One California club is teaching auto tech with a Model A+ approach

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Brandan Gillogly

Dr. Wilbert Smith epitomizes classic car culture. Born in 1950, he grew up working on cars. In 1975, he bought his first Model A for $2500, a purchase that inspired a 47-year obsession and multimodel collection. Smith loved the history, and he loved the stories and unique connections he made with fellow members of the Santa Anita A’s—a Pasadena-area charter member of the Model A Ford Club of America.

“The average age in our local club is 75,” Smith says. “Together, we’re 125 families who collectively own over 200 Model As. But we realized our demographic isn’t getting any younger, which means a lot of these great cars will soon be coming up for sale without buyers.”

This old story took a refreshing new turn in 2016, when Smith and other club members hopped into 25 of their freshly polished As and went to the local high school.

Model A Club students push car vertical
Brandan Gillogly

“We decided that the best approach to find young people and generate interest in the Ford Model A hobby was to put the kids in the seats of our cars and let them put their little fingerprints all over the vehicles,” says Smith. “The effort was an extreme success. We had about 100 kids say they were interested in learning more about the Model A.” And so, the first car club of its kind in America was born—the Pasadena High School Model A Ford Club. School administrators supported the idea but lacked the money to fund a new campus club. Also, schools in the district didn’t teach auto shop anymore (a sad trend seen around the nation); the shop space at Pasadena High School hadn’t been used since 1982, well before any of the students—and possibly even their parents—were born.

“To be totally self-sufficient, our funding strategy for the club is a very simple one,” says Smith. “We find a Model A in moderate condition and determine if it’s something that we can restore without putting an extreme amount of resources into it. We then work with the kids in the campus’s retired auto shop after school to fully restore that vehicle and then raffle it off.”

Model A Club Wilburt Smith
Dr. Wilbert Smith speaks with students. Brandan Gillogly

From upholstery to engine work, Smith taps his own self-taught mechanical skills, along with a rotating team of fellow Model A restoration expert/ volunteers, who enthusiastically pass their knowledge on to teens working hands-on through rust, sweat, and happy tears. The club’s 25 members—all 9th through 12th graders—have delivered a fully restored Model A for raffle every year, on average. Tickets sell for $100 each. All money raised goes to provide seed funding for the next year’s project.

“The club’s restoration efforts are very serious,” Smith says with pride. “Last year’s 1928 Model A Phaeton was a perfect example. It came all the way from the East Coast. Our kids not only put the body and fender work together, they restored it to the point that it looked like it just rolled off the showroom floor.”

Only six years since the club’s founding, Smith says the experience and mentorship have already inspired a number of high schoolers to get into auto body repair. Restoration seminars and field trips developed through a partnership with Pasadena City College have helped funnel interested students into the college’s auto tech curriculum, as well. No one has yet offered to buy one of the Model As owned by an aging member of the Santa Anita’s A’s.

“Maybe someday,” Smith says with a laugh. The original, and some might say “self-serving,” desire that drove him and his fellow club members to start reaching out to the next generation has been replaced by all the other great things that come with teaching the art of restoring an old vehicle.

“Kids in the club not only learn to be part of a team and an organization, but they also realize that they could not restore a vehicle on their own. They work on the transmission, the undercarriage, the braking system—they learn that it takes various individuals working together and learning skills to make it all happen. They’re fortunate to be doing things that other kids in the Pasadena school district will never see or come close to. And we’re very proud of that.”

For more information, to send donations, or to purchase tickets for an upcoming Pasadena High School Model A Ford Club raffle, contact Dr. Wilbert Smith at 626-390-7322 or phsmafc@gmail.com.

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