Back when I was a kid, my family would commemorate the coming of spring by taking a car trip out to the Long Island Automotive Museum (owned by Henry Austin Clark Jr.). _ For a car-crazy kid like me, this was the equivalent of Howard Carter wandering around inside King Tut's tomb. _ The collection was enormous, probably the largest on the East coast. _ Virtually every year from the dawn of automotion was represented at the museum. _ The collection went so far back in time as to include turn-of-the-century, light-weight, bicycle-wheeled contraptions with tillers instead of steering wheels. _
Some of the cars in the museum were restored to pristine condition. _ Others were well preserved, unrestored specimens found in the proverbial barn somewhere. _ The paint would be faded to a dull patina and some of the leather upholstery, dried out and cracked. _ To go ahead and do a sparkling mint restoration on these perfectly intact antiques would rob them of their history, so they were simply displayed 'as is.' _Over the decades, these cars were always parked in exactly the same spot, so I assume they were never driven.
I'm told, when some of the cars were discovered, they were such a rusted, wet-rotting shambles, there was no choice but to dig in, take everything apart and use the old parts as templates for the creation of new ones—and occasionally replace non-operational extinct equipment with modern replacements that could be hidden behind something. _ The resulting 'driver' automobiles may not have been 100% original and their level of restoration would be something less than immaculate, but these were the cars that lived and breathed, exhaling blue smoke as they were driven in parades or just exercised for their health.
One such living vehicle was the museum's hook & ladder fire engine. _ This machine was a real blast because it was used to give rides to us kids on the winding dirt trail behind the museum buildings. _We young 'uns would take turns clanging the bell while that beautiful, dusty, faded-red, retired hero would belch gobs of smoke like an uphill freight train and chug-chug-chug its stalwart, ancient heart out for us, siren wailing like a London air raid. _ For the aforementioned car-crazy kid, few things were as much fun, and aside from holding a certain young lady's hand during school recess, this remains my happiest childhood memory.
It was a terrible shame when the museum closed its doors back in 1980 and the collection was auctioned off and dispersed, but in its day there was nothing else quite like it-at least, not nearby. _ When I last saw them a few years ago, the empty, derelict museum buildings were a pitiful sight.
At the museum, the Model-T Ford was my favorite antique car. _ I can't quite put my finger on why I loved them so darn much—they certainly didn't have the opulence of the Mercers, Stutz's and other brass-age automobiles—but the Model-T's just seemed to have that magic certain something, and I'd certainly fallen in love with "Emaline," the 1915 Ford fire chief's car which had been the starting spark of the museum's collection.
Back in the 1980's, when everybody had a little extra money, I had the opportunity (and my spouse's blessing) to buy a decently overhauled antique Ford. _ By that, I mean it was inaccurate, but neatly refurbished with improvised upholstery and modern equipment—a perfectly nice, non-prize-winning driver—offered for the modest sum of $5,000; but I mentally flipped a coin and decided against it. _ At the time it just seemed too impractical as we were saving up to buy a house, but as the decades came and went, I finally came to the age when I realized that being practical isn't always the way to go, so I did eventually wind up buying a '15 Ford. _ Mine has a touring body and of course, it's open, which just screams, "vintage!" _And I can crowd in a big load of boisterous friends and neighborhood kids and hit the road with that outrageous klaxon horn attracting all kinds of attention on the way to Friendly's ice cream parlor. _ Does good clean fun come in much bigger slices than that?
Though not a contemporary of Mr. Ford, or even Mr. Clark, I'm still old enough to have ridden in some seriously dated rolling iron. _I'm talking about the 1950's and 60's, a time when you could tell the make and model of an automobile at a glance from three blocks away. _ They came in two basic types; the underpowered, albeit voluptuous, swing-era juggernauts that looked as though they had fallen out of a jello mold and the slightly newer cars that were shaped more or less like shoeboxes, sporting all manner of fins, slanty radio antennas and gas-guzzling V-8's of locomotive displacement. _ It could be said of the latter cars that the coachmaker had taken absolute control, designing with totally uninhibited abandon, completely ignoring the adage about form following function. _ Excess was everywhere and some cars carried over a hundred pounds of chrome. _ Gas tank filler necks were cleverly hidden inside a fin or behind a spring-loaded license plate bracket or where-have-you (the idea of course being that of driving gas station attendants bonkers).
There were no shoulder belts, of course, and just to make absolutely certain each occupant would be seriously injured in all but the most minor of fenderbenders, the dashboards were cast of solid steel and festooned with jutting handles, levers and other assorted weaponry. _American cars were built back then and even the headlight dimmer switch on the floor resembled a military surplus firing button from a WWII submarine's torpedo tubes.
Child seats in cars didn't exist—at least not as safety equipment—and those that did were not attempting any pretense of protection because nobody had yet come up with the idea of crash tests.
Rather, such metal frameworks were clipped to the backrest of the front seat and the toddler inserted therein so as to keep the kid more or less stationary. _ For purposes of maintaining such static positioning, a distraction in the form of a cute little plastic steering wheel was attached and the child actually believed such minuscule gadgetry would impart directional control to the family behemoth. _ There was a little horn button in the middle and beeping away at it was more fun than repeatedly whining, "Are we there yet?" _Older children could lay down on the rear deck, pressed up against the back window, or sit on Dad's lap, sharing the driving duties, four hands on the 24-inch, finger-knurled wheel.
Cars sure have come a long way. _Used to be you'd hand-crank the engine, but then later, that was done by an electric self-starter, so all you had left to crank were the windows. _ But now there are electric motors doing that too and another electric gadget adjusting your seat eight different ways and warming your fanny when it's cold out. _ And now, of course, power rear-view mirrors come as standard equipment. _ I wonder what they'll replace that with when pushing the button becomes too much of an inconvenience. _ Oh, right—I forgot—now they have cars with stereos that tune whichever radio station you like or dial your phone in response to voice commands. _ Ain't that great? We now live in a world where our cars listen and our hat-backwards children don't. _ And now, the only crank remaining is me.
I remember those post cards. When I was kid I had every one of them. I collected anything that had to do with an antique car. Now, I glad to have the real thing.
A friend's Dad restored old cars when I was a kid. He subscribed to Old Cars
Weekly and passed off the old copies to me after he read them. I was enthralled
with HAC's column about going out and finding these early cars in barns, base-
-ments, and ravines. The rest of the rag was of little interest, but I sure did enjoy
"tagging along" with Henry on those adventures, even if it was only through words
and pictures !
I remember visiting that place when I lived up there
40 years ago, I met Henry Austin Clark, Jr. at Hershey - it was very rainy and muddy, late in the afternoon.
I was in 7th grade at the time.
Henry knew my father because of my dad's Waverley Electric.
Even though he was a well-known antique car guy and came from money, he was being chauffeured around on the field by a young man in a crappy Volkswagen bus! When he spoke to my father and me, he joked that he had to get the heck out of there soon for fear of getting the VW stuck which would cause him to miss happy hour. It was pretty funny.
PS: the back of his business card which he readily handed out was the same red roadster photo above.