Our Cars: Curbie

1946 ice cream truck has real curb appeal


It wasn’t exactly the “sweet ride” that Sam Porter remembered from his car-loving youth, but when he first laid eyes on the beat-up food vendor truck that he now affectionately calls “Curbie,” Porter screamed … for ice cream.

OK, so actually it was Porter’s 6-year-old daughter and her friends who screamed for ice cream. But the truck, built on a 1946 Ford chassis with a flathead V-8 engine, made an immediate impression on the 35-year-old entrepreneur.

“It was like, ‘Bam! You’ve got to be kidding me,’ ” he said. “It was so cool. I could see the possibilities.”

Porter’s reaction was appropriate, considering that the truck is now impacting kids of all ages. Curbie — so named because it offers “curb service” — has become a rolling classroom where teenage interns learn about history and the food industry at the same time. And it offers older folks an opportunity to reminisce about days gone by. The truck serves a variety of local foods, including whitefish tacos and ice cream sodas, at festivals and local gatherings throughout northern Michigan.

Porter had 50 applicants for 12 summer intern positions, so the just-launched program certainly seems to have merit. That’s nothing new for Porter and his wife, Abby Walton Porter, who build festivals for nonprofit organizations through Porterhouse Productions. The seed for the Curbie project was actually planted several years ago when Porter wrote a business plan about selling coffee from a food truck. The idea evolved at a recent career fair.

“I said to some of the (high school/college) kids there, ‘If we found a food truck, would you be interested in an internship program where you would run a business out of it?’” Porter said. “They were pretty excited, so I started looking.”

Through social networking, Porter searched the country for a truck that would meet the project’s needs. Then a retired die cutter from the Grand Rapids area (just two hours south of Traverse City) contacted him.

“He worked on old juke boxes, and he said he had this old food truck that he’d like to see somebody do something with,” Porter said.

Porter asked for photos, and when they arrived he knew immediately that he had to have the truck, despite the fact that it required “a ton of work.” Since Porter didn’t have the money to buy the truck by himself, he began raising funds by creating his own Website, IScreamFood.com. The project will eventually be featured on a national fundraising site called kickstarter.com.

“I was trying to decide what the website should be called, so I put together a focus group – a bunch of 6 year olds – and they started saying, ‘I scream, you scream, we all scream for ice cream.’ It was perfect. An ice cream truck is like a magnet for kids. They chase it down the street. So IScreamFood.com was born.”

According to the truck’s previous owner, it is the only one of its kind, a special order from a line of windowless work trucks. And Curbie truly is unlike any other ice cream/food truck. The driver’s seat is from a 1930s Ferris wheel. Decorative metal clowns, handcrafted by the owners’ wife, adorn the outside. It has neon lights. The exterior roof is painted like a circus tent.

After an eventful trip to Traverse City, the project’s interns did all of the “fix-up” work. Plenty of work still has to be done, in addition to covering the purchase price.

“The cool thing about the truck is it draws people to it,” Porter said. “While our interns learn about business, marketing and food preparation, the people who come over to see it learn some automotive history. It’s especially cool to see kids come for ice cream and then get excited about old cars and trucks. Maybe they now have a better appreciation for these great treasures, and that sparks a lifelong interest. When that happens, everybody wins.”

If Porter sounds like a classic car enthusiast, it’s because he is. In high school, the 1995 Traverse City Central graduate drove a 1972 Buick Electra and even owned a ’72 Winnebago Brave.

“Driving the Winnie to school did not last long, though,” he joked. “Good stories …”

Years later, Porter considered purchasing a classic British double-decker bus from Canada to use as a mobile classroom. But customs officials warned that it was two inches too tall to be legal in the United States, “and I wasn’t going to cut the roof.”

“I like the character, smell and feel of old cars,” Porter said. “I grew up on a farm where you’d get your hands in there and get dirty. It’s a big part of me. Older cars let you do that.”

So far, however, Curbie has forced Porter to get his hands a little more dirty than he would like.

“I already have two daughters, and now I feel like I have a third child,” Porter said. “(Curbie) needs extra attention. She needs new tires. Some days she needs help to get moving. You have to listen to her and figure out what it is she’s trying to say.”

If Porter’s newest project is successful, Curbie and those who are drawn to her will be saying, “Thank you.”

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