6 May 2016

Centennial Caravan: Canada's COASTERS ride again!

For Fraser Field of Deroche, British Columbia, life on the road has largely amounted to attending the sick and aiding the injured. Which is what you do, of course, when you spend thirty years at the wheel of a fast-paced, wailing-siren ambulance as a paramedic. So it’s no surprise that Fraser's knowledge of, and interest in, these life-saving utilitarians grew with time. Plus, if you're a car guy to boot, why not collect them too. And so, Fraser's job-to-passion transition led to him owning various such models and makes, including a unique 1957 Chevrolet Bel Air, a couple of late ‘60s Pontiac Bonnevilles, a 1972 Cadillac, as well as a rare 1948 Chevrolet Panel currently being restored for future use.

“It's interesting to observe people's reaction when they see ambulances out of the past”, he says. “There is a special aura about them that rekindles human sentiment, mixed with intense curiosity. On one hand, an image forms of the 'user'—usually individuals who face sudden threats to their lives at some point. On the other, the realization of those who provide the care needed, typically in critical circumstances. Add an historical layer to the picture, and all of the right ingredients combine to create a singular fascination for this mode of transportation”.

But now, a bigger mission awaits Fraser, as a busy summer looms ahead in 2017: That of shepherding 125 vintage vehicles across Canada and back—a whopping 9,500-mile journey stretching over four months. As chief coordinator of this formidable volunteer task, he is conferred the title of Wagonmaster by a one-of-a-kind grassroots organization known simply as the “Coasters”, whose Canadian origins date back to 1966.

Those were, of course, the inimitable days of peace and love, the year when Mary Quant's miniskirt was all the rage, when Batman started competing with Captain Kirk for top TV ratings and the creatives who made The Sound of Music the highest grossing film ever won the Oscar statuette.

Meanwhile, back in Canada, a group of intrepid car collectors decided they wanted to do something out of the ordinary in the name of their passion. Wouldn't it be great, they thought, to organize the mother-of-all-trips across the entire nation and back. After all, the 1967 Centennial celebrations were fast approaching, and what a fine way this could be to celebrate Canada's history by showcasing its automotive heritage. It was further agreed by the newly formed organizing committee that their über-cruise would leave from Victoria, B.C., and reach St. John's, Nfld. way east, with a farewell dinner scheduled in Montreal at the then-biggest bash of all: EXPO 67. Amazingly, and in spite of the ambitious commitment required from Tour participants, some 130 registrations from every province were officially entered. Of that number, nine cars would eventually complete the total distance under their own power.

Pete Gagan took part in that inaugural Coasters expedition with wife Mary Jane aboard their 1928 Model A Ford Roadster, while best friends John and Sue Somerset lodged in the car's rumble seat. A young Bill Sauder of Ontario was also among the event's pioneers in his dad's 1914 Ford—the oldest car to finish the entire Tour, though their engine chewed up two crankshafts along the way. Bill even remembers the day when they climbed the stairs of Ottawa's Parliament building in their Ford while the Coasters stopped in the nation's Capital. Unimaginable nowadays. At 15, Jean Mulloy joined her mom and dad, George and Ethel Brown, for the ride of a lifetime. To this day, she remembers how proud she felt to be Canadian, as the trio traveled 9,000 plus miles across the land in their 1929 Chrysler Four-Door Sedan. Amazingly, Jean, Bill and Pete all plan to return in 2017.... five decades later!

When the first Coasters edition of 1967 got underway, it was decreed that the Tour should be repeated every decade or so thereafter, despite the massive, multi-year, volunteer effort involved each time. One of the founders' initial intent was unifying antique car clubs across every province. The result was the establishment of a first chartered organization, now the National Association of Automobile Clubs of Canada—just one of four noble goals agreed upon, including:

  • To travel across the breadth of Canada on her 100th birthday and see as much of her and her people as possible, the slow and easy way (now, that's the spirit!)
  • To join together all of the antique car clubs of Canada in a co-operative effort, as another step toward building a working federation (nation-building at its best)
  • To show the people of Canada the part that the antique auto clubs are taking to preserve an important segment of Canadian history (significant social legacy)
  • To assist other Centennial celebrations where possible (going the extra mile).

Fraser Field thinks the Coasters experience provides an unparalleled way to discover one's country and discover its people. “This is when you also become aware of the power that antique vehicles carry with them, everywhere you go. Literally any person you meet has a tale to tell about themselves and their own family car. In the end, it's the story of a whole nation unraveling before your eyes”, he adds.

So once again next year, participants departing from across Canada will meet in Victoria for the Coasters' historic 50th anniversary Tour and Canada's 150th birthday. They will travel east, winding through British Columbia's and Alberta's spectacular Rockies. Then, along the awe-inspiring flatness of Saskatchewan and Manitoba – the Prairie region, said to have “a lot of sky” – straight into Ontario’s breathtaking vistas. Moving next into French-speaking Quebec, across its distinguishing panoramas, then onto New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island, all replete with maritime history and sea air. The goal is to ultimately reach St. John's and the Province of Newfoundland and Labrador’s picturesque shores. A mari usque ad mare, as the Latin motto reads on the Canadian Coat of Arms. From sea to (shining) sea!

In the summer of 2017, as Wagonmaster Field gets behind the wheel of his freshly restored 1948 Chevy Panel ambulance, flicks on the switch of its symbolic siren, and sets forward with wife Dorothy by his side, one can wonder what reflections will fill his mind. After all, he'll be carrying the torch of those who assembled this venerable caravan of Canada's Confederation five decades before him, not to mention the countless men and women who have kept that national flame burning ever since.

There will be shared memories of years passed around barbecues at night, and new friends from across the land joining the fun. Cars and parts may demand urgent repairs; logistics, regular checking and weather, the big unknown, could wreak havoc as it pleases. But then, there will be thousands of well wishers, old and young alike, in numerous towns and cities, shopping malls, arenas and schools, waving the flag and cheering on the proud pan-Canadian convoy. So much motion marked by so many emotions.

But then again, Fraser may just be too busy to engage in deeper thought, making sure there's enough gas in everyone's tank both morning and night, or plenty of food to feed his family of hundreds thrice a day. It's nothing he won't be able to handle, of course, when you've been an ambulance paramedic helping people in need all your life. One thing is certain, though: The summer of 2017 won’t be the same across Canada, thanks to a remarkable league of devoted lovers of old cars: The country's very own, homegrown, Coasters.

And now, a little travelling music, please.

For more information and visuals: canadiancoasters.ca

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