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Dad’s Trunk: How road-tripping a Model T taught him to carry plenty of everything

Published in blog.hemmings.com

Dad always filled his car trunk to capacity. Photo by Richard Lentinello.

Dad’s car trunk was loaded with so many tools and emergency equipment it would have made a service station mechanic envious. He was prepared for everything, whether a flat, broken wiper, or blown out muffler.

As a boy, I was amazed when he opened the trunk lid. Inside were bottles, jugs, and cans of all descriptions and sizes that filled “Becker Farms” milk boxes. Their contents included oil and other lubricants, water (tap and distilled), anti-freeze, and fluids for brakes and steering reservoirs. Long- and short-neck oil cans sat alongside containers of turpentine, gasoline, and lighter fluid.

As a result, the trunk had a delicious aroma, smelling like a pungent mix of Marvel Mystery Oil and garage lube grease. On vacation trips, the contents of family suitcases usually took on this aroma, much to my pleasure…and Mom’s chagrin. It’s a good thing Dad’s cars were never rear-ended as the resulting explosion might have been disastrous. But no one wore seat belts in the late 1940s and early 1950s, so who worried about safety?

Dad courted Mom in his 1924 Model T Ford. Stored in the trunk and backseat was everything—from tools and spare tubes to oil and gasoline cans—needed for any emergency. Photo courtesy the author.

Dad loved Model T Fords and bought his first one in 1921 when he started driving. He drove the car from Chatham, New Jersey, to Williamstown, Massachusetts, when he began his freshman year at Williams College. The cold New England winters taught him invaluable lessons. Such as the time sub-zero temperatures thickened oil in the crankcase. The only way the engine would start was to warm it for hours with a small, slow-burning fire underneath.

Sometimes, during exceptional cold spells, he found it necessary to run the engine all night. Other cold-weather challenges involved crawling under the car in snow to knock ice off exposed clutch and brake arms, as well as removing cracked radiators and engine blocks. Sluggish gearbox oil often made shifting impossible.

Honeymooning in a Model T
A few years later, when courting Mom in his 1924 Model T, their heated romance quickly became frigid for lack of sufficient horsehair blankets to wrap in during long drives. To keep out wind and rain, Dad finally added Isinglass curtains, the forerunner of glass windows. But apparently these weren’t too effective and, according to Mom, adding to her misery were holes in the wood floorboard that kept toes on the verge of frostbite.

On their honeymoon in May 1928, the couple took a long and chilly drive along the old Storm King Highway on the north end of the Hudson Highlands and the west bank of the Hudson River. The Model T carried them safely, but slowly, above the water as they took in panoramic views of the river and surrounding mountains.

Mom and Dad eloped in this 1924 Ford Model “T” in 1928. To stay warm on the drive along the west bank of the Hudson River to Williamsburg, Massachusetts, they wrapped themselves in horsehair blankets. Photo courtesy the author.

Cold-weather driving taught Dad to pack bags of sand and salt, as well as different jacks including the mechanical screw and scissor varieties. Having the right jack for each situation was critical when putting metal chains on tires. Dad was well-practiced in this operation and he made it a ritual that involved carefully prescribed steps.

He taught me those steps one freezing night in January 1961. As snow fell on our heads, he had me lift a heavy wood box from the trunk and, after placing it on the driveway, remove rusted chains for inspection. It was like trying to untangle knotted snakes as we separated links and laid the 10-foot-long chains in straight lines. Frozen fingers and chains that quickly became embedded in snow and ice made the task painstakingly slow. Perhaps my arthritic fingers today are a product of that early experience.

Dad was ready for everything
Another wood box contained flashlights, spare batteries, flares, and matches. I was grateful we each had a flashlight as I had to drop to knees and look carefully at every link, then straighten the ones that were twisted. This meant removing gloves and sometimes cutting fingers on sharp metal edges. Dad was prepared for this, too, as his first aid kit was always available along with blankets and an extra jacket. At that moment, I remember wishing he had a portable heater.

Before it could be started, Dad had to light a fire under his frozen 1924 Model T Ford’s engine to heat the oil. To prepare for every emergency, he packed the car full of tools and equipment. Photo by David LaChance.

Bailing wire and rope were in good supply for the inevitable occasion when a chain link broke. This was a nasty event that filled the car’s interior with heavy clanking as the tire rotated and the link hit the wheel well. As fate would have it, a link broke in 1961 when Dad drove me in my first car, a 1951 Mercury, to a New Jersey facility where I took my driver’s test.

The state trooper who sat next to me in the front seat, frustrated and angry, hollered instructions over the ear-splitting chain noise as I drove along streets covered in deep snow.

“Parallel park here!” he barked.

I could barely see the curb, my rear window was covered with fresh snow and I had to pee. But, miraculously, I aced the maneuver, passenger’s-side wheels ending up exactly six inches from the sidewalk. I was grateful when the officer, who valiantly ignored the painful noise, gave me a passing grade.

Dad kept several types of tire wrenches and spare lug nuts in another box, along with extra fan belts and an assortment of tools. Stored in metal boxes or wrapped in heavy canvas, his tools included many he inherited from his father and grandfather. His father owned the first car—a 1905 Buick that resembled a horse-drawn wagon—in Chatham, New Jersey.

Great-grandfather Van Orden, who still managed the family farm in New York’s Catskill Mountains, didn’t own a car. He was into large horses that pulled plows and wagons. His tools, made up of sizable iron wrenches and hammers, were what you found in a blacksmith or wagon-builder’s shop. Although hardly suited for car repairs, they offered heavy-duty ammunition for bending or reshaping metal parts.

When Dad removed his toolbox from the trunk, I enjoyed examining its contents. Seeing my interest, he awarded me with a short screwdriver that had a stubby wood handle. It was quite old at the time and now, more than 70 years later, it still has a cherished spot in my car toolbox.

Dad gave me my first tool, a three-inch screwdriver, when I was three. Galvanized iron plyers were his second gift a year later. Both have been in my car toolbox ever since. Photo by the author.

As cars became more reliable and efficient in the 1960s, and Dad retired, his need to travel with so much equipment diminished. Modern snow tires didn’t require chains. And a bad back meant he no longer wanted to drag heavy jacks out of the trunk to change tires.

The boxes disappeared, too, except one containing a few cans of oil, a bottle of anti-freeze, a fan belt, tools, flares, and windshield-wiper fluid. His 1969 Buick’s trunk, which was enormous and would have been perfect for storing his things in the old days, looked empty.

Dad’s final vehicle—a compact Chevy Nova with a tiny trunk—contained only his toolbox. Before he passed in 1982, he took me for a drive and I remembered a summer vacation in 1951. It was night and Dad drove Mom and me in his 1948 Chevy along a two-lane blacktop in rural New York State on our way to Ottawa, Ontario.

A flat tire forced him to pull off the rural road into a corn field, where we sat for an hour in darkness. Fortunately, a farmer came along in his truck, pulled over, and offered to help.

It took time for Dad and the farmer to remove all the equipment and tools, plus our suitcases, from the trunk, then take off the flat tire and put on the spare. Although his face didn’t show it, seeing Dad’s stuff spread across his field probably amused the farmer.

Repacking Dad’s trunk wasn’t so funny, however, and took another hour to accomplish. The farmer must have felt sorry because he and his wife invited Dad to drive us to their house, where they provided a comfortable room for the night.

I’m reminded of Dad’s trunk every time I attend car shows and examine unrestored classics, especially those that still smell of Marvel Mystery Oil and garage lube grease.