Three generations meet for the last time, thanks to faith and a Ford wagon

Conner DeKnikker

Conner works for Ford Motor Company as a sales zone manager. We last heard from him two years ago when we shared his last road trip, in which he brought his family’s heirloom station wagon home for the holidays. This is the next chapter of that story. It’s another journey, this time to take his grandparents to their final resting place in their 1986 Ford LTD Country Squire LX. — Sajeev Mehta

We have many rides in our lives. From our first ride home from the hospital, our first cars, and those owned by our families and friends. Car enthusiasts know that vehicles are intrinsically connected to the experiences they can provide. Cars set the stage, and provide the backdrop, for our most important moments in life. They convey who we are, and posthumously, who we were.

Conner DeKnikker

In my previous story, I drove my grandmother’s Country Squire station wagon to visit my grandfather for Thanksgiving, shortly after she left us. And in December 2021, my grandfather passed away. Like many families, due to COVID, we were unable to conduct a service for them until the time was right. It was decided that we would hold a remembrance in their hometown of Faith, South Dakota, before a military service for my grandfather at Black Hills National Cemetery. Out of all the rides in our lives, I would be providing my grandparents’ final one, in their Country Squire.

Conner DeKnikker

But here’s the issue: I live in the suburbs of Dallas, Texas. And South Dakota is over 1000 miles away. My last trip included two breakdowns, which I didn’t want to replicate. This journey would require faith, not necessarily in the overtly religious sense. It’s more about faith in vintage Motorcraft parts, in 1980s Blue Oval technology, and in the power behind Quality is Job 1 after 36 years. Faith is the complete trust and confidence in someone or something. I had to believe that when I twisted the key, my wagon would come to life and safely convey me to my destination.

I set off on Tuesday, visiting Ford Dealerships in Oklahoma in a vehicle that most of them hadn’t seen in decades. I realized midway through the day that my headlights weren’t working. I recently replaced the turn-signal switch after it had broken on the way to Radwood Austin. Adding to the frustration was that I wasn’t more than two hours away before facing the prospect of repairs. Could it be something simple like a fuse? Or possibly a defective turn-signal switch? To find out, I dismantled my dashboard and steering column in the parking lot of the Hilton Garden Inn in Edmond, Oklahoma. I discovered a pin fitment issue in the wiring harness was the culprit, which I quickly resolved. Roadside repairs require additional faith, and perhaps my last trip proved that an issue is never truly resolved. Little did I know what would be in store further up the road.

On Wednesday, I continued north on I-35 towards Kansas. The morning was clear, but the weather disintegrated quickly after crossing the state line towards Wichita. As the rains increased, my driver’s side wiper-arm bumped into the A-pillar with each cycle. The choice between auditory annoyance and the ability to see was obvious, as the rain was coming down in torrential sheets. Visibility became so poor that I pulled off the highway north of Wichita. As luck would have it, a lightning bolt struck nearby. Next thing I knew the wagon’s radio began making strange noises. I’m no meteorologist, but I wondered if some of the cloud-borne static electricity made its way into my audio system. It was a horrific, white-noise hum, whether the radio was on or off.

I realized that hum wasn’t going away, so my only choice was to remove the radio. So, parked at a rest stop north of Wichita, posted up in a Kansan monsoon, I again dismantled my dashboard and unplugged my only source of entertainment. Well, perhaps not, as I had a small Bluetooth speaker which wasn’t nearly as good as Ford’s 80-watts of transistorized amplified audio at washing out the sounds of the highway. And the sound of my wiper hitting the A-pillar. For the next 2300 miles, I might add. Pushing forward, I pulled into York, Nebraska for the night, hoping for better weather. And better luck.

Conner DeKnikker

On Thursday, I started on my final leg to South Dakota. However, it wouldn’t be one of my road trips if another issue didn’t emerge on my third day. After fueling up, the Ford Automatic Overdrive (AOD) transmission decided that it no longer felt the need to engage first gear when taking off. It developed this hesitation—if I took my foot off the brake, the car would take a few moments to engage forward momentum. Fluid levels in the transmission were fine, so I persisted, hoping I wouldn’t drop my transmission in Northern Nebraska.

