clear title to the truck. So I obtained a bill of sale and paid the bond for a lost vehicle title and pretty soon I had plates on the pickup.

"Does it run?" the police officer asked.

"Well, it's licensed."

"That's not what I asked. Does it run."


"You have 30 days to move it."

At least the timelines were getting longer. I sold my mobile home and bought a house in Estherville where the Studey sat in the driveway for six months before the code enforcement officer stopped by.

"I'll get it running," I said.

Now Ted McCord in Spencer is a very good mechanic. Since Ted had a Studebaker pickup of his own, I figured he would be the one to work on it.

But alas, my Studey was a challenge even for Ted.

"The parts house in Indiana closed," Ted said morosely.

"So what does that mean?"

"It means it'll be a while."

Nearly two years and $10,000 later, my Studey was on the road. I left McCord's Auto Service and made it just past Fostoria, about six miles toward home, when the engine seized up due to a bad radiator core.

Ted was profusely apologetic. There really was no way he could ever have known the core was bad. He replaced the radiator at cost, and the Studey was on the road again.

There were a few more breakdowns, but from talking later to car collectors in the know, I learned that was not unusual if a vehicle had been idle for years.

By the time I had the Studey running just right, I sold it to start a business, which was a real mistake. The business just didn't get off the ground, and I was minus a Studey.

After my experience, I learned a couple things about antique car collecting.

Don't do it for the money. Even if you're a master mechanic and body person, there are a lot of easier ways to make money.

Be patient. Don't put yourself under a deadline. You don't know when or even if you can buy parts. It took me six months to get a new wiring harness from Brazil.

Get ready for a long-term commitment. Restoring an antique car is a lot like marriage. You could very well be in for a lifelong commitment.

It was five years since The Bridges of Madison County had been in the theaters that my Studey was on the road. By then, Clint Eastwood had made several more movies and Madison County was no longer a secret but a nest of B&Bs advertising nationally. I had my Studey running - for a little while. And who knows. Maybe I'd do it again.