Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Vern Foster Jr

Yesterday was my Dad's birthday.  He would have been 78 this year.  

I got my love of cars from my Dad.  He was one of those guys who could fix anything- the toaster, the TV, the family car.  He liked working on things and went to mechanics school as soon as he got out of the Navy in the early fifties.  He spent the next three decades working for dealerships, but got out of the mechanics bay and into service writing in the late sixties when carpal tunnel began to really bother him.  It didn't even have a name at that point.

By the time I was in my teens my Dad hated working on cars.  He'd been doing it almost every day for the better part of thirty years, and was always the go-to guy in the neighborhood when someone's car broke down.  He'd never say no when one of the neighbor kids' crappy old cars needed something, so, many days when he'd rather have been camping or fishing were spent under some POS trying to jerry-rig a fix that wouldn't cost the kid much.

We never went to car shows or cruises, and we always had newer cars by the time I came along. He'd point out restored old cars we passed on the road, but thought hotrods and customs were junk.  I do have a vague memory of going to an auto race once when I was very young, and we did stop at Harrah's on a roadtrip.  That was it... my Dad was over the car thing by the time I was old enough to pay attention.

What I did get were the stories.  Stories of my Dad's barn find 1931 Model A, bought for $50 in about 1954 and sold a year later for $75 to finance a trip to California to look for work (he didn't find it and we didn't move to California until '69).  My Dad and Uncle drove from New Jersey to California and back in my Uncle's clunker.  I don't remember what kind of car it was for sure, but the story was that it used 50 quarts of oil on the trip.  

I also remember my Dad talking about his 1951 Mercury- the best car he ever owned, he said.  Claimed it got over 25 miles per gallon with the overdrive.  He gave it a nice two-tone paint job in the driveway and the doctor that my Mom worked for teased her that she had a nicer car than he did.

The story that intrigued me the most was the Bugatti.  Thoughout the fifties my Dad worked 6 days a week at the dealership and spent a good chunk of Sunday working on cars for extra cash.  Somehow or other he hooked up with a guy who had a Bugatti that needed restoration.  He hired my Dad to do the work, and the Bugatti was towed to our house.  My Dad started in, but after a few months the guy had gotten slow in paying, so my Dad had slowed down the work.  Finally he told the guy that he needed to get moving on other projects if this wasn't going to happen.  The guy made him an offer:  He had another Bugatti that he'd GIVE my Dad for the value of the restoration work.  My Dad was stoked, but one conversation with my mom put things in order.  I think her exact quote was, "I don't want that shittin' old car taking up my garage!"  Goodbye, Bugatti.

In the early sixties an unhappy customer brought a Fiat 600 to trade in to the dealership my Dad worked at.  It was a year old and the transmission had gone out.  The guy took $75 in trade-in and never looked back.  My Dad, probably under the spell of his friend Red who had been buying foreign cars, bought the Fiat for $75.  The 'bad transmission' turned out to be bad shift linkage.   My Dad rigged something out of a US car and drove the Fiat every day for years without a problem.  He loved that it would drive on top of the snow, and on sidewalks if there was ever a need be.   My Grandmother was less than impressed with these shenanigans, but there is 8mm movie footage of my Dad driving her down the sidewalks of Princeton.

Phyllis and Red were some of my parents' best friends in the late fifties and early sixties.  Red drove sports cars and foreign cars pretty much exclusively, although he had a Crosley wagon around the time he and my Dad met.  They drove it everywhere, often bringing Bub, my Dad's 350 pound friend along.  The Crosley didn't have a jack, so once, when they got a flat in the middle of nowhere Bub just picked the car up while they changed the tire.

Red was a sportscar man of the old tradition, meaning he liked to tipple a bit.  He spun his nearly new AC Bristol into a snowbank while sauced to the gills, and snapped the rear axle.  This being 1960 or so, it was going to take 3 months to get an axle from England.  No problem- Red bought a lathe and my Dad made a new axle which lasted at least until the new one showed up.  I only vaguely remember a story about Red rolling another car (maybe the MG in the photo?) and that the steering wheel- and his fingers- took the brunt of the rollover and that he was in the hospital for some time.  None of this seemed to bother my folks since they were happy to send my brother and sister out for rides in Red's XKE convertible later.

When I got interested in old cars, my Dad was not happy.  To him, mechanics was a job for uneducated people- something you did because you couldn't afford to pay someone else to.  I also suspect that he had recognized my complete incompetence around a garage- helping my Dad work on cars wasn't fun because he so clearly didn't want to be doing it... so I was never around when my Dad was wrenching.  I vividly remember looking at the engine bay of my first car (1963 VW bus) and asking my Dad, 'So which thing is the carburetor?'  

As I kept buying old cars (much to my parents' often-voiced dismay) I learned.  Sometimes I had to call my Dad in to help at the last minute, and then I got the full dose of disappointment and anger.  Nothing like an hour-long lecture about messing with these 'pieces of shit' as I'm covered with grease and watching my Dad do work that seemed like magic to me.  

It took about ten years, but my Dad finally started to see some hope... not that I'd stop owning old cars, but that I might actually learn how to work on them without having to call him.  Against his direct instructions, I pulled the malfunctioning transmission out of my '64 Mercury Marauder.  It was a chore and a half, but I got it out, to the tranny shop, rebuilt and back into the car without ever calling him.  It was a breakthrough moment, and when I pulled up to my folks' house and mentioned that I'd pulled the tranny in and out, there was a genuine shift in our relationship and both of us recognized it.  Then, as soon as he got in the car he told me I'd put the universal joint in wrong.  He was right, of course. 

My Dad sort of liked the Crosleys.  By the time I got into them he'd pretty much given up on me ever making much sense when it came to cars.  That I was able to keep the '49 on the road was even a vague point of pride for my Dad, although I don't think he'd have admitted it.  He even offered to help when I decided to rewire the car, and he made the process ten times easier.  The brakes were another story.  We spent three days redoing the whole cable system only to have it work exactly as badly as it had before we started.  I'd never seen an auto problem that had stumped my Dad, but those cables were it.    We redid the job twice with no success and he told me to get the thing out of his garage.  The Crosley brake setup got the ultimate dis: "That's worse than Volkswagen." 

I spent most of my formative years riding around in the back of my folks’ 1972 VW bus.  We took camping trips every chance we got, and each summer saw a 7000 mile trip to the East Coast and back.  My Dad may not have been a ‘car guy’ by the time I came along but he always loved to drive.   The best memories I have of those long drives were the rare occasions when my Mom would take a nap and I got to be the co-pilot.

I think that I came by my love of cars from those nights in the passenger seat, keeping my Dad company while my Mom slept in the back.   My Dad was not someone who talked down to kids, so our conversations ranged everywhere, and any question was OK to ask.  His stories of growing up as an orphan, traveling around the world in the Navy and early life with my Mom were fascinating glimpses into a world that seemed so much more exciting than mine.  Life seemed just right, there in the front seat, high beams on the empty highway and the open road ahead.

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