Conner DeKnikker

One gas station along the way was a Clark franchise, so I had to snap a photo with my “Family Truckster.” That’s what people call me when I’m behind the wheel, all thanks to that movie we all know and love. Fortunately, I crossed into South Dakota and made my way through the capital of Pierre with nary a problem in sight.

Conner DeKnikker

While Pierre is the least populous capital in the United States (by MSA), I was surprised by how nice the town was, nestled in the hills by the Missouri River. The weather cleared, I took some photos, and things were looking up. With 120 miles to go, and one wrong turn later, I arrived at my destination of Faith, South Dakota.

Conner DeKnikker

The weekend allowed time for my wagon to rest. My dad arrived from Idaho with my grandparents’ remains, and we held a remembrance on Saturday. On Sunday we visited the resting place of my great-great grandparents dating back to the 1800s. Afterwards, we visited my great-grandparents ranch, where their former home, and dozens of vehicles, remain, weathered in time. We spent most of our time with my grandmother’s sister, creating new memories with my extended family. The wagon’s transmission was still behaving oddly, but otherwise the car was fine for cruising around the country town.

On Monday I would be responsible for transporting my grandparents from Faith to Black Hills National Cemetery on their last ride, in the vehicle they gave me. My grandfather was being honored for his military service, having served in the U.S. Army in the Korean War. Leading a family procession from Faith to Sturgis, my grandparents were strapped in. Through my Bluetooth speaker, I played some music from their record collection, including Marty Robbins, Slim Whitman, Jim Reeves, Eddy Arnold, and Roger Miller. Upon approaching the cemetery, one more song came through from the playlist. “Take Me Home, Country Roads.”

Conner DeKnikker

Having the honor to transport my grandparents to their resting place gave me the opportunity to reflect on how vehicles impact our lives. They always had interesting vehicles since their first car, a Ford Model A. My grandmother, a teacher, had a series of Volkswagen squarebacks before purchasing “my” Country Squire for the family. Afterwards, she preferred bright yellow Ford Mustangs, as she always had a colorful personality.

My grandfather, a strong agricultural man, in typical fashion, drove full-size three-quarter, and 1-ton trucks. His prized possession, however, was a 1962 Cadillac that he purchased in 1974, and drove across the country multiple times. I can imagine the sense of accomplishment that car provided for him, and he never sold it. While it’s currently in driver condition, my dad intends on restoring it back to its original glory. I have faith that he will, but that’s a different article for a different time.

On Tuesday I left South Dakota to visit a friend in Minneapolis. Another lightning storm hit that night, a tree was struck by lightning, and it fell in his backyard. Fortunately, it missed my wagon: Perhaps the whole faith thing was working out? Resting in Minnesota allowed me to repair my windshield wipers and add another quart to the AOD transmission. The nice part about owning older vehicles is that the online car community discovered many things over the decades that are abundantly helpful to people. Case in point: Overfilling an AOD is encouraged, and filling it above the dipstick’s lines resolved the shift concerns.

I was driving back to Texas on Friday, but I struggled to leave the gas station in Minnesota. Those living in the north are enamored of older vehicles that had rusted off the roads decades ago. Everyone seems to have a memory where a station wagon provided the backdrop. Moms and dads remember riding as kids in the “way back” seats, either sideways, or rear-facing, tailgate window down. Make no mistake, I can relate.

It was a different era of motoring, where making faces out of the tailgate took the place of dropdown screens and Bluetooth entertainment. Sixteen hours later I had made it back to Texas just after one in the morning. The wagon’s sequentially port fuel-injected, 5.0-liter V-8 averaged a remarkable 20 mpg on the trip, and was surprisingly comfortable on the journey back through Iowa, Missouri, Kansas, and Oklahoma. In total, I traveled over 2500 miles and was never stranded.

Conner DeKnikker

Inconvenienced, for sure—but never stranded. So I stand by my statement in my previous article: There’s no better way to see America than through a hood ornament. Body on frame wagons are still an excellent choice for cross country road trips, even after going out of production more than 25 years ago. And Jay Leno was right when he said “the best cars are the ones with great stories.” We never know when we may take our last ride, so it’s important to make every ride count. Don’t be afraid of exploring the country in your classic car. Cherish old memories, and create new ones. All you need is a little Faith.

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